For more than a millenniumthe haggadah has been the centerpiece of the Jewish holiday of Passover. The book describes the ceremony of the Seder meal, when families recount the biblical story of God’s Exodus delivering the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
Today, thousands of different haggadahs exist, with prayers, rituals and readings suited to each type of Seder – from LGBTQ+-affirmation for climate conscious. But for decades, one of America’s most popular and influential haggadahs has been a simple version with an unlikely source: the Maxwell House Haggadah, dreamed up in 1932 by the coffee company and a Jewish publicist.
Its history reflects how the Jews modernized and adapted to their new country, while respecting traditions. But coffee has no ritual connection with Passover. So what explains the continued popularity of the Maxwell House Haggadah?
One explanation is advertising: a domain so pervasive and powerful in people’s lives that it becomes almost invisible. Like specialist in American Jewish visual culture and communicationI studied how marketing can influence the religious and cultural identities of Americans.
The story of the Maxwell House Haggadah begins with the meeting of two marketing brains. The first, Joseph Jacobs, grew up on the Lower East Side in New York at the turn of the 20th century, amid a wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe. He then set up his advertising company in 1919. The second was Joel Owsley Cheek of the Cheek-Neal Coffee Company, originally from the South. Cheek-Neal was then the parent company of Maxwell House coffee, with its famous slogan “good to the last drop.”
Jacobs’ quest to familiarize businesses with the purchasing power of the growing population of American Jews led him to discuss with Cheek in 1922 the possibility of placing advertisements for Maxwell House coffee in Jewish magazines. There was only one problem: American Jews of Eastern European descent believed that coffee beans, like other legumes, were forbidden for Passover, when certain foods should be avoidedso they drank tea during the holiday week.
Consulting a Lower East Side rabbi, who said coffee beans were technically like berries and therefore kosher for Passover, Jacobs earned a rabbinical seal of approval for Maxwell coffee in 1923.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when a major grocery chain reduced their own brand of coffee, Maxwell House turned to Jacobs’ business to help them stay competitive. The Maxwell House Haggadah was born when he suggested giving away a free book with every can of coffee purchased.
Beyond its appeal as a gift, however, the contents of the haggadah were to earn the trust of Jewish customers. The cover relied on a classic design of centered text in Hebrew, but also in English. Inside, pen-and-ink illustrations of Bible stories continued the sense of tradition. The pages of the haggadah turned from right to left, as is typical of Hebrew texts.
It worked. According to a market study commissioned by the Joseph Jacobs Organization to guide its marketing efforts, Maxwell House became the coffeehouse of choice for Jewish households around New York City.
Modernizing the Haggadah
The Maxwell House Haggadah remained largely the same through the 1940s and 1950s and quickly achieved Passover classic status. Still the 1965 release marks a definitive break with the past. As the culture of the 1960s introduced more minimalist graphic art, raging against the classicism of the past, haggadah images changed to reflect the times. And although the written text remained largely the same, the addition of English transliterations of blessings and prayers alluded to Americanizing the Jews loss of Hebrew reading skills.
Over the next 30 years, very little changed in the haggadah. But in 2000, it finally received a visual makeover, as seen in an advertisement that year. Stark graphics, popular since the mid-1960s, have been replaced by nostalgic photos depicting an intergenerational family at a Seder. This tender imagery invoked tradition at a time when many Americans had drifted away from their Jewish communitiescausing concern among Jewish leaders.
In 2009, the haggadah gained worldwide fame when President Barack Obama used it to direct his first Seder at the White House. Shortly after, he underwent a complete revision for the 21st century. The Maxwell House version was now less illustrated and included more written text, such as the haggadahs used by more religious Jews. By eliminating antiquated words like “you” and “yours,” as well as gender-specific pronouns for God, the new version seemed more relevant to a younger, older audience. secular Jewish population.
And in 2019, when “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the TV show about a mid-century Jewish housewife-turned-comedian, was at its peak, Maxwell House released a special. Mrs Maisel edition of her haggadah. A return to the golden age of the haggadah in the late 1950s, this connection to television represented another marketing effort to retain American Jews’ affection for Maxwell House coffee in a crowded market.
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In a sea of thousands of haggadahsMaxwell House became the de facto representative of American Jewish life. The history of its place within American households underscores the key role of marketing in forming an annual tradition.