The Grape Juice Wars of Passover

For most Americans, grape juice is an occasional treat. For Orthodox Jews, it is an obligation.

Orthodox Jews bless and drink a cup of wine three times on the Sabbath and four times at each of the two Seders for Passover, which will begin at sundown on Monday. Parents often buy grape juice so the children can accustom themselves to fulfilling the commandments. And since Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox families typically have six, seven or more children, that’s a lot of grape juice.

Welch’s, the American titan of grape juice, has noticed. It has flooded the Orthodox market, having made its intentions clear last year when it teamed up with the kosher colossus Manischewitz. This year, Welch’s Manischewitz demonstrated that it really meant business by turning out juice with an additional kosher certification from a panel of exacting rabbis from the rigorous Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox communities.

“You’re getting two powerhouses coming to this market,” said Sara Stromer, the assistant brands manager for Manischewitz, which is supplying Welch’s with its expertise in distribution to the kosher market.

But in doing so, the almost 150-year-old Welch’s, whose name is practically a synonym for grape juice, and the 129-year-old Manischewitz, the world’s largest matzo manufacturer and a kosher wine and food producer, have set off a fight with the long-reigning emperor of kosher grape juice, Kedem.

The move demonstrates the lengths some Orthodox Jews will go to make sure they are keeping kosher by standards that might seem esoteric to the outside world. The more stringent designation seems to be aimed squarely at a growing sector of the Jewish population. A UJA-Federation of New York study released in 2012 showed that 40 percent of the city’s 1.1 million Jews were Orthodox, as were 74 percent of the city’s Jewish children. In a similar study 10 years before, the percentage of Orthodox among the city’s Jews was 33 percent.

The turf war has been especially evident in the frenzied weeks before Passover — a season when 40 percent of all kosher products in the United States are sold, according to Menachem Lubinsky, the publisher of the online newsletter Kosher Today — in heavily Orthodox neighborhoods like Kew Gardens Hills in Queens or Williamsburg and Borough Park in Brooklyn, and in Orthodox towns like Lakewood and Teaneck in New Jersey. The Welch’s Manischewitz opening shot has been a series of steep discounts.

In Kew Gardens Hills, an enclave of garden apartments and modest houses, where Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel grew up in the 1950s, customers at Seasons supermarket on Main Street could for two days in late February buy a 64-ounce bottle of Welch’s Manischewitz Concord grape juice for $1.99. With a coupon for an extra $1.50 mail-in rebate, they could end up buying the bottle for 49 cents. The price in late March was $3.49, but that was cheaper than Kedem’s 64-ounce bottle, which sold for $4.99, and Welch’s Manischewitz still offered the same rebate. Eli Siegel, the manager at Seasons, said he sold about 400 bottles a week of Welch’s Manischewitz.

Shulem Brach, the manager of Wasserman’s, another supermarket a half-mile down Main Street, said that in his store Kedem responded not by lowering prices but by offering jumbo 96-ounce bottles (usually sold only in warehouse clubs like Costco) for $6.49. “That way people can get more value for their money,” he said.

Officials of Kayco, which distributes Kedem, declined to comment beyond an email from its chief executive, Mordy Herzog, that said: “We welcome the competition. Our primary emphasis has been to deliver a quality product at fair prices for six decades, and we are confident of the continued loyalty of our customers.”

Mr. Brach, a Satmar Hasid, said Kedem juice sold far better than Welch’s Manischewitz. “People are still afraid to take Welch’s because it’s new,” he said.

Welch’s Manischewitz has not yet instilled the comfort zone Orthodox Jews require to consume new kosher products. The biblical laws of kashrut (the rules for permissible foods) specified the types of animals that could and could not be eaten, forbade the mixing of milk and meat and, on Passover, prohibited the eating of leavened bread (as a way of commemorating the Israelites’ hasty flight from Egypt, which did not allow time for dough to rise).

In the following millenniums, the sages expanded these prohibitions with a welter of interpretations intended to fortify the taboos against forbidden foods. A commandment in Exodus and Deuteronomy not to cook a young goat in its mother’s milk became, in modern times, an insistence on separate dishes, cutlery, sinks and dishwashers for meat and milk products.

Grapes are inherently kosher, but the rabbis of the first centuries of the first millennium wanted their religion to avoid any resemblance to cults whose followers would pour wine on the ground as an offering to idols. They specified that wine — or nonalcoholic juice of the grape — be watched over by observant Jews from the time of the grapes’ crushing to the juice’s bottling. They also recommended cooking the wine, because removing flavor would assure that it would never be used for idol worship.

Observant Jews are assured a food is kosher by a seal — known in Hebrew as a hechsher — on the label. The most common imprint is the letter U circled by the letter O, the symbol of Orthodox Union, the world’s largest kashrut certifier, which is based in New York. Its imprint appears on 800,000 products in 100 countries, including cans of Coca-Cola and Hershey bars. But Hasidic sects and ultra-Orthodox Jews prefer to see certifications from their own tribes. “It gives them a sense of comfort and independence,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, chief executive officer of OU Kosher.

Rabbi Shmuel Teitelbaum, whose rabbinical court, Minchas Chinuch Tartikov, certified Welch’s, said that in September some 20 rabbis ventured to a factory in Westfield, N.Y., outside Buffalo, and monitored the grapes for a week.

The OU is an extremely high standard,” Rabbi Teitelbaum said. “But we represent the ultra. We call ourselves super-kosher.”

Welch’s first made an effort to enter the kosher market in the 1990s but pulled out after a year. This time it hopes the pairing with Manischewitz and the extra certification will make the difference.

Mr. Lubinsky, who also produces the annual Kosherfest trade show in Secaucus, N.J., predicted that Welch’s Manischewitz would have “an awful hard hill to climb” because of Kedem’s history with Orthodox families. “It’s difficult to make people change even if you make the argument your taste is better,” he said. “It has everything to do with ingrained taste buds going back generations.”

He did note that matzos manufactured in Israel have slowly been able to cut into the markets of brands like Manischewitz and Streit’s with lower prices, despite complaints that the Israeli companies have the advantage of government subsidies and cheaper labor.

Kedem is not an obscure brand. It is the flagship of an enterprise whose roots stretch back to Mr. Herzog’s ancestors in what are now the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1848.

But Welch’s is almost as venerable. It was started in 1869 by Thomas Bramwell Welch, a Wesleyan Methodist who advocated temperance and urged grape juice as a substitute for wine in the Eucharist.

A customer at Seasons, Marilyn Iseson, said she liked the Welch’s Manischewitz bottle’s rectangular shape, which takes up less space than the round Kedem bottle. “I always bought Kedem, but now I buy whatever’s on sale,” she said.

Shopping at Wasserman’s, Chava Hakimian, a mother of five, said she would buy either brand because her children didn’t discriminate.

“They like grape juice,” she said. “I don’t think they notice the difference.”


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