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America’s Original Bestselling Haggadah

Before there was Maxwell House, there was Mrs. Philip Cowen’s ‘Seder Service’

Jenna Weissman Joselit
March 28, 2023
Virtual Judaica
A 1935 edition of The Seder ServiceVirtual Judaica
Virtual Judaica
A 1935 edition of The Seder ServiceVirtual Judaica

Move over, Maxwell House Haggadah. It’s time to share the limelight with one of your kin: Mrs. Philip Cowen’s The Seder Service for Passover Eve in the Home.

First published in New York in 1904, this equally American, homegrown version of the traditional ritual text went on to sell nearly a quarter of a million copies before being dislodged from its perch three decades later by the Maxwell House product, whose corporate pedigree and price tag—there wasn’t any—rendered it particularly attractive. In its heyday, though, Mrs. Cowen’s text reigned supreme: the prima donna of haggadot.

Nothing else was quite like it. Or, as one well-disposed New York observer put it at the time, speaking for others as well as for himself, “We have no hesitation in stating that it is just what English-speaking Jews have long wanted.” A smooth amalgam of Hebrew and English text; scholarship, music, and visual detail; typographical ingenuity, helpful “instructions,” and “limp leather” binding, Mrs. Cowen’s Seder Service shone brightly: the “haggadah in a new dress.”

Easy to read and handle, this version was used by schoolchildren and their families; by patrons of the State Bank of New York, among whom it was distributed as a gift; and by American Jewish servicemen during WWI, who received a free copy along with a ration of matzo, courtesy of the Jewish Welfare Board.

Seder Service also found favor among both Orthodox and Reform Jews at the grass roots, bridging what many believed to be an uncomfortable divide between the two. Giving new meaning to the old adage about reading the fine print, Seder Service made it possible for an Orthodox Jew and a Reform Jew to sit side by side at the same Seder table by signaling through means of typeface and layout which aspects of the Seder were not to be skipped (see: large type, full lines) and which could be passed over (see: small print, indented lines). In that way, Mrs. Cowen acknowledged, “no fault should be found with the suggestion it conveys, as he who wishes may read every line of the older service, for not a word has been here omitted.”

How sensible, even artful, it was for Mrs. Cowen to mitigate the perils of omission—and the ensuing family drama—through the use of space and ink. Her text did double duty: It came in handy for those in pursuit of flexibility and a speedy Seder (away with all those “rabbinic dissertations”) and met the needs of those in pursuit of the tried and true, who were given to lingering over every word.

Both innovation and tradition found a place for themselves in Mrs. Cowen’s pages, prompting one of the publication’s many full-page advertisements to crow that it would appeal simultaneously to the Orthodox and “commend itself to people who prefer a modernized version.” Another advertisement said it would even “defy the scoffer.”

Inclusive long before that word and practice became de rigueur, Seder Service also made room for a handful of Sephardic customs, among them its distinctive Grace After Meals. Those who were “accustomed to the Portuguese ritual” were duly informed that they would find this haggadah a real boon.

Despite its best efforts to please, not everyone was happy with Cowen’s holiday offering, the prices of which ranged from 30 cents for an ordinary paper copy to a deluxe edition, with the owner’s name imprinted on the cover, for $2.50. Some Passover celebrants preferred the familiarity of an old, wine-speckled haggadah from the Old World to one that was bright and shiny and made in the New.

Still others questioned altogether the need for an updated version, asking rhetorically, in the spirit of the day, “Shall we or shall we not cast aside the old haggadahs that have become endeared to us with all their typographic frailties and artistic incongruities?” Perhaps something could be said for holding on to them?

And still other critics found fault with Mrs. Cowen’s translation skills, unaware that in quibbling over this word and that, they were taking on the King James Bible from which Mrs. Cowen had drawn.

Near as I can tell, no one took exception to and grumbled publicly about this particular haggadah having been “arranged” by a woman—and a real woman at that, not a corporate invention à la Betty Crocker.

The Mrs. of the book’s title—a.k.a. Lillie Goldsmith Cowen—was the wife of Philip Cowen, the longtime publisher of The American Hebrew, and the mother of Elfrida, who married M. Leon Solis-Cohen. A skilled typesetter in her own right as well as a deft editor who wielded a “relentless pencil,” or so boasted her proud husband, Mrs. Cowen turned her talents to modernizing the haggadah.

Nor did anyone even hint, at least not overtly, that by compiling this text and putting her (married) name on its cover, Mrs. Philip Cowen had crossed a line.

She hadn’t. At no time did Mrs. Cowen put on airs or sail under false colors by assuming the mantle of a rabbi or a scholar. On the contrary. She made a point of emphasizing that her role throughout had been a “humble one”—she was acting only in her capacity as a “daughter of Israel”—and that all of the important tasks, including supplying the scholarly, explanatory material and arranging the musical selections, had been fielded by others far more eminent, most notably Professor Solomon Schechter, president of the Faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, who was responsible for that first task, and Rev. S. Rappaport, cantor of New York’s West End Synagogue, who was accountable for the second.

Whatever cultural authority Mrs. Cowen wore—and lightly so—was of an experiential nature: the “result,” as she put it, writing in the third person, “of considerable experience in celebrating the Passover in her home by the author.” The credentials she subtly brandished were those earned through familiarity with domestic Jewish ritual practice and won thanks to sure-footedness in the kitchen and at the dining-room table.

Admittedly, there’s not a recipe to be had, not even one for haroset. But in its sensibility—its marriage of tone and practice—Mrs. Cowen’s Seder Service was as much a modern expression of Jewish housewifery as it was an age-old vehicle for the transmission of Jewish history.

At this point, you may well ask: How did all this come to pass?

According to the origin story that appeared in Memories of an American Jew, Mr. Cowen’s 1932 memoir, the Cowens once hosted a Passover Seder at which their guests’ children characterized the illustrations in the haggadah set before them as “curious.” To make matters worse, the youngsters also had a good laugh at the English translation and “gave vent to their surprise that the Lord couched his instructions to Moses in such awful English.”

A toned-down version of the same story had also appeared years earlier in the preface to the third edition (1906) of Mrs. Cowen’s Seder Service. In it, she told in her own voice and words of having hosted a Passover Seder one year that was “marred because of typographical blunders, bad grammar and mis-translations which abounded in the books used.”

In both iterations of the tale, Mrs. Cowen had an aha moment that culminated in her “determination” to remedy matters by coming up with a haggadah that “would not cause derision among the younger generation.” As her husband would later recount, “My wife kept her word and a few years later published The Seder Service, which, because of its fine English and musical arrangements, was instrumental in bringing about a revival of the Passover celebration in the United States.”

This was no spouse’s idle boast—well, not entirely. If contemporaneous accounts are to be believed, the celebration of Passover received quite a boost from the release of Mrs. Cowen’s haggadah, experiencing a momentary surge in popularity. “There can be no doubt that by this new publication of yours, you have on your part done very much towards re-awakening an interest in and love for the beautiful Seder service which had fallen into neglect in so many Jewish families,” acknowledged a fan in 1905. Another, writing from the Midwest three years later, pointed out that thanks to the modern haggadah, “it is becoming customary again to usher in the Passover with a service in the home, with the family table laid for the evening meal, as an altar.”

I suspect there was a bit more to the Seder’s flurry of popularity than that. No matter how avidly anticipated or quickly seized upon, Mrs. Cowen’s The Seder Service for Passover Eve in the Home could not have single-handedly turned the tide of desuetude. Other factors—immigration comes readily to mind—were no doubt at play.

All the same, it made for a good story. Almost as good a story as the one nestled in its pages.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.