Letter From New York: Manischewitz Destiny
Some names are tough to grow up with. When yours is a little hard to pronounce and—oh yeah—universally associated with the dry, cracker-like stuff made by the company your great-grandfather founded, “it can be a real problem,” says Laura Manischewitz Alpern. “Nine people out of ten can’t help but make some kind of matzah joke, and as a kid, you just want to be like everyone else. It took quite a long time to get used to that and to start feeling proud about the name.”
Alpern, who now lives with her family in Geneva, is in New York the week before Passover to talk about her book, Manischewitz: The Matzo Family – The Making of an American Jewish Icon (KTAV Publishers, 2008). It is a novelized account of her great-grandfather’s voyage to America, the origins of his company, and the unfolding narrative of the generations that followed, and if there is a central message, it might be this: Manischewitzes are people, too.
At the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan, several dozen people have gathered to hear Alpern chat onstage with cookbook author and all-around Jewish American culinary authority Joan Nathan, despite an April downpour. (Or perhaps they have come for the promised free box of Manischewitz’s best—“though that may not have mattered,” one of the organizers tells me. “Nobody likes soggy matzah.”)
Most of the discussion will center on the pioneering and somewhat domineering figure of the company’s founder. Dov Behr Manischewitz was a man who, quite literally, made a name for himself. In her book, Alpern recreates the moment when her great-grandfather, born Abramson in Lithuania, presented the U.S. immigration papers to his startled wife: “Look, Nesha, this is our name in America. May God grant us prosperity with it!”
The family, Alpern says, isn’t exactly sure where the name came from—one theory is that Behr took a friend’s name to escape service in the Czar’s army; another, that he purchased the passport of a dead man to hasten the emigration process.
In any event, Manischewitz, with his young family and new name, relocated in 1886 to Cincinnati, where the community of Jews from his hometown had offered him a job as a shochet, a kosher slaughterer. But when Passover rolled around, he noticed how difficult it was to obtain matzahs, and he started baking them himself. He saw his venture as a good business, but also a mitzvah. One small bakery became two, became three, became a factory, and by the 1920s, the next generation of Manischewitzes were producing 1.25 million matzahs per day and shipping them around the world.
Eventually, as more year-round products (Tam Tams, anyone?) were introduced, the company built a larger plant in New Jersey to be closer to New York City’s Jewish population. Alpern grew up in the 1950s and ’60s as one of the last Manischewitzes left in Cincinnati. Her father went to work at the factory every day (“It may be matzah to you, but it’s bread-and-butter to me,” was one of his favorite sayings) and every year, days before Passover, a large box would arrive with every one of the company’s products. “Today, it would take a truck,” she says, noting that Manischewitz—sold off to a conglomerate in 1990—now makes everything from bottled borscht to potato knish mix. (The famous Manischewitz wine is actually produced by an outside company that has maintained a licensing agreement to use the name since the 1940s.)
Like any good story involving Jews and food, this one is not without controversy. Before Behr even got his business too far off the ground, a cadre of local rabbis questioned the kosherness of making matzah by machine (the support of other rabbis, plus Behr’s own authority as the product of a respected Lithuanian yeshiva, kept the customer base growing). And when Manischewitz introduced matzah meal in the 1930s, it set off another debate that in many quarters remains unsettled to this day: Should the centuries-old method of making matzah balls—mixing egg with soaked chunks of matzah—be abandoned for the newer, fluffier formula?
“It changed Jewish cooking all over the world,” Nathan later tells me, while en route to The Martha Stewart Show, where she will prepare two Passover dishes for the TV audience. “My mother-in-law lived in this tiny town in Poland and she started using it, too. But frankly, I am among those who believe matzah balls should always be al dente.”
Nathan affirms that Manischewitz’s lasting legacy is in bringing matzah to the masses, making the necessary elements of any seder accessible as never before in a country where Passover is the most celebrated Jewish holiday. After centuries of round matzahs, Manischewitz’s machines made it hip to be square. The pseudonymous “Deborah Ross,” author of the company’s popular Yiddish-English cookbooks, used to receive more letters per week than Betty Crocker.
The central objective of Passover is an ordered retelling of the exodus from Egypt, specifically to transmit the tale and tradition to future generations. With her book—which started as “a small genealogy project”—Alpern is proud that she has passed on her family’s story to her daughters and others, as well as “the idea of Passover as the Jewish holiday closest to our hearts.”
And in so doing, she has reclaimed her name. Whereas her mother would sometimes mispronounce it deliberately to avoid attention (Muh-NIH-shoo-WITS?)—and she herself was relieved to change it upon getting married—Laura Manischewitz Alpern says she now feels much closer to the events and the family she brings to life in her book. “I am very proud of my name,” she says. “I think, hey, I’m part of something special.”