Man-o-Manischewitz - What a Quintessential American Jewish Family

We surely recall the advertisements, "Man-o-Manischewitz, What a Wine!" Well we can make exclamations about the family too.

We have a Teaneck contingent here in town via Ofra Parmett, great granddaughter of the founder. Accordingly our local paper. the Bergen Record, picked up the story from the RNS and improved upon it.

From wine to matzo to snacks, the foods from Manischewitz are ubiquitous in the Jewish community and synonymous with quality. (By the way remember that Tam Tam crackers, mentioned in the article, are great snacks, but they are not kosher for Passover.)
Family's name spells generations of pride

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 Co. 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 at sundown Wednesday — 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 scattered from California to North Jersey to Israel. Most have different surnames, and none have anything to do with the kosher factory that's now headquartered in Newark.

Ofra Parmett, 54, a great-granddaughter of Behr Manischewitz who lives in Teaneck, said growing up with the last name Manischewitz wasn't always easy.

Jokes about the sweet wine licensed by the company were a particular favorite of Parmett's classmates.

"People always asked me if my feet were purple from stomping on the grapes," she said.

But Parmett, an artist, said the company and the family name that remains attached to it also have been a source of tremendous pride over the years. Stories about the company's humble Midwestern roots long ago entered family lore, Parmett said, recalling that her grandparents opened their Cincinnati home to Jewish cross-country travelers.

"Jewish travelers who needed Jewish food would stop there," she said. "Their home was very open. They'd be feeding all these people."

Giving up the company — and for the married women, their last name — came as something of a relief for Parmett's cousins, Jack Manischewitz and his sister Laura Alpern. In their youth, they had grown tired of jokes about their name, particularly in connection to the sweet wine.

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 Jewish 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 found only a handful of Manischewitzes who are not related to her family.

American Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna, who wrote the introduction to Alpern's 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 handmade, round variety that had endured for thousands of years. Mass production made the product affordable and accessible to all Jews, bringing back to the fold some 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 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 noted, traditional women were homemakers, ritually restricted from handling matzo during certain times of the month. Only older women could be hired for the baking process.

This year, the Manischewitz descendants all plan to celebrate Passover at home: Parmett in Teaneck, Manischewitz in Maryland and Alpern in Switzerland. Parmett and Manischewitz 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 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. "When I am in New York, I always stock up on my favorite Tam Tams and macaroons."

Parmett said she is reminded of her family legacy almost every time she visits a supermarket.

"It's nice," she said. "You know, I guess in some ways I'm so used to it. You go to the store and you see your name on the box, and every once in a while you think, 'Oh, wow, that's my name!' " she said. "You've been used to it since you were a baby, but it's nice."

Staff Writer William Lamb contributed to this article.

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