Tradition of Passover
Maxwell House’s Haggadah has held a special place at American Seder tables for nearly eight decades
From the White House to the Schein house, Passover is good to the last drop thanks to the Maxwell House Haggadah – lovingly passed down through generations, red wine splotches and gravy smears marking nearly 80 years of service at American Seder tables.
The coffee company’s version of the text used at the Jewish holiday meal has been offered free at supermarkets with a Maxwell House purchase since the early 1930s. More than 50 million copies are in print.
They even turned up when President Obama hosted his first Seder in the family dining room of the White House two years ago.
The company is issuing a new edition this year in time for the start of Passover, which begins Monday night.
“I feel like I’m passing on a piece of my childhood. They’re familiar and comfortable,” said Lisa Zwick, 44, of Laguna Hills, Calif.
Her family, starting with her parents, has used the Maxwell House books for 37 years to tell the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt.
For that, Maxwell House owes a debt to Joseph Jacobs Advertising and the Orthodox rabbi it hired back in 1923. The rabbi confirmed that the coffee bean is not a legume, but a berry – and therefore allowed under the dietary rules observed by some Jews during the eight-day celebration.
The Haggadah giveaway began about a decade after the rabbi decreed that coffee was kosher for Passover as a way to clear up lingering consumer confusion and end the dip in coffee sales that had been observed each year, said Elie Rosenfeld, who works on the Haggadah account at Joseph Jacobs.
The books have been distributed nearly continuously ever since. The company took two years off when paper was scarce during World War II.
A Haggadah includes special instructions, prayers, hymns and commentary unique to Passover. The manuals are given out to family and friends at the Seder table so all can participate in the retelling of Moses’ deliverance of the Jews from slavery more than 3,000 years ago.
The term Passover refers to the Jewish homes that were “passed over” by God’s angel of death, sent to snatch the Egyptians’ firstborn as punishment for the pharaoh’s refusal to free the slaves.
Susan Schein’s 30 copies of the Maxwell House Haggadah hold precious memories of her late dad, Philadelphia shoe salesman Ray Kaplan.
His contribution to the Seder meal was – you guessed it – Maxwell House coffee, still a strong seller today but king to many coffee-drinkers back in the pre-Starbucks ’60s when he was collecting the guides.
“Every year he would bring another one or two,” said Schein, who lives near Miami, as she hauled out her dad’s books once again in preparation for this year’s Seder, with more than 20 guests expected.
“He was such a nice man. Every time I put them out, I think of him.”
This year, 6-month-old Hazel Ray – Schein’s granddaughter, named for her father – will be at the Seder table.
David Brimm was only 15 when his father died and he began leading his family’s Seder using copies of the Maxwell House Haggadah his parents collected through the 1960s and ’70s.
Brimm dismisses critics who complain the texts are fuddy-duddy or promote corporate involvement where none should exist.
“I’m fairly certain Moses wasn’t a Maxwell House guy,” joked the Chicago-area resident.
“There’s a certain comfort at the table when we open the ‘sacred’ Maxwell House Haggadahs. We’ve augmented the service by singing Passover songs based on Broadway melodies.”
By some counts, more than 3,000 different types of Haggadahs exist today, offering commentary and activities to fill just about any niche: feminist, vegetarian, family fun, eco-conscious, socialist, even one co-edited by a pastor mixing a Christian perspective with the Jewish.
Another promises a 30-minute Seder, as opposed to the usual hunger-inducing two- to four-hour service.
Maxwell House aficionados stick by their tradition.
“We’ve tried others, but year after year we find our table set for 25 to 30 folks in our home and every place is set with a Maxwell House Haggadah. It makes our Passover Seder good to the last drop,” joked Dana Marlowe of Silver Spring, Md., who built on her mother’s stash of the books over 12 years of hosting her own Seders.
Cracking wise about the famous Maxwell House catchphrase is a popular pastime among fans of the company’s Haggadah. The slogan from the company’s coffee commercials was used on the book’s cover in the early years.
Some families have laminated the books to preserve them or photocopied them to accommodate more guests.
Marlowe, who runs a company that makes technology accessible to people with disabilities, had the text made into Braille, converted to larger print and translated into Spanish for guests.
“When I have friends who are deaf attend, I’ve interpreted the entire Maxwell House Haggadah into American Sign Language,” she said.
Rosenfeld, an Orthodox Jew, said the giveaway makes the books easy to acquire. Also, they’re not heavy on commentary, which is a draw for “high holiday Jews” who aren’t religious most of the year but do mark major observances.
The books have been around so long, Rosenfeld said, they’re now “part of the American Jewish experience. One doesn’t need to be well-schooled in Judaism to feel comfortable using this book.”
Obama was introduced to the guides by young aides during an impromptu Seder they held in 2008 while on a campaign stop in Pennsylvania.
The books were used in 2009 at the White House and again last year. This year? No word, but tradition is likely to prevail in the big house like smaller ones everywhere.
The 2011 edition (the last tweaking was in 1998) modernizes the English translation of the text for the first time and includes images of past covers.
Prior to 1998, the interior hadn’t been touched since the early ’60s. The covers have changed a few times between the ’70s and ’90s, Rosenfeld said.
Ron Korn in Scottsdale, Ariz., said the Maxwell House books have logged 45 years of use in his family. He, too, inherited them when his parents died. The books have been circulating in other families for two generations.
“They represent the archetypical American Jewish experience. Here you have a major U.S. corporation publishing a Jewish book of prayer that reflects multi-denominational Jewish values,” he said. “It speaks loudly of the American dream.”
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