Rabbi tracks ‘Jewish connection’ to chocolate confection

Thursday, January 3, 2013 | by dan pine

Rabbi Deborah Prinz has a sweet deal. As an amateur sleuth investigating the noble cacao bean, she gives herself permission to sample as much chocolate as she likes.

Strictly for research purposes, of course.

Author of the recently published book “On the Chocolate Trail,” Prinz has total recall of countless facts about the world’s favorite confection. One of the most fascinating facts: For 500 years, Jews have played a crucial role in the history of chocolate.

Prinz will discuss “Jews on the Chocolate Trail” at a 9:30 a.m. talk on Jan. 13 at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos.

Rabbi Deborah Prinz
Rabbi Deborah Prinz
As a prelude to writing her book, Prinz set out with her husband on a journey, visiting chocolate centers across Latin America and Europe. She says the idea for the book’s Jewish angle came after reading a brochure in a Parisian sweet shop, in which she learned that Jews brought chocolate-making to France in the 16th century.

“I said, there’s got to be more to it than this,” Prinz recalls. “This [Jewish history] seemed not to have been unpacked by anybody, so it was really exciting to be able to pursue the story, tasting a lot along the way.”

Prinz, who has been blogging about chocolate for years (http://www.jews-onthechocolatetrail.org), is the first to admit that her book is no academic treatise or comprehensive history. It’s much too fun for that. In addition to the history of cacao — from early Meso-American cultivation all the way to the M&M — she includes her personal travelogue, plus recipes.

How do chocolate matzah cake or chocolate haroset truffles sound?

The heart of the book is the history of Jewish involvement in chocolate. The tale begins with Jewish merchants and traders introducing cocoa to Spain and, after the Inquisition, to the rest of Europe. Cities such as Amsterdam; Bayonne, France; and Turin, Italy became chocolate manufacturing centers, with Jews often in the forefront.

“There were points at which Jews had opportunities and took advantage of them,” Prinz says. “Being on the cutting edge and part of a new trade is certainly not surprising for Jews.”

Rabbi Deborah PrinzJewish chocolatiers made their way to England, opening the first chocolate and coffee house in Oxford, as well as to America. Colonial-era Jews introduced chocolate, a tradition that continued to recent times with the founders of Bartons, Koppers and other brands.

Prinz also takes a side trip to Israel, a nation she describes in her book as “meshuga for chocolate,” a fact borne out for any visitor who returns with multiple bags of Elite-brand goodies.

But chocolatology is not Prinz’s main gig. A Los Angeles native and ordained Reform rabbi, Prinz serves as interim director of program and member services for the Central Conference of American Rabbis. She has been a pulpit rabbi in New Jersey and Manhattan.

She grew up with both a sweet tooth and a taste for Jewish ethics. That’s why her book also explores issues from fair trade, to organic farming, to the scandal of child slave-labor used in the West African cacao industry.

“I care about Jewish values and have taught them all my career,” Prinz says. “They guide us in how we live in many areas, and chocolate should be included in those choices. We fail to understand that there is child labor, but we can easily find other opportunities to enjoy chocolate.”

In her book Prinz names chocolate makers who certify their products as ethically manufactured. (Unfortunately, many big candy companies rely on unsourced bulk cacao beans, which makes it hard to know whether your Snickers bar was made with slave labor or not.)

So, as a seasoned chocolate maven, what is Prinz’s favorite treat? She places at the top of her list the creamy three-layered Italian chocolate drink bicerin (made of espresso, chocolate and milk), which she sampled in Turin.

She also touched down in the Bay Area, home to several Jewish chocolate makers past and present. One of them was Joseph Schmidt, founder of the much-loved and now defunct Joseph Schmidt Confections of San Francisco.

“I asked him why so many Jews got into chocolate,” Prinz recalls. “He said, ‘Jews know a good thing when they see it.’ ”

 

“On the Chocolate Trail” by Rabbi Deborah Prinz (237 pages, Jewish Lights Publishing, $18.99)

 

Prinz will speak at 9:30 a.m. Jan. 13 at Congregation Shir Hadash, 20 Cherry Blossom Lane, Los Gatos. http://www.shirhadash.org or (408) 358-1751