The following article is a written adaptation of an episode of Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism, Slate’s new podcast about companies in the news and how they got there.
When I think about Jewish holidays, I think about the oil burning for eight days and the plagues descending on the Egyptians and all that. But I also think about Manischewitz matzo and their matzo ball soup mix—and I think about Manischewitz wine. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s absurdly, grotesquely sweet. It is not good wine. Some people find it undrinkable. And yet for many, even those same people who find it undrinkable, a Jewish holiday just isn’t complete without a bottle of Manischewitz.
How did Manischewitz become perhaps America’s most iconically Jewish brand? It all started in 1888, when Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz left Russia for Cincinnati. When he got there, he started baking matzo for the city’s Jewish community. Initially he was doing it by hand, but he couldn’t make matzo fast enough to meet demand, so he figured out a way to make it with a machine. At the time, mass-produced matzo was considered radical—not just because it was new, but because matzo is religious. It’s important in some Jewish observances.
Rabbi Manischewitz had to contend with Jewish authorities who didn’t like his modern methods. But he eventually managed to convince the Jewish world that as long as Jews were operating the machines and as long as they followed kosher guidelines (like they could only take 18 minutes to make the matzo), the matzo that the machines produced was kosher.
The rabbi died in 1914. His sons took over the operation. In 1923, they took the company public. In 1932, they opened a second factory in New Jersey and relocated corporate headquarters there. They continued to build the business, reaching beyond the most traditional, observant Jewish enclaves and expanding along with America’s growing Jewish population.
Shani Seidman, Manischewitz’s chief marketing officer, told me, “The marketing strategies of the company started off all in Yiddish and their marketing material all in Yiddish because they were servicing a local community that was speaking that language. Then as the community grew and they wanted to expand, it was half Yiddish and half English. Then it became only in English.”
In 1940, the Manischewitz Company began to move beyond matzo, doing brand extensions that eventually included soup, gefilte fish, and other kosher foods, 70 products in all. But by far the most successful brand extension wasn’t for food—it was for wine.
Kosher wine has all sorts of requirements that make it kosher, from how it’s handled to who’s handling it. And whether or not Jews drink wine at regular meals, wine is a part of various important ceremonies and rituals, so if you’re observant, you need some on hand. Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century largely made kosher wine in small batches from the Concord grapes that grow in the Northeastern United States. The grapes were sour, so vintners added lots of sugar to them, which made these wines very sweet.
When Prohibition began in 1920, kosher winemakers had to get special dispensation from the government to provide wine for religious services. But when Prohibition ended in 1933, the market opened up and there was suddenly space for a mass-produced kosher wine brand. Meyer Robinson, who’d been making small amounts of wine under the brand name Monarch, spotted a big opportunity. He realized there’d be lots of competition for the expanding kosher wine market after Prohibition, and that the winner would be the wine that could stand out and differentiate itself.
“The great brilliance of Robinson really was as a marketer,” says Roger Horowitz, author of Kosher USA. “The Manischewitz food company was something that was very well established going back to the 1890s, and so Robinson realized that if he could have his wine named for Manischewitz, his wine would benefit by the Manischewitz brand. Apparently, they knew the Manischewitz family, so they go and negotiate a license agreement, a 99-year license agreement, which is still in effect, for the folks who make Manischewitz today.”
It was a successful partnership from the start, but Robinson soon saw that his revenue numbers would be bounded by the nature of his products and its target customers. “It’s not sold on its flavor, on its quality. It’s sold on its tradition,” Horowitz says. “So it’s doing very well in the Jewish community, but the market ultimately is quite limited.”
Manischewitz cruised along like this for a while, serving its core constituency. But in the 1950s, some interesting sales data started to come in. When Robinson looked into where Manischewitz wine was selling best and who was buying it, the answers he found were unexpected. “By the late ’50s, the estimates are that 80 percent of Manischewitz consumers are not Jews, which is to say it’s overwhelmingly an African American wine,” Horowitz says.
At first glance, it’s a curious development. How did a kosher wine made for observant Jews turn into a product that appealed to, and was eventually targeted to, Black Americans?
Soul food scholar Adrian Miller says, “In Ebony magazine, which was the high-class magazine for Black America in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, there’s ads for Manischewitz. And these ads are notable African Americans, mainly jazz people. Billy Eckstine is the one that comes to mind. … These Black entertainers were pitch people for these kosher products.”
The ads were not about religious observance or the careful protocols that go into making a wine qualify as kosher. They were about projecting an image: You want to be cool like me, Billy Eckstine? Drink Manischewitz. If you want to set the party off right, drink Manischewitz.
The appeal of Manischewitz to Black buyers wasn’t all that far-fetched. For one, Miller explains, there was a long-standing connection between soul food and kosher food. In part that’s because many Jewish families in the South hired Black cooks, who then became familiar with Jewish cuisine. And in part it’s because Black Americans were accustomed to buying kosher products: “You see study after study showing that African Americans would often think of kosher butchers as selling better meat. Because when they would go to these other racist white butchers, they would give them tainted meat, old meat, that kind of stuff. So they knew that if it was kosher, it was good.”
The sacred nature of Manischewitz, the fact that it was blessed by a religious authority, even if it was a different religion, also seemed to help. “The thing that was really interesting to me, and this is a personal memory of mine, is that we would drink kosher wine around Easter time,” Miller says. “As I started to do more research into African American food traditions, I found that in the South, these kosher wines like Mogen David and Manischewitz are often called praise wine. And so there’s a significance to the religious culture.”
Another part of Manischewitz’s appeal was its sugary taste, which was comfortingly familiar. “Part of that is a reflection of African American home winemaking traditions,” Miller says. “In the rural South, a lot of people made their own wine, and so it tended to be on the sweet side.”
Whatever it was that created this sales trend, Shani Seidman says the brand hopped on and rode it as far as it would go: “When Manischewitz recognized that the Black community was buying their product, they went for it, and they put a lot of marketing dollars and support behind that.”
Among the remnants of this era are that print ad featuring Billy Eckstine and another featuring the doo-wop group the Ink Spots, with the caption “Manischewitz Kosher Wine Harmonizes With Us—Sweetly!” Sammy Davis Jr., himself a converted Jew, at one point became a brand spokesman, doing this TV ad for a Manischewitz beverage called Almonetta.
There was a 1954 tune from the group the Crows titled “Mambo Shevitz,” which wasn’t commissioned by Manischewitz but might as well have been. And the brand came out with a slogan, “Man, oh Manischewitz,” that became a popular catchphrase.
The upshot of all this was that, according to Roger Horowitz, in the middle of the 20th century, Manischewitz achieved a remarkable level of notoriety: “There was a consumer research survey done in the late ’50s which discovered 70 percent of Americans had seen a Manischewitz television advertisement. One-third had seen an advertisement in the newspaper. That’s enormous recognition. At its peak the company’s making 13 million gallons of wine per year from its facilities. So it’s a big-time operation, large advertising budget, large consumer recognition, noticeable outside of various kinds of Jewish circles. So it had this visibility, which really persisted.”
Manischewitz continues to be the No. 1 kosher wine brand in America—which is sort of baffling, given that you can get kosher wines now that don’t taste like alcohol-infused grape juice. But with Manischewitz, as Horowitz says, it’s not really about the terroir and the vintage and the bouquet: “If you buy Manischewitz, you’re deliberately making a decision to taste the past, and the way kosher wine used to be.”
For a not really observant, not at all kosher Jew like me, when I celebrate a Jewish holiday, I don’t want to drink something that tastes like regular wine, like a wine I might drink any other day of the year. I want Manischewitz, because for me it tastes like Judaism. It tastes like dozens of Passovers, over many years, with friends and family. Every time I sip it, those memories come rushing back.
You can find the full transcript of this episode here.