Turkey Traditions: The Problem of Authenticity for American Judaism

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turkeys kosherIn 1851, Congregation B’nai Yeshurun of Cincinnati believed that they had finally found their man. After a string of unhappy experiences with ministers, the traditional congregation hired Rev. Jacob Rosenfeld. In his previous position in Charleston, Rosenfeld had earned a reputation as a fierce defender of orthodoxy.[1. James William Hagy, This Happy Land: The Jews of Colonial and antebellum Charleston (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1993), 256-63.] That, as well as his ability to deliver “soul-stirring, learned and eloquent discourses,” made him an obvious choice for B’nai Yeshurun’s lay leaders. With great enthusiasm, the congregation hired Rosenfeld “at a much larger salary than they have ever given before.”[2. “B’nai Jeshurun, Cincinnati,” The Asmonean (October 24, 1851): 6.]

But in Rosenfeld’s brief tenure at the Cincinnati congregation, he did not fare any better than his predecessors.[3. See Karla Goldman, “The Path to Reform Judaism: An Examination of Religious Leadership in Cincinnati, 1841-1855,” American Jewish History 90 (March 2002): 35-50.] By October 1852, lay leaders publicly listed four charges that allegedly revealed Rosenfeld’s betrayal of traditional Jewish practice. Backing the indictment was Simon Louis, the so-called “religious chief of said Kahal.” Here is B’nai Yeshurun’s third accusation:

That Mr. R. had eaten guinea fowls, although in some places they do not eat them. Mr. Louis contended that, according to Yoreh Deah, ch. 82, § 4, we do not eat any bird, except it be traditional that it is permitted. To this Mr. R. replied that in Charleston they had such a tradition.[4. “The Rev. Mr. Rosenfeld,” The Occident (November 1852): 411.]

Rosenfeld staunchly believed in the dependability of a religious tradition that was unhinged from any European antecedent

Once the matter was consumed by the Jewish press, Rosenfeld’s supporters felt the need to defend their minister. In this partisan account, the “zealous labourer in the cause of orthodox Judaism” valiantly debated Louis, and what is more, “Mr. Rosenfeld handled him as a school-boy.” In this more detailed source, Rosenfeld argued that the bird in question was not a predator and therefore permitted according to the Shulhan Arukh. Rosenfeld recognizing that this German congregation also held to the codified standards of Rabbi Moshe Isserles’s Ashkenazic position, namely, that “one is not permitted to eat any bird except for those that have a received tradition that it is kosher.”[5. See Shulhan Arukh, YD 82:3.] Rosenfeld therefore took up this issue, too. He declared that “although the people here may not be in the habit of eating it,” he was permitted to consume it “because he came from Charleston, where guinea fowls are generally eaten.”[6. “Rev. J. Rosenfeld,” The Occident (January 1853): 490-91.]

Rosenfeld did not stop there, however. The battle-tested minister buttressed his argument by offering the case of “turkey, being an American bird, and imported into Europe.”[7. Ibid.] Like the guineafowl, Rosenfeld had learned about the acceptability of turkey from Jews in Charleston. No doubt, Cincinnati’s Jews ate turkey.[8. For the best halakhic analysis of this matter, see Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Zohar Amar, “The Halachic Tale of Three American Birds: Turkey, Prairie Chicken, and Muscovy Duck,” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 41 (Fall 2003): 81-103.] Where did Jews obtain a tradition for this bird? Certainly, jested Rosenfeld, it did not derive from Native Americans but rather the Jews who first immigrated to the New World. In fact, by this time there is evidence that many American Jews feasted on turkey. That was the impression of a Mrs. Pach whose circular in Jewish newspapers advertised her specialties that included “boned turkey and French fricassee.”[9. “Pach’s Private Boarding House,” The Occident (December 1963): 3.] Moreover, Mrs. Pach’s kashrut was endorsed by leading traditionalists Isaac Leeser and Samuel Myer Isaacs. Further, in all likelihood Jews joined American Protestants who by that time routinely dined on roast Turkey at their Thanksgiving meals.[10. See Andrew F. Smith, The Turkey: An American Story (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 70-74. Although Thanksgiving was not instituted as a national holiday until Abraham Lincoln ordered it so in 1863, it was consistently observed long before then.] In a word, turkey was an American tradition that Jews made into their own.

Whether the trustees of B’nai Yeshurun accepted Rosenfeld’s argument about the status of guineafowl and turkey is unknowable. In the end, the beleaguered minister’s fate in Cincinnati had little to do with his traditional observance. The commotion caused by his detractors and supporters forced the congregation to terminate Rosenfeld’s contract.

In spite of its gloomy conclusion, we may nevertheless deduce a positive and crucial point from the Rosenfeld episode. To Rosenfeld, Charleston’s Jewish community was sufficiently ancient to satisfy the Ashkenazic requirement to possess a “received tradition” that a species of bird was indeed kosher. Jews settled in Charleston in the late seventeenth century and established a formal congregation in 1749.[11. Charles Reznikoff, The Jews of Charleston: A History of an American Jewish Community (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1950), 17.] By contrast, Cincinnati’s first Jewish community did not form until 1824.[12. Jacob Rader Marcus, Memoirs of American Jews, 1775-1865, vol. I (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1955), 205-12.] Rosenfeld hoped to persuade his opponents that his tradition was better than theirs.

He also recognized that many of his challengers were immigrants from across the Atlantic and were incredulous of any rite or ritual that seemed foreign to them. Implicit in his case, therefore, was that Rosenfeld staunchly believed in the dependability of a religious tradition that was unhinged from any European antecedent. More than a hundred years old, Charleston Jewry had as much right to bear witness to Jewish traditions as comparably aged European communities. The impression of at least one well-known American Jew, then, was that notions like halakhic traditions and customs could be authentically furnished and secured in the New World.

Rosenfeld’s view stood in contrast to the belief that America could never escape its label as the “New World.” Proponents of this outlook denied the right of American Judaism to develop organically like it had in the Old World. Consequently, all traditions would have to be imported from Europe. This was precisely the point in a later debate over kosher birds indigenous to the United States.

American Judaism was denied its right to determine the course of its religious tradition on its own

In 1862, Rabbi Bernard Illowy relocated to New Orleans to serve Congregation Shangarai Chassed. The ordained rabbi gave off the impression as a “good Hebraist and Talmudist” and rightfully so.[13. I.J. Benjamin, Three Years in America, 1859-1862, vol. I, trans. Charles Reznikoff (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1956), 82.] Illowy was aware of this quality and, after several failures in American congregations, also knew how it affected American laypeople.[14. See, for example, Leon A. Jick, The Americanization of the Synagogue, 1820-1870 (Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 1976), 152.] Nonetheless, Illowy would not change. He spoke his mind and trusted his knowledge and convictions.[15. See David Ellenson, “A Jewish Legal Decision by Rabbi Bernard Illowy of New Orleans and Its Discussion in Nineteenth Century Europe,” American Jewish History 69 (December 1979): 174-95.] Not too long after his move to New Orleans, Illowy accepted an invitation to dine at the home of one of his congregants. Illowy noticed that the Jew had a coup in his yard where he raised Muscovy ducks. Illowy had never seen this breed before and grew suspicious.[16. For the primary source for this episode, see Henry Illowy, The Controversial Letters and the Casuistic Decisions of the Late Rabbi Bernard Illowy Ph.D. (Berlin: M. Poppelauer, 1914), 162-65. For the fullest treatment of this brief saga in English, see Moshe D. Sherman, “Bernard Illowy and Nineteenth Century American Orthodoxy” (PhD diss.: Yeshiva University, 1991), 241-43.]

“What do you do with these ducks?” Illowy asked unassumingly.

“They are there for eating,” answered his host.

Illowy was stunned. He asked his friend who had permitted him to eat this breed of ducks. The layman did not understand the line of questioning. He explained that he had witnessed other New Orleans Jews eat these fowls. For that matter, offered Illowy’s host, the local ritual slaughterer and a Jewish minister of one of the other New Orleans congregations also ate Muscovy duck. After that, Illowy queried other New Orleans Jews and they reported much of the same. Each testified that this was the custom in their city and they had never considered the matter beyond that.

Their explanation hardly satisfied Illowy. He publicly declared the Muscovy duck forbidden for Jews to eat, principally because there was no reliable tradition of its fitness. Rev. James Gutheim, the other New Orleans minister—the one who happily ate Muscovy duck—confronted Illowy, hoping that the more learned scholar would change his mind. Gutheim argued that the New Orleans tradition was plenty strong. Then again, if Illowy required something more robust, continued Gutheim, “the Jews of Charleston as well as the Jews of Jamaica have eaten this specific species without any hesitation.” Perhaps Gutheim learned of this tradition from the same Charlestonians who had also informed James Rosenfeld decades earlier. Illowy, however, was unimpressed. He flatly rejected the reliability of any New World tradition.

Notwithstanding his position on the matter, Illowy agreed to send off the question to other authorities. He wrote to Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler of London and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch of Frankfurt.[17. Both men were also two of the four European rabbi questioned about another New Orleans question in 1860. That matter dealt with the propriety of erecting a statue in the image of philanthropist Judah Touro. Interestingly, in that case it was Rev. James Gutheim who solicited the rabbis’ opinions. See Benjamin, Three Years in America, 320-33.] Those choices were undoubtedly very deliberate. It was well-known that Adler had grown tired of dealing with American Jewry.[18. Illowy began his letter to both correspondents by commenting that it was his misfortune that he had been “banished from the inheritance of my forefathers to this filthy land.” See Illowy, The Controversial Letters and the Casuistic Decisions, 162.] Just four years earlier, Adler had called into question the stability of American Judaism and the reliability of its constituents in deciding religious issues.[19. Nathan Marcus Adler to Seligman Bamberger, n.d, ACC/2805/01/01/005, London Metropolitan Archives. Adler wrote his letter at the end of 1858. The date of the letter is clear from Bamberger’s published response. See “Deutschland,” Jeschurun (January 1859): 225-26.] That Illowy and Adler had very publicly disagreed on halakhic matters in the past did not concern the New Orleans rabbi.[20. See “Jews Hospital in New York,” The Asmonean (April 11, 1856): 204; and “Dr. Illowy on Post-Mortem Examinations,” The Asmonean (June 27, 1856): 85.] Owing to Adler’s unfavorable view of American Judaism, Illowy was probably confident that he would confirm his stance on the Muscovy duck and the veracity of American Jewish traditions.

Illowy also knew that Hirsch was of a similar mind. At that time, Hirsch was encouraged by the religious tolerance exercised in the United States but hardly considered it to be a viable host for Orthodox Judaism.[21. See “Amerika,” Jeschurun (January 1860): 224.] Months after his communication with Illowy, Hirsch warned the readers of his periodical of the dangers of religious observance in the “deprave abyss” that was the United States.[22. “Eine Judenvertreibung in Amerika,” Jeschurun (July 1863): 469.]

Illowy was correct on both counts. In Adler’s response, Britain’s chief rabbi acknowledged that he too investigated the Muscovy duck and determined that there was no reliable tradition to eat this creature. Hirsch offered a lengthier answer, but at the core of his decision was that he “could not permit any fowl that did not possess a tradition from earlier times.” Hirsch therefore rejected the “customs” of Jewish communities that “only recently” started in the United States.[23. Illowy, The Controversial Letters and the Casuistic Decisions, 165.]

The New Orleans scholar was excited by those responses. Illowy promptly informed Isaac Leeser of Adler’s and Hirsch’s decisions, hoping that the influential Jewish minister in Philadelphia would publish their decisions in his monthly newspaper.[24. Bernard Illowy to Isaac Leeser, February 6, 1863, The Library of the Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning Collection, Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, Philadelphia, PA. Available at: http://ubuwebser.cajs.upenn.edu/documentDisplay.php?id=LSDCBx2FF10_10 (accessed on November 22, 2013).] Leeser did not publicize the stringent rulings, and we can only conjecture why that was. Despite this, Illowy’s crusade was largely successful. While, the Muscovy duck was accepted by Jews in France, Israel and South America, America’s traditional Jews have by and large refrained from eating it.[25. Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Zohar Amar, “Clarifying Why the Muscovy Duck is Kosher: A Factually Accurate Response,” Hakirah 11 (Spring 2011): 159.]

More important, Illowy’s efforts also signaled a shift in cultural mindset. American Judaism was denied its right to determine the course of its religious tradition on its own. Instead, the millions of European Jewish émigrés who settled in the United States over the course of the subsequent century transported their Old World traditions and worked hard to preserve and maintain them in their new environs.[26. See, for example, Moses Rischin, The Promised City: New York’s Jews, 1870-1914 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), 76.] Placing their trust in the native religious tendencies of New World Judaism was simply not an option for these women and men.

Others shared this pessimistic view of America. Commitment to Illowy’s European correspondences, Rabbi Shlomo Kluger of Brody authored a responsum on the kashrut of turkey. The famed scholar strongly recommended that Jews keep away from that fowl, despite the permissible rulings to the contrary. Kluger’s reasoning: America was not entitled to secure its own traditions. In Europe, contended Brody, Jews could be trusted to transmit traditions that presumably could be traced back to the sages of the Talmud. In America, Jews could do no such thing. Their communities were too new and their religious leaders were far too unreliable.[27. Shlomo Kluger, Ha-Elef Leha Shlomo, YD: 112.]

In contradistinction to the Muscovy duck case, Kluger was unable to ban turkey. In Europe and in America, Jews continued to consume it. Many American Jews relied on other rabbinic authorities who permitted turkey. Others, we can assume, relied on Mrs. Pach and her famous “roasted turkey.” In a way, this may serve as a modest vindication for poor James Rosenfeld of Cincinnati. Yet, it is also an inescapable truth that the turkey tradition is the exception in American Judaism that proves the rule.

About Zev Eleff

Rabbi Zev Eleff is Chief Academic Officer of Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, IL. He was ordained at Yeshiva University. His most recent books are Who Rules the Synagogue? (Oxford, 2016) and Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History (JPS, 2016).


  1. I always wondered what the big deal was about the bird. Then I ate it. Wow, is it good.

  2. I don’t understand the entire discussion. Mesorah to me means that Poskim and Gedolim of many generations back most likely ‘checked it out’ and said it was o.k.
    Charleston or New Orleans is not really a source for mesorah

    • No, m’sora means a tradition passed down through observant Jews. Obviously the New World posed problems with this (see my post), but nothing to do with g’dolim or poskim. The issue with birds is that there may not really be any way to tell if it’s kosher or not.

      So here’s the real question. They find a new continent in the Pacific and Jews are forced to move there. Is there actually any process for determining if new birds found there are kosher or is there a blanket prohibition because we don’t know and there can be no m’sora? There’s no point in talking about Charleston’s “m;sora” because the first Charleston Jews addressed this very question. Nothing changed since they got there (e.g. no mass migration of birds that would mean they might have had some tradition from before they brought with them and those birds had just since gone extinct wherever the Jews came from). There’s no reason 100 years later in Cincinnati that the case is any less first impression than it was in Charleston back in the day. So is it a question of taxonomy? Trying to see if the bird is similar enough to something indisputably kosher? On what basis?

  3. No doubt, that there were no talmudic scholars in Charleston weakened the claim. However, the Rama’s rule is generally understood as a requirement for a “popular” (i.e., lay derived) mesorah/tradition rather than a learned rabbinic transmission. If the latter were so, we would not require the tradition at all. It would have been sufficient to have a leading authority at any time to declare the fowl kosher.

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