Manischewitz Revolutionized Matzo Production

One of the world's top matzo manufacturers revolutionized production of the unleavened bread at the core of Jewish ritual meals, turning it into a mass-marketed, packaged product.

NEW YORK (AP) -- One of the world's top matzo manufacturers got started with a simple premise: "I'm going to bake matzos this year. ... We'll see how it goes."

That's what 19th century Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz is said to have told his wife after they arrived in America, Jewish immigrants from Lithuania struggling to survive -- and to create something new.

In 1888, he founded the company that revolutionized production of the unleavened bread at the core of Jewish ritual meals, turning it into a mass-marketed, packaged product.

The week-long Passover feast, starting at sundown on April 8 this year, marks the ancient Hebrews' hurried escape from Egypt, before their bread had time to rise. Hence, the flat, unleavened matzo.

Manischewitz now is America's largest producer of processed kosher food, making not only their staple matzo but everything from salad dressing and low-calorie borscht to matzo ball mix and wasabi horseradish. The company was run by the family until 1990, when it was sold for $42.5 million.

The Manischewitz wine ad slogan, "Man, oh, Manischewitz," even became so popular that Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan was heard exclaiming it during his 1973 moonwalk.

"Manischewitz changed forever the way we eat at Passover," says Joan Nathan, cookbook author and host of the PBS television series "Jewish Cooking in America."

The old-fashioned, uneven rounds, made slowly by hand for centuries, were replaced with today's perfect, square crackers churned out by machines that produce up to 4,000 pounds of matzo per hour.

To Manischewitz's great-granddaughter, the family firm represented much more than food or fortune.

"Food brings up such a response from the heart in people," says Laura Manischewitz Alpern in a telephone interview. "It's the connection between the food we have for Passover and the wealth of Jewish culture that's behind it."

Alpern, author of the book "Manischewitz, the Matzo Family: The Making of an American Icon," is to appear at New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage on April 1 for a discussion of her family's history with Nathan.

The 63-year-old Manischewitz heir now lives in Switzerland, where she celebrates the holiday with matzo imported from France; she says Manischewitz is not available where she lives, in Geneva.

Dov Behr was not born a Manischewitz -- some say he was an Abramson -- and there are mysterious stories about how he took the new name. One version is that he purchased the passport of a dead man named Manischewitz to gain passage to America, another that he did it to avoid the 20-year military service required by the Russian czar.

Once here, Manischewitz plunged into an American balancing act: mixing technology with the spirit of Jewish ritual.

He started his production in Cincinnati, at first baking in his basement and supplying only his family and friends. But the young rabbi was ambitious, soon building a factory and introducing technology that came with the industrial revolution.

"He was a little hot-headed and he ran into trouble very quickly," says his great-granddaughter.

Fellow rabbis insisted that matzo be made as it always was -- painstakingly by hand and in less than the 18 minutes it takes for the mixed batter to begin to rise, according to rabbinic law.

Instead, after the turn of the last century, the forward-looking rabbi created the matzo-making machines and replaced older coal stoves with gas-fired ovens. The finished product rolled onto conveyor belts and was packaged for shipment worldwide.

"Dov Behr did for matzo what Henry Ford did for automobiles," says Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, who supervises all kosher operations for Manischewitz.

Dov Behr marketed his matzo by traveling to small towns and introducing himself to observant Jews. "He prayed alongside them, so they would see that the man behind the matzo was to be trusted," says Alpern.

She left her native Cincinnati as a teenager, living in New Jersey before moving to Israel, where she met her husband while both were studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. They settled in Geneva, where she worked as a United Nations librarian until her retirement several years ago.

After Dov Behr died in 1914, his five sons took over the business. The Manischewitz Company -- now owned by Alabama-based Harbinger Capital Partners and smaller shareholders -- has a new $14 million matzo plant in Newark, N.J., that will ship more than 3 million boxes of kosher-for-Passover matzo this year.

The chief competitors are the kosher giant Streit's, plus several large companies in Israel as well as artisanal bakeries still making matzo the old-fashioned way.

Alpern, of course, prefers Manischewitz, "which really is at the center of Jewish culture in America."

More in Operations