Manischewitz: A Tale of Two Bottles

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This year was the first time we held a Passover seder in my childhood home, since my Episcopalian mother died. My father still lives in the house, and my siblings and I gathered this year to create a seder with, and for, him. At 93, Dad still sits at the head of the table and leads us through the prayers and songs in the haggadah (the booklet that sets out the service before and after the Passover meal).

To lead, he uses a sheet of yellowed paper with an outline of pages to include and pages to skip, tucked into our stack of haggadot. In my father’s penciled block lettering, the sheet is marked “First Parish, 1977.” That was the year he first edited a one-hour model seder for the Sunday School at the Unitarian church overlooking our town green. As one of the only Jewish people in our New England village in that era, he felt both honored and obligated to take on this annual educational duty. Dad’s distillation of the seder turned out to be the perfect length for our extended family of all ages and all religions. And so the “First Parish, 1977” seder became a part of our own tradition.

If my father was in charge of the service, my mother was always in charge of the kitchen. And we struggled this year with trying to replicate her seder. Her matzoh balls were always perfect. Mine fell victim to multi-tasking: they fell apart and floated out into the soup, more like stratus clouds than cumulus. My sister and I chopped the charoset, but then I kibbitzed as she sauteed the nuts in butter, just like Mom used to. Mom swore it made the charoset taste better, but this step seems “de trop,” and somehow not in the proper kosher spirit to me now.

Every moment of seder preparation this year felt like a meditation on time and tradition, with a hundred small decisions about whether to stick to the ways of our past or move on. So this became the year that I finally poured the last dregs of Manischewitz from a bottle we had used for decades down the sink. This is cheap wine, but the $2.59 price sticker (and the font of that sticker) spoke to the ancient origins of this particular bottle. No one in our family drinks the stuff: we only use a glug or two for the charoset each year. So the bottle had lasted almost forever, like a Passover miracle. The remaining wine was brown and cloudy with sediment, but I had a hard time letting go of the lovely old bottle, imagining how my mother’s hand had lifted it each year and poured the sacred libation into the charoset.

I thought about tucking the empty Manischewitz bottle into my carry-on bag and sneaking it home, but I am a notorious pack rat and decided to do the brave thing instead. Before I consigned it to recycling, I set up the old and new bottles side by side, and studied the changes over time. The wine has gone from 12 percent alcohol to 11 percent: my brother who lives in Napa Valley tells me this is presumably a cost-cutting measure. The lovely images of grape leaves are now smaller and less distinct and the dusty blue Concord grapes have become more standard purple grapes on the new bottle. There is less Hebrew, and the looping Hebrew cursive script is gone. The gold Star of David has become smaller. And most notably, the Old World rabbi with the long white beard on the original bottle has disappeared completely on the new bottle.

I don’t know what year Manischewitz edited out that rabbi. I tried to google for a date, but found only a piece from NPR describing how the wine was once popular with African-American men in particular, with a link to a marvelous television ad featuring Sammy Davis Jr. One can imagine that the company made most of the label changes in order to attract a consumer base beyond the Jewish community. As for the rabbi on the bottle, a Manischewitz brand manager was not sure what year the label changed. But she told NPR, “you’re not going to find it on the shelf—and if you do, goodness, don’t drink it, I don’t know how old it is.”

Oops. We did find it on a shelf, in the bottom of the wet bar, in the suburb of my youth. And we did use it in our charoset last year, with no ill effects. But this year, it was time to let go.

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Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

 

 

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