NEW YORK — Growing up, Rabbi Deborah Prinz always had a sweet tooth.
She remembers climbing up the cupboards of her childhood home in Los Angeles to find all sorts of candy and sugary treats her parents had hidden away.
“I don’t know if they ever noticed that they were disappearing,” Prinz said with a smile, cutting into a piece of Pleyel, a smooth chocolate almond cake at La Maison du Chocolat, perhaps the holiest site for cocoa lovers on the Upper East Side.
But Prinz’s appreciation for chocolate itself only came as an adult. Over the last 12 years, that appreciation has even developed into an almost inexplicable attraction — a sort of internal radar that homes in on subjects and places related to what some have dubbed the “food of the gods.” Prinz calls it the “choco-dar.”
“It comes upon me serendipitously. I can’t control it, it just happens,” Prinz said. “And it leads me to interesting chocolate experiences — not only the opportunity to taste wonderful things, but also to learn.”
Like a sixth sense, the “choco-dar” has, over the years, led Prinz to Turin in Italy, where she had an unforgettable Bicerin, a three-layered drink of chocolate, coffee and cream; it caused her to stumble upon the headquarters for the famous Valrhona chocolate company during a road trip in France; and in Spain, a choco-dar alert had her chance upon a medieval monks’ chocolate room while visiting a monastery.
The choco-dar also played a role in Prinz and her husband’s decision to move to a studio apartment in New York, although they only realized it six months after moving in, when the corner grocery store reopened after a major renovation.
To their surprise, the nearby shop included an entire room devoted exclusively to chocolate. Not only does that chocolatey alcove now supply their everyday cacao needs, it is also bigger than their apartment.
But perhaps the choco-dar’s most significant performance was in a Paris shop when Prinz randomly discovered the connection between two things she loves: Chocolate and Jews.
“We were traveling in a Volkswagen van in Europe and we happen to go into a chocolate store in Paris,” Prinz told The Times of Israel, as a suited waiter slid two espresso shot-sized glasses of Guayaquil — a creamy hot chocolate infused with subtle notes of Madagascar vanilla — across the table.
“I happened to pick up their company literature, I happened to be able to read in my high school French and the literature said that Jews brought chocolate making to France,” said Prinz.
And there is was, the choco-dar moment that would lead to months of research and eventually the publication of her book “On the Chocolate Trail,” now in its second edition.
“I had been a rabbi for 30 years or more, I had studied Jewish studies in college and went to Hebrew school,” Prinz said. “And in all those years of learning about Judaism I’d never heard this idea that Jews brought chocolate making to France.”
But more she thought about it and researched, the more the connection made sense.
“It’s about trade,” said Prinz. “The Jews who were exiled from Spain were in trade, they were merchants, and it makes sense that Jews might have some involvement in chocolate.”
“I found that not only the Jews had contact with chocolate but there were other religions that were very immersed in chocolate experiences — Mayans, Aztecs, and of course Catholics,” she said.
In her book, Prinz explains that the Jews exiled from Spain in 1492 and then from Portugal in 1496 “engaged in international trade as they continued their linkages to each other through birth, business, or family bonds.”
Chocolate, which was discovered by Europeans in the Americas — then known as the New World — in 1502, was imported to Spain around 20 years later and developed into a colonial extract industry.
“Jews still living in Spain or with family contacts in Spain would have easily learned about chocolate, even as the Spanish throne sought to maintain a monopoly over it,” Prinz writes.
In fact, according to her, these Jews played a critical role in the cocoa business, which grew and spread all over Europe. Prinz says that Jews who lived in New Spain, the colonial territory of the Spanish Empire at the time, were even using chocolate for the kiddush prayer sanctifying the Sabbath on Friday night.
“They were using chocolate for Yom Kippur before the fast, they were drinking it,” Prinz said, “and they were using chocolate for seudot havra’ah [the first meal eaten by the mourners after a funeral].
“The custom these days in America is to send something round like hard boiled eggs or bagels,” said Prinz. “Well, they were sending chocolate balls among other things.”
In fact, as she pieced this chocolatey puzzle together, it became very clear to Prinz that her love for anything cocoa might not be completely random.
“Surprisingly our ancestors, since they were exiled from Spain, have had a connection to chocolate from generation to generation — and it’s likely genetic,” she said with a laugh.
A migrant food
Just like the Jewish people, chocolate has traveled and migrated throughout the world and is now found in the most surprising places.
This universal comfort food, as Prinz describes it, has migrated with persecuted people and has fortified resourceful minorities the world over.
In fact, many of the stories of Jews and chocolate that Prinz tells in “On the Chocolate Trail,” the first and only book about the Chosen People’s connection with the confection, are refugee stories.
“Sephardim were refugees: exiled, struggling and yet they found opportunity and subsistence and support from chocolate, something somewhat nourishing and sweet,” she said. “They are really beautiful stories of people who overcame difficulties and their chocolate business sustained them and their families.”
And it wasn’t just the first Jewish refugees from Spain. Chocolate, was important for those fleeing war-torn Europe in the 20th century. Some Jewish new arrivals in America were employed at bakeries established with the sole purpose of creating jobs for them. They flourished in their new profession and became great chocolate makers.
“It was an opportunity to make a living and support your family through that,” Prinz said.
Over the past decade, she has herself been on the chocolate trail, retracing its twists and turns around the globe. Along the way of course, she and her husband, who has accompanied her journey, have tasted more types of chocolate than Prinz likes to confess to. All of them are now carefully immortalized in a collection of hundreds of colorful wrappers she keeps at home.
“I will try anything once. Except for bacon in chocolate obviously,” said Prinz.
And perhaps white chocolate, too, is out of her realm. “It’s way too sweet for me,” she added.
Chocolate and Jewish values
Having established the historical link between Jews and chocolate, Prinz believes chocolate can become a Jewish food in and of itself and be incorporated in Jewish holiday rituals, beyond the low quality chocolate coins distributed around Hanukkah.
For Rosh Hashanah for example, as sweet foods are symbolic of a sweet year ahead, chocolate could easily have a role to play.
“I propose chocolate covered apples or chocolate chips in the challah,” Prinz said. “For Shavuot, milk chocolate is a great idea: you can incorporate it in your cheesecake, or drink hot chocolate with milk in it.”
“You know the Talmud says you should enjoy everything you could possibly manage to enjoy while you have the opportunity, and I think there is a kind of gustatory appreciation that Jews have about food,” Prinz went on. “We certainly bless our food before and after we eat it. We see food as a gift, and chocolate is definitely a part of that.”
But when incorporating chocolate into one’s Jewish life, there is also an array of Jewish values one could, and should, be thinking about, Prinz said.
“You can ask questions like: is this company tzedaka [charity] oriented? Are they concerned about the community? Are they giving a percentage of their income to help the community? Is it fair trade certified? Is it a chocolate that’s healthier for you? And of course, is it kosher?” said Prinz.
All the way to Israel
Prinz’s research has also lead her to explore the Israeli chocolate story as well. There too, between visits to the holy sites, she has made detours through chocolate shops and places such as the Elite chocolate factory in Nazareth.
“Chocolate has been there for a long long time and Israelis love chocolate,” she said. “some Israelis grew up on ‘para‘ [Elite’s cow-branded chocolate bars], soldiers use chocolate spread. It is part of the Israeli palate.”
“It is kind of an immigrant food to Israel that came with olim [new arrivals from the Diaspora], and in some cases it becomes a food that leaves Israel and goes to the Diaspora since you can now get Max Brenner anywhere,” Prinz said.
And it’s not just Max Brenner that has rendered Israeli chocolate popular abroad. More recently, Israel’s very own Wonder Woman Gal Gadot introduced late night TV host Jimmy Fallon to the very popular Elite poprocks-sprinkled chocolate bar — surely a proud moment for Israelis everywhere.
Although chocolate is definitely part of the culture in Israel, Prinz says the next step is developing Israelis’ awareness of Jewish values in chocolate eating.
“Food in Israel has gotten to be so good, and yet while there is an awareness of quality, I am not sure there is as much awareness yet of Jewish values in chocolate eating and other foods,” Prinz observed.
“It’s maybe more applicable to chocolate because it’s imported for the most part, and a lot of the other food is probably local. That would be probably something to look for,” she said.
After writing about Jews and chocolate, Prinz now gives the occasional talk to Jewish and non-Jewish groups about her discoveries.
“I am always impressed and somewhat surprised even still by how passionate people are about their chocolate appreciation,” Prinz said.
“People get so excited. It brings sweetness, satisfaction, and for some, memories of childhood. They have fond memories of chocolate-covered matzah or Hanukkah coins, even if the chocolate wasn’t good,” she said.
As for the choco-dar, there is still a long list of places Prinz would like it to lead her: South America, the Caribbean and even Vietnam.