It took an Atlanta rabbi joining forces with executives at the world's top beverage company. But thanks to the tenacity of Rabbi Tobias Geffen — and that of his thirsty congregation — observant Jews can sip Kosher Coca-Cola during Passover.
If the slogan, "Things go better with Coke," holds water, matzah bread and Coca-Cola make excellent bedfellows. But that catchphrase wasn't part of the Coca-Cola lexicon until the 1960s. In the 1930s, the decade in which Rabbi Geffen began his soft-drink crusade, The Coca-Cola Company promoted its flagship product as “America's Favorite Moment.”
At the time, millions of migrants to the United States were immersing themselves in every American moment, their children demonstrating their assimilation through bottles of Coca-Cola.
So devoted was that generation to the consumption of Coca-Cola that Rabbi Geffen, who served Atlanta's Congregation Shearith Israel for 60 years, endeavored tirelessly to find a way to permit its presence on the Passover table.
According to Rabbi Geffen's Teshuva Concerning Coca-Cola, housed in the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society, denying Jews the beloved beverage during Passover was an “insurmountable problem.” The rabbi determined there was no other course of action but to lobby Atlanta-based Coca-Cola to offer a Kosher version of its flagship drink.
“Our Jewish customers wanted to drink Coca-Cola during Passover, and it was up to us to find a way to have it certified as Kosher,” says Ted Ryan, director of heritage communications for Coca-Cola.
For some observant Jews, sweetener derived from grain is a primary stumbling block. Passover practice requires its observers to keep Kosher by avoiding chametz, or leavened product derived from five types of grain, and other forbidden foods.
Planning for food preparation is also a tricky endeavor. Foods consumed during the holiday can leave no doubt of purity, which is why Passover preparations require rigorous cleaning of kitchens and utensils.
At The Coca-Cola Company, that same kind of meticulous care extends to the making of Kosher Coca-Cola for Passover, with ingredients and manufacturing processes taking place under scrupulous rabbinical supervision.
The end result is kosher-certified syrups and concentrates, approved as kosher by the Orthodox of Union of Jewish Congregations. The “O.U.” stamped on yellow caps of Coca-Cola, most commonly crowning 2-liter bottles, is one of the most widely recognized kosher symbols.
Ryan says such a response to the Jewish community is nothing out of the ordinary; The Coca-Cola Company has a history of making products consumers want.
“We respond to demand, which is why we have Coke Zero and Diet Coke,” he says. “We make products that people want to drink and, if a large percentage of our Jewish consumers want us to produce a Kosher Coke, it behooves us to offer one.”
That's even if sales aren't entirely up to snuff, he says, pointing to a proposal by Coca-Cola to discontinue Kosher Coke's availability in Canada after sales dwindled in the late-'30s.
“But there was a very strongly worded letter from one of our executives in Canada who said, 'We have consumers who want to consume this product, so we have to do everything in our power to make sure we have product available to consume,'” Ryan explains.
Indeed, in a 1939 letter to Atlanta, Toronto's Eugene Kelly said that, with international tensions reaching a boiling point as World War II began, it was imperative to make Kosher Coke available for the forthcoming Passover season.
“The regional managers are unanimous in the opinion that it would be inadvisable to discontinue Koshered Coca-Cola this year in view of the very aggravated situation in Europe and the sensitiveness of the Jewish people at this time,” Kelly wrote.
Atlanta headquarters took notice and, even if its availability isn't widespread, sales of Kosher Coca-Cola continue to this day at markets in cities with large Jewish populations.
A statement from The Coca-Cola Company lends clarity to the 80-year run of a product that, even though it may not get all the limelight, is perfectly at home in glow of the Passover candlelight:
“Whether it's with an authentic traditional meal, or at a family event, we know that things go better with Coke. That's why we continue to offer a wide variety of brand choices, in the right brands and packages, in the right places for all beverage occasions.”
Ryan agrees. “With the core philosophy of making sure that your consumers are satisfied, with that as your business driver, Kosher Coke makes a whole lot of sense,” he says. “To have unfulfilled demand is against the company ethos.”