Arguably the longest-running sales promotion in US history, the Maxwell House Haggadah has been a staple of the Jewish-American Passover experience for over 80 years. In 1923, an ad man named Joseph Jacobs made the pitch to readers of the (then Yiddish) Jewish Daily Forward that not only was coffee kosher for Passover (the coffee bean is not a legume, but akin to a berry and therefore not kitniyot), but actually Maxwell House coffee was especially kosher for Passover. With a full-page ad and rabbinic certification, Jacobs set out to make Maxwell House coffee “the fifth cup at the seder.”
By 1934, he had convinced Maxwell House to offer a complimentary haggadah with each can of coffee purchased.
Since then, American Jews have been adding the latest edition of the haggadah to their families’ collections every year at Passover. Evoking memories of seders past, these precious food-stained, dog-eared treasures are handed down from generation to generation. Each edition creates its own following as the zeitgeist evolves anew. Today’s copy, the 2014 edition, is gender neutral and boasts a more modern design.
Even for Jews who did not grow up in a Jewish home, the Maxwell House Haggadah is poignant and full of meaning. Virginia Spatz, my neighbor and an activist, came to Judaism as an adult and remembers her first time seeing the booklet in the grocery store. She had heard about it, but never seen it in real life. As she proudly acquired her very first copy, she overheard one of her shopping companions excitedly whisper to the other, “I’m so glad we could facilitate this important Jewish moment.”
Could Joseph Jacobs himself ever have imagined that this little booklet would become the traditional haggadah of the White House? Susan Barocas, who served as a guest chef for the 2014 and 2015 White House seders, reflects, “A few times I heard the President’s voice above the others as he helped lead the seder. I remember…feeling chills as the President read the same words Jews all over the world were reading that night.”
And the White House is sticking to its tradition. When noted columnist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, offered President Obama a copy of the New American Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer, the President’s response was: “Does this mean we can’t use the Maxwell House Haggadah anymore?”
Sure, initially, this was all a marketing ploy. Perhaps only someone with a mind like that of Don Draper, the protagonist of Mad Men, could have developed the concept of such a unique practice that most Americans can relate to and one that creates a foundation on which to build a loyal following. “Joseph Jacobs understood the consumer experience and [the importance of] creating an emotional connection with the consumer by bringing, even inviting, the brand to an intimate setting, around the holiday table, the seder,” says Elie Rosenfeld, the CEO of the Joseph Jacobs Advertising Agency today.
JJA has distributed over 50 million copies of this beloved icon of American Jewry (free, plus $2.00 shipping) and has no plans to stop.
The Maxwell House Haggadah has become part of Passover in America, as inherent to the Jewish American experience as is pouring a cup for Elijah and expecting him to come through the opened door. The memories and traditions of this classic storybook have percolated through our hearts and collective memories. As Don Draper famously said in his “Carousel” monologue, there’s “a deeper bond with the product. Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent.“