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New Maxwell House Passover Haggadah updates a tradition

Susan Scheher home Sunny Isles Beach Fla. with her collectiMaxwell House Haggadahs from 1965 thher father had given her when

Susan Schein at her home in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., with her collection of Maxwell House Haggadahs from 1965 that her father had given her when she started her own family and hosted her first Passover. | AP

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Updated: July 14, 2011 12:16AM

For nearly 80 years, Jewish families across the United States have celebrated the Passover seder with the unlikely help of Maxwell House coffee, which offers free copies of a Passover Haggadah, spelling out the steps and prayers for the spring holiday’s festive meal and telling the story of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt.

The coffee company’s version of the text used at the holiday meal has been offered free at supermarkets with a Maxwell House purchase since the early 1930s. The Maxwell House Haggadah is the most widely used version in the world, according to the company.

More than 50 million copies are in print, lovingly passed down from one generation to the next — sometimes complete with gravy smears and red-wine splotches. They even turned up when President Obama hosted his first seder at the White House two years ago.

Now, Maxwell House — part of Northfield-based Kraft Foods — is issuing a new edition this year in time for the start of Passover, which begins the night of April 18.

For the first time, the English translation has been modernized. And the Hebrew and English versions of the text are now on opposite pages, rather than side by side on the same page.

The last tweaking was in 1998. Before that, the inside hadn’t been touched since the early ‘60s. The covers have changed a few times between the ’70s and ’90s.

The Maxwell House Haggadah owes a debt to Joseph Jacobs Advertising and the Orthodox rabbi it hired back in 1923 to affirm that the coffee bean isn’t a legume but a berry, so it’s OK to consume under the dietary rules observant Jews follow during the eight-day holiday.


Haggadah giveaway began about a decade after the rabbi decreed that coffee was kosher for Passover. The freebie was meant as a way to clear up lingering confusion — and end the dip in coffee sales that had been observed each year around Passover, said Elie Rosenfeld, who works on the Haggadah account at Joseph Jacobs.

The books have been distributed every year since, except for two years off when paper was scarce during World War II.


Haggadah includes special instructions, prayers, hymns and commentary unique to Passover. The manuals are given out to family and friends at the seder table so all can participate in the retelling of Moses’ deliverance of the Jews from slavery more than 3,000 years ago, including how Jewish homes are said to have been “passed over” by God’s angel of death, sent to snatch the Egyptians’ firstborn as punishment for the pharaoh’s refusal to free the slaves.

David Brimm, of Deerfield, was only 15 when his father died and he began leading his family’s

seder using copies of the Maxwell House Haggadah his parents collected through the 1960s and ’70s. He dismisses critics who complain the texts are fuddy-duddy or promote corporate involvement.

“I’m fairly certain Moses wasn’t a Maxwell House guy,” Brimm joked, adding, “There’s a certain comfort at the table when we open the ‘sacred’ Maxwell House

Haggadahs .”

By some counts, more than 3,000 different types of

Haggadahs exist, offering commentary and activities to fill just about any niche — feminist, vegetarian, family fun, eco-conscious, socialist. One promises a 30-minute seder, as opposed to the usual two- to four-hour service.

Rosenfeld, an Orthodox Jew, said the Maxwell House

Haggadah isn’t heavy on commentary, which is a draw for “high holiday Jews” who aren’t religious most of the year but do mark major observances.

The books have been around so long, Rosenfeld said, they’re now “part of the American Jewish experience.”

Obama was introduced to the guides by young aides during an impromptu

seder they held in 2008 while on a campaign stop in Pennsylvania.

Why the Maxwell House version? Mainly because that’s what they could scrounge up quickly. The books were used at the White House in 2009 and again last year.

This year? No word yet.


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