Rice, Beans, and Manischewitz

The Secret Haitian History of America’s Favorite Kiddush Wine

Ah, Manischewitz Concord Grape, that most kosher of wines. The dark purple, sickly sweet Passover staple is not among Judaism’s proudest culinary contributions. It is perhaps fortunate, then, that the Haitians don’t know it’s ours.

Fritz Jean-Louis had his first glass of Manischewitz the night before his First Communion in the town of Cap-Haitien. Fritz’s wife Margaret first tasted the stuff on a separate Catholic occasion: a Good Friday dinner. “I never knew it was Jewish,” she said. For their daughter Maritza, a first-generation Haitian-American, Manischewitz is as Haitian as rice and beans, never mind the six-pointed star on the label.

“I knew it wasn’t Haitian,” said Christie Julien, a young Haitian-American. “There was no French on the bottle, so it’s not like my aunt brought it over on the plane. Besides, …it’s not really temperate enough for grape-growing over there.” Still, she said, “I didn’t know until fairly recently that it was Jewish.”

First bottled over sixty years ago, Manischewitz defined kosher wine for generations of Americans. As Jewish law requires that only Sabbath-observant Jews can be involved in the production of kosher wine, few American companies entered the business. That changed in the past few decades, with the emergence of kosher whites like Baron Herzog and Yarden. Today, Manischewitz, made by the Centerra Wine Company, is one of many products in a crowded kosher wine market. In an effort to broaden its appeal, the brand is making halting efforts to embrace new types of consumers.

According to Laurie Schaefer, a Manischewitz spokesperson, the wine’s second largest customer demographic is “African Americans 29 and older who prefer the sweet taste.” When asked whether “African Americans” was a stand-in for “Black Americans” (which would include Haitian Americans), Schaefer refused to answer.

Although the company’s Star of David-emblazoned website solely references Jewish custom, Schaefer explained that the brand employs “selling programs specifically targeted toward African Americans.” Depending on the neighborhood and the clientele, liquor stores receive different promotional posters, called “shelf talkers.” For Jewish shoppers, the company uses the tagline, “Moments, memories, and Manischewitz.” Around Passover, the copy reads, “Your holiday table’s not set without Manischewitz.” But the tagline aimed at African Americans? Simply, “Your flavor for the holidays.” Apparently, the company thinks its products taste great on Easter, but less so at a Seder.

Indeed, among many Jewish families, Manischewitz is used mainly for tradition’s sake. It’s kosher, it’s practically Welch’s, and whether or not you like it, it’s what you drink. Upon hearing that non-Jews voluntarily drink Manischewitz, Ezra Selove, a young Jew from the East Coast, asked, “Is this for an Onion article?”

For Jewish pre-teens, the drink admittedly holds a certain allure. The graduation from grape juice to Manischewitz is a significant moment in the maturation of a Jewish youth. Still, while there are some who enjoy its zing, flavor doesn’t seem to be the reason Manischewitz is used by Jews.

Yet among Haitian families, Manischewitz’s flavor is the main attraction. Although Margaret and Fritz Jean-Louis first drank it on religious occasions, they now drink it for pleasure. Members of the Jean-Louis family are such big fans that, according to Maritza, “We have regular Manischewitz, we have Peach Manischewitz, we have Cherry Manischewitz; we have all the flavors at home.” Guests know how much the family likes it and bring it as gifts. Asked to explain her taste for the wine, Margaret said, “It’s rich, it’s sweet; I fell in love with the taste. I would just get up in the middle of the night sometimes, just to drink it!”

Christie Julien says that her brother “likes to mix it with Coke or Sprite.”

Hearing this, Ezra Selove was shocked. “Wait, what?!” he said. “People really like the stuff?”

So how did Jewish wine first make its way into Haitian culture and remain perched on a gustatory pedestal ever since?

In the sixties and seventies, Manischewitz was one among many foreign delicacies imported to Haiti. Margaret Jean-Louis recalls that on special holidays, her father would purchase “imported foods from everywhere.” As a child, she was charmed by foreign fare. “It was fancy,” she said. “It was food from abroad.” She enjoyed the taste of Manischewitz, but also of butter from Copenhagen. Margaret admitted that the butter may have made a greater impression on her palate “just because it was from [Denmark].” While this butter was always referred to as “the butter from Copenhagen,” Margaret said the wine was never thought of as Jewish.

Manischewitz spokesperson Schaefer said she did not know how long the wine had been exported to Haiti, nor the extent to which the company was directly involved. Schaefer also did not know when non-Jewish buyers were first targeted by the company.

Yet while the company has capitalized on African-American buyers, it has limited targeted marketing to in-store promotions. Its website’s section of “helpful hints, holiday traditions and festive menu ideas!” lists only Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and Hanukkah recipes. The rest of the site, including explanations of kosher compliance, remains solely Jewish in its bent.

So we must ask: is the company totally committed to preserving its staid traditional image in front of the larger Jewish public, which remains its largest market?

Maybe not. After providing what information she could, Schaefer had her own set of queries. “Have you heard of that new book, Cool Jew?” she asked, referring to Lisa Alcalay Klug’s 2008 handbook for young Jews. Coincidentally, I had just reviewed it for New Voices. Not knowing that I’d found it frustratingly off-mark and wannabe hip, Schaefer sounded suddenly enthused to be speaking to a member of “the youth.” She said that the Brand Manager had just received a promotional copy of the book and was “excited,” as Manischewitz is mentioned throughout, apparently missing the obviously ironic flavor of the references. The Brand Manager would be happy to share more information with me, Schaefer said, adding that when interviewing I should go out of my way to mention Cool Jew.

The Brand Manager, Lisa Pyrczak, did not return my calls. When, after two weeks, Laurie Schaefer finally responded, she made it clear that Pyrczak had been annoyed by Schaefer’s eager divulgence of company strategy.

Schaefer said that Pyrczak was still “formulating answers,” as I had asked “sort of sensitive questions.” She said that no one had ever asked these things before–in particular, how the company felt about its popularity among non-Jews.

“I mean, we feel just great about that!” Schaefer said finally. But when I tried again to merely confirm whether Haitian-Americans were part of the demographic that Schaefer had referred to as “African-American,” she said Pyrczak would have to get back to me. “Again,” she said, “it’s pretty sensitive.”

Ultimately, Schaefer’s remarks highlighted a difference between our interests. While I kept asking about the confluence of Manischewitz and Haiti–what the company knew about its export history; how the wine had pervaded Haitian culture yet remained divorced from its Jewish identity–Schaefer seemed to free associate.

“Have you,” she asked, “heard of the Jewish Rapper? We’re kind of, like, exploring into that area.”

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