The Delectable History of Jews and Chocolate
Compiled by Sala Levin
Kugel. Brisket. Gefilte fish. These are the familiar foods that are thought to make up Jewish culinary history. But one common and much-loved food has a longstanding but little-known connection to the Jewish community. Behold—chocolate, the forgotten Jewish food.
Christopher Columbus, expecting that he would meet Jewish traders on his voyage to the New World in 1492, took with him a Jew to act as a Hebrew translator. The New World, as it turned out, was not yet filled with Jews but was a treasure trove of cacao beans, which were prized by the native population and soon proved to be a hit in the Old World, as well.
The Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes later brought the Aztecs’ xocolatl (“bitter water”) to his home country. A mixture of cacao, chilies, herbs, honey and vanilla, the drink was believed to correlate to fertility—perhaps the reason Aztec ruler Montezuma reportedly consumed it liberally every day before seeing his wives. Spanish aristocrats were taken with the chocolate drink and its alleged restorative qualities, but chafed at its bitterness. To make the drink more to the nobility’s tastes, it was given a healthy dose of sugar and mixed with hot milk: an elixir for the upper classes.
Just as chocolate was gaining popularity, Spanish and Portuguese Jews were being forcibly converted or expelled from their homes. As they left, they took with them the art of chocolate-making, introducing the practice to their new residences in countries like France. Bayonne, in southwestern France, became a hub of Jewish chocolate production, as Jewish residents were rumored to persuade church authorities that chocolate could be eaten during Lent.
Over time, “chocolate houses” sprang up throughout Europe, becoming chic spots to see and be seen. In 1832, the Austrian minister Prince Klemens von Metternich, a lover of chocolate, wanted to show off a new dessert to guests. His head chef took ill, and the job was given to a 16-year-old Jewish apprentice named Franz Sacher, who created a new dish on the spot—a chocolate sponge cake layered with apricot jam and topped with chocolate icing and unsweetened cream. The dessert became the celebrated Sachertorte, Vienna’s signature dessert.
The Nazis’ rise to power in the 20th century caused a new generation of Jewish chocolate-makers to flee their homes. Eliyahu Fromenchenko, owner of a candy factory in Latvia, came to Palestine in 1933 and founded Elite, the chocolate company known for the hallmark cow on its chocolate bar wrappers. In 1938, Stephen Klein of Vienna arrived in New York City and started Barton’s, whose almond Kisses came in a distinctive tin that depicted a bustling cityscape and were a hit in Jewish households until the company closed in 2009.
Though non-Jewish companies like Ghirardelli and Godiva dominate the kosher chocolate market, Jewish chocolatiers continue to thrive. The late Robert Steinberg co-founded the famous Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker and Alice Medrich, referred to as the “First Lady of Chocolate” brought chocolate truffles, once nearly unknown, to the masses. In 2001, Dylan Lauren, daughter of designer Ralph Lauren, started the outrageously popular Dylan’s Candy Bar in New York City. The store, which offers a seemingly endless supply of sweets, has five outposts across the country and sells its goods at high-end department stores like Neiman Marcus.
Israeli chocolate-makers are also much in demand. When Max Brenner opened in Ra’anana in 1996, it was a hand-made chocolate shop owned by Max Fichtman and Oded Brenner. Today, the café and store chain has locations worldwide, from the United States to Australia, and offers options as diverse as “Chocolate Chunks Pizza” and “Warm Chocolate Soup.”
The use of chocolate in Jewish fare such as hamantaschen, rugelach and sufganiyot is a relatively new phenomenon, as for many years chocolate was not widely accessible and was prohibitively expensive. The traditional Hanukkah gelt became an edible chocolate treat around the 18th century, when children in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany were given chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil to celebrate the winter feast of St. Nicholas. Today, new chocolate rituals are springing up in the Jewish world, including a chocolate faux-seder in which Kit Kat bars act as matzo and chocolate milk substitutes for wine.