“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.
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.
Rabbi 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.