Good To The Last Dayenu


In 5771, the “King” was overthrown.

As part of a revolution in both linguistics and religious practice, the Maxwell House Haggadah, a staple of countless Jewish homes on Passover for 80 years, has been given a modern makeover. The new version, which was distributed in stores nationwide last week, drops the familiar phrase “King of the universe” in blessings, in favor of the gender-neutral “Monarch.”

Also missing in the new version of the Haggadah are most male-centered pronouns and possessive words that refer to God, as well as other gender-specific phrases. Think Four Children instead of Four Sons.


No. The latest Maxwell House Haggadah also has expunged antiquated words like “thee” and “thine,” and added up-to-date graphics and photographs.

For the millions of American Jews who don’t read Hebrew and depend on the Haggadah’s English translations, and who have used the Maxwell House Haggadah at their seder table for generations, this one will barely be recognized when the holiday begins on Monday, April 17. “It was time — language has evolved. We want people to sit [at the seder table] and have an idea of what they’re saying,” said Elie Rosenfeld, who, as CEO of the Joseph Jacobs advertising agency, coordinated the yearlong production process for the new Haggadah. His firm, which represents Maxwell House brands, has produced the Haggadah since it began as America’s first mass-marketed Haggadah in 1932, a decade after Maxwell House coffee came under rabbinical supervision in a campaign to replace tea as the seder night drink of choice.

“It’s 2011,” said Henry Frisch, a retired high school teacher — he taught a Bible as literature course — who did the translations for the new Haggadah. His goal: a Haggadah “more comfortable for American Jewish families.”

In an age when flashy graphics and the latest expressions are so instantly available with click of a computer mouse, centuries-old English and male-particular wording were considered outmoded for most Jewish American homes; change was inevitable.

But all the changes, Frisch says, are faithful to the intent of the Hebrew words. “It’s not non-Orthodox.”

“This is not a feminist Haggadah,” Rosenfeld said. “It’s a very much, all-inclusive Haggadah.” Several rabbis and scholars — “primarily Orthodox” — reviewed the translations, he said. “The book is traditional in every way — just contemporized.”

As part of the Haggadah’s redesign, bigger and newer type fonts in both Hebrew and English were introduced, and instructions were placed in the easier-to-read margins instead of buried in the text. There is also a light-blue screen over the Hebrew transliterations, as well as a new color cover and an expanded table of contents.

The new 58-page Haggadah, while still offering the standard Ashkenazic text, is a clean break from the past; it parallels the changes that many publishers and all denominations of Judaism have instituted in recent years in translations of the Torah, the siddur and other texts.

The changes in the new Haggadah — some of which were instituted in the last revised version in 1998 — will have an effect beyond the American Jewish households that use it one or two nights a year. While the Passover Haggadah is the most printed book in Jewish life, with thousands of extant versions available, the Maxwell House Haggadah has become arguably the de facto American Haggadah, probably read at more holiday tables than any other single Haggadah, reportedly used at Israeli kibbutzim and army bases, underground seders in the Soviet Union under Communism, and President Obama’s White House seder two years ago.

Signs of recognition of the Haggadah’s ubiquity include a recent Hallmark yom tov greeting card that reproduces one of the Haggadah’s early covers, and a 2009 essay on Jews’ responsibility to assume greater control over their Pesach practices, written by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, leader of the Jewish Renewal movement, which was titled “Freeing the Seder from the Maxwell House Haggadah.”

“The focus on gender-free language has become widespread in America, and is non-controversial,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “The fact that the Maxwell House Haggadah is changing its language demonstrates and underscores this cultural change. There is nothing revolutionary about the revision. The upgraded … Haggadah shows how traditions can be harmonized with contemporary practice without losing their essence.”

An expansion of the number of Haggadahs published in recent years under Orthodox auspices with commentaries by a variety of experts offers unlimited choices for that community; the Maxwell House Haggadah, Rosenfeld says, is especially popular in non-Orthodox circles or among people who prefer to conduct a barebones seder. “The vast majority of people who use it are probably not Orthodox.”

A little over a million copies were distributed this year, free with the purchase of any Maxwell House product. Since 1932, more than 50 million copies of the Haggadah have been printed, making it, according to a Maxwell House press release this week that announced the updated version, “the most widely used Haggadah in the world.”

“As a brand, it’s a relationship we cherish,” said Becky McAnnich, Maxwell House coffee senior brand manager. “It’s our hope this new Haggadah will become as much an integral part of the holiday as the previous editions have been.”

If, according to Jewish folk wisdom, a Haggadah reflects the era in which it is produced, the Maxwell House Haggadah has, through the years, reflected changes in American Jewry. The first one, which came out when most American Jews had roots in Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe, was a sign that a growing part of a the community was unfamiliar with a Haggadah in either Hebrew or Yiddish, and needed one in English.

Before Maxwell House offered its own, “Haggadahs were fluid in text and format,” Moment magazine reported in 2009. “Local custom ruled liturgy,” Rabbi Burton Visotsky, professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, was quoted as saying in the article. “Maxwell House did more to codify liturgy than any force in history.”

A promotional item geared to the Jewish market was “recognition [of the importance of] Jews as consumers,” said Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University. “It is an example of American entrepreneurship.”

Gurock is familiar with the popular Haggadah. “As a child, this was on the seder table for years,” he said.

The Maxwell House Haggadah added a Hebrew transliteration in the 1960s, for people who could not read the Hebrew text at all.

But while the layout of the Haggadah was changed about once every 10 years, to modernize its appearance, the English translation remained largely the same since 1932: stilted, apparently written by an émigré, or someone more familiar with flowery English than with the colloquial language.

“Everything else changed” in American Jewish life since the early 20th century, “but the Maxwell House Haggadah seemed to stay the same,” said Jenna Weissman Joselit, professor of history and Judaic studies at George Washington University.

Frisch calls the language in the earlier versions of the Maxwell House Haggadah “Jacobean” English, referring to the era of 16th-century reign of England’s James I. “Almost King James-ish,” agrees Rosenfeld, referring to the King James translation of the Bible, which was carried out in 1604-11 in a formal but anachronistic style, and is still favored by many American Christians. The style was deemed to be unfitting for most homes on seder night.

Maxwell House executives and the Joseph Jacobs agency agreed last year that it was time for a change, Rosenfeld said.

Eliminating words like “wherefore” (for why) or “heavy bondage” (for slavery) were “obvious,” Frisch says; and “How can you” instead of “From whence canst thou” in the calculation of the plagues. “Say” instead of “saith” throughout. Gone are thou and thy and thine, in favor of you and your.

Also obvious was adoption, whenever possible, of language that is not gender-specific, especially when referring to a Deity who is not gender-specific. “Everyone should be comfortable using the Haggadah,” Frisch said.

The new Haggadah cites “the strict Guardian of promises to Israel” instead of “He, who observeth strictly his promise unto Israel.” A phrase in the Hallel (prayers of praise) excerpt from Psalms praises God “Whose glory is above the heavens” instead of a previous rendition, “His glory is above the heavens.” And in the blessing after the meal, “Parent” is used instead of “Father.”

Some tweaking of individual words or phrases is possible in future editions of the Haggadah, Rosenfeld said. Another thorough revamping is “not in the plans.”

When that time comes, he says, a change in the Hebrew transliteration, from the current Ashkenazic pronunciation to the Sephardic that is spoken by most Israelis and Jews in the diaspora, is possible. “It definitely is not off the table.”