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Coffee, Haggadot, and Jewish assimilation
Modern and – yes, let’s face it – assimilated Jews find it hard to stick out a full Passover seder, but the answer is not to capitulate, rather to renew that which is ancient and sanctify that which is new.
In just two weeks’ time, the entire Jewish world will gather at Passover seders to re-enact the ritual of telling the story of the exodus from Egypt. All the old favorites will be there: Bubby and Zaide, matzah ball soup, the four questions read by your youngest niece, and of course, all over four cups of kosher for Passover wine. But for many of us, particularly those observing the two seders of the Diaspora, there is one more ritual, which comes at the end of the seder: the fifth cup, one that is good to the last drop.
This fifth cup is a lesson in smart marketing, a symbol of an evolving Jewish America, and a story of enduring religion in the face of increasing assimilation.
This ingenious invention was the brainchild of one Joseph Jacobs, chairman of one of the first Jewish advertising firms in Manhattan. In an idea that dates back to 1923, Jacobs created an ad campaign that would forever unite a people with a product. It started with full-page ads with quotations from the Haggadah at the top, and the image of a can of Maxwell House’s coffee with a certification that it was “Kasher l’Pesach,” kosher for Passover, at the bottom.
But Jacobs was not yet done with his brilliant strokes of genius. In 1934, he introduced one of the most significant publications in the history of modern Judaism: The Maxwell House Haggadah. This Haggadah, with its signature two-columns, one containing the traditional Hebrew text of the Haggadah, the other with a suitable English translation for this new generation of assimilated Jews who spoke English and not Yiddish, and whose Hebrew perhaps had grown a bit rusty, became an overnight success. Not to mention the fact that it was free (along with the purchase of Maxwell House coffee!).
And although much has changed since 1934, and although other editions of the Maxwell House Haggadah have since been published, one thing – despite the years and, yes, despite the continued trend toward assimilation – did not change: the use of the complete and traditional Hebrew text of the Haggadah. Though it is a far from perfect Haggadah, (in that it offers no modern commentary, no attempt to reflect a more participatory Seder experience, no use of artwork or literature to reinforce the teachings of the Seder) it is nonetheless a complete Haggadah, and more than fifty million copies of the Maxwell House Haggadah have been printed to date, according to Carole B. Balin’s article in “My People’s Passover Haggadah.
Despite its shortfalls as a Haggadah, perhaps we should still laud its educational approach to combating the tides of American assimilation – particularly given some of its modern “competitors.”
These days, many seem to be looking for a seder-experience that lives up to the Shakespearean maxim: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Take for example the rise of the “30minute Seder”. This truncated Haggadah is branded “The Haggadah that blends brevity with tradition,” but a cursory glance at its content reveals a Haggadah that contains much of the basics: the blessings over the wine, matzah and maror; the four questions, the four children and the ten plagues; as well as a page discussing the history of our exodus from Egypt. But more than what you will find is what you will not find. Barely any Hebrew whatsoever, no commentary contextualizing the Haggadah into modern times, no Rabbi Gamliel and the bunch, no midrash, and scarcely a mention of God at all. All this in thirty minutes!
I think we can see the difference of pedagogic approach between the Maxwell House Haggadah and the 30minute Seder. In the former, Joseph Jacobs understood the unstoppable and inevitable tide of assimilation in America: and so he devised a way of bringing the tradition to the people in a new and inventive way: co-opting the very assimilation which threatened to distance Jews from their Judaism and using it to their advantage, yes to sell coffee of course, but to sell Judaism as well.
Whereas in the latter case, we have a remarkably different approach to the problem of assimilation: capitulation. Despite the fact that this ancient seder ritual of ours leaves little to be desired for the modern human being – and no, it doesn’t always speak to every Jew, and yes, Hebrew has become a barrier for many in relating to the traditional text – why must our response to this serious issue be to cut, cut, cut? I, for one, would be very concerned if this Haggadah sold 50 million copies!
Instead, we as a Jewish people, and as individuals leading a seder must set out to do what the rabbis accomplished two thousand years ago: renew that which is ancient and sanctify that which is new. Thankfully, there are many Haggadot that will help us to just that. But, ultimately, if we are to be successful against this inevitable and unstoppable tide of assimilation, it will be up to us to create a seder that is long enough to be of substance, traditional enough to maintain authenticity, and inventive enough to be meaningful to this, and every, generation of Jews.