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New York — For many Jews, the thought of Passover conjures up images of families feasting on matzo, kosher wine and for a few brave souls perhaps, Gefilte fish. Chances are, the name on the packaging is always the same: Manischewitz.
For the family that traces its lineage back to Behr Manischewitz and the Cincinnati bakery he opened in 1888, the labels remind them of their family’s pioneering efforts to make kosher food widely available, though it’s a responsibility they gave up when they sold the Manischewitz Company nearly 20 years ago.
While their family name remains synonymous with bustling factory inspections and community fanfare, Manischewitz’s descendents now celebrate Passover (which begins April 8 this year) quietly at home, just like any other Jewish family.
“People ask us about it, when they hear our name, but in my generation, the interest in general had waned in making a career at the company,” explained Jack Manischewitz, 66, the founder’s great-grandson and a retired grant manager for the National Institutes of Health.
About six dozen Manischewitz descendants are now scattered from California to Israel. Most have different surnames, and none have anything to do with the kosher factory that’s now headquartered in Newark, N.J.
Giving up the company — and for the married women, their last name — came as something of a relief for Jack Manischewitz and his sister Laura Alpern. As youths, they had grown tired of jokes about their name, particularly in connection to the sweet wine licensed by the company.
“People always asked me if my feet were purple from stomping on the grapes,” recalled their cousin Ofra Parmett, 53, an artist who lives in Teaneck, N.J.
But as adults, and especially at this time of year, when their family name graces supermarket shelves and Seder tables across the country, they embrace a sense of pride in their past. They can also pass the family history on to their own children now, chronicled in Alpern’s
2008 book, “Manischewitz: The Matzo Family-The Making of an American Icon.”
Alpern, 63, a librarian in Switzerland, traveled to Ohio, Latvia and Lithuania for her research, aided by older family members and archival materials saved by previous generations and Jewish collectors.
Her inquiries confirmed that the Manischewitz name, assigned to the family in America, is unique; she has only found a handful of Manischewitzes who are not related to her family.
American Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna, who wrote the introduction to her book, credits the “iconic” Manischewitz clan as helping devout immigrants succeed without having to sacrifice their religious traditions, a marked difference from those who had assimilated before them.
“The image was, if you wanted to make it in America, you had to abandon these rituals, you couldn’t be too Jewish, you had to Americanize,” he said. “And suddenly, here was this company that became a major company and its legitimacy, certainly in the early years, was tied in with the fact that they were Orthodox.”
The family’s machine-made, square matzo was deemed acceptable by traditionalists, even though the crackers bore little resemblance to the hand-made, round variety that had endured for thousands of years. Mass production made the product affordable and accessible to all Jews, bringing some back to the fold who had abandoned rituals that seemed impractical for America.
“There’s a large group of people for whom their only connection to Judaism is that box of Manischewitz matzo or the bottle of wine on their table at Passover time,” said Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, the company’s director of kosher operations.
“It’s the matzo they saw at their parents’ table, at their grandparents’ table.”
Each generation modernized production and expanded the company’s offerings — adding the popular Tam Tam crackers and wine during the 1940s — but by the time Behr Manischewitz’s great-grandchildren had become adults, none had any interest in working in the family business, opting for careers in the arts or sciences instead.
Alpern thinks that perhaps if the women, who had assumed leading roles in Jewish organizations, had been encouraged to get involved in the business, the company would have remained under family control longer. Then again, her brother notes, traditional women were homemakers and ritually restricted from handling matzo during certain times of the month; only old women could be hired for the baking process.
The company is now the country’s largest producer of matzo, and thrives as part of a food conglomerate that has been able to expand to offer even more flavors and products to a global audience. Recognizing the marketing power of the historic name, the company changed its name from the R.A.B. Food Company to The Manischewitz Company last year.
Although they rarely keep track of the company’s developments, and they once found it difficult to share its title, Alpern, Manischewitz and Parmett say they were very happy to hear about the reclaimed name.
“The future builds on the past, and The Manischewitz Company is a part of American Jewish culture that will continue to thrive,” Alpern said.
This year, the Manischewitz descendants all plan to celebrate Passover at their homes: Parmett in New Jersey, Manischewitz in Maryland, and Alpern in Switzerland. Parmett and Manischewitz will stock up on their favorite Manischewitz staples for the occasion; Alpern has to settle for ingredients from Israel or France, but her family still prepares dishes from her treasured 1972 edition Manischewitz Passover Cookbook.
“Manischewitz products have been sold in Europe for over 70 years, but Switzerland is too small a market for the company’s products,” she said, with a sigh. “When I am in New York, I always stock up on my favorite Tam Tams and macaroons.”
By Nicole Neroulias
Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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