A Passover Meal to Agree On

An old maxim says that if you survey two Jews, you'll get three opinions. And American Judaism has produced a diverse, and sometimes contradicting, range of teachings. But there is one small, blue booklet nearly everyone seems to read - the Maxwell House Haggadah.

Introduced in 1923 by an advertiser hoping to sell coffee to the Jewish community, over 50 million copies have circulated.

maxwellWhen Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews attend synagogue services on Saturday mornings, they each select one of several distinct prayerbooks. The liturgy always shares a common core, but the ideological diversity of American Judaism has prompted adherents to craft multiple versions of the religion’s traditional texts. Some Jews feel uncomfortable attending services in congregations that make different choices than their own.

But there is one small, blue booklet that nearly everyone seems to agree on – the Maxwell House Haggadah, introduced in 1932 by an advertiser hoping to sell coffee to the Jewish community. Over 50 million copies have circulated since.

Obama uses it at the White House, inmates celebrate with it in prison, and if you’ve ever attended a Passover seder, you’ve probably flipped through its large-font pages searching for the next glass of wine.

If this holiday lingo is new to you, a quick explainer: the seder, a long evening of prayers, story-telling and unleavened eating, celebrates the Israelites’ biblical Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Each seder attendee uses a haggadah, a book of directions for what to sing, which rabbinic traditions to unpack, and when to drink a ritual four glasses of wine.

The seder has a detailed agenda and a long to-do list. No one remembers it all off the top of their head. That’s what the haggadah is for.

And back in 1932, and throughout the decades that followed, a script was exactly what American Jews needed, Rabbi Carole Balin tells¬†host Evan Kleiman on this week’s Good Food. Balin is a professor of history at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, where she studies, among other things, the Maxwell House Haggadah.

The Maxwell House Haggadah's new cover
The Maxwell House Haggadah’s new cover

Balin says that as generations of Jews immigrated to America, raised children, and assimilated, many found themselves longing for a traditional Passover celebration but feeling rusty in the Hebrew it entailed. The Maxwell House Haggadah’s crisp translations and clear instructions helped countless families connect to their heritage, at least for one intense night a year.

Today, seder hosts can find a wide range of haggadot (plural) in bookstores and online, from the philosophical tome compiled by Jonathan Safran Foer to food justice discussion guides. Many contemporary volumes, in their ethos and brevity, reflect the preferences of liberal Judaism.

Balin says the Maxwell House Haggadah has seen some small edits – its cover is no longer the classic blue, and its directions to sedergoers are now gender-neutral. But the text, used in homes across the Jewish spectrum, remains essentially unchanged. The seder that coffee built goes on, long into the night.

Learn more about the history of the Maxwell House Haggadah, including how Joseph Jacobs convinced American Jewry that coffee beans are kosher for Passover, in the audio above.