Haggada on the House

As much a staple as chicken soup and matza balls, the iconic Maxwell House edition that has been passed out at US supermarkets since the Thirties has been given an upgrade.

HENRY FRISCH 521 (photo credit: Jacob Josephs Advertising)
(photo credit: Jacob Josephs Advertising)
As Jewish families across America thumb through their Maxwell House Haggadot this Pessah, Henry Frisch of New Jersey has a particularly apt reason to raise a glass: The literature and Bible expert has spiffed up the 80-yearold Haggada with a much-needed makeover.
The iconic text – with its Hebrew, English and transliteration – has been as much a holiday staple in American Jewish homes as chicken soup and matza balls. Now it’s been updated with a new English translation, gender neutral terms and modern expressions.
“I wanted this to be a Haggada all American Jewish families could be comfortable with, regardless of their level of knowledge,” said Frisch, 63. The Hebrew text, obviously, is classic.
The Maxwell House coffee company first released its Haggada in 1932 in an effort to promote its coffee, which had kosher-for-Pessah certification, and it has served ever since as a gesture of goodwill to the community, said Elie Rosenfeld, CEO of Joseph Jacobs Advertising, which represents Maxwell House.
As the English language evolved, the patriarchal language unchanged since the 1930s became passé. Likewise, bright graphic images have grown ubiquitous.
In response, Maxwell House decided it was time to contemporize in looks and language what it says is undoubtedly the most printed Haggada in history.
“It was the same translation since 1932,” said Rosenfeld. Since so many Jewish homes conduct their Seders partially or wholly in English, it should be an English that everyone understands, he said.
The company sought a scholar who could pen a modern English translation that would remain faithful to the Hebrew wording while resonating with American families.
Frisch, who taught Bible and Shakespeare at the Bronx High School of Science for three decades, was considered the ideal candidate for the task because of his ability to teach Bible to people of all backgrounds, said Rosenfeld.
Frisch has kept busy since his 2003 retirement, leading Shakespeare courses for adults and attending daily Talmud and Bible classes. But when Rosenfeld approached him, he was excited about the Haggada project.
Frisch describes the Haggada’s previous English translation as “pseudo Jacobean,” because of its flowery and archaic language.
American Jews in the early years of the last century were drawn to an English that had the affect of the King James Bible, said Frisch, who grew up in Washington Heights and attended elementary school at Yeshiva Soloveichik.
The Jews of today’s generation find that type of language, with all the “thees” and “thines,” to be too flowery and outdated, Frisch mused. He grappled with the Haggada text for more than a year, leaving some of it the way it was when he could, but other times making dramatic changes: The four sons became the four children. The king of the world evolved into the monarch of the universe.
Some of the text was changed to make it easier for readers to understand. The children at the Seder should be asking Four Questions that they would really ask, he pointed out. The old version reads, “Wherefore is this night distinguished from all other nights?” Frisch simplified the wording to: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Translating the story of Laban and his behavior with Jacob posed a typical challenge, he said.
“For some reason the old translator in 1932 decided to describe Laban as a ‘Syrian’ in what must have seemed a sophisticated translation of ‘Arami’ at that time,” Frisch said. “I pictured President Obama sitting at the White House Seder these past two years reading ‘Syrian.’” The term was deemed inappropriate because it seems like a political reference when it could not have been so intended.
The previous translator, who was effecting what Frisch referred to as a “high style,” used a term that had none of the political overtones it might have today when Syria is a state that has a difficult history with Israel.
Frisch considered using “Aramean” but substituted “Aramite,” because, he said, “It has a nastier sound and Laban, as a nasty customer, deserves a nasty description.”
“We tried,” Frisch said, “to editorialize as little as possible.” Whereas, he weighed using “Aramite trickster” because Rashi describes Laban as a “trickster,” in the end, Frisch opted not to add on.
Nonetheless, in another area he felt like being a bit controversial where describing the items the freed slaves would depart Egypt with. There, Frisch translated the Hebrew “rechush” as “loot” rather than the usual “wealth.” “Even though we generally leave exegesis to other, thicker Haggadot, it is hard to stay that neutral all the time.”
Frisch said he’s thrilled with the fruits of his labors. “I got a kick out of doing this project knowing the role of this Haggada in American Jewish life,” he said.
Since Maxwell House distributes the Haggadot free at groceries across the country to shoppers who purchase a Maxwell House item, many thousands of people are looking at his creation.
According to Rosenfeld, this year’s run of the new version consisted of over a million copies.
At his daily Talmud class, Frisch’s peers appreciate his newfound celebrity. Many lined up for autographs after the Haggada was released, he laughed.
But come Seder night, which he celebrates with his wife, his children and numerous grandchildren, he will likely be reading from a more esoteric Haggada with a lot of commentary.
“We have the Maxwell House Haggada in our house,” he admitted sheepishly.
“But I hardly ever use it.”