New book explores the original (Jewish) Mad Men

Every year at Passover, countless Jewish families dust off the old seder plate and haul out dog-eared copies of the Maxwell House Haggadah.

Some 70 million have been printed since the iconic book made its debut in 1932. But how did a coffee company founded by non-Jews come to create the most popular haggadah of all time?

Kerri Steinberg

That’s a question Don Draper, lead character on the much lauded, just-wrapped TV series “Mad Men,” could have answered.

But in real life, art historian Kerri Steinberg, who studies the links between advertising and American Jewry, has the scoop.

“It helped create community,” says Steinberg of the marketing that targeted American Jews in the last century. “Critics of advertising would say it’s illusory and not real community. But that’s what makes advertising so interesting.”

Steinberg’s new book, “Jewish Mad Men,” explores how national brands such as Maxwell House and Manischewitz appealed to Jews, and how Jewish ad men revolutionized the field.

Steinberg will talk about “advertising and the design of the American Jewish experience” when she appears Tuesday, May 26 at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco.

In her book, Steinberg covers everything from peddling Crisco shortening for Rosh Hashanah in 1931 to selling romance via JDate in 2011.

It all started with ad man Joseph Jacobs, the son of European Jewish immigrants who established an agency in 1919 and went on to pioneer market segmentation, targeting specific groups with their own unique ads. The early ads for Jews were written in Yiddish.

“The Jewish community was first,” says Steinberg, who teaches art history at Otis College of Design in Los Angeles. “It was such a viable market, more so than other communities. [Jacobs] knew how to make connections. The Jews who excelled in advertising used cultural differences to their advantage.”

Jacobs helped brands such as Jell-O and Gold Medal Flour appeal to Jews by invoking appeals to home and family. When Maxwell House hired him to make inroads into the Jewish world, he came up with the idea of a haggadah as a give-away.

Only one problem: At that time, the coffee bean was considered a legume, making it traif for Passover. Jacobs sought out a rabbi who would give coffee a kosher seal of approval. He found one, with the rabbi declaring coffee a kind of berry. Jacobs then created the haggadah that cemented decades of Jewish loyalty to Maxwell House.

Manischewitz figures prominently in Steinberg’s book, thanks to the kosher food company’s innovation of mass-produced factory-made matzah. That and the entire line of products were cleverly advertised to Jews, and later the general market. Who can forget “Man, oh Manischewitz”?

Steinberg’s book is illustrated with print ads that show how advertising changed over time. As Jews assimilated into mainstream society, ads reflected that, dropping the Yiddish and going with Americanized images (some male models look a lot like Don Draper).

“Everything happening culturally and societally is happening in advertising,” says Steinberg.

Her book also explores the creative revolution of the 1960s, when advertising reflected a more irreverent style. Jewish execs created ads for Volkswagen (“Think small”), Avis (“We Try Harder”) and Alka-Seltzer (“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing”), mainstreaming Jewish humor.

“There is a line that can be followed from vaudeville to radio to the print ads and TV commercials of the ’60s,” she says. “It’s that self-deprecating sense of humor of an outsider group walking a fine line.”

And she highlights one of the most enduring ad campaigns: Levy’s bread, which featured posters of Native Americans, Chinese Americans and Irish Americans clutching sandwiches, with a caption reading: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish Rye.”

A native of San Diego, Steinberg remembers attending many seders that featured the Maxwell House Haggadah. In her work as an art historian, she focused on graphic design and advertising, and always with a Jewish twist.

To research her book, she delved into the Joseph Jacobs Organization’s archives, and even interviewed 94-year-old Dick Jacobs, son of the founder and namesake.

Although commercial advertising has long been derided in popular culture, Steinberg admires the art and craft of Madison Avenue, even if, as she says, advertising has “always had to be manipulative and sneaky.”

“Whether you like it or hate it,” she says of advertising, “it really does document how people lived, what their priorities are and what they care about.”

“Jewish Mad Men: Advertising and the Design of the American Jewish Experience,”
7 p.m. Tuesday, May 26, Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. Free.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at