Maxwell House is a brand of coffee manufactured by a like-named division of Kraft Foods, Inc. Introduced in 1892, the coffee brand was named in honor of the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville; it would be as if we named a coffee or hummus brand for the posh King David or Dan hotels, or the Waldorf=Astoria. For many years, it was the best selling coffee brand in the US; it is currently number two behind Folgers.
It was in the early 1930s, during The Great Depression, that Maxwell House published its first Passover haggadah. Maxwell House was no longer a Tennessee company, Cheek Neal Coffee Co., and was part of the General Foods Inc. conglomerate. The firm wanted to increase its presence in the NYC marketplace; and the Joseph Jacobs Advertising Agency proposed an idea. Prior to this, grocers sold tea during passover to their observant Jewish customers; no coffee was certified kosher for Passover. Joseph Jacobs hired a rabbi to certify the coffee bean as a berry, and not a legume bean, and deem it kosher for Passover for Ashkenazi and other Jews. Since then, Fifty million haggadot have been printed over the past eight decades, and the Maxwell House haggadah has become as much a staple of American seders as matzah balls. In 2009, the Maxwell House haggadah was used at the White House seder.
Believe it or not, the Maxwell House haggadah has used the same English translation of the Aramaic and Hebrew that it first used in 1933. But for the 2011 edition, one million copies strong, the haggadah has a new translation that has removed some stilted English, changed the Four “Sons” to “Children,” and removed the gender of god from “He” and “King” to “God” and “Monarch.”
The Shakepearian “Thee’s” and “Thou’s” have also disappeared for greater clarity. It also places the English on the opposite page of the Hebrew, instead of on the same page as it had in the past.
Comparing my past copies with the 2011 version, one sees the following changes. “Blessed art thou, Oh Eternal, King of the Universe” is now rendered “Blessed are you, our God, Monarch of the Universe.” The Hebrew font in the new version is much more readable. Yachatz, in which the graphic was of a man’s hands breaking the matzah in half, now has just a gender-free matzah slice broken in half with two lonely crumbs between the halves.
The graphic for the four questions used to be that of a father stoking his bare chin and listening to one of his two sons sing the question. A light haired daughter or wife looked on. The new version is a photo of a young well-dressed girl holding her haggadah as she prepares to recite the questions. The older versions had “Wherefore is this night distinguished from all other nights”; the updated version has “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The child who “hath no capacity to inquire” has become the child “who does not know how to inquire.”
The oldtime woodcut graphic of the ten plagues, complete with a drawing of dead cattle (or a dead cow), is now just the photo of two frogs. “Elevate the cup” has become “Raise the cup.”
Oy…on those two items, tradition goes out the window, only to be retrieved perhaps by Elijah, catching it and bring it to the front door.
The new translation took a year to complete and was done by Henry Frisch, 63, of Teaneck NJ. Want him to autograph your copy? You can find him at Congregation Keter Torah each day. Actually I want Rabbis TarPhon and Akeeba (how he renders them in translation) to autograph mine.
I look forward to giving it a test run next week at a seder. (at least it doesn’t say “RabbiT Gamliel,” like Cokie and Steve Roberts’ haggadah used to)
(Actually, I did not snag it at a grocery store, but I popped by the Upper West Side office of the Manhattan agency that published it and Elie Rosenfeld, the firm’s CEO, gave Jewlicious a copy. Thanks Mr Rosenfeld)