In contemporary America, Passover is the occasion for many things, from a sudden appetite for gefilte fish to a momentary burst of attention to ritual. It has also been the occasion for extraordinary moments of creativity when it comes to advertising and marketing.
Given the exigencies of the holiday — with its built-in requirements for special foods, extra folding chairs, even new clothes — Passover and American consumer culture have long seemed destined for each other. Blurring the line between the sacred and the profane, the transcendent and the quotidian, advertisements for Passover products first flooded the American Yiddish press — and later still, the airwaves — during the first half of the 20th century. At the first hint of spring, consumers were urged to purchase matzo made in America, the newfangled, mass produced way, by “carefully computed formulae,” as Horowitz & Margareten liked to say; to outfit themselves with spiffy new ensembles and to treat their families to a day at the movies. “Come and see our great rich Passover program,” urged the management of New York’s Houston Hippodrome in 1912 where the “best and greatest moving pictures” would be screened throughout the week: “Come and enjoy a cheerful and entertaining holiday.”
By far the most famous example of the interplay between religion and commerce was the advertising campaign developed for Maxwell House Coffee during the 1920s and 1930s. Culminating in the production of the bilingual Maxwell House Haggadah, which was expressly designed to solidify the “unique relationship between a product and a people,” the original advertising campaign was first launched
nearly a decade earlier in the pages of the Jewish Daily Forward and other Yiddish newspapers. “It is a mitzvah to tell you,” read the advertisement for Maxwell House Coffee, lifting an actual phrase from the opening text of the Haggada, “that this Passover you won’t have to turn down the pleasure of your favorite drink. For Maxwell House Coffee is kosher for Passover.”
In resorting to the language of the Haggada to promote a product, Maxwell House Coffee was, in fact, drawing on an already established marketing convention, one that Jewish establishments such as Max Eisner’s Vienna Restaurant had already made their own. Sometime between 1910 and 1914, Eisner devised a flier for his restaurant that took the form and borrowed the language of the Haggada to tout the virtues of dining at his East Houston Street establishment, a stone’s throw from the Houston Hippodrome. Today, it’s one of the many highlights of the New York Public Library’s current exhibition, “New York Eats Out,” which draws on menus, guidebooks, restaurant reviews and an amusing selection of New Yorker covers to depict the relationship between residents of the Big Apple and their stomachs.
Playful, clever and persuasive in equal measure, Eisner’s advertisement turned the traditional ritual text on its head. Looking like an actual Haggada, the flier not only reproduced a number of key passages but also tinkered with their contents to reflect the claims of the present rather than those of history. A sampling of its artful emendations includes:
• Avadim hayenu — “We were slaves in Egypt”: “We’ve been such fools; it’s better not to talk of it but Mr. Eisner has rescued us from those other restaurants with his honest dealings and good food.”
• “Let all who are hungry come to eat”: “Let all who are hungry and want a good meal should [sic] go to the Vienna Restaurant, 175 E. Houston Street.”
• “Ma nishtana — Why is this night different from all other nights?”: “Why is Mr. Eisner’s restaurant different from all others? Because at Mr. Eisner’s restaurant you eat yomtov-ideke foods and it doesn’t cost any more.”
• “On all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables; on this night bitter herbs”: “At all other restaurants we eat all kinds of things that are not worth putting in one’s mouth but at Mr. Eisner’s restaurant, we eat really good, nourishing things and, what is more, we can have as much seltzer as we want.”
Who could resist?