A Passover toast (with Coke)

As Passover draws to a close, a wonderful piece from the April 23 NYT about Rabbi Tuvia Geffen, which starts with a ritual blessing (Samuel G. Freedman, “A Passover Toast to a Rabbi Known for Social Activism, and for Kosher Coca-Cola”):

Rabbi Tuvia Geffen, of blessed memory, was born in Lithuania in 1870 and educated there in the renowned Slobodka yeshiva.

There follows a history of Menschlichkeit that would stand on its own, even without the signal achievement of his later life:

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.

And then he confronted the problem of adapting Coca-Cola’s secret formula to make it “kosher in one version for Passover and in another for the rest of the year”, doing this and then issuing a 1935 ruling that still stands, through which “kosher Coke formed a powerful symbol of American Jewry’s place in the mainstream.”

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.

A bit of history to celebrate this week.

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