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Of course my family used the Maxwell House Haggadah for our Passover seders when I was growing up. Why wouldn’t we use the haggadah that was available in the supermarket for free? Yes, it was printed on cheap paper that absorbed grease and wine and grape juice stains. Yes, the illustrations were terrible. Yes, it was written in a pretentious faux–King James Bible style that was incomprehensible even to full-grown adults, let alone children who were just struggling to master modern English. But it was—and I cannot emphasize this enough—free! Which is an important consideration if you’re trying to supply nine or ten or more people with liturgical guidance. Somehow a free booklet from the supermarket became our family tradition.
Which was exactly the way it was supposed to happen. Our family (and many families like ours) came to America for religious freedom and walked right into the thrall of advertising. Oh well, at least Joseph Jacobs, the mastermind of the Maxwell House Haggadah, was one of us. It was Jacobs, a New York adman, who turned Maxwell House coffee, a Nashville coffee roaster founded by Joel Owsley Cheek in 1873 (for those playing “Was He Jewish?” at home, that’s not a Jewish name) into a Jewish company, just like he did for Crisco and Jell-O and Bayer aspirin. None of those were founded by Jews, either.
Jacobs got his start in the ad world selling ad space for the Jewish Daily Forward, the nation’s largest Yiddish-language newspaper, before he opened up his own shop, the Joseph Jacobs Organization (which this year is celebrating 100 years in business). As the historian Jenna Weissman-Joselit notes in her book The Wonders Of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture (1880-1950), “Holy moments in America once consecrated to God or Jewish history, were transformed into occasions of domestic expression and consumerism.... [American Jews did] to the Jewish calendar what they had done to the dietary laws, infusing the sacred with the vernacular and the transcendent with the quotidien.” In other words, in America the holidays became an excuse for Jews to go shopping. Advertising was the liturgy that told them what to buy.
Jacobs’ particular genius, as Kerri P. Steinberg points out in her book Jewish Mad Men, was to fuse the traditional and modern in a way that appealed to both Old World immigrant Jews and their Americanized children. He was the one who suggested to Procter & Gamble that it produce a bilingual Crisco cookbook in Yiddish and English and distribute it to Jewish households for free; the idea was that mothers and daughters could cook together across the language barrier. It was also his idea to put the “K” (for kosher) and “OU” (for Orthodox Union) symbols on mainstream products to show that they were certified kosher—and also clean in the sense of “free of additives,” since, in the course of inspecting a factory for compliance with kosher law, a rabbi was bound to uncover rat droppings or industrial skullduggery.
Accordingly, the text of the Maxwell House ads that ran in the Forward in the early 1920s was in Yiddish (including the slogan “Good to the last drop”), but the pictures were of modern Americans, a man with a mustache and a woman with bobbed hair wearing a sleeveless flapper dress. Maxwell House was sophisticated and an affordable luxury, particularly, Steinberg observes, for holidays when a little luxury was in order.
Throughout the ’20s, Jacobs continued to seal the bond between Maxwell House and the Jews. He got Maxwell House to sponsor shows on the New York Yiddish-language radio station WEVD (named, interestingly, for the socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, though it quickly abandoned the struggle of the proletariat for the sake of entertainment). He persuaded Cheek that Passover, when observant Jews completely overhaul their kitchens to get rid of chametz, or anything related to leavened bread, was a great opportunity for Maxwell House.
At first some observant Eastern European Jews were skeptical. They thought that coffee beans were legumes, which were also forbidden during Passover. But Jacobs was resourceful: he found a respected rabbi from the Lower East Side to proclaim that coffee beans were actually berries, and therefore kosher for Passover. The way was cleared (just like the parting of the Red Sea). By 1932, Maxwell House had become such a part of the Jewish Passover ritual that it produced its own haggadah. And the Jews saw it, and it was good!
Actually, Steinberg writes, the truth is a bit more complicated. During those early Depression years, the A&P grocery chain was selling its proprietary coffee brand for 31 cents a pound and other national brands—including Maxwell House, now owned by General Foods—at a full eight cents higher. This was a problem. Fortunately, Jacobs had the newly created haggadah as bait: he persuaded a wholesaler to buy 2,000 cases of Maxwell House coffee in exchange for getting the haggadahs a full two weeks ahead of schedule. The wholesaler now had all this coffee (and all these haggadahs) to unload and dropped his price; the grocery stores, including A&P, followed. And with every can of coffee, a copy of the Maxwell House Haggadah went out into the world. It was a Passover miracle. Dayenu! (Translation: it would have been enough.)
“It was the original content marketing,” Elie Rosenfeld, the current CEO of Joseph Jacobs Advertising, told Marketplace.
Since then, more than 55 million Maxwell House Haggadahs have been published. (I know from personal experience that you no longer have to buy coffee to obtain one.) The original 1932 edition had a plain pea-green cover with “Maxwell House Coffee” and “Kosher For Passover” in large type and “Good to the last drop” slightly smaller. In the ’60s, it changed to its signature bright blue. There have been other cosmetic changes: updated illustrations, transliterations for those who can’t read Hebrew, and, in a much-ballyhooed revision in 2011, the elimination of all the antiquated “thees” and “thous” and sexist language that uses male pronouns for the leader of the seder, the asker of the Four Questions (traditionally the youngest person present), various archetypal characters, and, of course, God. In 2019, Maxwell House and Amazon collaborated on a very pink Marvelous Mrs. Maisel-themed edition. (I feel quite sure Joseph Jacobs blessed it from the advertising afterlife.)
Not everyone loves the Maxwell House Haggadah. It has been criticized for its lack of political consciousness and for encouraging a rote recitation of prayers and stories instead of serious wrestling with the meaning of the text, a criticism with which I am entirely sympathetic. I mean, are we not the original People of the Book? Is arguing not one of our most beloved traditions? Others object on aesthetic grounds. “A synonym for goyish isn’t Christian, it’s tacky,” Abigail Weil wrote in Alma. “And nothing embodies the goyishness of Passover more than the Maxwell House Haggadah.” The Maxwell House Haggadah, she writes, with its roots in the advertising world, is of a piece with the midcentury fascination with convenience foods.
Which—let’s face it—continues. This afternoon I visited the “Jewish” Mariano’s and Jewel just outside Chicago, the ones frequented by the Orthodox community. I was in search of a Maxwell House Haggadah. Instead I found aisles and aisles of different kinds of matzo, made from every possible alternative grain, plus canned gefilte fish and horseradish; kosher-for-Passover marshmallows, potato chips, and cookies; and mixes for both matzo balls and matzo ball soup. (And also a ten plagues bowling set, a plastic inflatable matzo, and cotton face masks that read “What happens at the seder stays at the seder.”) There was even a Maxwell House display, stocked with Keurig pods for our modern times. Both stores were packed and bustling. It felt like Christmas week in there. I even almost got run down by a man with a shopping cart.
I did not find a Maxwell House Haggadah (which maybe makes sense because it’s free, and we were all supposed to be buying things). Jewel had run out the day before and Mariano’s had never gotten any to begin with. But I felt it was there in spirit.
Incidentally, when Barack Obama decided to host the first White House seder in 2009, he chose the Maxwell House Haggadah. Which makes perfect sense. Why wouldn’t the president of the United States choose the most perfect expression of Passover, American Jewish style, that there is?