Laura Manischewitz Alpern, author of a fictionalized account of her family, at the company’s new plant in Newark, under a portrait of Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz, her great-grandfather and founder of the company. Photo by Lynn Griffin
March 27, 2008
When Laura Manischewitz Alpern moved to West Orange as a child, peers in school teased her with the “Man-oh Manischewitz” jingle as soon as they heard her last name.
Whether or not they knew that her great-grandfather, Dov Behr Manischewitz, founded the kosher food company in 1888 in Cincinnati, Alpern cringed at the taunting.
“When I was small, I just wanted to be like everyone else,” she said in an interview at the NJJN office in Whippany.
If at times it seemed like a burden to carry the iconic name, it also had its benefits — like the Passover packages every member of the Manischewitz family received every year through the ’70s.
As she grew up, she embraced her name, she said. “It’s something special. My father was not at the head of the company, so it’s not like being a Rockefeller or a Rothschild — we weren’t wealthy. But it’s not about that. It’s about having a place in the Jewish world that was very special.”
Like many successful American family businesses, Manischewitz was sold in 1990 after being handed down through three generations. Now, as the iconic name passes into corporate America and out of her family, she has preserved the personal side of the story in a new book, Manischewitz: The Matzo Family — The Making of an American Icon. She calls the book a kind of “memorial” to a family business that for generations symbolized American kosher food.
Published by KTAV Publishing House in time for Passover 2008 and the 120th anniversary of the company’s founding, the book includes an introduction by Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna. Sarna offers insight into the historical importance of Dov Behr’s accomplishments beyond simply creating material wealth for the family.
“Manischewitz was really a revolutionary force in the long history of matzo,” he writes. In addition to converting millions of Jews to the machine-made Passover staple, — not without rabbinic controversy — the company transformed the product in three major ways.
“First, where before most matzo had been round, irregular, or oval-shaped,” Sarna writes, “now…it became square. Second, where before each matzo was unique and distinctive in terms of shape, texture, and overall appearance, now every matzo in the box came out looking, feeling, and tasting the same. Manischewitz matzo thus became a distinctive brand of matzo, with all that that implied.
“Third, where before matzo was a quintessentially local product…, now it became a national product and then an international one.”
A writer and librarian living in Geneva, Alpern spent five years researching and writing the book. Rather than a dry historical account — it begins when Dov Behr and his bride, Nesha, leave Lithuania for America — she has crafted a narrative that blends fact and fiction. She said it “captures the essence of the reality” of the lives of her forebears.
So we meet Nesha “standing in the doorway on a chilly school morning with a stiff Baltic wind blowing in from the port” in the Lithuanian town of Memel.
We are introduced to Dov Behr, a brilliant student at the Telz yeshiva in Lithuania who has more on his mind than Talmud.
“Behr knew little more than his betrothed about America,” Alpern writes. “But he knew that he wanted to be there.”
The author based the book on research, letters, accounts, character sketches written by other relatives, and family stories.
“I have been careful not to invent a piece of false history,” she said. “But what was in a woman’s heart when she looked in her son’s eyes for the first time?” She shrugged. She used everything she knows about each family member, she said, to imagine how they might have felt or what they might have said.
While the fiction brings the characters to life, one has to ask whether it furthers her purpose of capturing her family’s history, or simply further mythologizes it.
Consider the question of how the family got the name Manischewitz. According to family lore, said Alpern, Dov Behr made it up upon arriving in the United States, but no one seems to know how he chose the name, or why. In the book, Nesha considers asking her husband about the name. Instead Alpern writes that she “still had not found a good moment to ask him how he had chosen the name. Should she ask him now? She hesitated as she put away the writing materials, and then decided against it. I suppose I like the mystery, she thought. So the moment passed, and she never asked.”
Alpern’s vision of Dov Behr is larger than life, both forbidding and distant, as seen through his formal relationship with Nesha and his role as harsh disciplinarian of his children.
But she also portrays him as a strategic genius from the outset; he became a shohet in Lithuania because he realized the rabbi would need one, and he came up with the idea of selling matza in the first place in America — and doing it successfully.
Alpern imagines the inspiration came to him at Passover, as the family drank “some delicious raisin wine” produced with Ohio grapes by a distant relative of Dov Behr’s, and he has an interaction with his daughter: “He suddenly noticed Mirale hanging at his elbow, and popped the tea-sweetened matzo into her mouth. She swallowed it and laughed in surprise. He smiled at her and said no more.”
The book lingers over Nesha and Dov Behr, drawing a portrait of their lives that captures the experience of immigrant Jews of their generation, from the decision to leave Lithuania, to the births of all their eight children, to Dov Behr’s heartbreaking decision to send two of the boys, at eight and 10, to a Jerusalem yeshiva to study until well into their teen years.
Alpern explores Dov Behr’s fondness for inventions and all things mechanical and imagines the moment when he was inspired to branch out beyond matza. Of local interest is the expansion of the company to Jersey City in 1932 and the eventual decision to make that location company headquarters. (Last year the company’s corporate parent, R.A.B. Food Group, shut down the Jersey City plant and moved the matza factory to Newark.)
The book follows the family through the generations, particularly the author’s branch, which includes Dov Behr’s successor, her grandfather, who also appears to have been Nesha’s favorite. The narrative offers a sketch of the massive differences between Nesha and Dov Behr and the next generation, who are less religious, less conservative, and in some cases less hard-working.
Alpern also points out that none of the Manischewitz men ever considered bringing the daughters into the business, even in her generation. Perhaps, she muses, that could have kept the business in the family.
But then again, the business wasn’t attractive even to the boys in her generation.
“When we were children, working in the family business was not considered a goal for Jewish boys,” she said. Rather, they focused “on getting into academics and becoming professionals. It didn’t even occur to me as a girl until 30 years later that as a woman, I could have worked in the company,” she said.
Or told its story.
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