Man, oh man: How Manischewitz created a matzah empire

One of the world’s top matzah manufacturers got started with a simple premise: “I’m going to bake matzahs 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.

Manischewitz now is largest producer of processed kosher food in the United States, making not only its staple matzah but also everything from salad dressing to low-calorie borscht to 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.

Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, who oversees matzah production at the Manischewitz plant in New Jersey, talks in his office. photo/ap/mike derer

“Manischewitz changed forever the way we eat at Passover,” said 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 matzah 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,” said Laura Manischewitz Alpern, 64, who now lives in Switzerland. “It’s the connection between the food we have for Passover and the wealth of Jewish culture that’s behind it.”

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.

Fellow rabbis insisted that matzah 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 matzah-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 matzah what Henry Ford did for automobiles,” said Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, who supervises all kosher operations for Manischewitz.

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

After Dov Behr died in 1914, his five sons took over the business, which is now owned by Alabama-based Harbinger Capital Partners and smaller shareholders. The company has a 1-year-old $14 million matzah plant in Newark, N.J., that last year shipped more than 3 million boxes of kosher-for-Passover matzah.

The chief competitors are the kosher giant Streit’s, several large companies in Israel and some artisanal bakeries still making matzah the old-fashioned way.