Bittersweet history

From the role chocolate has played in religion to its Nazi ties, Rabbi Deborah Prinz goes in search of the Jewish connection.

PRINZ IN Bruges, Belgium 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
PRINZ IN Bruges, Belgium 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For most of the past five years, Rabbi Deborah Prinz was living the dream. That is, if your dream is traveling around the globe hunting down the best chocolate the world has to offer.
And when she wasn’t sampling hot chocolate in Madrid or chocolate truffles in Paris, Prinz was buried in archives and history books, searching for links between Judaism and the universally loved sweet treat. Those years of research on the road and in books led to the publication of Prinz’s first book, On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao.It all began close to six years ago, when Prinz was planning a European sabbatical trip with her husband, fellow rabbi Mark Hurvitz.
“We were in a debate about whether we should go to Paris,” she recalls. Hurvitz had visited the city already and Prinz had not.
But when Prinz reported to her husband that they could visit the many chocolate shops that dotted the city, he was sold.
Prinz prepared a map of all the stores they planned to stop at, but at “one of the chocolate stores that was not on the map,” she recalls, “I happened to pick up the literature and read that Jews first brought chocolate to France. This was the first time in all my years of Jewish studies that I came across this idea that Jews brought chocolate to France.”
The discovery set her on a path to uncover the relationship between Jews and chocolate, tracing its journey from the Spanish Inquisition to the dispersion of Jews in France, Belgium, Amsterdam, the US, the UK, Mexico and Israel, among other places.
Christopher Columbus, the first European to discover cacao beans, brought them back to Spain in 1502.
Prinz posits that Jews were the first to bring chocolate to France – specifically to the city of Bayonne – when those who found haven there after being expelled from Spain and Portugal engaged in trade with their converso relatives still living there.
Prinz uncovers not only the prominence of Jews in the cacao trade in Bayonne but also growing discrimination, after ordinances in the 17th century sought to ban or limit Jews from engaging in the chocolate trade because of the intense competition. She also follows the prominence of Jews in the chocolate business in New Spain – or Mexico – and the importance chocolate played there even in ritual life.
“Mexican crypto-Jews used chocolate for welcoming the Sabbath because wine was scarce in New Spain,” she writes. “For Jews attempting to follow Jewish dietary laws, the pareve nature of the local chocolate drink prepared without milk lent itself to the separation of milk and meat.” Prinz even unearthed records of those secretly living as Jews having to hide the fact that they weren’t eating chocolate on fast days from their servants and friends.
She later traces the development by Jews of chocolate businesses in the United States – before and after it became a country, noting the creation of the chocolate egg cream by an immigrant Jewish store owner on the Lower East Side. The iconic Tootsie Roll chocolate candy was invented in 1896 by Austrian immigrant Leo Hirshfield, and the Bartons chocolate company was founded in 1938 by Stephen Klein, a refugee from Vienna.
Prinz dips lightly into chocolate’s dark side, particularly its role during World War II, noting that “Nestle’s chocolate subsidiary, Maggi, employed thousands of war prisoners and Jewish slave laborers in its factory in Germany near the Swiss border. As recently as 1997, it refused to open its Nazi-era records.” She also writes that “Nazis used chocolate bars to lure Jews onto cattle car trains to concentration camps.” Prinz retells the oft-heard stories of Allied soldiers who liberated concentration camps sharing their chocolate rations with the emaciated prisoners they found there.
Bartons founder Klein also used his business to aid Holocaust survivors, Prinz recounts, employing many of them and using his company’s headquarters as an immigration office for displaced Jews. She also details the Israeli “obsession” with chocolate and devotes several chapters to the role cacao has played in other religions over the past several centuries.
Although Prinz finishes her book with a discussion of fair-trade chocolate and listings of ethical chocolate companies, she devotes little time to the vast issue of slave labor and the chocolate trade. In addition, the recipes she sprinkles throughout the book are often unrelated to the content and detract from its historical focus.
While the book is fast-paced and lively, it reads more as a collection of anecdotes and interesting tales than a historical work, and may leave history buffs wondering if the connections between Jews and chocolate are as clear as Prinz makes them out to be.
While today Prinz is known for her “choco-dar” (chocolate radar), she says that when she was growing up, “I don’t think I was particularly discriminating about chocolate or knowledgeable about chocolate. I just sort of have a sweet tooth.” But now, she says, “I have a much greater appreciation for chocolate as a feature of the natural world, and a much greater understanding of the role that chocolate has played in the world and history and religion too.”