Jonathan D. Sarna: Manischewitz Goes Sephardic

JBUZZ: ISRAEL/JEWISH CULTURAL BUZZ

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Source: Forward, 7-11-11

Man, Oh, Manischewitz

Holy Matzo: Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, a supervising rabbi at Manischewitz, compares a regular sheet of matzo with the giant matzo on the machine behind him at the firm’s Newark factory.

Peter Morehand
Holy Matzo: Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, a supervising rabbi at Manischewitz, compares a regular sheet of matzo with the giant matzo on the machine behind him at the firm’s Newark factory.

“Holy Matzo!” a recent Forward headline read. The accompanying article announced the baking of the “world’s largest matzo” — 82 square feet — to mark the opening of the new Manischewitz matzo factory in Newark, N.J.

The matzo proved ephemeral; it was soon broken up and distributed. What I found fascinating at the factory’s opening (which I attended) was an off-the-cuff remark by Israel’s chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, before he blessed the plant. “Who knew,” he quipped, “that the world’s largest manufacturers of gefilte fish were two Moroccan Jews from Casablanca?”

Manischewitz, founded in 1888 in Cincinnati, once symbolized the emergence of Eastern European Jews on American soil. Dov Behr Manischewitz, the company’s founder, hailed from Memel in Lithuania and spun gold in the New World by discovering new ways to combine flour and water. The technological innovations introduced by Manischewitz and his sons revolutionized the production of matzo in America and catapulted Manischewitz’s company into the world’s largest producer of Passover matzo.

What had been, before the founding of Manischewitz, a product that for the most part was handmade, locally distributed and round became, thanks to the man from Memel, a universally recognized brand of matzo: produced and packaged by patented machines, distributed internationally and shaped in the form of a square.

By the 1920s, Manischewitz produced 1.25 million matzos per day and claimed that it delivered matzo to “80% of the Jewish population of America and Canada.” Building on its success, it branched out into other Jewish foods, like gefilte fish, chicken soup and borscht. In 1947, it licensed its name to a line of sweet kosher wines produced by the Monarch Wine Co.

Thanks to one of the most brilliant advertising campaigns in the history of American kosher food, “Man, oh, Manischewitz” became a well-known slogan. Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan actually exclaimed that phrase during a moonwalk in 1973.

Eventually, like such well-known, family-based ethnic food companies as Ronzoni, Franco-American, La Choy and Lender’s, Manischewitz outgrew the family that established it. Bernard Manischewitz sold the company to Kohlberg & Co., L.L.C., in 1990; Kohlberg sold it to RAB Enterprises in 1998, and in 2007 it was sold again, this time to Harbinger Capital Partners.

Today, the Manischewitz Co. has moved far from its Eastern European roots. Indeed, its Moroccan-born co-CEOs, Alain Bankier and Paul Bensabat, reflect the changing face of America’s increasingly diverse and polychrome Jewish community. Sephardic Jews with roots in the Middle East, often known as Mizrahi Jews, form part of a sub-community that now comprises somewhere between 4% and 10% of all American Jews. And their numbers are growing….READ MORE

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