10 March 2009

Blast from the past: Maxwell House Haggadah

How many of you grew up with the Maxwell House Haggadah for Passover? I know I did.

My almost-antique copies - some inherited from my grandmother - have lived in New York, Florida, California, Nevada and even in Teheran, Iran.

My copies rank right up there with our lifecycle kipah collection, which can be pulled out to use for your own seders.

On the pages of my copies I can see my family history. Each stain of wine, charoset, drops of salt water or vinegar, marks a gathering of Jews retelling the ancient story.

This month's Moment Magazine has a story on this good-to-the-last-drop publication.

In 1923, when Maxwell House Coffee signed on with the Joseph Jacobs Advertising agency in New York, it was already a legend. Theodore Roosevelt supposedly drank a cup in 1907 at the Nashville hotel for which it was named, proclaiming it “good to the last drop.”

Fortune smiled even more on the brand when Jacobs conceived a plan to entice American Jews to serve the coffee at their Seders. First, he lined up a prominent rabbi to assure Jews that coffee beans were not forbidden legumes but fruit. Then he convinced his client to underwrite America’s first mass-marketed Haggadah.

When it appeared in 1934, free with the purchase of a can of coffee, the Maxwell House Haggadah swiftly revolutionized how American Jews celebrated Passover.
Although we had other haggadot in my parents' and grandparents' home, they were single copies and not useful for reading around the table as each was different. The little booklets were made for large groups - everyone had a copy of the same one and would be on the same page at the same time.

In the story, Jewish Theological Seminary professor Rabbi Burton L. Visotsky says the coffee company "did more to codify Jewish liturgy than any force in history.”

My own copies are from different years. The older ones seem to have more Hebrew, the newer ones have more transliteration, added in the 1960s. But experts quoted in the story say the new seder guide was accepted because of the quality of its Hebrew, which was based on the work of Wolf Heidenheim, a famous Hebrew liturgical scholar and author of an acclaimed 1800 Hebrew-German prayerbook.

The English translation was necessary and welcomed because the children and grandchildren of the immigrant generation were losing their Hebrew. In my maternal grandparents' home, we used more English and my grandfather preferred short and fast seders. It was very different in my paternal grandparents' home, where my Riga-born grandfather conducted extremely long seders read very slowly and completely only in Hebrew. We were always asleep before dinner was served.

American consumers also liked the Maxwell House Haggadah because it was readily available at groceries, lightweight and small enough for a child to hold and simple to store. But its popularity was not exclusive to the American market: Copies made their way to secular Israeli kibbutzim and far-flung military bases and were smuggled during the 1970s to Soviet refuseniks, who cherished them, sometimes as their only Jewish possession.
Maxwell House, now owned by Kraft, still publishes the guide with only some updating of graphics. In the 1990s, the words “Next Year in Jerusalem” were moved from before the fourth cup of wine to the end of the Haggadah.

Over 75 years, some 50 million copies have been printed. In 2009, 1 million copies were distributed to supermarket chains, such as Shop Rite, Albertsons and Publix. I seem to remember a similar distribution in Los Angeles one year It was mentioned in an ad and, by the time we got there, every copy was gone!

Although there are thousands of various Haggadadot in print - and many families also make their own, as do various synagogues and other Jewish institutions - this modest little booklet holds its own among the blue-velvet-covered boxed works of art, which we also own.

Approximately 50 million copies have been printed over the past 75 years. The advertising agency that started it all doesn't even have an archive - they buy old ones on eBay!

Now, who remembers the really excellent little Passover cookbook (more like a booklet), on brownish-orange paper (I guess it was considered "peanut color") that Planter's Peanut Oil used to publish? I had a copy of its simple yet delicious recipes, and it too lived with us in all of our various locations.


  1. You sure do have a knack for bringing pleasant memories back.

    I just scoured my apartment for my Maxwell House Haggadah but couldn't find it. I was sure I still had one!

  2. Hi, Joy,
    Always happy to hear from happy readers! I keep all my Maxwell House Haggadahs in my big kipah bag. They are small enough to fit on the side, and that's when we need all those kipahs! My husband went to a few family bnai mitzvah in Los Angeles and came back with some new ones. My favorite was the tourquoise suede - very chic. I may have to put electronic tags on them so guests don't put them in their pockets and walk away with them!