Passover Goes Retro With Maxwell House Haggadah
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Passover Goes Retro With Maxwell House Haggadah

Amy Sara Clark writes about politics and education. A Columbia Journalism School graduate, she's worked at CBS News, The Journal News, The Jersey Journal, Mom365, JTA and Prospect Heights Patch. She comes to journalism from academia where she earned a master's degree in European History with a focus on Vichy France.

If Maxwell House makes you think of matzah and Manischewitz rather than a cup of Joe, you’re not alone. And it’s with this demographic in mind that the 92nd Street Y is launching its “Manischewitz, Maxwell House and Memories” seder this year.

“We were appealing for a sort of nostalgia feel. We wanted people to get a retro vibe,” said Rabbi Dan Ain, director of tradition and innovation at the 92nd Street Y, who will be leading the second-night seder at The Invisible Dog Center in Brooklyn’s trendy Boerum Hill.

Harkening back to the Jewish culture of our grandparents is a growing trend for the 20- and 30-something crowd, with artisanal gefilte fish and house-made chopped liver popping up in gourmet food shops, Yiddish classes on the rise and klezmer a nearly ubiquitous presence in some circles. The Idelsohn Society, in a bid to create that “retro vibe,” reissued mid-20th century Jewish music of other types, such as Irving Fields’ “Bagels and Bongos” and “Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set: The Tikva Records Story, 1950-1973” showcasing the record label’s “Jewish Motown” sound.

But it’s not just nostalgia that led Rabbi Ain to gravitate to the Maxwell House Haggadah for the seder; it’s also what’s inside the book’s iconic blue-and-white covers.

“I think one of the reasons that the Maxwell House Haggadah has been around for about 90 years now is not only because of the ad campaign but also because it is pretty inclusive and pretty well laid out in terms of what should be in a traditional Passover seder,” he said.

Maxwell House began giving out the Haggadah free with a can of coffee in 1923, just four years after the brand was launched. They did it to clear up the commonly held belief that coffee beans were not kosher for Passover. (Beans is a misnomer, they’re actually the coffee plant’s seeds.) The advertising campaign has continued ever since, in most supermarkets that cater to Jews — supermarkets “where you might find a large kosher-for-Passover section," said Elie Rosenfeld, owner of Joseph Jacobs Advertising, which has run the promotion since the year it started.

“It gets recognition, it’s brand building, and at this point it’s a cherished part of the tradition and the heritage of the brand,” he said. “And it’s something that still resonates with the consumers.”

The company now distributes about a million Haggadahs a year — well over 60 million since the campaign started. It’s used in military seder kits for troops overseas, and President Obama used it for a private White House seder, Rosenfeld said.

Those who haven’t seen it since their childhood might be surprised — Maxwell House modernized the text in 2011, taking out the anachronistic wording and making it gender neutral, according to Rosenfeld.

But it’s still a traditional Haggadah, which is just what Rabbi Ain was after for the April 4 event.

“I think often there’s a tendency to try to shoot for relevance,” he said, “and in an effort of shooting for relevance we end up pandering. And I think that that’s a real problem.”

But, he said, “When you can present the tradition as the tradition. When you can read the Torah as the Torah was written or do the Haggadah, even including the parts of it that have been controversial over the years, and say, ‘OK, this is the tradition. This is where we come from, how do we make sense of this?’ people will respond. And they have been responding.”

editor@jewishweek.org

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