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To the Last Detail

More than 50 million copies of the Maxwell House Haggadah have been distributed since 1932, but a different, lower-profile version of the Passover prayerbook is the quintessential Jewish-American text

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A military Seder, circa 1943. (American Jewish Historical Society via Flickr)

If American Jews have made Passover their Easter and Thanksgiving rolled into one, it’s in no small part thanks to a Mad Man named Joseph Jacobs. A onetime advertising manager for the Yiddish Forward, Jacobs set up an agency in 1919 that specialized in marketing to the large and rapidly assimilating Jewish population. One of his earliest clients was Maxwell House coffee. To allay concerns that coffee might be a grain and therefore forbidden to drink on Passover, Jacobs got a rabbi to certify it as kosher for Passover in 1923, but it took another decade before he had a better idea: sponsorship.

The first Maxwell House Haggadah was published in 1932 and was free with purchase of a can of Maxwell House. It wasn’t the first instance of marketeering finding a place at the Seder table—the State Bank of New York had done earlier haggadah giveaways—but it turned out to be the most successful by far. More than 50 million copies of the Maxwell House Haggadah have been distributed over the years, a kind of covenant between the coffee maker and those seeking to preserve “a Jewish national institution,” as the 1939 edition described the holiday ritual. It was famously used in the first-ever White House Seder last year, and it remains significant enough that its adoption this year of an updated English translation warranted coverage by the New York Times.

But here’s the odd thing about the Maxwell House Haggadah: Despite being a thoroughly American artifact, it doesn’t read as a particularly American Jewish text. Its early incarnations have the overtones of a David Attenborough script: “Almost everyone is familiar with the Biblical story of Passover,” began the 1939 introduction. “Yet the Jewish people love to recall this tale year after year.” The English doggedly follows the Hebrew, leaching any poetry from the Seder passage linking matzoh to the sought-for relief from exile in a way that renders it literally rather than conceptually Zionist. “At present we celebrate it here, but next year we hope to celebrate it in the land of Israel,” it says. “This year we are servants here, but next year we hope to be free men in the land of Israel.” So much for the goldene medina.

The English of the Maxwell House Haggadah stands in sharp contrast to the other major mass-market American haggadah of the 20th century: the booklet distributed to more than 350,000 Jews serving in the United States military during World War II. (Proper title: Haggadah of Passover for Members of the Armed Forces of the United States.) Consider this alternate rendering of the same Hebrew lines describing the Jews’ desire for redemption: “May Israel wandering yet this year reach Israel’s land this coming year, and Zion’s mount and shrine ascend. May those who freedom lacked this year their shackles break this coming year; may freedom on the world descend.” The authors, David and Tamar de Sola Pool, were unhesitant about drawing an explicit link between the safe haven of mid-century America and the hoped-for Promised Land of the Seder. “This book brought to them a heightened dedication to the ideal of liberty doubly theirs as Americans and as Jews,” the de Sola Pools wrote in 1947, in a preface to a postwar edition.

It may have been significant that both the de Sola Pools had a newcomers’ appreciation for the United States. David de Sola Pool was a Briton ordained as a rabbi in Berlin, while his wife Tamar was born in Jerusalem and arrived in New Jersey as a teenager. David de Sola Pool came to the United States in 1906 to take the pulpit at Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan, better known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, the first Jewish congregation established in the colonies. At the height of World War I, he was known as a fervent Zionist, and he publicly argued that the colonization of Palestine was “the only way to restore Hebrew ideals,” according to a report in the Times—in opposition to those who insisted, according to the same item, that “the keeping alive of Hebraic ideals at home was of far greater importance than the Zionist movement.”

The rise of Hitler shifted de Sola Pool’s focus. Speaking at Fort Dix, N.J., just before Passover in 1941, he told a thousand Jewish soldiers that fighting Hitler was their chief responsibility as Jews. “The rape of Europe by armed violence has made it clear that the world war now being waged will determine whether human liberty is to live or die,” de Sola Pool declared. “Our American army is being expanded to strengthen the defenders of liberty, and the highest concept which you can hold of your function is that of being trained to preserve liberty against the forces of tyranny.”

De Sola Pool wasn’t the only rabbi asserting a link between the Passover story and the special burden on American Jews to save the entire free world. “Through twenty centuries of history the Jew refused to surrender his faith in the ultimate triumph of liberty,” Joseph Lookstein, the rabbi at New York’s Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, told his congregants on the Upper East Side in 1941. “And today, the greatest victim of the barbarism that seems to have engulfed the world, the Jew still stands unbowed, convinced that no temporary retreat by the forces of democracy can check the march of civilization toward its ultimate destiny of equality, liberty and brotherhood.”

When the United States entered the war in December 1941, de Sola Pool was chairman of the religious activities committee of the Jewish Welfare Board, which had been established during World War I to support Jewish chaplains and which commissioned the new wartime haggadah. In 1943 the USO distributed the first printing—65,000 copies—which carried a stern reminder about “generation after generation of Jews who have stood up to cruel taskmasters.” In the de Sola Pools’ English translation, Israel is referred to not as the terroir of the Maxwell House Haggadah but as a body standing in for all humanity, “Israel wandering” toward a promised ascent to a Zion of the spirit. It evokes a striking moment in the Jewish story: a frozen instant when “Israel,” not yet a physical entity, was at serious risk of being destroyed as a notional one in Europe.

Today, that makes reading the wartime haggadah, still available from Bloch Publishing, something of a relief. The literalist language of the Maxwell House Haggadah sets up an almost guilty dynamic. By the time “Next year may we be in Jerusalem!” rolls around—page 47, if you’re wondering—it’s almost impossible, for people reading outside Israel, to avoid thinking about vacation time and air miles. (Coach fares for this year’s holiday, from John F. Kennedy International Airport, are running about $1,200.) But for people who prefer to be in Bethesda, and for Jews in the Diaspora who harbor conflicting feelings about the State of Israel—whether over its domestic politics of conversion or the looming prospect of another war in Gaza—the de Sola Pool haggadah offers a short-circuit around contemporary history. It ends, not with Chad Gadya, but with a trio of songs: Hatikvah, the Star-Spangled Banner, and My Country ‘Tis of Thee, under its alternate title, America.

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Yaakov Hillel says:

I very much respect the man who is reponsible for the distribution of 50 million Haggadot. He started it when most the Jews of the diaspora had no home land. Today there is no more diaspora, any Jew who wants to live in Israel is free to do so. Israel today is the largest center of Jews and Judaism, it has taken the title away from America who many of its Jews are not willing to admit their Judaism. Israel today has many enemies so does the United States. The United States the largest democracy in the world and one time world leader has been taken in by a Moslem who has turned himself into President of the land of the free. He today stands as a detriment to Israel promising those people who are Israel worst enemies pieces of this tiny Jewish homeland. It is important that Americans understand that Israel does not want war with the Arabs. If Israel has no choice in the matter it will do everything in its power to continue its existence even at the price of annihalating cities of other enemy countries. The Jews of israel are not the Jews of Europe before the 1940’s. If we cannot prevail over the nobel peace prizes we can prevail over a billion hostile muslims. Europe today is turning Muslim and by the middle of the 21st century If the European christians do not do something drastic the whole European continent will be ruled by Sha’aria law and all the women will be wearing chaddors. People in the Americas will be next on the list. Will America prevail as a democracy? If America will continue to make Muslim Presidents does it have a chance? Will Israel be the last bastion of Democracy? The prophesies of thwe bible are coming true, as God has promised, the Jews have returned to Israel from the four corners of the world, and will prevail between the Jordan River to the Meditaranaen Sea, without another Palestinian state to destroy it from with in. This is inspite of the pressures of BARACK Obama the Muslim.

Neala says:

You’ve got to be kidding. No one can seriously believe that the President of the United States is anything other than USA-born (that would be the state of Hawaii), and a nonMuslim. What does it take to get some people to recognize an inconvenient truth. You may hate Obama, but he’s an American and he’s a Christian.

Gena Shapiro says:

Thanks, Neala – you said exactly was was on mind. Is anyone else as sick to death as I am about Tablet readers who continue to post that President Obama is a Muslim? It’s been proven over and over that he’s not. Enough already!

Ms. Hoffman – very nice article.

Hag Sameach to all for the upcoming Pesach holiday!

Pete says:

Obama may be an American, but he is not a Christian. I know the left, oddly, feels the need to emphasize the “birther” craziness by pushing the idea that Obama is not only an American, but a religious American. There is nothing in his past history to suggest that religion was used by him for anything other than political expediency. He may not be a Muslim, but he is no friend of Israel. It’s time for my fellow American Jews to realize that the values of the left will lead (and are already leading) to anti-Israel fervor and anti-Semitism of the worst kind. It is not the right that consistently supports the BDS movement and anything else that creates an image of Israel as the bad guy. The blind support of Obama is indefensible and unconscionable in a climate in which our enemies are increasingly hostile and America’s clear and unwavering support to Israel more crucial than ever.

Jack Kaufman says:

Judaism can embrace or exclude. The many Haggadot, brought down through time or created for our time, have meanings that we keep redefining. It’s discouraging to see some of the above more invested in bickering than in celebrating the festival of freedom

This *must* be the same David De Sola Pool who wrote this fascinating 1914 article: “The Immigration of Levantine Jews into the United States”

He must have been a very busy guy. Great to learn a bit more about him!

Dorothy Wachsstock says:

I do not care if Pres. Obama is a Muslim or a Christian. I do not even care at this point if he was born in Hawaii as he is already our Pres.

One thing we do know…he lies and dislikes this country and he hates Jews and Israel. Even Mayor Ed Koch knows that.

He is quiet now since Sen. Reid said Jews are not donating to the DNC. If he does win a second term, we will all suffer. Democrats, Republicans Jews and Christians. All of us, as he continues to lie and destroy this country.

You think Cuba is bad..just wait and see what happen if Obama wins a second term.

selenesmom says:

How disheartening it is, as someone of recently discovered American Jewish heritage, to come over here and find a bunch of warmed-over hoo-hah about Barack Obama, rather than any sort of even halfway-thought-out discussion of what I thought was the topic. If anyone was wondering why people tend to assimilate, it has a lot to do with not being interested in the kind of dumb yelling going on in this thread. Thank you for listening.

Hi selenesmom,

I agree that this thread is incredibly disheartening, but don’t take it as in any way representative of American Jewish identity, political or otherwise.

As pretty much everyone knows, Jews are one of the most politically liberal ethnic groups. About 78% of us voted for Obama in the last election, a rate 25% higher than the national vote. Narrow partisan preferences aside, Jews are also well-known for espousing a set of moral and ethical ideals that are strongly at odds with the crankery you see on display here.

It’s pretty clear that the comments section of Table has been taken over by a minority of extreme voices. Unless Tablet wants to start moderating comments, I don’t see the situation getting much better anytime soon, so probably best to enjoy the articles for what they are and skip the peanut gallery.

Hag Sameach, everyone!

Are all of these articles written yourself or did you hire a writer?

I really do love appointing your firm. Your online layout may be very easy about the eye. You use a great spot for their shop. I extremely enjoyed navigating plus ordering out of your site. It is quite, very user friendly and easy to use. Great job over a fabulous web site.

When I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new surveys are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I receive four emails with similar comment. Could there be by any means you possibly can eliminate me from that service? Thanks!


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To the Last Detail

More than 50 million copies of the Maxwell House Haggadah have been distributed since 1932, but a different, lower-profile version of the Passover prayerbook is the quintessential Jewish-American text

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