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The Maxwell House Haggadah

April 7th, 2012 (01:57 pm)

The beginning of Passover is celebrated with a ritual meal, called the Seder; the prayer book that tells you what you say and when is called the Haggadah. One of the most common (even iconic) Haggadahs out there is the Maxwell House Haggadah -- as in the coffee. I got curious years ago just how it came to be that the definitive Seder was put together by a coffee company, and found the answer in Joan Nathan's Jewish Cooking in America. It was marketing; they realized that all their Jewish customers would quit drinking coffee during Passover, because coffee comes from "beans" and legumes are considered unacceptable during Passover by Jews of Eastern European descent and OMG LOST SALES. Coffee beans aren't legumes. Maxwell House hired an Orthodox Rabbi to certify their coffee as kosher for Passover, and put out a Haggadah, starting in the 1930s, to encourage their Jewish customers to enjoy their coffee throughout the Passover observance.

There are about a million different versions of the Haggadah. Off the top of my head -- my parents own (or used to own) one copy of "The Freedom Seder," in which at one point you read a condemnation of Dow Chemical. (It's not the one we used; we used one called A Seder Service for a Family Growing Up, that was oriented toward young children. I believe this is the Haggadah that included the iconic-in-my-household line, "Now is the springtime of the year, when the earth breaks free from the bonds of winter, when baby birds burst from the shell, when leaves break forth from the bud, and new life is everywhere." It was traditional in my household to pause at that point, look outside at the falling snow / sleet / other exciting weather, and mutter resentfully about springtime in Wisconsin before continuing.) There's a Twelve-Stepper Haggadah. There are multiple Feminist Haggadahs. There's the Fifteen-Minute Haggadah and the hilarious semi-satirical Two-Minute Haggadah (and the even funnier, if not exactly suitable for recitation as a family, Facebook Haggadah.) However, the Maxwell House version is sufficiently iconic that the Obamas use it for the Seder they host at the White House. (Interestingly, this tradition got started when he was on the campaign trail and some of his campaign volunteers invited him to their on-the-road Seder, for which they used Maxwell House Haggadahs because they were readily available. Now it's TRADITION. So.)


I majored in Religion in college, and the topic I found really interesting -- what I would have studied in graduate school, if I'd been crazy enough to go -- is the interaction between immigrant faiths, and the American experience. What does it mean to be Jewish in American, and what does it mean, if you're American and non-Jewish, to have Jews as neighbors and as part of your community? Naturally, part of what it means is that they are customers. How do you sell things to Jewish immigrants, in 1932? You make your product kosher. You hire a Rabbi to endorse it. You print up little booklets that say, "hey! here are all your prayers in convenient booklet form, DRINK OUR COFFEE!"

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