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Bob Born, Jewish maker of Peeps marshmallow candies, dies at 98

The family business behind a staple of Easter baskets was founded by a onetime rabbinical student from Berdichev, Ukraine

(JTA) — Ira “Bob” Born, the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant who founded the company that makes Peeps candies, has died. He was 98.

Born was the former president of Just Born Quality Confections, the 100-year-old family-owned candy company in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, that makes Mike and Ikes, jelly beans and Goldenberg Peanut Chews, but is probably best known for the marshmallow treats that are staples in Easter baskets.

Just Born’s Jewish roots came as a surprise to this reporter, who in 2012 reported for the New Jersey Jewish News on the company’s acquisition of Goldenberg Peanut Chews, a venerable Philadelphia brand that had recently dropped its kosher certification. Ross Born, Bob’s son and co-CEO of the company, explained the difficulty in sourcing kosher ingredients for the candies and spoke about the family’s commitment to Jewish causes in the Lehigh Valley and beyond.

He also spoke about his father’s innovations as head of the company, which the elder Born joined in 1945 after graduating from Lehigh University with a degree in engineering physics and service in the U.S. Navy. Born had been accepted to medical school but fell in love with the business.

After Just Born acquired a maker of marshmallow candies in 1953, Bob Born devised a way to greatly speed the process. At the Bethlehem factory, huge machines squirt armies of the chick-shaped confections onto a conveyer belt, on which they glide past little guns that paint on the eyes.

Bob Born also cut down on waste when he figured out what to do with Mike and Ike candies that emerged misshapen in the manufacturing process: He remelted the candies, added a hot cinnamon flavor to mask their original taste, and repurposed them as Hot Tamales.

“That was his nature. He didn’t say, ‘No, we can’t do something.’ He said ‘Well, we’ll figure it out,’” Ross Born told the Lehigh Valley News.

Bob Born was born on Sept. 29, 1924, in New York City. His father, Sam Born, had been a rabbinical student from Berdichev, Ukraine, before his family fled to Paris, where he learned the art of chocolate-making. After opening a factory and store in Brooklyn, Sam brought his brothers-in-law, Irv and Jack Shaffer, into the business. A nephew, David Shaffer, is currently board chair and co-CEO of Just Born.

Bob Born retired after almost 40 years at Just Born and moved to Florida, where he was chairman of a literacy program in an underserved community.

In addition to his talents as a candymaker, Born was a musician, woodworker, chess player and photographer, according to his son. In 2019, the city of Bethlehem declared Feb. 15 as “Bob Born Day.”

Ross, a past president of the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley, told the local newspaper that his father will be remembered as a “real mensch” — Yiddish for a person of integrity and honor.

“He was a kind person, he was generous with his talents, sharing his abilities. He was very fair minded: he wanted to embrace differences rather than just tolerate them,” Ross Born said.

The family asked that contributions be made to the American Technion Society, Israel Guide Dog Center or any literacy program.

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