Alef Betty: Modern Hebrew Arts

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Maxwell House Haggadah

The Maxwell House Haggadah, designed by Joseph Jacobs Advertising.

There are thousands of known editions of the Haggadah, a volume that has been reprinted in more languages and places than any other Jewish text. A Haggadah, like most ritual objects, says a lot about the time and place in which it was created. Its text and artwork–its every idiosyncrasy–hints at the context in which it was made and used.

If you're making a Haggadah in America, there is no precedent more important than the Maxwell House Haggadah. It’s so all-American, President Obama used it in a seder at the White House in 2009. Over 1 million copies were distributed that year alone, and its reach extends far beyond the United States.

Here's a bit of history, from the Jewish Press:

Maxwell House coffee has been recognized as a friend of the Jewish community since 1923, the year the well-known brand became certified as Kosher for Passover - the first coffee to seek this important designation. Then, about a decade later, working with Joseph Jacobs Advertising and an Orthodox rabbi to ensure accuracy, Maxwell House printed their first Haggadah.

More than 70 years later, Maxwell House is still partnering with Joseph Jacobs to deliver the longest running sales promotion in advertising history. To this day, over 50 million Haggadahs have been printed, making it the most widely used Haggadah in the world.

It’s a quintessentially American cultural object: a ritual text commercially underwritten to promote a brand.

The impact that the Maxwell House Haggadah had on the way we retell the story of Passover cannot be understated. Moment Magazine writes:

Until the coffee company moved into publishing, Haggadahs were fluid in text and format. “Local custom ruled liturgy,” says Rabbi Burton L. Visotsky, a Jewish Theological Seminary professor. “Maxwell House did more to codify Jewish liturgy than any force in history.”

The Hebrew was based on the work of Wolf Heidenheim, a liturgical scholar who authored an important prayer book in 1800. But selecting and typesetting the Hebrew text was only half the battle. One of the triumphs of the Maxwell House version, as Moment notes, is its masterful bilingual layout:

The Haggadah’s English translation was also a draw because second and third-generation American Jews were losing their ability to read Hebrew, says Rabbi Carole Balin, Jewish history professor at Hebrew Union College. The Haggadah’s format, with parallel columns of Hebrew and English, made it easy to follow.

The transliterations of the blessings (whereby Hebrew words were spelled out phonetically in Roman letters) were only added in the 1960's. The way they were written is a testament to the dominance of Eastern European ancestry among American Jews. You can hear the cadence of the Ashkenazi pronunciations, even when you're not reading aloud. Here's a sample:

Ma nish-ta-naw ha-lai-law ha-zeh mee-kawl ha-lay-los?

It sounds like someone about to tuck into some matzah ball soup on the Lower East Side.

Joseph Jacobs successfully positioned the Maxwell House Haggadah at the center of an emotional family rite. It was brilliant product placement, making the brand synonymous with tradition. Schelly Talalay Dardashti has a nice post about the editions in her family, and she expresses how enmeshed they are with holiday nostalgia:

On the pages of my copies I can see my family history. Each stain of wine, charoset, drops of salt water or vinegar, marks a gathering of Jews retelling the ancient story.

Mark Oppenheimer, too, sums up the way a lot of people feel about this Haggadah in a rousing essay on Slate:

The Haggadah I like best is the old Maxwell House Haggadah, filled with the "little kitschy scribbles" others find objectionable.... The 2007 edition is, like all its antecedents, apolitical and middlebrow, geared for mass appeal. But it's clear and concise, and, most important, my parents and my in-laws all grew up on it. What it lacks in poetry, it makes up in ubiquity. It's the Haggadah most evocative for my extended family, and there's majesty in that simple claim, a claim that no better, smarter, more beautiful edition could ever make.

"Little kitschy scribbles" is hardly an apt description for the illustrations in the version I have from 1997, which are rendered in a mid-century style that still holds up today.

Though the text has changed little over the years, there has been a shift in the artwork over time. Early editions had a utilitarian cover with serif type, while the more recent editions have four-color covers that I personally don't care for. The blue and black editions are my favorite, because they use a modest two-color printing process to their advantage. The imagery is graphic and bold, and the visual hierarchy is clear.

It's frankly intimidating to think about designing a new Haggadah when we already have something this good. What I love about it is its utility, and having it in front of me as I worked was an important reminder to make something functional, as well as something beautiful.

Next week, we'll look at some examples of editions made by artists. Those books are entirely different, and are rarely seen in action at seders, as people don't often own more than one. But for now, let's take a moment to appreciate a Haggadah that comes free with a can of coffee.

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