THERE IS A COMMON MISCONCEPTION THAT WHEN YOU LEAVE THE FRIENDLY CONFINES OF NEW YORK, YOU’RE ENTERING A KOSHER DESERT. KOSHER IN KENTUCKY? HOW IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE?
When you think of the South, and Kentucky in particular, you may think of horses, bourbon, KFC or the famous Louisville Slugger. What you may not realize is that Jewish life has long flourished in the little town of Louisville. In the 1850s, Jewish-German immigrants formed the first shul in Louisville and within a few decades the Jewish population boomed! By 1890, as more immigrants from Europe moved to Louisville, the downtown Preston Street became similar to New York’s “Lower East Side,” with shuls, kosher markets, and a rich Yiddish culture, including a Yiddish newspaper and even Yiddish theater!
Kosher was of vital importance to the Jewish community. Jewish Hospital, founded in 1903 by Jewish immigrants, had a fully kosher kitchen, and the National Council of Jewish Women began a program that allowed children of poor Jewish immigrant families to buy kosher meals in public school for a penny.
Bourbon, perhaps Kentucky’s most famous product, was filled with Jewish tradesman. In order to ensure everything was kosher, Jews made sure to be present during the production process and eventually formed a monopoly over the liquor trade. Even today, many distilleries, including Heaven Hill Distilleries and others are Jewish owned.
Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Louisville’s Jewish communities continued to thrive. Kosher was readily available with bakeries with multiple butcher shops to choose from. A chicken cost $1 for shechting, and an additional 50 cents to be salted and kashered!
THE WINDS OF CHANGE
After World War II, many communities, especially in the Midwest, began to change. The population became older, and the younger generations began moving to more metropolitan cities such as New York, Chicago, and Atlanta. As the once thriving community declined, one by one kosher establishments closed their doors.
In 1994 the last kosher butcher in Louisville could no longer remain in business. Chabad shluchim, Rabbi Avrohom and Goldie Litvin, saw this potential crisis as an incredible opportunity. While researching the decline of the “mom and pop” shops and the movement towards “one stop shop” supermarkets for all their shopping needs, inspiration struck. Rabbi Litvin wondered, “What if we had a kosher butcher, cutting and wrapping fresh kosher meats and chicken, within a non-kosher supermarket!” Such an idea was unheard of in the 1990s, but Rabbi Litvin was determined to create this new idea and make it work to keep kosher alive in his city.
He approached a few major supermarkets in Louisville with his new idea, to no avail. Still, Rabbi Litvin persisted. One of his constituents served on a board with Mr. John Hackett, President of the Mid-South Division of Kroger Supermarket. The connection was made, and after much discussion about Jewish shopping habits and the importance of kosher food, Kroger agreed to give it a shot. There was only one condition. “We will do it as a community service,” said Mr. Hackett, “just find us a way that we won’t lose any money.” Suddenly, Rabbi Litvin’s dream was becoming a reality.
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Now came the hard part. First, the Litvins procured depreciated meat equipment for the butcher and created a “Kosher Cage”, a locked, fenced in area within the Kroger meat department. With a mashgiach sitting in the refrigerated cage, they began offering fresh kosher meat once a week. This quickly turned into 3 days a week and, finally, 5 days a week, one could walk in and order freshly cut kosher meats. A variety of programs were hosted to encourage the community to participate in kosher eating and purchasing, such as Kosher Week and Kosher Day, along with special sales.
In the late 1990s, Rabbi Litvin accompanied Kroger reps to the first KosherFest – the largest kosher-certified products trade show. After seeing the expansive kosher offerings, Kroger created an entire kosher section in the store, carrying dry goods, snacks, and Cholov Yisroel milk and dairy products. They continue to sell many of those products today at the McMahan Plaza Kroger. Many cities, including the HEB Supermarket in Austin, Texas modeled their kosher department after the Litvin’s revolutionary idea.
With the turn of the century, shopping trends shifted once again. New technologies, larger meat packaging industries such as Agri Processing and Meal Mart and the new “cryovac” packaging process allowed customers to purchase pre-packaged meat and chicken for the first time. Kroger in Louisville re-invented their system to allow a wide variety of packaged kosher items on the shelves ready for purchase.
Today, kosher remains to be an important and vital part of the Jewish community in Louisville. While many may not keep a traditionally kosher home, kosher products are still very important to the local consumer, especially during the holiday shopping seasons. As Pesach approaches, the kosher section triples in size, to accommodate the large orders of matzah, wine, varieties of meat, and other necessities for the Pesach Sedarim. Kroger understands this great demand and continues to work with the Jewish community, ensuring that popular products for Yom Tov are stocked. Throughout the year, from brisket and matzah on Pesach to honey cakes and raisin challah on Rosh HaShana, Jewish Louisville connects to their heritage through kosher food.
For over 200 years, the Jews of Louisville have always, regardless of affiliation, had a strong craving and unique bond with kosher food, and kosher will always be an intrinsic part of this city’s Jewish soul.
Visitors to Louisville can contact [email protected] to find out more about kosher options available in Kentucky.
Duby Litvin has been writing lists since she learned to hold a pen. In 2014, she created Duby’s Pesach Lists, a guide filled with every list imaginable to help you get organized for Pesach. When The Lists went viral, Duby’s life changed forever as she became an authority on Pesach planning. Duby lives in Louisville KY with her husband Shmully, and when she is not making lists, she owns a small kosher bakery and dabbles in writing childrens’ literature. Connect with Duby by emailing her at [email protected]