When Laura Manischewitz Alpern moved from Cincinnati to New Jersey in 1959, 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, started baking matzahs as a young immigrant in 1888 in Cincinnati, Alpern cringed at the taunting.
“When I was small, I just wanted to be like everyone else,” she said.
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 Manische-witz 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.”
Alpern, 63, re-cently visited New York from her home in Geneva, Switzerland, in part to promote her book “Manis-chewitz: 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.
Her great-grandfather revolutionized the matzah business, producing square matzahs by machine. But like many successful American family businesses, Manischewitz was sold in 1990 after being handed down through three generations.
“Matzah is not just another product,” Alpern said in a recent interview. “It is a product laden with enormous emotional and religious significance. The difference between a matzah business and any other business was clear from the beginning. My great-grandfather faced major opposition from rabbinical quarters when he was just starting out — religious opposition to the idea of mass-production of matzah, which was traditionally handmade. If he had not been a religious scholar himself, he would never have been able to face the opposition.”
A writer and librarian living in Geneva, Alpern spent five years researching and writing the book. A mother of two and a one-time resident of Israel, she traveled to Ohio, Latvia and Lithuania for her research, aided by older family members and archival materials (such as letters) saved by previous generations and Jewish collectors.
Her inquiries confirmed that the Manischewitz name is unique; she has only found a handful of Manischewitzes who are not related to her family. According to family lore, said Alpern, Dov Behr made up the name upon arriving in the United States, but no one seems to know how he chose the name, or why.
Rather than a dry historical account — the book begins when Dov Behr and his bride, Nesha, leave Lithuania for America — Alpern 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.
Asked what is distinctive about her family in a recent interview, she replied, “Each of us has a special relationship with the family name, and we share a feeling that this makes us a link in the chain of the history of American Jewry.
“Our family’s achievement was not just about building a business, nor was it a purely cultural achievement, nor precisely a religious one, but a combination of all of these.”
Alpern points out that none of the Manis-chewitz 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.
“Manishewitz: The Matzo Family — The Making of an American Icon” by Laura Manischewitz Alpern ($25, Ktav Publishing, 225 pages)
Sandee Brawarsky of New York Jewish Week contributed to this story.