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.
Until the coffee company moved into publishing, Haggadahs were fluid in text and format. “Local custom ruled liturgy,” says Rabbi Burton L. Visotsky, a Jewish Theological Seminary professor. “Maxwell House did more to codify Jewish liturgy than any force in history.”
The new Haggadah was widely accepted, in part due to the quality of its Hebrew, says Rabbi Robert Harris, an associate professor at the Seminary. The Hebrew is based on the work of Wolf Heidenheim, famous Hebrew liturgical scholar and author of an acclaimed 1800 Hebrew-German prayerbook. The Haggadah’s English translation was also a draw because second and third-generation American Jews were losing their ability to read Hebrew, says Rabbi Carole Balin, Jewish history professor at Hebrew Union College. The Haggadah’s format, with parallel columns of Hebrew and English, made it easy to follow. Balin points out another reason for its longevity: It’s innocuous without “controversial commentaries,” she says.
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.
Kraft, the most recent in a line of conglomerates to own Maxwell House, continues to publish the Haggadah. Little, other than the graphics, has changed over the decades. In the 1960s, the English translation was modernized and a Hebrew transliteration added. In the 1990s, the words “Next Year in Jerusalem” were moved from before the fourth cup of wine to the end of the Haggadah.
Today more than 4,000 different Haggadahs are in print and many more are self-published. Still, one million copies of the Maxwell House version were printed in 2009 for distribution to chains such as Shop Rite in New York, Albertsons on the west coast and Publix in south Florida, according to Elie Rosenfeld, chief operating officer of Joseph Jacobs. Approximately 50 million copies have been printed over the past 75 years, he adds. Unfortunately, the agency doesn’t have an archive of previous editions; Rosenfeld himself buys old copies on eBay.
“It seems a bit odd today that a religious text bears the name of a commercial concern,” says Jenna Weissman Joselit, author of The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950, but back in the ’30s, it was exciting that a “big corporate entity, not one owned by a Jewish family, literally put its name to a Haggadah.” It affirmed the “possibility of being Jewish in America.”