This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Shorter by a Head: Kosher Crime in the Roaring '20s*

When the concepts of racketeering was first introduced into the American legal vocabulary in 1927 to describe the infiltration of criminal elements into the labour movement, the list of industries to which the term was applied included: construction, laundry and... kosher food. Evidently, the complexities of the production process and the vulnerabilities of the immigrant Jewish community to which it catered made the kosher marketplace especially attractive to nefarious interests.

According to the report that was issued in 1929 by an American federal government investigating committee, a trade union bearing the impressive name the Official Orthodox Poultry Slaughterers of America had for some time been conspiring with gangsters to exploit the kosher chicken industry for purposes of extortion. The principal targets of their schemes were the operators of the New York chicken markets.

The first stage in that unfortunate process was when the union elected as its representative an individual named Charley Herbert, a known criminal who had never actually worked as a slaughterer, kosher or otherwise. Charley was in partnership with his brother Arthur Tootsie Herbert, another convicted felon, who had applied similar tactics to the teamsters unions.

Enforcers in league with the Herbert brothers would confront the sellers in the name of the Greater New York Live Poultry Chamber of Commerce and demand from them one penny for every pound of kosher poultry that was sold. In some instances, the merchants were pressured to hire superfluous union members to help with the loading. Sellers who refused to pay their share would coincidently find themselves plagued by labour problems as members of the slaughterers and teamsters unions would suddenly refuse to work for them. If necessary, physical violence was also directed against their persons or property.

As the federal prosecutor characterized the situation, The conspirators made it as much as a man's life was worth to go down to Washington Market in defiance of their regulations and attempt to buy poultry. For many, it was an offer they could not refuse.

Those pennies added up, and at the height of the corruption the organizers were raking in up to $16,000 a week--hardly chicken-feed in those days. The Orthodox Poultry Slaughterers union found it convenient to sanction this activity, not only through their authorization of Charley Herbert but also by participating in the walkouts.

When the case was finally brought before Judge John C. Knox of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, eighty-four defendants were charged with the federal crime of organizing a conspiracy in restraint of trade. In order to accommodate such a swarm of defendants, special bleacher seats had to be erected, lending the trial the atmosphere of a public sports match.

When the trial was over, the Official Orthodox Poultry Slaughterers of America, along with sixty-six assorted defendants, were found guilty, but the sentences that were handed down were not particularly severe. The leadership of the slaughterers union received suspended sentences. The punishment for gangster Charley Herbert amounted to no more than two weeks of hard time and fine of five hundred dollars that was subsequently suspended. The presiding judge voiced his hope that some day, somehow, some one high in the Jewish community of this town will take the poultry industry in hand.

Not surprisingly, that slap on the wrist was not effective in halting the illicit activities of the Herberts, who quickly resumed their manipulation of the kosher poultry industry. In 1935 it was again necessary to remove them, but a year later they again seemed to be doing business as usual. It was not until 1937 that concerted prosecution succeeded in removing them completely from the scene.

The involvement of felons in Canada's kosher food business at that time did not, as far as I can tell, occur at the initiative of rapacious gangsters. On the contrary, the stimulus may well have been a clash between the egos of two imperious rabbis. Be that as it may, criminal elements and violent acts were an inescapable factor in the story.

The background to these episodes was the chapter in the history of Montreal's Jewish community known as the Kosher Meat Wars. Rabbi Hirsch Cohen had recently founded Montreal's Vaad Ha'Ir, the Jewish Community Council, to serve as the umbrella organization for the manifold religious and educational institutions that existed in the immigrant community. A group of dissident ritual slaughterers refused to accept the authority of the Va'ad Ha'Ir and established their own supervisory framework under Rabbi Yudel Rosenberg's auspices. Throughout the Kosher Meat War of 1922-25, the rival rabbis were certifying different butchers and creating serious impediments to the viability of the nascent and vulnerable Community Council.

Though the skirmishes in this war usually took the form of financial, verbal and printed attacks, they also extended to physical violence. Shohetim who accepted the authority of the Vaad Ha'Ir were told that harm would come to them unless they desisted from their work. According to Rabbi Cohen, the dissidents were hiring goons to persuade the proprietors of various butcher shops to either close or remain open.

Rabbi Rosenberg and persons who were presumed to belong to his faction were subjected to assaults on the street. On one occasion, an unruly mob pelted stones at Rabbi Rosenberg just before Yom Kippur, until he personally confronted them to shame them into withdrawing. A police report from 1923 related that a dissident butcher from Rabbi Rosenberg's camp ambushed a competitor in the employ of the Vaad ha-Ir, striking him on the head and leaving him unconscious with serious injuries. Charges of attempted murder were brought against three officers of the Jewish Butchers' Association.

At one point in the struggle, the Vaad slaughterers had letters delivered to their homes informing them: If you will go and slaughter for the Canadian Packing Company, you will be shorter by a head. This served as written confirmation for verbal threats that had previously been pronounced in the slaughterhouse by a shohet attached to the opposing faction.

Around that time, Montreal's Keneder Odler newspaper reported that the dissident association had hired gangsters to remove their opponents, and threatening letters were sent to members of the Jewish Community Council. Rabbi Cohen published a dramatic indictment of the horrible things being perpetrated by the dissidents which no fantasy could eclipse. With the approval of certain rabbis, the slaughters had hired gangsters to clear away the competition. Mutual boycotts of the rival butchers and slaughterers became a standard feature of Montreal's kosher marketplace for several years. Each faction urged the consumers to avoid purchasing kosher meat from their thuggish competitors. Typical of these entreaties was a handbill that was circulated in Montreal in 1933 and chronicled an incident in which a gang of butchers attacked innocent customers at a rival establishment, causing several of them to be hospitalized. The handbill pleaded Do not eat any meat. The meat is dripping with human blood!

Thankfully, incidents of that kind belong to a distant past when organized crime was spreading its sinister net over much of North American society. As far as I know, you are no longer risking your life by paying a visit to the neighbourhood kosher butcher shop or deli --provided, of course, that you are not a chicken.

This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

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