Downtown Art >> Great Struggle for Cheap Meat

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A street musical / rock opera based on the 1902 Kosher Meat boycott led by Lower East Side women.  The strike by Jewish immigrant women to protest the high price of meat became a role for community organizing and broadened the conversation about the power of informal neighborhood networks.  More about the boycott HERE.

 

‘The Great Struggle for Cheap Meat’ was written and directed by Ryan Gilliam, composed by Michael Hickey.  Premiere cast of teen girl included Jamila Amanfu, Alma Moos Nunez, Juliette Rochard, Annaliese Rozos, Elise Ruiz, Marisol Sharpe, Tatiana Torres, Io Weiss, Lena Williamson-Diaz, and Yelena Virovlyanskaya.  Musicians: Laszlo Horvath, Mike Hickey, Robby Jenkins, and Dakota Peterson.

 

Below are excerpts from the lyrics, photos from the original production, song recordings, and links to the libretto and program.

 

LIBRETTO (excerpts)

 

SCENE 5: EIGHTEEN CENTS A POUND

 

 

BUTCHERS
Mrs. Peskin, Mrs. Schatzburg,
Mrs. Ghilman, Block, Levine
Mrs. Levy, Mrs. Jaffe
Hello Mrs. Finkelstein!
Good day ladies, such nice sunshine
not a bit cold anymore
So tell me, I am listening
What can I do you for?
You want brisket, bit of liver
Something savory for a stew?
Tell me, ladies, ‘cause I’m all ears
What can I do for you?

 

WOMEN
Wait a minute, I’m now reading
But my eyes they can’t be right
Now I’m blinking, but I see it
Is it something with the light?
Eighteen cents?
Eighteen cents?
Eighteen cents for a pound of kosher beef?

 

BUTCHERS
Well, ladies…

 

WOMEN
Eighteen cents?
Last year, it was twelve
Last month, fourteen
I’m feeling weak, better give me a chair
This is kosher beef for a millionaire

 

BUTCHERS
Ladies.

 

WOMEN
Who can pay? Who can pay?
Eighteen cents for one little pound?
Diamonds its made of?

 

BUTCHERS
Ladies, listen, in the papers
You can read that beef is dear
There’s no corn to feed the cattle
There’s a lot less, not just here
Everywhere in America, beef is dear

 

WOMEN
At eighteen cents? Eighteen cents?

 

BUTCHERS
Well, only for kosher.

 

WOMEN
Oh, we see, your eighteen cents
is only for kosher! Only for kosher!

 

BUTCHERS
Kosher costs more.

 

WOMEN
We’ve heard that before!
In Russia, we heard it –
The csar made a tax.
Kosher costs more.
We’ve heard that before.

 

BUTCHERS
The rabbis, the rules, the special procedures cost extra
The market, it’s got to be paid
Supply and demand, our business, our trade..
Well, kosher costs more
You look at me funny – Don’t walk out the door!

 

WOMEN
Eighteen cents! Eighteen cents a pound!

 

BUTCHERS
We have no control, our margins are small
Our profits, they’re tiny, it’s not us at all. It’s them!

 

WOMEN
It’s who?

 

BUTCHERS
The uptown wholesalers

 

WOMEN
The Meat Trust?

 

BUTCHERS
Sure, you can call them that
They’re big enough, not hurting for money
We buy from them, but they set the price
Ship in the cattle, slaughter the beef
Hire the rabbis, make it all kosher. It’s them!

 

WOMEN
But, you sell the beef, you can’t let it stand
Can’t just roll over, you gotta demand
Those uptown wholesalers
Those all right-nik jews
How many eat kosher?
How many can choose –
to forget about hunger, forget about fair
forget about everything now that they’re there?

 

BUTCHERS
Now, now, we’re all Jewish

 

WOMEN
Maybe, maybe not
There’s Jewish and Jewish
and some who forgot.

 

BUTCHERS
Let’s all keep our heads

 

WOMEN
Keep our heads? Keep your beef!
Keep your brisket, your short ribs, your lungs and your liver!
Keep this and keep that!
I’m gonna buy fish!
I don’t plan to come back!

 

 

SCENE 11: THE PROMISE

 

 

WOMEN
Our husbands work hard to bring a few cents in the house.
It’s on us to spend as little as we can.
Who can pay? Who can pay these prices?
Did we come so far for this?
Come to America – eat more cabbage?
Come to America – swallow our pride?
Come to America – be left behind?
Left behind ‘cause we keep kosher?
No. No. No.

 

When I was a girl – before the big ship,
Before the choppy and frightening sea –
When I was a girl, though it made Mama cry
there were days of hunger
We had a bit but not much more
and Papa would scowl and pull the plow
but still there were days of hunger

 

When I was a girl, we came to this place
Spent, scared and sick
Up the stairs, the endless stairs
Our new home…
but what could I see in the dark?
So I wept.
I threw myself down and I wept

 

Yet I was a girl and it’s hard to despair
when you’re still so young and hungry
Come to table, Mama said, candles are lit
And now I could see, I could see why
We’d left behind the fresh smelling fields
for ugly, crowded America
There was the promise
right on our table
in meat

 

Oh, how good it is, how good, how rich
The savory smell, tender brisket
Roasted chicken, brown and gold
Borscht with mighty chunks of beef
and Mama’s meatloaf
Oh, yes, Mama’s meatloaf

 

Oh, how good it is, how rich
High in the tenements, candles lit
in ugly crowded America
On our table
a promise of better
a promise of better
in meat

 

PHOTOS

 

 

AUDIO

 

 

 

DOCUMENTS

Great Struggle for Cheap Meat Libretto

Great Struggle for Cheap Meat Program