Jews on the Chocolate Trail

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“Every time I put a piece of chocolate in my mouth, the entire world grinds to a screeching, blinding halt,” wrote renowned pastry chef, David Lebovitz, in The Great Book of Chocolate. Rabbi Debbie Prinz knows the feeling. A Reform rabbi and self-proclaimed chocophile, Rabbi Prinz has dedicated her professional life to seeking out Jews’ historical connection to the chocolate trade.chocolate.jpg

Prinz’s cocoa quest began two winters ago, when she heard Lebovitz interviewed on National Public Radio speaking about chocolate in France. Lebovitz’s lush descriptions of Parisian chocolate shops convinced Prinz and her husband, Rabbi Mark Hurvitz, to add a chocolate focus to their upcoming European vacation. Their whim, it turned out, led to an unexpected discovery.

While visiting one chocolate store in Bayonne (France’s first chocolate-making city), Prinz picked up a pamphlet that caught her eye. “With my high school French,” she said, “I was able to read a line that said, ‘Jews brought chocolate to France.'” Intrigued, she dug a little deeper, checking in with Bayonne’s Planete Musee du Chocolat (Chocolate Museum) and several other sweet shops in Paris, all of which remarkably revealed similar stories. “There are other theories about how chocolate came to France,” she said. “But this is by far the most popular one.”

Since that first trip to France, Rabbi Prinz and Rabbi Hurvitz have traveled across Europe, Israel, Mexico, and even Egypt, uncovering the buried links between Jews and chocolate. They discovered that the 17th century conversos, who settled in France after being exiled from Spain and Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition, brought along their chocolate experience. Within a couple of generations after their arrival, local artisans caught on to the mysteries of cacao and formed a chocolate maker’s guild from which Jews were, ironically, excluded.

truffles_hp.jpgRabbi Prinz also discovered Jewish chocolate ties in Colonial America a century later. “By the 18th century, one of the major Jewish traders, Aaron Lopez, was already paying workers to grind large quantities of cacao in Newport, Rhode Island,” she said. Meanwhile, Rebecca Gomez in New York was likely one of a few Jewish women manufacturing chocolate for consumption in the mid-to-late 1700s–roasting the cocoa beans and grinding them with sugar.

Jews’ connection to the chocolate industry endures today, with a wave of new independent manufacturers and shops opening in Israel, and several prominent Jewish chocolatiers on the scene in America. “I wish I’d known about this Jewish chocolate connection when I was in religious school!” Rabbi Prinz joked. But with more travel and a book in the works, and plenty of chocolate to nibble along the way, life is undoubtedly sweet.

Contemporary Jewish Chocolate Makers

Charles Chocolates
Veteran candy maker, Chuck Siegel, started making his signature line of truffles out of the San Francisco JCC’s kitchen. These days, his confections can be found at Whole Foods stores and at Google’s California headquarters, where he holds the title of official Chocolatier.

Katia’s Handmade Chocolate Truffles
The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Katherine (or Katia) Zinger now lives and creates her chocolates in Seattle. Starting with Scharffen Berger chocolate, Zinger sources ingredients from local farmers and food purveyors, giving her candy sustainable flair.

Netanya’s Choconoy
“Special chocolate by special people,” is an apt motto for Israeli chocolate company, Choconoy, which holds a mission to create employment opportunities for people with special needs. Their artistically painted pralines define the category: “Shoko-Art.”

Max Brenner
Israelis Oded Brenner and Max Fichtman combined their entrepreneurial spirits, as well as their names, to create an internationally celebrated chocolate brand. Purchased in 2001 by Strauss-Elite, Max Brenner continues to spread its delicious “chocolate culture” across the world.

Scharffen Berger

One half of the famous Scharffen Berger chocolate brand, Robert Steinberg (who passed away in 2008), was a Member of the Tribe. Together with his business partner and company namesake, John Scharffenberger, Steinberg revolutionized the contemporary field of artisan chocolate production.

Posted on June 11, 2009

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