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Keeping People on the Same Page -- Literally!

March 25, 2010 By:
Richard Greenberg, Washington Jewish Week
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Jews are known as the "People of the Book," and that book, which has sustained them, guided them and kept them roughly on the same page throughout the generations, is, of course ... the Maxwell House Haggadah.

Produced as a sales promotion by Maxwell House for the past 70-plus years (at least 50 million have been printed), the coffee maker's slim, bare-bones Haggadah may be one of the most ubiquitous religious texts in American Jewry, largely because the price is right: It's free with a product purchase.

Even President Barack Obama used one at last year's White House seder.

In recent years, though, the Maxwell House Haggadah has been superseded by an avalanche of commentary-packed, lavishly illustrated and niche-targeted models. Still, the Maxwell House version remains a Jewish icon of sorts and often evokes poignant memories of seders past and other family milestones.

"Growing up, we used it," said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of the Conservative Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md. "You can't help but have a fond attachment to it. A number of years ago, we graduated from it; it was a difficult, traumatic moment for all, but we managed to survive."

Barry Holt and his family now use a Haggadah produced by the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis. But while Holt, 55, was growing up in northern New Jersey in what he calls a "pretty secular" home, the seder companion of choice bore the Maxwell House imprint.

"My impression was, what an incredible marketing campaign this was that helped make American Judaism more mainstream," said Holt, a member of Reform Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va. "It was unapologetically Jewish. Was the goal to make Jews more mainstream or to sell more coffee?"

There is apparently only one Maxwell House Haggadah remaining in the extended Holt family. It was published in the 1960s and belongs to Holt's mother, who recently tracked it down in her condominium in Connecticut. "She kept it because it has my dad's name in it," said Holt, whose father died 25 years ago.

The Maxwell House Haggadah, however, is more than simply a quaint Judaic heirloom. Some scholars say that it revolutionized the way that American Jews celebrated Passover by standardizing the format of the seder service.

Moreover, by branding a religious text with the name of a major corporate entity -- a marginally tacky proposition in retrospect -- Maxwell House publicly affirmed "the possibility of being Jewish in America," an exciting prospect in the 1930s, according to Jenna Weissman Joselit, author of The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950.

Jewish educator and Silver Spring resident Avi West recalled that this larger-than-life acknowledgment of Jewishness so thrilled his Bronx, N.Y.-born mother that she would travel to Macy's in Manhattan specifically to kvell over a window display of a seder in progress.

"And the Maxwell House Haggadah was the one that was always open in that scene," said West, director of the Shulamith Reich Elster Resource Center at the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning in Rockville, Md. "For her, it was, call it an identity validation."

Unlike many other aspects of American Jewish life in the 20th and 21st centuries, the Maxwell House Haggadah has remained essentially unchanged since it first appeared in the mid-1930s, except for some alterations in graphics. (In the 1960s, the English translation was modernized, and a Hebrew transliteration was added.)

For decades, the Maxwell House Haggadah was instantly recognizable by its dark-blue cover with simple white lettering, but that was replaced in the late 1990s by a four-color model.

"I always liked the blue cover," said Rabbi Joshua Maroof of Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville.

Maroof, who's fond of quoting the eminent "Rabbi Max House" during his seders, said that he always keeps a supply on hand for extra guests, a supplement to his permanent collection of Sephardic-themed Haggadot. "It's the easiest one for teaching and going over the basics and involving as many guests as possible," he explained.

"It's a simple-to-use family book that gets people through the seder," said Elie Rosenfeld, CEO of the Joseph Jacobs Advertising agency in New York. (Joseph Jacobs has had the Maxwell House account since roughly the time of Moses.)

Asked if any other aspects of the book's content have changed recently, Rosenfeld said with a laugh: "Yes, the Jews now go to Boca at the end."

A Matter of Money 
And because it is so affordable and accessible, the Maxwell House Haggadah is ideal for cash-strapped singles or young families who are just beginning to conduct their own seders, noted Maxwell House veteran Joan Hartman Moore, 65.

"They can't afford to buy 10 or more of the more ornate Haggadot," she said, "so this is a way they can have people over and be part of the tradition -- part of the unbroken line of American Jews who are making a seder. It means that no one can say, 'I can't do this because I don't have the means.' "

According to the Joseph Jacobs Web site, the Maxwell House Haggadah is the "longest-running sales promotion in advertising history" -- not to mention "the most widely used Haggadah in the world."

Maxwell House, now a subsidiary of Kraft Foods, printed more than 1 million copies this year alone, said Rosenfeld.

Eventually, they'll become splotched with seder-table mementos that spin an eloquent generational narrative.

"On the pages of my copies, I can see my family history," read a recent posting on the Jewish genealogical Web site Tracing the Tribe. "Each stain of wine, charoset, drops of saltwater or vinegar, marks a gathering of Jews retelling the ancient story."

Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, Moore was one of 10 first cousins who each year attended seders at their grandparents' cavernous home. And everybody at the table used a Maxwell House Haggadah.

"I remember, that was just part of the seder," said Moore. "My grandpa conducted it, and he read the whole thing in Hebrew. The wine stains and the charoset drippings on the pages ... it was all about us being together at a very special time."

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