This Day in Jewish History / A Father of Industrial Gefilte Fish Dies

The Manischewitz clan also pioneered the industrial matzo, despite concern as to its kashrut for Passover.

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September 20, 1913, is the date of death of Bernard Manischewitz, grandson of the founder of the American kosher-foods giant B. Manischewitz, and the man who ran the company for more than four decades, until its sale in 1990.

Bernard Manischewitz was born on December 24, 1913, in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father, Jacob Manischewitz, was one of the five sons of the company’s founder, Rabbi Behr Manischewitz.

The Lithuanian-born Behr (also known as Dov Behr), who according to family tradition had studied in the town of Memel with the great Rabbi Israel Salanter, immigrated to the United States in the late 1880s. Settling in Cincinnati, he began baking matzos in his basement under the name of Cincinnati Matzos. Only after local competitors started calling their product by the same name did he begin using his distinctive family name to market his unleavened bread.

It was Dov Behr who took the risk-fraught step of producing matzo by machine. Risk-fraught, because there was great debate within the rabbinical community over the kashrut of machine-made matzo: Part of the concern involved the belief that the kavana (intentionality) of the matzo baker influenced whether it was fit for consumption at Passover.

Previously, each sheet had been made individually, by hand. Manischewitz’s system eventually utilized three different machines, for kneading, rolling and cutting and perforating the dough, which was then baked by gas-fired ovens, producing, for the first time, square, rather than round, matzos. The entire process was carried out by an assembly line, which utilized a conveyor belt to allow for complete automation.

As an Orthodox Jew who had been trained as a shohet (kosher slaughterer), Dov Behr was confident that his product was strictly kosher (Manischewitz advertised its matzos as “the most kosher matzot in the world”). Consumers apparently believed him.

When Dov Behr Manischewitz died, in 1914, he left his sons in charge of the firm, which they took public nine years later. By 1932, even though it was the height of the Great Depression, they expanded by building a new plant in Jersey City, New Jersey, to be closer to the great Mecca of kosher-food consumption in New York.

The biggest matzo machine in the world

Under Jacob’s leadership, the company introduced a matzo manufacturing device that he declared in 1938 was the “largest and most expensive single piece of machinery in any bakery in the world”; it could turn out 1.25 million sheets of matzo a day.

Bernard, who studied business administration New York University and later took night courses in factory management, became president of Manischewitz in 1942. Under his directionleadership, the company greatly expanded its line of products. A 1951 article in the New York Times told how he was preparing for the firm to offer 70 different foods, ranging from gefilte fish to frozen poultry, Tim Tam crackers (for year-round consumption) to canned borscht and kosher wine. The latter became a Manischewitz product in 1947, when the company licensed the use of its name to the Monarch Wine Co.

The IRS has a question

Beginning with its founder, B. Manischewitz always understood that the quality of its marketing was no less important than that of its food. It forged relationships with rabbis the world over, holding a pre-Passover rabbinical tour of its facilities each year. It stressed the purity and cleanliness of its facilities, turning the automated aspect of its production into an advantage. And it came up with a slogan – “Man-o-Manischewitz!” – that became an exclamation even uttered on the moon (by astronaut Eugene Cernan, when he walked on the lunar surface, in December 1972.)

The family’s philanthropy included sponsorship of a small yeshiva in Jerusalem, called the Rabbi Behr Manischewitz Yeshiva. According to the company, its graduates helped to “overcome the impression of Orthodox European Jews that American machine-made matzos are not kosher.,” as it declared in its response to a lawsuit from the Internal Revenue Service in 1948. (The IRS had questioned why donations to an Israeli yeshiva should be a deductible company expense. The court accepted the firm’s argument.)

Bernard Manischewitz was intensely private. Suspicious that people would try to take advantage of him if they knew who he was, he often traveled under an assumed identity, including, for example, when he was negotiating with fish dealers in Alaska over the price of whitefish, to be used in the production of gefilte fish.

His first marriage was to a first cousin, Judy Manischewitz. One of their daughters, Edith, joined the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), better known as the Hare Krishnas, in 1973. Today, she is known as Urmila Devi Dasi. With a doctorate in education, as well as an MBA, from the University of North Carolina, she has long been involved professionally in creating educational institutions and curricula for the movement. Bernard Manischewitz maintained good relations with Edith and with the Hare Krishna movement, and according to one Hare Krishna website, he “became a lifetime member of ISKCON in 1975.”

In 1990, when B. Manischewitz had an 80 percent share of the U.S. matzo market but no obvious apparent heir within the family, Bernard oversaw the company’s sale to the buyout firm Kohlberg & Co. for $42.5 million. Kohlberg sold it in 1998 to RAB Enterprises, and then in 2007, it was purchased by Harbinger Capital Partners, which changed the company’s name back to The Manischewitz Company.

In June 2011, the company inaugurated its new 19,000 square-meter plant and headquarters in Newark, New Jersey, in a ceremony attended by, among others, Israel’s then-chief rabbi Yona Metzger, who joked about the fact that “the world’s largest manufacturers of gefilte fish were two Moroccan Jews from Casablanca.” And indeed, the company’s co-CEOs are today Alain Bankier and Paul Bensabat, both of whom were born in Morocco.

Bernard Manischewitz died at his home in Verona, New Jersey, at the age of 89. He was survived by his second wife, the former Beatrice Hoffman.

Gefilte fish. Credit: Getty Images
Some classic Manischewitz products.Credit: Manischewitz

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