Remembering ‘The Coca-Cola Rabbi’

Marking 50 years since the death of Rav Tuvia Geffen

THE WRITER’S grandparents Rav Tuvia and Sara Hene Geffen, golden wedding anniversary celebration at Shearith Israel Synagogue, Atlanta, August 1948 (photo credit: AVIE GEFFEN)
THE WRITER’S grandparents Rav Tuvia and Sara Hene Geffen, golden wedding anniversary celebration at Shearith Israel Synagogue, Atlanta, August 1948
(photo credit: AVIE GEFFEN)
For his 40th yahrzeit 10 years ago, In Jerusalem carried a story about Rav Tuvia Geffen with the headline, “The Coca Cola Rabbi.” Since then, the article has appeared in newspapers and websites across the world. Interested writers have translated the article into six different languages. Of course, those of us in the family were quite honored.
Over the last decade, Samuel Friedman, the former education editor of The New York Times, has written several times about Rav Tuvia and kosher for Passover Coca-Cola.
The original story garnered the most hits, up until that time, for the 48 hours following its publication.
Two years ago, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, President Reuven Rivlin honored the memory of Rav Tuvia and his wife, Sara Hene, in the presence of their 140-plus descendants who were living in Israel.
A few years ago, archival-based information appeared describing the rabbi’s act of replacing elements in the Coca-Cola formula in 1935, so that the noted drink would be kosher and kosher for Passover. This was based on the rabbi’s papers at the American Jewish Historical Society in New York.
A food historian, Prof. Roger Horowitz, recounted the actual story in his award-winning book, Kosher USA.
To authenticate his halachic (Jewish legal) study of the issue, Rav Tuvia wrote his definitive teshuva (legal opinion) on the kashrut of Coca-Cola, which can now be read online.
For this 50th yahrzeit, the family here in Israel has chosen to honor its patriarch at an event in Jerusalem on Sunday, May 1, at 7 p.m., at which various family members will be speaking.
Tuvia Geffen was born on the eve of Tisha Be’av, 1870, in Kovno, Lithuania. The sandek (the person honored with holding the baby during his circumcision), was the “Kovner Rav,” Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan Spektor.
Tuvia studied in Kovno until he was 16, after which his father, Yosef, sent him to Rav Elkiam Shapiro, a noted rabbi with whom he learned privately.
When Tuvia returned to Kovno in the early 1890s, he entered the Slobodka Yeshiva. His notebooks from his studies there have survived and can be researched at the American Jewish Historical Society.
He married Sara Hene Rabinowitz, an orphan, in August 1898. Using her entrepreneurial skills, Sara Hene operated a paper products store. After the wedding, Tuvia learned in the Kovno Kollel, an institute of advanced Jewish learning. In 1900, the Aderet, the father-in-law of Rav Kook and later the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Jerusalem, presented one of his books to Tuvia, marking him as one of the outstanding students at the kollel.
TWO CHILDREN, Lottie and Joel, were born to the Geffens before they sailed to America, several weeks after the Kishinev Pogrom in May 1903.
For four years, they lived on the East Side of New York, a place teeming with Jewish immigrants. It was there that Rav Tuvia led a small congregation and where my father, Louis, was born.
In 1907, Rav Tuvia took a pulpit in Canton, Ohio, where the Geffens’ fifth child, Bessie, was born. In 1910, he was invited to be the rabbi of Shearith Israel synagogue in Atlanta, Georgia, where he served for the next 60 years, becoming the halachic authority for the entire South.
He began teaching classes in Talmud on January 1, 1911, and was blessed to complete the entire Shas three times. In 1915, he and the Atlanta Jewish community endured the lynching of Leo Frank. Rav Tuvia demonstrated significant leadership in the wake of this terrible antisemitic tragedy.
The Geffens had three more children in Atlanta: Annette, Helen and Abe, making a four-girl, four-boy family. Six of the children earned a combined total of eight degrees at Emory University in Atlanta, the most of any family whose children attended the school up until that time.
To show his concern for agunot, “chained” wives who were unable to obtain a divorce, he pursued some of the recalcitrant husbands. In one notable case recorded in his autobiography, after locating the individual in a state prison, the rabbi had him authorize the writing of a get (bill of divorce) before witnesses whom Geffen had brought to the prison where the man was incarcerated
During his career, Rav Tuvia oversaw the writing of almost 400 such documents. During World War II, he officiated at the marriages of soldiers to their beloveds, under a huppah (wedding canopy) at his house.
In a 1940 diary entry, he wrote that the superintendent of schools asked him to influence the Atlanta Jewish community not to vote for two KKK members who were running for the local school board. Two of the Geffens’ sons, my father and Prof. Abraham Geffen, served in World War II. The rabbi and his wife each proudly wore two blue stars indicating that they were parents of soldiers in the Army and Air Force.
Sara Hene and Tuvia had 18 grandchildren, six of whom immigrated to Israel.
One of them, Dr. Steve Adler, was married to Ruth Adler, whose mother, Helen, was a Geffen, and served as the president judge of the National Labor Court of Israel.
THE ARCHIVES of Rav Tuvia in New York contain over 20,000 documents and other items in Hebrew, Aramaic, English, Yiddish and a few items in Japanese. Another smaller selection of his papers and handwritten ledgers are at the Stuart Rose Archives in the Woodruff Library of Emory University.
That archival material is available to researchers, who can receive assistance from the Geffen/Lewyn Fund for the study of Southern Jewish History at the “Stuart Rose” as it is lovingly called.
Rabbi Geffen’s ledgers covering the period 1918-1956 are held by me here in Jerusalem. One of them has revealed an innovative fund-raising method by the Shearith Israel sisterhood.
Sara Hene organized the synagogue’s ladies’ society in 1918. The campaign to raise money for a new Torah scroll was one of the women’s first projects. Rav Tuvia, in his meticulous manner, listed the name of each woman and what she contributed.
The list begins on April 21, 1918, with a total at the end of the first column of $53.
The largest gift made was $10 and the smallest was $1. Mrs Robkin, who gave a dollar, is the great-grandmother of Eytan Kadden of Jerusalem, where several of her great-granddaughters and family members live.
The smaller contributions of 25 cents and 50 cents were initially listed in a second column. After the first stage of the campaign, $93 had been raised. On May 26, 1918, my grandfather wrote that $24 was sent to a sofer (scribe) who was working on the sefer Torah. The solicitors even accepted dimes as part of their devoted efforts.
After volunteers completed their collection for the new Torah, a separate fund was started, and my grandfather listed the balance of the Shearith Israel Ladies Society treasury as $101.60. At this point, Rav Tuvia wrote in Yiddish, “Ayn nemeh un Ousgebe,” what was received and what was paid out by “the Ladies Society for 1918.” His arithmetic showed the exact balance.
The entire sum of the money received was spent for a mikveh (ritual bath); printing of stationery; the purchase of stamps; plus $5 gifts for three women in need.
There are no final entries listing the actual purchase of a Torah, but we assume that did take place. While Jewish women in congregations throughout the United States initiated many congregational projects, this fund-raising for a Torah by the women at Shearith Israel in Atlanta was a unique pioneering effort. Our family is very excited that this sacred act can be publicized on the 50th yahrzeit of Rav Tuvia.