I’m Obsessed With Manischewitz

In “My Obsession,” writers take a single object and explore its significance. This month: Jaya Saxena on how she found out she was made for the much-maligned kosher wine.

I was 19 the first time I remember drinking Manischewitz.

It was the mid-aughts and my college roommate and I had been broken up with at the same time. My dumping took place over AIM, hers in person. That night, we took turns crying and taking pulls directly from a liter bottle of Manischewitz left over from Passover a few weeks before, while watching Top Chef. Sure, we could have tried to buy something “better,” but we were still underage, and this was an emergency.

My roommate tells this story as one of incredulity: Can you believe what we let ourselves drink when we were so young and foolish? Thank God we’re older and wiser now. But I look back on it as a blessed day. Because no matter how heartbroken I was, on that day in May, 2006, I learned that I fucking love Manischewitz.

I’m not being cute or ironic. I am not Jewish, and my drinking habits have evolved over the years to embrace a general urban inclination toward dry wines and crisp, refreshing cocktails. But once I started thinking of Manischewitz less as a table wine and more as a sweet fortified wine—like port for dirtbags—a whole world opened up. Float it in Champagne for a low-budget Kir Royale; mix it in cocktails as a replacement for grenadine; drink it over ice with a twist; or get wild and put it in a blender with tequila and ice. That last reminder of High Holy Days can be anything you want it to be.

The thing is, it’s rare to find Manischewitz, a totem of kosher drinking for seven days out of the year, outside of a Jewish holiday or household. When I do encounter it, I’m usually surrounded by Jews—including my partner—who all want to know just what the hell I think I’m doing. 

You see, to them, Manischewitz is a wine of necessity. “Jewish law stipulates that kosher wine be produced and handled only by Jews, a requirement that initially proved difficult to meet in North America,” writes Yoni Appelbaum for The Atlantic. Jewish immigrants made wine from what they could get, like Concord grapes, which were cheap and local. The wine they produced had a long shelf life, and it also had to be sweetened to make it palatable; if you kept kosher and you wanted wine, for a long time Manischewitz was what you got.

So, it became a joke with my Jewish friends, my partner and my in-laws that, given the option, I will actually choose to reach for the kosher wine. I don’t view Manischewitz as a burden because I never had to. It was my choice to attend friends’ seders, to marry a Jewish person, to participate in these rituals to which I was very kindly invited. Manischewitz was not made for me, and yet, I seem to be made for Manischewitz.

Perhaps unpredictably, the kosher wine became a symbol of what exchange between loved ones should look like. Just as my partner is now really good at making paneer from scratch, or gets excited for Christmas rib roast, every season I look forward to dusting off that liter bottle of Manischewitz, with its gilded label and chintzy screw-off cap, pouring it over ice and relishing the inevitable hangover to follow.

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Jaya Saxena is a freelance writer from New York and the co-author of Basic Witches"