Apr 22, 2024 - Politics & Policy

The Taylor Swift Haggadah? The Harry Potter version? Maxwell House is the Passover prayer book of presidents

President Barack Obama holds a Passover seder at the White House around a big dining table.

The Obamas host a Passover Seder dinner with friends and staff at the White House in 2016, with guests reading from the Maxwell House Haggadah. Photo: HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

President Obama used it for his groundbreaking White House Passover Seders. Kamala Harris used it for the first Passover in the Naval Observatory vice presidential residence.

Why it matters: Amid a spate of newfangled prayer books for Passover — like a Taylor Swift Haggadah, various e-Haggadahs (which aren't strictly kosher), and a Hogwarts one — the traditional and historic Maxwell House version is an enduring favorite.

  • The a 92-year-old prayer booklet (and branding opportunity) tells the story of Passover in 57 pages, in Hebrew and English. (The word "Haggadah" means "telling.")
  • "It's a physical token of Jewish-American history, tradition and culture," said Elie Rosenfeld, CEO of the Joseph Jacobs Advertising agency of Teaneck, New Jersey, which distributes the free books.
Copies of the Maxwell House Haggadah
The Maxwell House Haggadah is available free at supermarkets or through online orders. Photo: Clifford A. Sobel for Axios.

Driving the news: This year, 400,000 copies of the Maxwell House Haggadah were printed, adding to 60 million total that have been printed over the years.

  • The book holds "significant cultural importance," says Rosenfeld, whose company first advertised it in 1932 in the Forward, a Jewish newspaper.
  • It's distributed free in supermarkets across the United States — such as ShopRite, Kroger, Stop & Shop and Publix — and also available online for the price of postage alone.
  • "It's the longest running promotion of any major brand in the U.S.," Kelly Webb, senior brand manager at Kraft Heinz, the maker of Maxwell House coffee, tells Axios.

Presidential connection: The Obamas were the first sitting presidential family to host a White House Passover Seder, every year from 2009-2016 — relying on the text from Maxwell House.

  • The private dinner featured traditional foods like charoset, gefilte fish, brisket and matzah ball soup.
  • They used silverware from the Truman administration — the first to recognize the nation of Israel — and a Seder plate gifted in 2013 by Israeli first lady Sara Netanyahu.

What they're saying: "They made the whole kitchen kosher," recalled Rosenfeld, whose agency specializes in marketing to Jewish consumers.

  • One year, "I actually pitched the White House, and we had a display of all of the Maxwell House Haggadahs going back from 1932 to present," he told Axios.
  • "Right next to us was the letter to the Jews by Washington that they brought in as a display from the Library of Congress," he said, referring to George Washington's 1790 letter to the congregation of Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island.
    • The letter, an eloquent expression of the value of religious liberty, promises that the U.S. government "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

Fun fact: Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of the Atlantic, interviewed Obama in 2011 and showed him a copy of "The New American Haggadah" that writer Jonathan Safran Foer had just published.

  • "After thumbing through the sleek hardcover book, Mr. Obama looked up and asked wryly, 'Does this mean that we can't use the Maxwell House Haggadah anymore?'" as the New York Times described it.

Catch up quick: President Trump skipped the Seder that some of his aides held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in 2017, as did his daughter and son-in-law, who are Jewish.

  • President Biden's White House has held a virtual "People's Seder," but he, too, has skipped the event.
  • But Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, who is Jewish, hosted a Seder in 2022 at which the Maxwell House book was used.
  • Here's a video about the history of Passover at the White House.

Back story: The Maxwell House Haggadah was introduced as a way to persuade Jews that coffee was acceptable to drink during the 8-day holiday.

  • "Coffee beans were thought to be legumes, and therefore prohibited according to Ashkenazic tradition," as The Nosher explains.
  • Joseph Jacobs, the advertising manager for the Forward in the 1920s, "consulted with several rabbis who understood that coffee beans were not beans at all" but rather "the seeds of the coffee cherry."
  • Maxwell House received the first kosher Passover certification for its coffee in 1923 and became the favored brand among American Jews.

Between the lines: "The Maxwell House Hagaddah has been in the hands of U.S. servicemen and women on every battlefield since World War II," Rosenfeld said.

  • "When the serviceman in the field gets that one box of matzah and a Maxwell House Haggaddah is included, it brings them back to their parents' Passover table."

Zoom in: The Passover Seder tends to be a long dinner at which children get antsy and hungry — you have to wait for most of the service to be over before you can eat.

  • Of the many new Haggadahs published each year, some are modern and emphasize social justice, while others are geared toward entertaining kids.
  • A "Star Wars" parody Haggadah guides readers through a "Darth Seder," refers to matzah as "polystarch puffbread" and asks, "Why is this galaxy different from other galaxies?"
  • Maxwell House is one of the more traditional versions. "I do know that it is used across the spectrum of Jews," says Rosenfeld.

This Passover is a particularly emotional one for many Jews, because of the war in Gaza, record antisemitism, and an FBI alert about Passover threats to Jews.

What's next: May is Jewish American Heritage Month, as proclaimed by President George W. Bush in 2006.

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