Atlanta Jews and Coca-Cola
Things Go Better with Kosher Coca-Cola: Atlanta Jews and Coca-Cola
by Rachel Druck
This is the story of how three men from Atlanta made it possible for generations of their fellow Jews to engage in that most American of activities: enjoying a drink of Coca-Cola.
Coca-Cola might not have been popularized at all were it not for the business acumen of a Jewish pharmacist from Georgia. Joseph Jacobs was the son of a German-Jewish family from Athens, Georgia, whose father had fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. He attended the University of Georgia in 1877 and graduated from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy in 1879, becoming one of the few licensed pharmacists in Georgia. In 1884 he bought a drug drugstore at 2 Peachtree Street in Five Points, Atlanta, and moved his entire family to the city. This store, which became the location of Jacobs’ Pharmacy, would be the first of 16 pharmacies owned by Jacobs. Jacobs was an astute businessman, and one of the distinguishing features Jacobs’ Pharmacy was that it had one of only five soda fountains in the city.
Jacobs’ Pharmacy might have remained another footnote in the history of Atlanta Jewry and their commercial contributions to the city, were it not for one fateful day. On May 8, 1886 a local pharmacist, Dr. John Stith Pemberton, carried a jug of a new syrup that he had created to the pharmacy down the block: Jacobs’ Pharmacy. Jacobs sampled Pemberton’s concoction, pronounced it “excellent,” and began selling it as a soda fountain drink for five cents a glass.
Coca-Cola’s popularity soon spread beyond Jacobs’ Pharmacy, and beyond the city of Atlanta, and by 1895 the company proudly proclaimed that “Coca-Cola is now drunk in every state and territory in the United States.” Jews were not exempt from wanting to try this new soft drink, including religious Jews. At this point, our second hero, Rabbi Tobias Geffen, enters the scene. Rabbi Geffen was born on August 1, 1870 in Kovno (now Kaunas) Lithuania (then part of the Russian Empire) and immigrated to the US in 1903. After working as a rabbi in synagogues in New York City and Canton, Ohio, he responded to an advertisement in the Yiddish newspaper Tageblatt by Congregation Shearith Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Atlanta, Georgia (in 2002 it would become Conservative) that was seeking a rabbi. Seeing in Rabbi Geffen a “living example of the Old World rabbi as scholar and spiritual leader,” the congregation hired him. Rabbi Geffen quickly became an active leader in the Atlanta Jewish community, opening the first Hebrew School in Atlanta and standardizing kosher supervision in the city.
But eventually Rabbi Geffen was called upon to play a more national role. Because the Coca-Cola Company’s headquarters were located in Atlanta, by the 1930s Rabbi Geffen was receiving letters from across the United States asking him whether or not Coca-Cola was kosher—and, additionally, whether it was kosher for Passover. At stake was not merely the ability to enjoy a soft drink. American Jews and their rabbis were asking this unlikely figure, a traditional Lithuanian Jew with Yiddish-accented English, to give them access to a classically American activity of drinking Coke. Rabbi Geffen was, in effect, being called on to show that Jews did not have to give up on the joys of being American in order to remain true to their religion and heritage.
Enter our third Jewish Atlantan hero: Harold Hirsch, who was from a prominent Jewish family in Atlanta. Like Jacobs, he also attended the University of Georgia (albeit about 30 years later), and was even a lineman on the university’s football team in spite of having no previous sports experience and “limited talent.” After graduating from law school at Columbia University, Hirsch began working as a lawyer for the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta.
Rabbi Geffen turned to Hirsch, hoping to find out which ingredients were in Coca-Cola, and whether it could be certified as kosher. This was no simple task: the Coca-Cola recipe was, and remains, top-secret. Nonetheless, and with Hirsch’s help, Rabbi Geffen was eventually granted permission to see the list of ingredients used to make Coke. In exchange for this permission, Rabbi Geffen was sworn to secrecy; indeed, his eventual Halachic responsum is filled with initials and code words that refer to various ingredients, in order to keep the actual ingredients secret.
Over the course of his research, Rabbi Geffen discovered that there were two issues with Coke that precluded him from being able to certify it as kosher. The first was that one of the ingredients (referred to as “M” in the responsum) was made from non-kosher beef tallow. Even though this ingredient was present in only one part of 1,000 (far less than the one part in sixty that is normally the maximum allowed for a food to still be considered kosher), because it was a planned ingredient that would add to the taste Rabbi Geffen felt that it was problematic. Additionally, another ingredient (referred to as “A” in the responsum) was derived from grains, rendering Coca-Cola unable to be consumed over Passover.
Presumably because the Coca-Cola Company did not want to miss out on the opportunity to expand into new markets, even the relatively small market of observant American Jews, the company began to research ways that they could solve the two issues raised by Rabbi Geffen. Ultimately, they realized that they could switch from “M” derived from beef tallow to “M” derived from cottonseed oil (which is not problematic from a kosher standpoint). Additionally, the Coca-Cola Company agreed to begin manufacturing Coke with beet and cane sugar several weeks before Passover, thus ensuring that no grain-based ingredients would be present in Coke during the holiday; later, yellow bottle caps would indicate that the Coca-Cola had been made with cane sugar and is kosher for Passover).
These changes satisfied Rabbi Geffen, and in 1935 he published a responsum in which he concluded that “[i]t is now possible for the most stringent Halachist to enjoy Coca Cola [sic] throughout the year and on Passover.” That year, the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Atlanta produced the first bottle cap that included a kosher certification in Hebrew, along with the date and Rabbi Geffen’s name.
Though one Atlanta rabbi’s efforts to render a popular soft drink kosher might not seem particularly monumental, Rabbi Geffen’s responsum certifying Coca-Cola as kosher was significant for Jews throughout the United States. Whether they opened a bottle of Coke at their Passover seders, or cooled down with a Coke on a hot summer’s day, all American Jews were now able to participate more fully in the cultural—and culinary—life in the United States. One of the most popular and enduring symbols of America could complement the religious values of American Jews.
 “The Chronicle Of Coca-Cola: Birth of a Refreshing Idea.” Www.coca-colacompany.com. The Coca-Cola Company, 1 Jan. 2012. Web. <http://www.coca-colacompany.com/packages/history/the-chronicle-of-coca-cola-birth-of-a-refreshing-idea/>.
2 Ferris, Marcie Cohen. Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South: UNC, 2005. Google Books. Web. https://books.google.co.il/books?id=n8ScSsuvrhQC&dq=Coca-Cola+Kosher+certification&source=gbs_navlinks_s, p. 165.
3 “Hirsch, Harold.” Www.jewsinsports.org.
Rachel Druck is the editor of the Communities Database at Beit Hatfutsot—The Museum of the Jewish People. You can contact her at [email protected]
“Atlanta” from Beit Hatfutsot – the Museum of the Jewish Peopleh Jewish Communities Database.
“The Chronicle Of Coca-Cola: Birth of a Refreshing Idea” Www.coca-colacompany.com. The Coca-Cola Company, 1 Jan. 2012. Web. <http://www.coca-colacompany.com/packages/history/the-chronicle-of-coca-cola-birth-of-a-refreshing-idea/>. December 24, 2015.
“Hirsch, Harold.” Www.jewsinsports.org. December 24, 2015.
Ferris, Marcie Cohen. Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South: UNC, 2005. Google Books. Web. <https://books.google.co.il/books?id=n8ScSsuvrhQC&dq=Coca-Cola+Kosher+certification&source=gbs_navlinks_s>.
Geffen, Tobias. “A Teshuvah Concerning Coca Cola.” 1935.
Green, David B. “This Day in Jewish History First Customer Pays for Coca-Cola.” Haaretz.com. Haaretz, 8 May 2014. Web. <http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/features/.premium-1.589483>. December 24, 2015.
Horowitz, Roger. “The Real Thing: How Coke Became Kosher.” Www.chemheritage.org. Chemical Heritage Foundation, 2012/2013. <http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/media/magazine/articles/30-3-the-real-thing-how-coke-became-kosher.aspx>. December 24, 2015.
Kaemmerlen, Cathy. The Historic Oakland Cemetery of Atlanta: Speaking Stones: History, 2007. Google Books. https://goo.gl/RW4Gi1
Marx, David. “Harold Hirsch.” Bjpa.org. Berman Jewish Policy Archive. December 24, 2015.
Segev, Tom. “How Coca-Cola Became Kosher for Passover.” Haaretz.com. Haaretz, 30 Mar. 2012. Web. <http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/how-coca-cola-became-kosher-for-passover-1.421675>. December 24, 2015.