From sushi bars to steak houses, pizza joints to coffee shops, New York today has something to suit every kosher-observing palette. For New Yorkers, keeping kosher presents a difficult challenge; the challenge of deciding which restaurant to patron or the challenge of choosing between a delicious chocolate chip and the allegedly healthier carrot muffin at the bakery on the corner. In the 1930s and 1940s, Jewish life in New York presented a different kind of challenge. There were no kosher supermarkets, no restaurants and bakeries on every corner, and a very small variety of mehadrin kosher products.
For many people today, a nickel is just spare change jingling in a pocket, or lost at the bottom of a purse, but for Miss Thelma Horowitz, a young Jewish girl growing up in the Bronx, a nickel each way was the daily travel fare to and from school. Together with her friends, the young Miss Horowitz would often forego the trolley-ride and walk about three miles each way to and from school in order to save her two nickels. This well-saved nickel could buy a trip to Coney Island, a pound of bread, or even a quart of milk!
For Miss Horowitz and her family, cookies, bread and pastries were all home-baked. “Many places sold “kosher food”, so to speak, but kosher was not clear-cut. Shomer Shabbos stores were very scarce. In fact, in my neighborhood there was no Shomer Shabbos bakery until much later.”
Cookies and challah were not the only home-made goods. “We lived in a house where my mother made everything,” Miss Horowitz recalls. When craving a quick snack, popping a slice of frozen pizza into the oven wasn’t an option; neither was opening a can of tuna. “In our house, there was no such thing as kosher canned food, no such thing as kosher frozen food. I had never heard of canned tuna fish!”
Today, supermarket shelves are lined with products stamped with kosher symbols, yet the abundant availability of kosher food is fairly novel. Having one receipt print out with meats, yogurt, fresh produce, sliced bread, coffee, and dozens of other kosher products paid for with the swipe of a card is the way of life in modern New York. The amount of flour and sugar bought is restricted only by the amount of space in the kitchen cabinet. Grocery shopping during Miss Horowitz’s childhood was different.
“A supermarket?” she laughs as if I had suggested something absurd. Apparently the 1940s was decades before supermarkets became the common location for a one-stop shopping trip. “Meat was from the butcher. Dairy was from the dairy store. Bread was from the bakery. Groceries were from the grocery store.”
Growing up in Brownsville, New York, Mrs. Chaya Popack spent much of her childhood in the grocery store. After Mrs. Popack’s father was told repeatedly not to come to work on Monday if he doesn’t show up on Shabbos, he opened up his own business, a grocery. “We stocked dairy, oil, sugar, eggs… miscellaneous grocery items.” she recalls. “The goods didn’t arrive neatly prepackaged and labeled. We received most foods in wooden bulk containers. Sugar, flour, and coffee all needed to be weighed and wrapped in wax paper. If someone was throwing a party they couldn’t just buy 10 lbs. of sugar, and after a late night you couldn’t have 7 cups of coffee to keep you functioning the next day. Many foods were rationed due to the war effort.”
A valued and limited resource, sugar was pre-weighed in ½ and 1 lb. sized packages and was kept behind the counter. Meat, chicken and canned foods were also rationed. Based on family size, each family would be allocated a certain amount of stamps valid for different dry goods.
“Cholov Yisroel was not easily available, but we were lucky with the dairy,” Mrs. Popack continues. “My grandfather was a mashgiach for a dairy farm. Once a week he would bring home a bucket of warm milk; it didn’t quite taste the same as the bottles of pasteurized milk from the store. My grandmother would boil it, and then she’d make cheese and butter. It was a long time before I would walk into a store and choose between low fat, full fat, or fat free yogurts in plain, vanilla or strawberry flavor”.
Poultry wasn’t plucked off the shelf in a plastic-wrapped foam container, so Mrs. Popack and her family would go to a yard full of live chickens running around. “My mother would select our chicken, and the shochet would slaughter it in front of us. Then, we went home to soak and salt the chicken. Our trips to the chicken yard were pretty frequent as we didn’t have a freezer.” she stated.
Not all of their food came from their grocery, and fresh produce was often bought from the local market. Pushcarts lined the streets of Brownsville and the vendors hocked their wares. Soup greens, fruit, vegetables, and beans were among the goods sold. It was a little rowdy market and multiple vendors with the same products vied for the customers’ attention. As a child Mrs. Popack’s mother would send her to the market for a bunch of soup greens—parsley, celery, and other vegetables. Three cents would pay for the bunch.
With the surge of Jewish immigrants escaping war-torn Europe came an increase in demand for kosher food and the kosher food market began to expand. In 1935, Organized Kashrus Laboratories was founded and began certifying a few kosher products; but it would be nearly half a century before reaching the more than 500,000 products it currently certifies. While today some 30-50% of products on the shelves have a kosher symbol, in the 1940’s only very few products were labeled “kosher”.
“You couldn’t go into a store and find dozens of items with a hechsher,” says Miss Horowitz. “There were not many choices of processed snacks and candy bars. You wanted a snack; you ate a fruit or a home-baked cookie. Although we didn’t have the selection we have today, we never felt we were lacking.”
Ms. Thelma Horowitz went on to marry Rabbi Berel Levy (ob”m), who took the helm of OK Laboratories in 1967. Today, OK Laboratories, now known as OK Kosher Certification, is under the leadership of her son, Rabbi Don Yoel Levy, sheyichye. The OK currently certifies over 500,000 products on six continents—a far cry from the handful of kosher certified products available during Mrs. Levy’s childhood!