The Jewish Love Affair With Chocolate

February 7, 2018

To me, Valentine’s Day is best celebrated as a single person. As part of a couple, you have expectations; even if you dismiss Valentine’s Day as just another hype-driven exercise in consumerism and anxiety, you still want your partner to buy you flowers. Or make dinner reservations, and profess his love in some new, astounding way, ideally aided by chocolate.

Without a partner, you’re relieved from all these hopes. And the dashing of them. And the self-judgment for getting roped in once again by the romantic-industrial complex.

Since getting divorced, Valentine’s Day has become my favorite holiday. Being single gave me space to think about all the other kinds of love in my life — and the other people who could use a show of caring. I now see Valentine’s Day as a time to celebrate love broadly. For the past four years, my son and I have baked cookies for people without partners, for overwhelmed mothers, for friends and colleagues. I like this holiday as a single person because the minute you stop fretting about whether you’re adequately cherished, you can start focusing on making sure others feel the love.

But whether I’m single or in a relationship, one thing never changes: my abiding ardor for chocolate. In little boxes. Or a bar. Preferably dark. Perhaps with sea salt. The chocolate part of Valentine’s Day, it turns out, also has a significant Jewish history.

We’re all familiar with culturally Jewish uses of chocolate: the chocolate egg cream, the chocolate babka, the chocolate rugelach, the chocolate gelt. (Elite chocolate gelt is so integrated into our culture that you can do a calorie search on myfitnesspal.com. One bag = 80 calories.) But cacao and chocolate have also played an important role in the economic and philanthropic lives of the Jewish people, it turns out.

“Chocolate provided business and trade opportunities to refugees in their new locations. Their success enabled them to support synagogues and philanthropic endeavors in their communities,” said Rabbi Deborah Prinz, author of “On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao.” Her book is also the basis of an exhibition currently on view at the Bernard Museum of Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.

The book and exhibition are filled with tales of New World Jewish community leaders who rose to prominence in part through chocolate. Tracing the Jewish Diaspora through the trading of chocolate also gives an upbeat view of our shared past, as Prinz told the crowd gathered on the opening night of the book’s museum incarnation. “While some historians of Jewish life identify history of the Jewish people from a lachrymose view — from a focus on tragedy and sadness — these are stories of resilience and of opportunity.”

Aaron Lopez, for example, was an 18th-century immigrant to the Colonies from Portugal. He established himself as an importer of cacao beans and a retailer of chocolate, among other things, in Newport, R.I., soon becoming one of the city’s wealthiest men. He helped found the city’s first synagogue and led the way in charitable giving. One item included in food donations? Balls of hard chocolate that were ground into a beverage at the time.

Prinz describes her own relationship with chocolate as constant and devoted. “I eat chocolates almost every day. I eat it religiously,”  she said.

Her book also looks at the ritual role of chocolate across religions, and she traveled with her husband to places where chocolate was incorporated into spiritual practices by Jews, Catholics, Quakers and Mayans. “I had no idea that there were so many ritual uses of chocolate, so many historic connections,” she said.

“Yes, separate milk from meat…But do not separate Jews from chocolate.” — A.J. Jacobs

For most of its history, chocolate was consumed as a drink, and Prinz found stories of Jews who left Portugal and Spain for New Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries, and adopted some of the indigenous practices around grinding cacao and drinking chocolate.

“This got worked into Jewish ritual practice, such as using drinking chocolate for Kiddush Friday nights instead of wine,” Prinz said. “They were also drinking chocolate before the fast of Yom Kippur and at the break-fast, and they used the balls for meals of consolation for mourners. The food given to mourners is supposed to be round, and they’d include chocolate balls.”

Prinz found some evidence, while traveling through Belgium, that the giving of chocolate gelt might stem from a ritual associated with the Protestant Festival of St. Nicholas.

As far as Valentine’s Day specifically? Prinz sees the summer holiday of Tu b’Av, the 15th Day of Av, as the closest Jewish equivalent. Tu b’Av is an ancient full-moon holiday that was a matchmaking day for unmarried women and has been somewhat revived as a Jewish Valentine’s Day, particularly in Israel.

Whether celebrated in February or midsummer, Prinz encourages people to find more lasting ways to show caring and affection.

“Is the best way to express love by sending flowers and — I shouldn’t say this — chocolate? Or going out on a night when there are no reservations to be had?” the rabbi said. “Perhaps we can express our love for others in ways that are akin to Jewish life, like giving tzedakah and working on behalf of Jewish organizations.”

Neither of which, in my mind, conflicts with decorating cookies or eating clearance-rack boxes of chocolates on Feb. 15.

Or, to quote writer A.J. Jacobs, commenting on Prinz’s book, “Yes, separate milk from meat. And wool from linen. But do not separate Jews from chocolate. They shall be yoked together for all time.”

Wendy Paris is the author of “Splitopia: Dispatches From Today’s Good Divorce” and the co-author, with Jane Mosbacher Morris, of “Buy the Change You Want to See: Harnessing Our Purchasing Power for Good.”

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