Advertisement for Goodman’s matsa. Forverts, April 12, 1935. (Source: National Library of Israel)
By Makena Mezistrano
In April 1935, Passover was in the air on New York’s Lower East Side. All you had to do was open your Jewish newspaper of choice to feel the holiday approaching: In addition to the usual advertisements for dentists and lawyers, suits and shoes, readers would find a bevy of ads for the season’s most essential item: matsa (or matzah/matzoh). Whether on the pages of Forverts (The Forward), the city’s largest Yiddish daily, or La Vara, the longest running Ladino newspaper in New York, Sepharadim and Ashkenazim alike were inundated with reminders to purchase the unleavened, cracker-like product that would be at the center of their Passover tables come April 18th.
While it appears that some specific brands and services advertised in Forverts and La Vara did not often overlap (a phenomenon worthy of further investigation on its own), matsa ads were an exception. This was a discrete item with limited suppliers, and all Jews who celebrated Passover needed it. The only way for the matsa distributors to reach all consumers — Ashkenazi and Sephardic alike — was on the pages of the city’s different Jewish language newspapers.
A new comparison
Matsa advertisements in the American Yiddish and Ladino presses offer a rare opportunity to place these two communities in dialogue with one another, instead of only positioning them as separate or in bitter conflict — two common assumptions about intra-Jewish relationships in twentieth century New York. Unlike the Yiddish ads, which were likely original compositions by the Eastern European Jewish-owned brands themselves, the Ladino ads in La Vara were often close adaptations. And while many elements were retained, from the messaging to the design, some ads were clearly reimagined to be more suitable for a Sephardic audience — perhaps an act of interpretation at the hands of the Ladino copywriter. (Though we cannot definitively know this writer’s identity, it may have been the paper’s editor, Albert Levy.)
What might the matsa ads tell us about the imagery, words, and phrases related to matsa and its industry that resonated most among Sepharadim and Ashkenazim on the Lower East Side? And, with a sensitivity toward translation as interpretation in mind, what might these advertisements reveal about interactions between Sepharadim and Ashkenazim in 1930s New York?
Advertising imagery: What does matsa look like?
Ladino advertisement for Meyer London’s matsa; the headline claims the factory is the “largest and most modern in the world” (la mas grande i la mas moderna faktoria de matsa en el mundo). La Vara, April 12, 1935. (ST01113, courtesy Richard Adatto)
All matsa advertised in the Yiddish and Ladino presses by this time was commercially made, a byproduct of the industrialization of many other American food products that increased dramatically during the early twentieth century. Machine-made matsa was square and fit neatly in a box made for easy shipment, and such depictions of matsa were ubiquitous in both La Vara and Forverts by 1935.
But square matsa did not always resonate with Jewish readers. Extensive histories have been written on the Jewish legal (halakhic) controversy stirred among Ashkenazim by the shift from handmade, round matsa to machine-made, square matsa — a debate that began in Eastern Europe in the 1850s and continued in the United States decades later, mainly with Manischewitz matsa.
For Ashkenazi Jews, round matsa was by definition “traditional.” Any other shape was not only a problematic departure from tradition, some rabbis argued, but even an emulation of non-Jewish practices — a category of behavior prohibited by Jewish law. Another concern, among several others, was whether the machine-made matsa was even kosher for Passover at all: without extensive human involvement, the matsa was susceptible to contamination with leaven (in other words, machines weren’t as trustworthy as people) thus rendering it inedible during the holiday.
Though rabbinic approbations were necessary to soothe concerns over the acceptability of the newfangled matsa, advertising also played a critical role in acquainting consumers with the new shape and its production process. Ads not only highlighted that sealing the matsa in a box kept it fresher for longer, but many — Yiddish and Ladino alike — underscored a brand’s high standard of kashrut (adherence to kosher dietary restrictions).
In the below Ladino ad for Goodman’s matsa, for instance, the copy claims that the product is “kasher for Passover for the most observant Jews” (kasher para pesah para los djudios los mas observadores). Its Yiddish counterpart is similar: “the country’s greatest rabbis confirm the strict kashrut standards” (di greste rabonim fun land bashtetigen di shtreynge kashrus).