The Brilliant Marketing Move That Shaped a Jewish Tradition
Would coffee become forbidden on the Jewish holiday of Passover? Not on Maxwell House’s watch
By the 1930s, about 4.5 million Jews were living in the United States. The American Jewish population had increased almost 20-fold in 50 years.
Most of the newly arrived Jews were immigrants from various parts of Eastern Europe, escaping the pogroms and other persecution and hoping for better opportunities in America. Many were quite traditional in their practices.
This sizable new market presented new marketing opportunities. Some of these opportunities related to the spring holiday of Passover or Pesach, a major Jewish festival.
Passover, which has the same name as Easter in many languages, is traditionally an eight-day holiday in the U.S. It commemorates the escape of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt. This escape is described in the Book of Exodus, the second book in the Bible.
Passover is associated with restrictions on foods that are eaten during the rest of the year, and special foods for the holiday. In particular, it is forbidden to eat leavened grains on Passover.
This is to remember the Israelites having been in such a hurry to escape, they could not wait for their bread to rise. The traditional bread for the holiday is an unleavened flatbread called matza (plural matzot).
Eastern European Jews, the majority of the Jews coming to America at that time, had additional Passover restrictions. Their tradition also forbade having legumes such as rice, corn, and beans on Passover because of these foods’ resemblances to grains.
By the 1920s, some were beginning to place coffee in this category. It is possible that the majority of American Jews would have gradually accepted the extension of the legume prohibition to coffee. This would have led to coffee becoming forbidden on Passover as well.
Coffee Is a Berry, Not a Bean
The coffee company Maxwell House, however, had other ideas. Through an advertiser who got his start at the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper, Maxwell House found a respected rabbi to proclaim that coffee was a berry, not a bean.
Therefore, it did not fall under the prohibition against eating legumes and was kosher for Passover.
Maxwell House went even farther. On the first two nights of Passover, many Jews participate in an evening ritual called a Seder, often in their homes.
The Seder is a major gathering for many extended families, with a traditional reading found in a book called a Haggadah. Originally, American Jews had used different Haggadahs each year for Passover guests. So in 1932, Maxwell House ran a promotion.
It distributed Haggadahs to grocery stores, offering them free with the purchase of Maxwell House coffee.
The text of the Maxwell House Haggadah had columns of the original Hebrew liturgy and an English translation, with roughly equal prominence.
This balanced tradition and American-ness for Jews with varying levels of knowledge of Hebrew. Also importantly, the Maxwell House brand name was prominent on the cover.
Maxwell House’s marketing campaign was wildly successful. Many Jewish families adopted the Maxwell House Haggadah as their standard Haggadah. The printing of Maxwell House Haggadahs has not stopped. Even today, new Maxwell House Haggadahs are being mass-produced.
Over the years, Maxwell House has changed the translation to be more gender-neutral and has also changed the cover and layout many times. The Hebrew liturgy remains the traditional liturgy of the Seder.
The Maxwell House Haggadah is the most popular Haggadah of all time. More than 50 million copies have been printed, four copies for every single Jewish person alive today.
It is an iconic part of Jewish Americana, a piece of nostalgia for many Jewish Americans. And no one questions whether coffee is kosher for Passover.