Chocolate’s Jewish History


Everybody knows that as wanderers, Jews have long played a significant role in global trade. A lesser-known facet of that story is the Jewish connection to chocolate during the age of the Spanish Inquisition and that same country’s conquest of the New World.

Spanish explorers brought chocolate to Spain; Jews brought it to world cities like Amsterdam and New York, and the rest is both delicious history and the subject of Rabbi Deborah Prinz’s book “On the Chocolate Trail.” The book, which takes readers on a worldwide expedition, exploring the historical legacy of chocolate and religion, includes recipes, a consumer’s guide to ethically produced chocolate and a list of chocolate museums and tours around the world.

Q: Jewish Week: What inspired you to write “On the Chocolate Trail”?

A: I was just so intrigued with this part of our Jewish history, a piece that nobody knew much about, and it seemed like such a great discovery and so helpful for other people to know about from a historical point of view, from a Jewish values point of view and a fun point of view. The connection between chocolate and religion is such a great combination.

Tell me a little about your own relationship with chocolate.

I pretty much eat chocolate once or twice a day. A plain bar, not truffles, cookies or cake. My sweet tooth started as a child. I grew up in a family where we divided up a box of See’s candy among all five of us. The sweet tooth was there all the time. It veered more into chocolate as I did more research for this book.

I know you’re a world traveler. Have you visited all the places in your book’s guide to chocolate museums and tours around the world?

I’ve been to ones in the countries where we traveled — Belgium. France, Spain, England, Israel. I can’t say we’ve covered every single chocolate museum in every country, but almost all of them. There are others we want to visit and we hope to get there. It’s not a full story yet. There’s more to uncover and more to discover.

There’s a whole chapter of your book dedicated to chocolate in Israel, but the larger theme seems to be chocolate in Spain, Mexico, and South America. What’s the link between chocolate and Sephardic Judaism?

The story of Ashkenazi connections to chocolate I haven’t fully explored. I do touch on some of that. I think that the Sephardi connection is clear with the discovery of chocolate by Columbus and other explorers, and the transmission of chocolate to Spain. If you look at the map in the book, it indicates the dispersion of Jews from Spain and identifies chocolate centers around the Western world, and they overlap. Jews from Spain went to London, Amsterdam, Newport and New York. Eventually those were significant Sephardi settlements for Jews. Those became chocolate centers as well.

I know as a rabbi you are interested in the relationship between Judaism and chocolate. What motivated you to include in your book histories of chocolate pertaining to non-Jewish religions?

I thought it was just fascinating; all of the connections to religion were so surprising to me. The Quaker connection in England, and the Catholic Church, were intriguing and I wanted it to be broader story.

What do you focus on in your lectures as you tour to publicize the book?

People are very interested in the highlights of the Jewish connection to chocolate. Another focus is the colonial [American] period’s use of chocolate. Some groups are more interested in historical perspectives. I also talk about New York and Newport. And a third approach is about religious ethical values and chocolate.

You mention in the book that you nearly ate chocolate-covered bacon. What’s the most bizarre chocolate combination you’ve tried?

I wouldn’t stay it’s bizarre, but I’m not necessarily fond of raw chocolate. I like chocolate-covered espresso beans and all those things. Nothing that exotic. I’m not crazy about chocolate with pepper in it. There was a bar that had fennel seeds in it, and there were just some weird options in the health food circuit.

Are there any Jewish foods that shouldn’t ever have chocolate with them, or is everything better with chocolate?

I have not thought about gefilte fish and chocolate, but I think kugel could work with chocolate. Herring? Not so sure. Pickles? Maybe.