I’ve always felt a little proprietary about Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews. Years ago, when I interned at the Jewish federation in Philadelphia, baskets of the candy were placed on the tables during fund-raising drives, a gift of the local family that owned the company. I was thrilled, and not only because I am lactose intolerant and the chews (until they changed the production method a few years back) were labeled pareve — dairy-free.
I also got a kick out of the idea that a national candy brand had such a distinctively, defiantly Jewish name. Eating a Peanut Chew, I wasn’t just enjoying a sticky, bite-sized morsel of peanuts, molasses, and chocolate — I was representing.
So I took it a little personally when Just Born, the company that bought the brand from its Philadelphia founders, decided in 2004 to drop the “Goldenberg’s” name from the front wrapper. As New York Times advertising columnist Andrew Adam Newman explained this week, “A new wrapper introduced in 2004 not only significantly changed the logo and color scheme, but also removed the historically prominent ‘Goldenberg’s,’ which was thought to sound too homespun for a national player.”
Too “homespun”? Please. Perhaps no one at Just Born admitted that the name sounded “too Jewish,” or perhaps Newman was being coy. But you have to suspect that someone was thinking it. And not that there is anything wrong with that. I suppose if I were trying to bring a mostly regional brand to national prominence, I would play down the Jewy, play up the chewy. Hell, an entire generation of Jews did just that. That’s how Cohen became “Cooke,” “Kent,” and “Cole.” And why so few people remember Issur Danielovitch’s macho star turn in Spartacus.
The beauty of the candy story, however, is that following the loss of the “Goldenberg’s” name, sales of Peanut Chews tanked! Newman reports that customers complained of “bootlegged” versions that were in fact genuine. In response, the company is putting “Goldenberg’s” back on the package and rolling out “an advertising and marketing campaign that celebrates its heritage.”
The irony! A few weeks ago I obtained my mother’s discharge papers from the U.S. Navy, where her maiden name appears as Naomi “Green,” not “Greenberg.” She served as a pharmacist’s mate (that’s a rank, wiseguy) in World War II, and I remember her telling me that she’d been advised by Jewish friends to play down her “heritage.” A similar consideration led my grandfather and his brothers to change their eccentrically spelled Polish surname to “Carroll.”
Nearly a century later, a candy company realizes that a Jewish name can move product. Hollywood’s most bookable artists have names like Judd Apatow, Sarah Silverman, Seth Rogen, Jason Schwartzman, and Sacha Baron Cohen. And I often find myself thinking my own “brand” might get a boost if my last name were more Jewish.
In 2009, essayist Ron Rosenbaum rapped Jon Stewart for having changed his name from “Leibowitz,” calling the change a “relic of that dark age when Jews in show biz changed their names because they feared ‘real Americans’ wouldn’t accept the originals.” Rosenbaum’s essay, written almost 20 years after the debut of a sitcom called Seinfeld, was about a generation too late.
None of this Jewish back story is discussed in Newman’s story about Peanut Chews, and that’s too bad. The religion and media site “Get Religion” often talks about “ghosts” — that is, religious themes in news stories that are somehow ignored or unnoticed by the reporter or publication. The Peanut Chews story is positively haunted. Consider: A new commercial for the candy features an Asian man who, after taking a bite of the candy, transforms into a tracksuit-wearing hip-hop fan, circa 1985. In a thick Asian accent, he declares that the candy is “off the hook.” The commercial ends with the new campaign’s tag line, “Chewin’ it old style.”
Jewish candy. Asian actor. African-American fashions and slang. This kind of ethnic mash-up can’t be unintentional. It sounds like someone at the ad agency, trying to reintroduce a product with an unmistakably “ethnic” name, wanted to emphasize that crossing religious and racial boundaries is perfectly acceptable in buying a candy bar. It’s how Levy’s rye bread joked its way out of the baked goods ghetto in the 1960s, with ads featuring Native Americans and Asians and the famous tag line, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye.”
The return of Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews doesn’t exactly signal the end of anti-Semitism, but it does suggest that we’ve left behind what Rosenbaum calls the “shabby, antiquated era” when Jewish success depended on one’s ability to “pass.” (Not that America, for all its freewheeling multiculturalism, has solved all its intolerance issues — good luck selling a candy called Mahmood’s Peanut Bites.)
In the case of Goldenberg’s, let’s call it progress that a major company thinks a Jewish-sounding name has gone from liability to selling point. As for intolerance — isn’t it time that they brought back the “pareve” Peanut Chew?