The Coca-Cola rabbi

Yedidya holds memorial symposium for Rabbi Tuvia Geffen, an Orthodox figure who found creative solutions to maintaining ties with the secular world.

kosher coke 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
kosher coke 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Coca-Cola is a reigning symbol of America around the world, and its patented formula a better-kept secret than many countries’ nuclear programs. Yet for years, one man, almost the only person outside of Coca-Cola’s inner corporate circle, was privy to this secret formula – Rabbi Tuvia (Tobias) Geffen, the man who made Coca-Cola kosher.
On Sunday, February 21, family, students and friends will gather at 7 p.m. at Jerusalem’s Yedidiya Synagogue for a memorial symposium marking the 40th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Geffen, who for 60 years was considered the dean of the Southern Orthodox rabbinate in the US. Participating in the memorial will be American Jewish historians Prof. Jonathan Sarna and Prof. Kimmy Caplan.
Geffen was born in Kovno, Lithuania, on August 1, 1870. He studied in yeshivot in Kovno and Grodno and was ordained by Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Rabinowitz of Kovno and Rabbi Moshe Danishevsky of Slobodka. In 1898 he married Sara Hene Rabinowitz. The couple was married for 63 years and had eight children.
In 1903, after the Kishniev pogrom, Geffen and family decided to emigrate to New York. “This was at a time when many of the leading Orthodox rabbis were calling America ‘a treife land,’ yet he was not afraid to go there,” explains Jerusalemite David Geffen, one of the rabbi’s 18 grandchildren and the oldest of the six grandchildren who made aliya.
In 1907, Rabbi Geffen accepted a pulpit position in Canton, Ohio. But his wife found the place too cold. So in 1910, with his wife and five children, Geffen went south to Atlanta to become the rabbi of Shearith Israel, a position he held until his death on February 10, 1970.
“When he arrived in the South, he realized that there were only four other Orthodox rabbis serving the region,” recalls Ruth Ziff Adler, another one of the rabbi’s grandchildren, who today lives in the Jewish Quarter in the Old City.
Geffen set about establishing kashrut standards and training shohetim (ritual slaughters) and kosher butchers. He ran a Jewish school in his home until a community school was set up in 1913. After that, he continued to provide tutorials for his children and others, including his four daughters.
“We marvel about him,” says David Geffen. “Where did he get the deep commitment to do all he did as an Orthodox rabbi in maintaining Halacha yet also interacting with the secular world? He was not only concerned about quality Jewish education for his children but also quality general education. His children studied in the best general schools.”
An example of this commitment was tested in 1919. Geffen’s oldest son wanted to attend Emory University in Atlanta, a Methodist university.  At that time, the school required students to attend classes on Saturdays and chapel on Sundays.
“Rabbi Geffen went to see the university’s head,” his grandson relates. “He explained that his son and another Jewish boy had been accepted but that there was a problem with Saturday classes and Sunday chapel. A compromise was worked out whereby the two would attend Saturday classes but would not be required to write or take exams. They were also exempted from Sunday chapel. But they had to walk four miles to Emory and four miles back every Saturday. Based on this compromise, six of my grandfather’s children attended Emory, although later on a Jewish family was found living closer to the campus, where they could spend Shabbat.”
GEFFEN’S QUEST for an excellent general education for his children also led to his Coca-Cola connection. In the early 1930s, the rabbi’s daughter Helen was studying food chemistry at the University of Georgia. As part of a class project, she decided to analyze the contents of Coca-Cola and found that the drink contained a glycerin derived from animal fat. At that time, some local rabbis had given kosher certification to Coca-Cola – either because they were unaware of the animal glycerin the beverage contained or based on the 1/60th ruling, whereby if the non-kosher item is less than 1/60th of the total ingredients, it is considered nullified.
“When the rabbi heard from Helen about this glycerin, he was very upset,” relates Adler, Helen’s daughter.  “He realized there was a problem.”
Geffen noted that the 1/60th rule applied only if the non-kosher substance was added accidentally. Since the glycerin in Coca-Cola was added intentionally, the entire mixture became forbidden.
The rabbi contacted Harold Hirsch, a prominent member of the Atlanta Jewish community and head of Coca-Cola’s legal affairs, and told him he would have to go public with the discovery that Coca-Cola was not kosher. Hirsch went to see Asa Candler, founder and owner of Coca-Cola. Long before the words “globalization” and “multinational” were coined, Candler envisioned Coca-Cola being sold and enjoyed around the world. When he heard there was a group of people – Jews – who would not be able to drink his soft drink, he purportedly exploded: “What! There are people who cannot drink Coca-Cola? I want everyone to be able to drink Coca-Cola. Do something about this.”
As a result, Geffen met with Coca-Cola executives, who shared their secret formula with him. The company agreed to accept substitutes for the animal glycerin and for a corn-based derivative also in the formula, making the Coca Cola formula not only kosher but also kosher for Pessah. Once these changes were made, the rabbi issued a hechsher for Coca-Cola.
In addition to his success with Coca-Cola, Geffen was active on behalf of Jewish prisoners and even went to see the governor of Georgia to obtain a pardon for a Jewish prisoner serving on a chain gang who had been wrongly convicted. He worked on behalf of agunot – women whose husbands went missing and were left in marital limbo – often succeeding in locating the husbands and obtaining a divorce.
Between 1924 and 1961, Rabbi Geffen published seven books in Hebrew,Yiddish and English. He also wrote sermons, poetry, pilpulim(disputations) and teshuvot (responses) as well as scholarly articles.
Throughout his life, the rabbi could always count on his wife. “Ourgrandmother was a very unusual woman,” says David Geffen. “Her supportgave our grandfather more opportunity to study, meet people and write.We see this memorial service as being for her as well. The two of themwere a real team. They imbued all their children and grandchildren withpride in Yiddishkeit.”
“All of us remained Jewish,” Adler adds. “There was no intermarriage.Six of us made aliya. Our Zionism was in our genes, and it came fromour grandparents.”