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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!"


Posted by: silk_noir (silk_noir)
Posted at: April 7th, 2012 07:06 pm (UTC)

Thank you for posting this!

Posted by: Sylvia (sylvia_rachel)
Posted at: April 8th, 2012 03:01 pm (UTC)

I have been hearing about the Maxwell House haggadah for years -- we don't seem to have had this in Canada, I can't imagine why (Canadian Jews are certainly no less addicted to coffee than American ones). Or at least I've never seen one here. The iconic haggadah in my family is the facing-page one put out by Negev Publishing, in many many slightly-tweaked-but-so-similar-you-can't-immediately-tell-which-is-which editions over the years. It's traditional in content and somewhat haphazard in design, because in order to make the Hebrew and English fit on facing pages, they biggen and smallen the type apparently at random. The 1960s-ish one we had in my childhood had some unexpected transliterations, the most memorable of which is the (since updated) "Rabbi José the Galilean". Since all of us at the time spoke more Spanish than Hebrew, we had no idea it wasn't actually pronounced the way it looks, but we wondered what this Spanish dude was doing in the Galilee. (Turns out, he's actually called Yosé. Way less funny.) I grew up in Alberta, where Passover falls at a time of year when you can conveniently use the back porch as an extra freezer for all the seder food.

DH, DD and I use one called "The Family Haggadah II" (there's a I, but I've never actually seen it); we have 12 of them that we inherited from my aunt and uncle in CA. I like them because instead of all the stuff about all the days vs. days and nights, two hands with five fingers = ten plagues, etc., it has an English-language summary of the story from Abraham forward, which is not traditional but seems more relevant. Also, it has transliterations for a lot of the important bits, which is super helpful when your seder participants are your non-Jewish husband and your 9-year-old whose Hebrew reading is still a little shaky...

Posted by: Carbonel (carbonel)
Posted at: April 8th, 2012 11:01 pm (UTC)

Sounds like an alternate translation of the version I grew up with: Behold it is the springtime of the year / Over and past is winter's gloomy reign / The happy time of singing birds is near / And clad in bud and bloom are hill and plain.

That's from the Union Haggadah.

However, when Dave Romm wanted Seders in a hurry for Minicon, I pointed him at the Maxwell House Haggadah.

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