Documensch April 2024

Hello and welcome to the April/Passover edition of the Documensch Newsletter. This Passover, at seders around the world, Jewish families and communities will be retelling the story of the Exodus and debating the meaning of freedom today: Freedom from persecution and enslavement (biblical), freedom of speech (to defend or criticize Israel), academic freedom, freedom to protest, freedom to be openly Jewish, freedom from antisemitism, and the freedom to live in peace and security.

In the spirit of reflecting on stories of our past, we interview writer and educator Jhos Singer, who is an expert on the history of Manischewitz wine. We share some interesting instances of Passover in the archive and highlight some new research on perceptions of Passover among Orthodox Americans. We also celebrate Hillel at 100 with some of our many Hillel holdings from the last century. 

For an additional afikomen, the Berman Archive is happy to also mention my forthcoming book: Jewish Education, the newest entry in Rutgers’ University’s “Keywords in Jewish Studies” series. 

As always, reach out with feedback, suggestions of articles we should consider sharing, or ideas for documents we should consider archiving. We can be reached at

Thanks for reading,


Ari Y Kelman, Director, Berman Archive

Interview: Spilling the Tea on Passover Wine

In an effort to find some sweetness in a trying time, we interviewed Maggid Jhos Singer, writer, scholar, Jewish educator, and expert on the history of Manischewitz wine.

Berman Archive: Does anyone but Manischewitz use the Concord grape in wine making?

Jhos Singer: When Jews started arriving in America—a land largely devoid of commercially produced wine—in large numbers in the mid-1800s the quest for Kosher wine was on. As there was no gastronomic snootiness or epicurean standards for Kosher wine, pretty much anything made by a Kosher Jew which originated with fruit from a grape vine and ended up as an alcoholic beverage would do. American grapes notoriously made skanky wine—the domestic varieties having far less sugar and stronger flavored skins made for a mouth puckering and musky quaff. But for Jews this problem was easily overcome by overwhelming the unpleasant flavors with sugar. Concord grapes, introduced in the mid-1800s on the Eastern Seaboard, were all the rage for their dusky hue and flavorful character. Observant East Coast Jewish home wine makers would have had access to the now ubiquitous Concord grapes, and a beautiful relationship began, not entirely unlike peanut butter and chocolate.

Matchbook scan from the NYPL Digital Collection

By the late 1800s Jews had arrived in America in enough numbers to drive an economic movement for more widespread commercially produced Kosher foods. The commercial production of Concord Grape Kosher Wine began in earnest in the early 20th Century. The most successful and long lasting came as the result of the efforts of one Sam Schapiro, whose Kosher eatery in New York’s Lower East Side sought to satisfy the many culinary demands of the burgeoning Jewish city dwellers. While Jewish food in NYC has become the stuff of legend, Sam saw past the pickles, herring, and bagels, and in a moment of entrepreneurial brilliance decided to add a Kosher Winery to his restaurant. This was a wildly novel move, as upper crust Jews bought imported Kosher wine, and the hoi polloi made the stuff in the proverbial bathtub. Sam took a chance that maybe he could entice both markets with his Schapiro’s Kosher Wines whose marketing included the phrase, “Wine so thick you can almost cut [it] with a knife.”

Read the Full Interview

Passover in the Archive

The Berman Archive holds many documents engaging with Passover Seders past. Sh’ma has a wealth of great Passover resources, including this account of Passover in Kyoto, a story of a seder in Teheran, and a reprint of a 1946 seder script written in the Displaced Persons’ Camp, Foehrenwald. It also has a page from the Israeli Black Panthers’ Haggadah, as well as a whole issue from 1999 responding to the rising popularity of Passover among American Christians.

Researching Pesach

The American Jewish community has a long commitment to studying itself, and ahead of this year’s Passover, Nishma Research released a Pesach Survey gauging the Orthodox Jewish community’s attitudes towards the holiday. 979 mostly Orthodox Jews participated. Half of the respondents see Pesash as “the family religious highlight of the year.” Overall, “nearly half of all respondents say that Pesach makes them feel tired and stressed,” but 80%  “feel connected to their family, ancestors, Jewish history, and community, as well as the feelings of appreciation for what they have.” 

Jewish Education

Next month, Berman Archive Director Ari Y Kelman will release Jewish Education as part of Rutger University Press’ series Keywords in Jewish Studies Series. The book interrogates how people learn to engage in Jewish life. Here’s one of the blurbs to give you a sense of the book and its reception so far, from Sivan Zakai, Sara S. Lee Associate Professor of Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York :

Kelman takes readers on a fascinating journey, from the traditional Beit Midrash to the frontiers of the internet, that reveals how people have learned about and engaged with Jewish life across time and place. In accessible prose that is at once playful and serious, this book invites readers to consider both the deep roots and the transformative possibilities of Jewish learning.

Congratulations, Ari, for literally writing the book on Jewish Education. 

Hillel at 100

This month, Hillel celebrates 100 Years of being a space for Jewish students. This is quite a feat of durability, and if their recently announced $184 million raised in honor of this centennial is a testament, Hillel isn’t going anywhere. In honor of 100 years of service, we took a look in the archive to share some glimmers of Hillel’s past. 

In 1928, Hillel was five years old. The directors of four Hillel Foundations (as the individual campus organizations were then known) from Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Illinois met together in Chicago for “a full and frank discussion of problems and situations with which those in charge of the Foundations are confronted.”  The discussion that ensued, which ranged from reflections on the success of a “Freshman party” to the religious proclivities of students, was captured here, and provides an interesting reflection of current events, emphases, and challenges.

Upon the 50th anniversary of Hillel in 1974, Richard N. Levy offered his perspective on the organization’s first half-century. With more eerie echoes of the present, Levy observed, “Our yovel finds the university, which fifty years ago was the shining pinnacle of American culture, with its roof falling in and its faculty and students enslaved to many of the very faults and weaknesses which are tearing all America apart.” 

Levy used the moment to observe and envision Hillel’s next 50 years:

There are some who will say that we must direct our attention only to the Jewish community, and not to the general society in which we live. But we know that as American culture was threatening to wipe us out fifty years ago, so it may again, when it has found its way once more. It is our job to help reconstruct that culture in its current state of disarray in such a manner that it can nurture us, and all its groups and faiths, and not swallow us up again.

Levy’s comments were published in a volume called “The Test of Time: A Commemoration and Celebration of Hillel’s Fiftieth Anniversary. Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.” They appeared alongside remarks from other Hillel leaders such as Phillip Klutznik, Abram Sachar, Max Ticktin, and Alfred Jospe.

The Berman Archive holds a number of other interesting documents from Hillel’s history, including the “Hillel Handbook” from 1941, this 1962 “Guide to Hillel: Purposes, Programs, Policies,” and a task force report from 2002 about balancing the personal and professional demands of Hillel staff.


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