Passover According to the Homestead Newspaper


One of the biggest surprises of my research into Homestead’s Jewish community is that the local newspaper took quite an interest in their affairs.  When I first began this project, on a whim I looked up some of the key dates from the community’s early history, like the dedications of the two synagogues in 1902 and 1914, and was stunned not only to find that the paper covered these events, but that they covered them in some detail (here and here)!  As a result I got greedy, looking up increasingly distant and seemingly insular events — like the first Rosh Hashana services in 1893 — and I was continually rewarded with newspaper coverage that corroborated and elaborated upon what I already knew from the synagogue’s records.

Rosh Hashana 1893 was notable as the first time the Jewish community formally observed a holiday in Homestead, but for many of the subsequent holidays the paper was right there explaining each occasion and its customs to its readers.  In the seventeen years I have reviewed so far (1888-1904), the paper covered all the major holidays at least once — Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot (even differentiating Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah), Chanukah, Purim, Passover, Shavuot, and Tisha b’Av — and even mentioned one of the minor fasts, Tsom Gedaliah.  The coverage waxed and waned as the Jewish community’s own developments raised and lowered its profile, with the years the congregation was organized (1893-4) and built its first synagogue (1901-2) bringing the greatest coverage of the Jewish holidays.  The coverage fell off around these peaks, with no coverage at all in 1888-1892 and 1895-1897.

In general the articles were accurate.  There were the expected mistakes in transliteration — You Keffer and Tisha Boob, anyone? — a sometimes bizarre representation of customs — Sukkot as “a week of pleasure” — and frequently a fixation on minor details — the men’s hats vs. the rabbi’s “high hat” — but nothing I could find much actual fault with.

Except for when it came to Passover.

For some reason, the paper just could not wrap its head around Passover, which is strange considering that this holiday’s description in the Bible more closely matches its present-day observance than the other holidays the paper managed to represent fairly accurately.  Every year they got got at least one or two things wrong, sometimes to hilarious effect.  So, in these final minutes before the sun sets and Passover begins, let’s familiarize ourselves with Passover observance according to the Homestead newspaper around the turn of the last century.

It was still the case that the “time honored custom” we are ushering in tonight had a multitude of names, just different ones, such as “Hebrew Easter,” “Jewish Easter,” and the “Feast of the Passover.”  It “[commemorates] the passage of the children of Israel out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses,” for “the story of the Jews in Egypt is an old and a bitter one.”  It “will be observed with more or less punctiliousness by the Hebrews of Homestead in a quiet way, though there will be no public celebration.”

As such, the home aspects of the holiday came in for detailed examination by the paper.  “The event is always instituted by family reunions among the Hebrew people.”  “The first evening is celebrated by a prayer meeting, held by the head of each family before they partake of the banquet.” One year they mistakenly called this home celebration “the ‘Sadis’ ceremony,” though in a subsequent years they at least got the name right when they explained, “the first two night are known as ‘seder nights.’ These are the two nights which the Bible tells us were necessary in getting the Jews out of Egyptian domain. It was on the first of these nights that it was found upon making preparations to cook the evening meal that salt had been run out of.”  Someone who knew nothing about Jewish family dynamics waxed poetic about how, “Great harmony, humility and loving kindness reign at the seder table. The house father and the youngest son sit on a feather bed, while the rest of the family sit around the table in uniform order.”  “Every detail of the ceremony of the deliverance of the Jews from bondage by Moses is most elaborately told in the Haggadah–a portion of the Talmud.”  “The head of the family…[opens] a long scroll ancient with years, [and reads] to the family the story of Israel’s bondage in Egypt.”  Additionally, “Orthodox Hebrews observe the ‘Feast of the Angels,’ a beautiful custom. A glass of wine and a dish of honey are left standing on the table over night for angel visitors.”  (I shared that one with a group of religiously knowledgeable friends, and no one could come up with a neglected custom to which this description might correspond.  Perhaps they misunderstood the rituals surrounding Elijah’s Cup?)

They recognized that much work went into this “banquet.”  “Everything in the house is thoroughly renovated,” and “in order to prepare for the event it takes several days, as only certain foods may be tasted during the entire observance of the passover,” they wrote before examining the food restrictions with special interest.  One year they confused their Biblical foods that begin with “m” when they explained that during this holiday, “the members of the Jewish church are prohibited by the laws of the church from partaking of any food but bread known as ‘manna.'”  In subsequent years they used the right name for “this bread [which] was baked in the desert by the women, while the Jewish armies dwelt in tents.” “As a consequence of course the holiday period has been responsible for the building up of an industry known as ‘Matzos’ baking.'”  (Incidentally, in a discussion of the local matzah factories, they called the Hill District “the local Jewish Ghetto district.”)  Matzos “are light and when properly baked are palatable,” claimed a reporter who clearly had never eaten any, and are “eaten during the week in place of bread and meat.” They related other food customs as well.  “A preparation of water, honey or sugar and hops, which is boiled, colored and cleared a week before the holiday, takes the place of coffee and other beverages,” they wrote, which maybe did actually happen, though coffee is kosher for Passover?!  “The wine used during the passover day is imported from Jerusalem and is of the finest brand. The poorer families, however, are content with the common brands,” which maybe also happened, but as a matter of course, not custom.  Most worryingly, they added that “everything in which salt is used is strictly prohibited,” which would make me want to cry were it actually the case.  Perhaps it was laboring under all these misapprehensions that led them to conclude in one article that the local community had “[made] arrangements to enter the fasting.”

Unlike other holidays, the synagogue-related activities got the least coverage.   “A day of prayer precedes and follows the feast.”  “During passover week the Hebrews give themselves entirely to religious exercises and rejoicing.”  “Special services will be held in various tabernacles during this event.”

Well, given that we will be eating meat and salt and drinking coffee — and not observing these restrictions for ten days as the paper claimed one year — I certainly feel a lot better about what we are about to abstain from.  Still looking for my local tabernacle, though!


4/13/1900: Ad announcing the reopening of Friedlander's store in its new location.

4/13/1900: This opening began on erev Pesach and ran through the first day of the holiday.

4/6/1900: Ad announcing the grand opening of the new location of Skirboll and Son.

4/6/1900: This opening took place on erev Pesach, running late in to the evening when the First Seder would have been happening.

As for what the community was actually observing during this time, it’s hard to say.  The oral histories, which mostly cover a period decades later, suggest a variation in observance that probably did not exist in the early years.  The only early one, given by a man who was a child in Homestead from 1900-1907, related that the man was “sure” his father made a seder, though, “I don’t recall it, but he wouldn’t have dreamed of not having one.”  But when it came to the difficult balance between commerce and observance, Passover does not appear to have been one of the holidays where the community was willing to take their losses.  1900 was one year when the annual opening of the spring shopping season coincided with Passover, and judging by advertisements for stores belonging to Abraham Skirboll, Benjamin Friedlander, and the Grinberg brothers, business went on as usual (vs. advertisements around Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur, which regularly announced store closings).

As indicated by the synagogue records from a much later period, at some point — probably fairly early on — they began to organize a matzo committee annually to procure and distribute Passover food from Pittsburgh.  Louis Averbach recollected in his oral history:

Instead of people going out to shop for Passover goods, two of the people, two of the members of the synagogue, would go to each Jewish family who were members of the synagogue and get their orders for matzah, matzo meal, farfal, and cooking everything. They would get all the orders together.

And then when it would come in, they would deliver it to the Jewish families. And, whatever money they made on it, which was all right, it was for the synagogue. However, there was something else that they did. They also had, they also had items for those people who could not pay. But no one knew who they were. There was one woman who took care of that. She knew who they were. And she would give them the order, they would give her all the Passover products, she would take care of the delivery and nobody knew who they were.

I think it was a woman by the name of, I don’t know, Mrs. Friedlander.

When asked how people in Homestead got food for Passover, Harry Newman also recalled that “the shul sold it. The matzahs we bought, in fact I worked on the truck delivering matzahs to all the homes… We used to gather it up on the truck and deliver the orders.”

Starting in the late 30s when the community’s charity efforts became more centralized and ambitious, raising Maot Chitim money became a big, annual effort (hearkening back to the custom of gathering wheat so the poor could observe Passover).  Arnold Zuckerman explained, “They had good, successful businessmen there on the avenue. They had some meeting, they raised some nice money. They raised money at Passover time, they gave to the needy to the poor. No one objected, they all pitched in.”

A couple other Passover anecdotes in the meeting minutes stood out to me.  Marshall Gordon recalled that Rabbi Weiss, who led the congregation in the 40s, made wine for Passover.  And my cousin Bernard Keisler told a great story about eating his mother’s matzah sandwiches in the steel mill surrounded by the full diversity of workers.

What memories do you have about Passover in Homestead?

And Happy Passover to you and your families!

  6 comments for “Passover According to the Homestead Newspaper

  1. iris Nahemow
    April 5, 2015 at 9:04 am

    Tammy, this is fascinating! And, I am glad you have connected with my cousin, Marshall Gordon. How interesting that Rabbi Weiss made wine for Passover,

    The names you continue to include make me think of others with whom I should be sharing your efforts. I’ll be contacting them to see if they are relatives of those with the same name.

  2. Lynn Saul
    April 7, 2015 at 2:17 pm

    The coffee story is especially interesting, because at first, observant Jews did not believe that coffee was kosher for Passover, as “coffee beans” were considered beans, which are kitniyot (non-grain foods that are considered chametz, not usable during Passover.) This changed when Maxwell House began to distribute their famous Passover Haggadah (the book containing the rituals for the Passover Seder) along with their coffee.
    I thought this had been discussed in Hasia R. Diner’s fascinating book, “Hungering for America: Italian, Irish & Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration,” but it isn’t, although that book contains fascinating details on how other food processing companies marketed their products to Jews. Maybe I read an article by her about the Maxwell House story, but I couldn’t find it.
    However, I found this wonderful online article from “The Forward,” “101 Years of the Maxwell House Haggadah” by Anne Cohen, published March 23, 2013, in which Maxwell House’s advertising department explains:

    The Maxwell House Haggadah owes its existence to the Joseph Jacobs, a former advertising manager for the Forverts who started the Joseph Jacobs Advertising agency in 1919, which specialized in selling ads for Jewish publications. In 1923, Jacobs convinced Maxwell House Coffee, then owned by the Cheek Neal Coffee Co. out of Tennessee (it’s now owned by Kraft Foods, Inc.), to invest in an advertising campaign targeting Jewish consumers.

    Until then, the coffee bean had been seen as a legume, a bean not kosher for Passover. “Jewish grocery stores would put away coffee with the chametz under the incorrect assumption that coffee beans were kitniyot when in fact they are technically a fruit not a bean in that sense,” explained Elie Rosenfeld, CEO of Joseph Jacobs Advertising.

    To spread the word, Jacobs had an obscure Lower East Side rabbi certify that coffee beans were an acceptable post-Seder treat. To drive the point home, he placed an ad in the Forverts, announcing to all Yiddish speakers that Maxwell House Coffee was Kosher L’Pesach, or kosher for Passover (see original ad below).

    Nearly 10 years later, in 1932, the Maxwell House Haggadah was born. It has been printed continuously since that time, handed out for free in supermarkets — though according to Carole B. Balin, professor of Jewish History at Hebrew Union College, that part is somewhat of a myth. “It was supposed to be buy one get one free. You bought one can of Maxwell House Coffee and got a haggadah in exchange,” she explained.

    Based on the honor system, the two-for-one idea might have fallen by the wayside. “I don’t think 50 million cans of coffee were sold, let’s just put it that way,” Balin said.

    Nonetheless, the product took off. For Jeffrey S. Gurock, Libby M. Klaperman professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University, Maxwell House Haggadah is as much a consumer story as it is a Jewish one. “This Haggadah is maybe the best example of the melding of American entrepreneurship and Jewish tradition,” Gurock said. “That’s what my parents and grandparents used, even though it was a consumer product put out by a non-Jewish company.”

    By 2006, Balin said, over 50 million copies of the Maxwell House Haggadah had been printed and distributed in Jewish households in America, and around the world. In 2012 alone, Rosenfeld said, the agency printed over a million copies.

    In 1999, the Joseph Jacobs Advertising conducted a “pantry study,” in the context of which employees knocked on doors in 13 counties in the metro New York area, and surveyed participants on 6-15 product categories. Maxwell House and other products traditionally marketed to Jews — like Hellman’s mayonnaise, Breakstone’s sour cream, and Hershey’s — had “penetrated Jewish homes at double the rate of non-Jewish homes,” Balin said.

    “Jacobs persuaded mainstream advertisers like Kraft, Colgate-Palmolive, and Quaker Oats to see the Jewish press as a viable marketing medium for their productsm,” Balin added. “The kinds of products my mother had in the home were the ones marketed by the Joseph Jacobs marketing industry: Miracle whip, Hydrox cookies, and Maxwell House Coffee.”

    Maxwell House is by no means the only brand to have produced a haggadah. So how to account for its lasting success? For Balin, there are three main reasons that explain why the Maxwell House edition has endured.

    First, she said, there was a need. “There was a tremendous interest in the Passover seder among American Jews, which required some kind of script to play out the drama. And there it was.”

    Until then, the Passover service was a largely based on traditions passed down within the community. “Local custom ruled liturgy,”Rabbi Burton L. Visotsky, a Jewish Theological Seminary professor told Moment Magazine in 2009. “Maxwell House did more to codify Jewish liturgy than any force in history.”

    Second, Balin added, it was available. Finally, she said, the layout and text was user friendly for a generation of largely assimilated American Jews whose Hebrew or Yiddish wasn’t necessarily up to snuff.

    In the 80 years it’s been in print, the Haggadah has been through very few changes. In the 1960s, Joseph Jacobs Advertising changed the original cover to the iconic blue one; in the 1990s, an error in the order of the service was corrected; and finally, in 2011, the cover was revamped and the English text updated to adopt a more gender-neutral and less archaic phrasing — say goodbye to “thees” and “thines.”

    For Gurock, the updated text is a testament to the capitalist aspect behind this particular haggadah. Rather than going against tradition, he said, “it reflects an ongoing sensitivity to the consumer.”

    “It’s an ongoing tradition that people continue to relate to, despite all the new haggadot that are all more intellectually and spiritually based,” he added.

    This genius marketing ploy is the reason that after four cups of kosher-for-Passover Seder wine, you’ll be able to enjoy a fifth cup — and it’ll be good to the last drop.

  3. Lorraine
    April 7, 2015 at 4:37 pm

    Coffee bean story is right on the money.

  4. Stephanie
    April 22, 2016 at 11:06 am

    What a hilarious story!

  5. J. Chris Hall
    April 25, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    Tammy – This is great.

  6. Karen L Grossman
    March 23, 2021 at 12:20 pm

    Thanks for the interesting analysis of the history of Passover reporting in the Pittsburgh papers! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. So happy you’re still involved in your exploration of the Homestead Hebrews.

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