If American Jews have made Passover their Easter and Thanksgiving rolled into one, it’s in no small part thanks to a Mad Man named Joseph Jacobs. A onetime advertising manager for the Yiddish Forward, Jacobs set up an agency in 1919 that specialized in marketing to the large and rapidly assimilating Jewish population. One of his earliest clients was Maxwell House coffee. To allay concerns that coffee might be a grain and therefore forbidden to drink on Passover, Jacobs got a rabbi to certify it as kosher for Passover in 1923, but it took another decade before he had a better idea: sponsorship.
The first Maxwell House Haggadah was published in 1932 and was free with purchase of a can of Maxwell House. It wasn’t the first instance of marketeering finding a place at the Seder table—the State Bank of New York had done earlier haggadah giveaways—but it turned out to be the most successful by far. More than 50 million copies of the Maxwell House Haggadah have been distributed over the years, a kind of covenant between the coffee maker and those seeking to preserve “a Jewish national institution,” as the 1939 edition described the holiday ritual. It was famously used in the first-ever White House Seder last year, and it remains significant enough that its adoption this year of an updated English translation warranted coverage by the New York Times.
But here’s the odd thing about the Maxwell House Haggadah: Despite being a thoroughly American artifact, it doesn’t read as a particularly American Jewish text. Its early incarnations have the overtones of a David Attenborough script: “Almost everyone is familiar with the Biblical story of Passover,” began the 1939 introduction. “Yet the Jewish people love to recall this tale year after year.” The English doggedly follows the Hebrew, leaching any poetry from the Seder passage linking matzoh to the sought-for relief from exile in a way that renders it literally rather than conceptually Zionist. “At present we celebrate it here, but next year we hope to celebrate it in the land of Israel,” it says. “This year we are servants here, but next year we hope to be free men in the land of Israel.” So much for the goldene medina.
The English of the Maxwell House Haggadah stands in sharp contrast to the other major mass-market American haggadah of the 20th century: the booklet distributed to more than 350,000 Jews serving in the United States military during World War II. (Proper title: Haggadah of Passover for Members of the Armed Forces of the United States.) Consider this alternate rendering of the same Hebrew lines describing the Jews’ desire for redemption: “May Israel wandering yet this year reach Israel’s land this coming year, and Zion’s mount and shrine ascend. May those who freedom lacked this year their shackles break this coming year; may freedom on the world descend.” The authors, David and Tamar de Sola Pool, were unhesitant about drawing an explicit link between the safe haven of mid-century America and the hoped-for Promised Land of the Seder. “This book brought to them a heightened dedication to the ideal of liberty doubly theirs as Americans and as Jews,” the de Sola Pools wrote in 1947, in a preface to a postwar edition.
It may have been significant that both the de Sola Pools had a newcomers’ appreciation for the United States. David de Sola Pool was a Briton ordained as a rabbi in Berlin, while his wife Tamar was born in Jerusalem and arrived in New Jersey as a teenager. David de Sola Pool came to the United States in 1906 to take the pulpit at Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan, better known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, the first Jewish congregation established in the colonies. At the height of World War I, he was known as a fervent Zionist, and he publicly argued that the colonization of Palestine was “the only way to restore Hebrew ideals,” according to a report in the Times—in opposition to those who insisted, according to the same item, that “the keeping alive of Hebraic ideals at home was of far greater importance than the Zionist movement.”
The rise of Hitler shifted de Sola Pool’s focus. Speaking at Fort Dix, N.J., just before Passover in 1941, he told a thousand Jewish soldiers that fighting Hitler was their chief responsibility as Jews. “The rape of Europe by armed violence has made it clear that the world war now being waged will determine whether human liberty is to live or die,” de Sola Pool declared. “Our American army is being expanded to strengthen the defenders of liberty, and the highest concept which you can hold of your function is that of being trained to preserve liberty against the forces of tyranny.”
De Sola Pool wasn’t the only rabbi asserting a link between the Passover story and the special burden on American Jews to save the entire free world. “Through twenty centuries of history the Jew refused to surrender his faith in the ultimate triumph of liberty,” Joseph Lookstein, the rabbi at New York’s Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, told his congregants on the Upper East Side in 1941. “And today, the greatest victim of the barbarism that seems to have engulfed the world, the Jew still stands unbowed, convinced that no temporary retreat by the forces of democracy can check the march of civilization toward its ultimate destiny of equality, liberty and brotherhood.”
When the United States entered the war in December 1941, de Sola Pool was chairman of the religious activities committee of the Jewish Welfare Board, which had been established during World War I to support Jewish chaplains and which commissioned the new wartime haggadah. In 1943 the USO distributed the first printing—65,000 copies—which carried a stern reminder about “generation after generation of Jews who have stood up to cruel taskmasters.” In the de Sola Pools’ English translation, Israel is referred to not as the terroir of the Maxwell House Haggadah but as a body standing in for all humanity, “Israel wandering” toward a promised ascent to a Zion of the spirit. It evokes a striking moment in the Jewish story: a frozen instant when “Israel,” not yet a physical entity, was at serious risk of being destroyed as a notional one in Europe.
Today, that makes reading the wartime haggadah, still available from Bloch Publishing, something of a relief. The literalist language of the Maxwell House Haggadah sets up an almost guilty dynamic. By the time “Next year may we be in Jerusalem!” rolls around—page 47, if you’re wondering—it’s almost impossible, for people reading outside Israel, to avoid thinking about vacation time and air miles. (Coach fares for this year’s holiday, from John F. Kennedy International Airport, are running about $1,200.) But for people who prefer to be in Bethesda, and for Jews in the Diaspora who harbor conflicting feelings about the State of Israel—whether over its domestic politics of conversion or the looming prospect of another war in Gaza—the de Sola Pool haggadah offers a short-circuit around contemporary history. It ends, not with Chad Gadya, but with a trio of songs: Hatikvah, the Star-Spangled Banner, and My Country ‘Tis of Thee, under its alternate title, America.