If you happen to be headed to a Passover seder this weekend, there is a strong chance that your meal will feature at least one product manufactured by the most famous name in kosher foods, Manischewitz. The 127-year-old brand is as much a fixture of the American pesach table as bitter herbs and haroset. Which is a pity, because the company's products are despicably bad.
Manischewitz's sins against taste are by now familiar. Its sickly sweet wine is all but undrinkable unless used as a cocktail mixer. Its oddly dense gefilte fish, with its aromatic hints of cat food, has turned off an untold many to a dish that, made properly, should be the Jewish answer to the proud French quenelle. And its matzo—its marquee product, the foodstuff that launched a kosher empire—is little but a pale, bland, rabbi-approved water cracker, lacking any hint of the dark, oven-baked char that gives handmade matzo or superior Israeli mass-market versions their flavor. And yet my fellow Jews and I pass these foods on from generation to generation, as though making the youngest kid at the table sing every year weren't enough of a Passover hazing ritual.
So why does Manischewitz endure? As Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna has documented, the company’s rise is a tale of immigrant ingenuity and the triumph of industrialized food production. Its founder, Dov Behr Manischewitz, came to the United States from his native Prussia in 1886, and shortly thereafter opened a small matzo factory in Cincinnati. At the time, the flatbread was generally produced locally in each city, often by hand, and efforts to automate the process were controversial. While a contraption for rolling matzo dough existed by 1838, Hasidic rabbis clashed on whether machine-made matzo could ever be considered kosher. Beyond that, they disagreed on the eternal question of whether it was good for the Jews. According to Sarna, many "feared that machine-made matzo, like so many other innovations in matters of religious tradition, would become a dangerous instrument of modernity leading inevitably to assimilation, Reform, and apostasy."
Manischewitz had no such qualms. In Cincinnati, he went about building the first fully automated matzo plant, capable of kneading, rolling, and cutting the dough, complete with a conveyor belt. Those innovations transformed the uneven baked oval flatbread of tradition into a uniform square, a shape that was convenient for cutting and boxing, and thus easy to ship. It is not a stretch to argue, as its supervising Rabbi now does, that "Manischewitz did for matzo what Henry Ford did for the automobile."
But, as Sarna recounts, some of the company's true genius lay in marketing. Initially, it played to Jewish class aspirations, calling its product "fine matzos" and selling it in a "cigar-type box" that "protected its contents and projected an aura of affluence." (Again, for a modern equivalent, think about fancy labels on water crackers). Beyond that, the company sought to allay fears about whether industrial matzo was sufficiently kosher by inviting rabbis for factory tours to win their endorsements and cultivated relationships with religious leaders living in the future Israel, even funding a yeshiva (or Jewish religious school) bearing the Manischewitz name. To some degree, this may have been unnecessary; the Orthodox rabbis who were suspicious of machine-made matzo were less prevalent in the United States than in Europe, and some old-country rabbis had allowed that industrial flatbread might be necessary to supply America's rapidly growing Jewish community.
Nonetheless, the religious ties helped build the brand's reputation and gave it an air of legitimacy when it advertised its product, dubiously, as "the most kosher matzo in the world."
When I called him on the phone, Sarna emphasized one other key to Manischewitz’s ascent. It was the first company to build a truly national, and later international, distribution network for kosher food. This became especially important when it began adding additional products to its portfolio, from the execrable but conveniently bottled gefilte fish to its wine. “They use that network subsequently for distributing all sorts of other things that the Jewish housewife will want,” Sarna said. “They know the stores. They figure out where Jewish customers are likely to be found.” In short, the company ensured that the kosher aisle in most American grocery stores would more or less amount to the Manischewitz aisle. At the same time, management also kept up its knack for canny marketing, hiring Sammy Davis Jr. as a pitchman for the wine, thus appealing to both the black and Jewish communities. In the end, its products were well known and easy to find.
Ultimately, Manischewitz excelled at industrial production, marketing, and logistics, the skills that midcentury corporate America was built upon. But in later years, it also resorted to less savory tactics. In 1991, a judge handed the company a $1 million fine, the maximum possible, for conspiring with two other competitors over at least five years to fix the price of matzo. Manischewitz acquired one of its co-conspirators while the case was unfolding, guaranteeing it would face less competition in the future without breaking any antitrust laws.
Today, Manischewitz, which operates out of Newark, New Jersey, remains the king of the matzo market and is gunning for a more mainstream audience. Kosher food sales have been rising, as non-Jews have been buying the products for “health and safety reasons,” treating the designation sort of like a Hebraic alternative to going organic. Last year, Bain Capital bought Manischewitz with the hope of tapping into that trend. But while the brand may be about to become even more ubiquitous, there’s no reason to subject your guests to it at the seder table. (I carve out an exception for its matzo meal, which is still the standard for making matzo balls for soup.) Kosher wines have had a renaissance and, when the polar vortex isn’t causing trouble, fresh gefilte fish is readily available in cities with large Jewish populations. As for matzo itself? Yehuda, a brand made in Israel, is cheaper and consistently scores higher in critics’ taste tests. There’s no reason that eating the bread of affliction should be such a boring experience.