|Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. Jewish-Americans, especially one New York Jewish family deserve the claim to American rye bread for many reasons.
"Levy's Real Jewish" wasn't really Jewish at all. It was the common thick breads baked on a stone hearths throughout Russia and the Balkans. The founder of the company Henry S. Levy, learned those skills in Russia and turned them into a New York family fortune. Levy's bakery that was located at 115 Thames Street was already a very successful family business even before being immortalized in advertising. Besides the Russian pumpernickel and rye breads, Levy's was a pioneer in "cheese breads" a golden-yellow loaf 25 percent of which was bleu and cheddar cheese. The family bakery even had a place in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn."
Far more famous than the sour starter that dated back to and was kept alive since 1888 when Mr. Levy came to New York from Russia, the company was known for one of the most memorable print ads of all time. "In 1949 the small family-owned bakery in Brooklyn took on the services of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), an agency destined to forge a creative revolution in advertising during the next two decades." The driving force behind the agency was a man named William Bernbach and a low budget print ad began taking hold with New Yorkers in 1961. "You Don't Have to be Jewish to Love Levy's."
Mr. Bernbach may even deserve the credit for making rye bread Jewish. Levy's did not become famous as "Levy's Real Jewish Rye." Before the great ad man convinced a management leery of anti-semantic behavior with the famous quote "For God's sake, your name is Levy's. They are not going to mistake you for high Episcopalian," the famous Brooklyn bread was called "Levy's Real Rye."
William (Bill) Bernbach was famous for so many ads including "Think Small" for Volkswagen Beetle, "We Try Harder" for Avis Car Rental and "Mikey" for Life Cereal. Of the many famous quotes he is remembered for "All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level" sums up the "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's" campaign.
Some young people today may look at the angelic Japanese boy above and the Native American beside thinking "stereotype" and you would have a point. But these were different times. It was not the era of 'Everybody's a Little Racist' from Avenue Q but an era of most everybody being a lot racist, the era of "Carefully Taught."
Stereotypes were common back then because that sort of presentation was acceptable. Another commercial of that era, that came out of the Ad Council and had great impact, showed a Native American in custom dress paddling down a polluted river in a canoe, then having garbage thrown at his feet by passing motorist and shedding a tear for what the white population has done to his land.
During the "You don't have to be Jewish" ad campaign that appeared on subways, buses and billboards, even "The Great Stone Face" Buster Keaton got into the act. The power of these ads were far from stone faced aliens but animated everyday New Yorkers. The power of those ads was changing people who were presented as different to fellow New Yorkers as not being so different.
When two workers at Bill Bernbach's agency Judy Protas and Bill Taubin began those ads New Yorkers already knew that you did not have to be Jewish to love rye bread but that was not what they were telling us. Notice that "real Jewish Rye" was always printed in smaller letters. The message that resonated was "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's."
While the print ads seem a bit schmaltzy now and the real goal was to get New Yorkers to trade in walking to the local bakery for fresh rye bread to picking up packaged rye at the supermarket, addressing antisemitism was not the only higher goal of a decade of subway ads. Presenting the happy faces of New Yorkers from many backgrounds, a generation raised to distrust people who looked and acted different had something to think about every day on the subway.
The visual of those many New York eyes, frozen but alive had another message besides the typography. A smiling Chinese-American with a crumb of Jewish rye bread on that mouth was saying to anyone who could listen "Look at me, I'm just like you."
Looking back now I can't help but feel that that one Chinese-American face, captured by Howard Zieff, played a significant role in hearing the hateful phrase "Send them back to where they came from" less and less.
In choosing to "spread the good word" by capitalizing on a characteristic of New York City an advertising firm found a little magic that was far superior to political correctness because the effort changed thinking. That effort to expand sales of a packaged bread from Brooklyn created a public acceptance that went much further. Just like now New York was ethnically diverse but back then neighborhood boundaries, especially in the boroughs often kept unfamiliar people a mystery. A few unfamiliar smiles ended so many mysteries.
Forty-nine years have passed since that progressive ad campaign eased the tension in the great melting pot. Close to thirty-one years ago The New York Times printed "YOU don't have to be Jewish to mourn a bit over the passing of Levy's Real Jewish Rye Bread from Brooklyn, after 91 years, to Connecticut" and a Brooklyn family bakery was passed on to corporate America. Today with those good Brooklyn jobs long gone, the corporation that owns the license for that bread gets rated as "Compared to other companies, this company is one of the lowest rated on labor & human rights."
Back then, in those times progress was so obvious. Sure we had much further to go but we were going. Now all these years later after so many years of conservative influence, progress is so much harder to find. But we can still find so many signs of progress in food issues, a place where the voice of consumers is often missed by government but heard by the entrepreneurs of today, people that are not much different from Henry S. Levy was when he got off the boat at Ellis island in the late 1800's.