The Mostly Sweet Tale of Jews and Chocolate

Convinced he would encounter Jewish traders on his 1492 journey, Christopher Columbus brought along a Jew as a Hebrew interpreter. Although he met no Jews in the New World, he did find oddly shaped “almonds” that were highly valued by the natives—cacao beans.

It was conquistador Hernán Cortés who carried the art of making the Aztecs’ xocolatl, or “bitter water,” to Spain. Considered a sacred drink associated with fertility, chocolate was served cold and flavored with chilies. The Aztec emperor Montezuma was said to have downed many a golden goblet of the drink each day, especially before visiting his wives.

The Spanish nobility swooned over the aphrodisiac and revitalizing qualities of chocolate, but disliked its bitterness. To appease European taste buds, it was loaded with sugar and later blended with hot milk. A delectable drink for the wealthy was born.

The clamor for chocolate coincided with the forced conversion and expulsion of the Jews of Spain and Portugal. “When the Jews left, they took with them knowledge of how to make chocolate and a sense of its value,” says Celia Shapiro, co-author of Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. “Jewish traders introduced chocolate to France,” adds Joan Nathan, author of the upcoming In Search of the Food of the Jews of France. One center of Jewish chocolate-making was Bayonne, where, as the legend goes, Jewish settlers managed to convince church authorities that chocolate was “kosher” for Lent.

Another popular destination for Spanish and Portuguese refugees was the Netherlands. The Dutch West India Company was keen to cultivate the Jewish Diaspora’s worldwide trade links, and Jewish traders fanned out throughout the New World.

But Jewish commercial success bred resentment. The French instituted discriminatory laws and the Spanish and Portuguese exported the Inquisition to their colonies, forcing Jews to flee to Dutch territories such as Curacao and New Amsterdam, the future New York. Aaron Lopez, an influential merchant and cacao trader, was the first Jew to be naturalized in British Massachusetts. A fervent supporter of the American Revolution, Lopez lamented the fact that Jews, struggling with provision shortages during the upheaval while attempting to keep kosher, were “forced to subsist on chocolate and coffee.”

“Chocolate houses” became the rage throughout Europe as fashionable places to meet friends and lovers. Chocolate was de rigueur for Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian minister with a penchant for realism in foreign policy and experimentation in food. In 1832, the statesman wanted to impress guests with a new dessert, but his head chef was sick, so the task fell to a 16-year-old Jewish apprentice named Franz Sacher. The teenager’s impromptu creation—a sponge chocolate cake layered with apricot jam and coated with chocolate icing, served with a swirl of unsweetened cream—became known as Sachertorte and Vienna’s signature dessert. The 19th century was also to witness many other innovations, such as the introduction of powdered chocolate and, most important, the arrival of the mass-produced chocolate bar.

In the 20th century, the rise of Nazism yielded a new exodus of Jewish chocolate-makers. In 1933, Eliyahu Fromenchenko, owner of a candy factory in Latvia, arrived in Palestine. He founded Elite, one of Israel’s best known companies—its iconic Shamnonit chocolate bar features a cow on the wrapper. Five years later, Viennese chocolatier Stephen Klein came to New York City and redefined the kosher chocolate market with Barton’s. The company’s chocolate almond Kisses became favorites of generations of Jewish Americans until it closed this year. Major non-Jewish companies like Godiva and Ghirardelli now dominate the kosher chocolate market.

Jewish American chocolatiers such as the late Robert Steinberg, the co-founder of Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker, and truffle virtuoso Alice Medrich, however, continue to make names for themselves. “There’s just a lot of us,” says Charles Siegel, owner of Charles Chocolates, in Emeryville, California, who met his wife delivering his chocolate-covered matzo.

A new generation of chocolatiers is now also spreading the chocolate gospel in Israel. If Elite’s cow was emblematic of the Zionist return to nature, Max Brenner screams globalization. Opened as a hand-made chocolate shop by Max Fichtman and Oded Brenner in 1996 in Ra’anana, the cafe and store chain propounds a “new chocolate culture worldwide.” Max Brenner customers from New York to Melbourne can nurse their “Swiss Whipped Cream Chocolat” in the “Hug Mug” (for intimacy), slurp some “Warm Chocolate Soup” or have a bite of the “Chocolate Pizza.” For those who fail to find anything remotely Jewish about this Israeli enterprise, there is a bagel—made out of chocolate.

Despite the centuries-long bond between Jews and chocolate, the confection “didn’t come into ritual use,” says Rabbi Deborah Prinz, author of Jews on the Chocolate Trail blog. Chocolate was not easily accessible and was expensive, although it did eventually make its way into festive foods such as hamantaschen, sufganiyot, rugelach and Passover chocolate cakes. The most famous Jewish chocolate, Hanukkah gelt, turned edible around the 18th century thanks to the December feast of St. Nicholas, during which children in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany receive bags of golden foil-covered chocolate coins.

Today, new chocolate traditions abound. A favorite is the children’s chocolate seder, a sweet trial run for the real thing, complete with Kit Kat bars masquerading as matzo and chocolate milk posing as Manischewitz. Chocolate latkes are available at any time of the year. Popular flavors include chocolate-chip, chocolate coconut and chocolate amaretto.—Nonna Gorilovskaya

One thought on “The Mostly Sweet Tale of Jews and Chocolate

  1. Davida Brown says:

    Viva La Chocolate! Thank you for the very interesting historical background on our favorite treat!! When we revive Honey Rock Café… maybe in the world to come…we will have an abundance of it 🙂

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