How Coca-Cola became kosher

On Monday, Dr. David Geffen will tell the story of how his grandfather made Coca-Cola kosher

Rabbi Tuvia Geffen (right), with grandson Dr. David Geffen and great-granddaughter Elissa Geffen-Burg. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Tuvia Geffen (right), with grandson Dr. David Geffen and great-granddaughter Elissa Geffen-Burg.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. David Geffen’s grandfather, Tuvia Geffen, was an Orthodox rabbi from Kovno, Lithuania. He lived there from the time he was born in 1870 until he and his family moved to the United States in 1903. They bounced around from place to place for a while, but in 1910 they settled in Atlanta, Georgia.
Because Tuvia Geffen lived near the Coca-Cola Company’s headquarters in Atlanta, many of his colleagues from across the US asked him questions about whether Coke was kosher. In the early 1930s he went to his friend Harold Hirsch, one of Coca-Cola’s lawyers, and asked him to try to get him access to Coca-Cola’s secret formula so that he could answer the questions he was asked. Hirsch went to Coca-Cola’s top executives on Geffen’s behalf, but they turned him down.
“When my grandfather got that answer,” David Geffen says, “he said to Hirsch, ‘Well if that’s the case, the only thing I can do is I will have to tell my colleagues that Coca-Cola is not kosher.’” Coca-Cola did not respond to Geffen for about a year, but in 1933 the execs sent Hirsch to tell the rabbi that he would get to see the secret formula, as long as he swore never to reveal it. After evaluating the formula, the rabbi found that the glycerine used was made from non-kosher meat, thus making Coke non-kosher. Geffen suggested that Coca-Cola use a vegetable-based glycerine instead. Coca-Cola did what Geffen said, and he wrote a ruling declaring that Coca- Cola was kosher.
Geffen took the secret of the Coca-Cola formula to his grave. He was a humble man and never sought praise for what he did.
“Not only did he maintain that secrecy in the 1930s with his children,” Dr. Geffen says, “but he maintained that secrecy with his 18 grandchildren and with all his colleagues.
No one ever knew. He received no remuneration for what he did. He did it because it was important to do. He did it because it was the right thing to do.”
Dr. Geffen will speak about his grandfather’s work with Coca-Cola, including how the response he wrote was almost stolen from him by another rabbi, as well as research others have done on Rabbi Geffen and the contribution he made regarding the chemical composition of items placed in kosher foods.
Dr. Geffen was asked to speak by the Israel Branch of The Jewish Historical Society of England. His lecture will take place on December 29 at 8 p.m. at Beit Avi Chai, 44 King George Avenue. The lecture is free, but a NIS 25 donation is requested.