A Passover Toast to a Rabbi Known for Social Activism, and for Kosher Coca-Cola
Published: April 22, 2011
Rabbi Tuvia Geffen, of blessed memory, was born in Lithuania in 1870 and educated in the renowned Slobodka yeshiva. In the wake of a pogrom, he immigrated to New York in 1903, and seven years later he moved to Atlanta to become the rabbi of Shearith Israel, a tiny and struggling Orthodox congregation meeting in the battered remnant of a Methodist church.
During his early decades at Shearith Israel, Rabbi Geffen established Atlanta’s first Hebrew school and oversaw its ritual bath. He stood by Leo Frank, the Jewish man falsely accused of murdering a young Christian girl, and after Frank’s lynching in 1915, the rabbi urged his congregants not to flee the South in fear.
At Passover in 1925, he spoke eloquently and presciently against Congress for passing immigration restrictions that “have slammed shut the gates of the country before the wanderers, the strangers, and those who walk in darkness from place to place.” As early as 1933, he warned about the Nazi regime in Germany. Long before feminism, he advocated for Orthodox women who were being denied religious divorce decrees by vindictive husbands.
But all those achievements are not why we invoke the name and memory of Rabbi Geffen today, more than 40 years after his death. No, we come to honor his least likely yet most enduring contribution to the Jewish people and his adopted nation: kosher-for-Passover Coca-Cola.
Yes, observant Jews of today, searching supermarket counters for those bottles with the telltale yellow cap bearing the Orthodox Union’s certification, and yes, Coke die-hards of any or no religion who seek out those same bottles for the throwback flavor of cane-sugar Coke, you owe it all to Rabbi Tuvia Geffen.
He of the long beard and wire-rim glasses and Yiddish-inflected English, a man by all outward appearances belonging to the Old World, he was the person who by geographical coincidence and unexpected perspicacity adapted Coca-Cola’s secret formula to make the iconic soft drink kosher in one version for Passover and in another for the rest of the year. To this day, his 1935 rabbinical ruling, known in Hebrew as a teshuva, remains the standard.
That ruling, in turn, did much more than solve a dietary problem. A generation after Frank’s lynching, a decade after Congress barred the Golden Door, amid the early stages of Hitler’s genocide, kosher Coke formed a powerful symbol of American Jewry’s place in the mainstream.
“Rabbi Geffen really got the importance of it,” said Marcie Cohen Ferris, a professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina, who specializes in Jewish life in the South. “You couldn’t live in any better place than the South to get it. To not drink Coca-Cola was certainly to be considered un-American.”
Or look at the interplay of Jews and America from another angle. Rabbi Geffen’s solution to the Coke problem was not to forget the kosher rules and melt into the melting pot. But neither was it to decry the spiritual pollution of modernity in the form of a fizzy drink. A half-century before the era of cultural pluralism, his answer was to have the majority address the distinct needs of a minority.
As a contemporary Orthodox rabbi, Adam Mintz, has written in an essay on Geffen and Coke: “Struggling to find their place in a land that was often hostile to their religion, American Jews respected and appreciated rabbis who sought to include them within the Orthodox camp rather than simply condemn them as sinners. Of course his approach would not have been possible had he not felt confident in his powers of persuasion.”
We can safely say, however, that this issue chose Rabbi Geffen rather than the other way around. As early as 1925, as the Orthodox authority in Coke’s home city, he was receiving inquiries from other rabbis about the drink’s kosher status. A few other rabbis had already given certification, without knowing the secret formula. And multitudes of American Jews were drinking Coke regardless.
“Because it has become an insurmountable problem to induce the great majority of Jews to refrain from partaking of this drink,” Rabbi Geffen wrote in his teshuva, “I have tried earnestly to find a method of permitting its usage. With the help of God, I have been able to uncover a pragmatic solution.”
Putting aside God’s props for a moment, we should note that Rabbi Geffen had some significant earthly help in the person of Harold Hirsch, a Jewish Atlantan who was Coca-Cola’s corporate lawyer. Through Hirsch, Rabbi Geffen was permitted to enter that industry’s Holy of Holies and receive Coke’s secret formula.
With it, the rabbi was able to identify the elements that rendered Coke nonkosher during the bulk of the year (oil of glycerine derived from beef tallow) and specifically during Passover (a corn derivative). Hiding the exact ingredients behind Hebrew euphemisms in his teshuva, Rabbi Geffen explained the needed corrections. Glycerine could be replaced by coconut or cottonseed oils, and the corn derivative by cane or beet sugars.
Kosher-for-Passover Coke is now produced under rabbinic supervision at bottling plants serving Jewish population centers in New York, Florida, Southern California and Houston, among other areas. A number of other major brands have followed Coke into the Passover market: Dannon, Lipton, Pepsi and Tropicana. There are tequila and blintzes made without forbidden grains.
“It used to be that for Pesach you were limited to matza and hard-boiled eggs,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the head of the Orthodox Union’s kosher-certification program. “Now, I’ve got to tell you, I love those cheese blintzes.”
And, whether devout or debauched, Coke fans anticipate Passover for their own cultish reason: the usual sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, is replaced by cane or beet sugar.
Moshe Feder, an editor of science-fiction and fantasy books, traveled to six supermarkets from his home in Queens before finding four two-liter bottles of Passover Coke. The subject of his quest happened to come up at a seder the other night. The host, a Jewish man, had never heard about the difference between Coke and Passover Coke. But two Roman Catholic guests, Mr. Feder reported, “knew all about it.”
Rabbi Geffen, of blessed memory, who’d have guessed you were so ecumenical?