Major Project: Chocolate (2014)

By April 5, 2014 November 15th, 2018 Bnei Mitzvah, Major Papers

The following essay about Jews and chocolate was written by Liliana Franklin, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this last component can be seen below. The process improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.

April 27, 2014

Personally, I love chocolate. I have loved it forever. I may only know one person who loves chocolate as much as I do, my friend Steffie. When I used to go to Hershey Park, I would always love going on the ride that tells how they make chocolate and go to the gift shop and look for the biggest chocolate bar they had. I love all chocolates—dark, milk, white, pure, unsweetened, and sweetened.

When I originally chose a topic for my special project, I chose the history of Jewish desserts, but then I found out from Rabbi Peter that another rabbi had just written a new book called On the Chocolate Trail about the connection between chocolate and Jews. It turns out that our history together goes back many centuries. That piqued my interest so right away I started researching chocolate.

I have always wondered if chocolate was used for other things besides food. I also wanted to know how Jews used it in the past. I did not know anything about this history. I wanted to find out how our ancestors used it.

Facts About Chocolate

First some basic facts about chocolate: chocolate is a $110 billion-a-year worldwide industry. The word chocolate came to the English language from Spanish. I kept thinking about it and wondered if other people or religions used it as moisturizer or as a healing product. In my research I found during the 18th century it was used for its therapeutic qualities, like prevention of stomach aches. When Dr. James Baker of Baker’s Chocolate fame started the first chocolate factory in North America, its purpose was to make remedies for illnesses. But so far I’ve found that chocolate has mainly been used in cooking and food.

Chocolate can come in different forms. It can be powdered, solid, or liquid. These forms can be used in cooking, like drinks and desserts, and baked into things like mole and Mexican chili. Chocolate comes in different varieties, and some chocolates have more actual chocolate than other ingredients. For example, some have 60 percent chocolate and others have less.

But chocolate isn’t for everyone. Animals can find chocolate toxic because of an ingredient also found in coffee, tea and some over-the-counter stimulants called methylxanthine alkaloids. This ingredient commonly poisons dogs because of their habit of consuming things quickly, especially puppies and large dogs. Some people have addictions to chocolate and they are called “chocoholics.” But sometimes chocolate can just satisfy a craving one might have for something sweet.

What is Chocolate Anyway?

Chocolate is made from cacao beans, which grow on cacao trees. The tree is native to the Amazon rainforests of South America, but has been transported to many parts of the world. The bean needs a warm, wet climate to thrive, so it grows mostly in countries just north and south of the equator. Today most cacao beans are grown in West Africa, particularly the Ivory Coast and Ghana. The beans grow in pods, which look almost like melons. Each pod contains about 20 to 40 seeds, the cacao beans. The pods are harvested by hand and the beans are scooped out to dry. The beans are sorted, cleaned, and roasted. Then they are cracked and de-shelled in a winnower, resulting in cocoa nibs, the broken pieces of cacao without the shell. The shells are blown away from the nibs. Crushing the nibs creates a paste of the chocolate. This can be done by hand on a stone, like in the Colonial period, or in machines of industrial companies in Europe and North America. The result is “cocoa liquor,” which has no alcohol and has not yet been sweetened. Sometimes this is called the cocoa mass. A longer grinding period yields a smoother-textured chocolate. Through the grinding stage, the liquor/mass is separated from the cocoa fat/butter. They are recombined in varying quantities depending on the intended use of the chocolate. The chocolate mixture is then massaged to combine the ingredients. This also affects the taste and texture. Finally, the chocolate is tempered, which is the process of heating and cooling that gives the chocolate a glossy look and hardness.

Chocolate has health effects, some good, some not so good. On the positive side, it can boost cognitive abilities. Dark chocolate can lower cholesterol in some adults, and may positively affect the circulatory system. Some negatives include possible heartburn, allergic reactions for children, and there is some evidence that chocolate may be addictive.

Jews and Chocolate

Many people don’t know that there is a connection between Jews and chocolate, but there is. The story starts with Christopher Columbus. I even found some articles arguing that Columbus himself was Jewish—CNN reported about this—but I have no idea if that’s true. Members of his crew were secret Jews. (I’ll explain why it had to be a secret in a minute.)

As we all learned in school, Columbus “discovered” the New World in 1492. Of course that just means he discovered it for Europeans. Native people were already living here, and they drank chocolate beverages. They valued cacao beans so highly that they even used them as currency. On Columbus’s fourth voyage, to the Bay of Honduras in 1502, he and his crew discovered the beans and brought them back to Spain by 1520. Jews were living in Spain at the time, and many of them were merchants—but they had to keep their Jewishness a secret because this was the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition was a campaign against “heretics,” anyone who wasn’t Catholic. Jews were prime targets. It was established formally in 1480 in Spain, 1536 in Portugal, and 1571 in New Spain (which included much of North and South America). People were tried for the crime of Judaizante (behaving like a Jew). They could lose property, be imprisoned, or even be burned to death at the stake. Jews were officially exiled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1496. Most were forced to convert, but they secretly remained Jews. They were known as “conversos” or “marranos” (though marrano meant pig in Portuguese). They secretly celebrated Jewish holidays and almost all married other secret Jews.

Once cacao came to Spain, chocolate became a big business there. The Spanish loved it! Here’s where the Jewish chocolate connection comes in. Many were already merchants and it made sense to get into the chocolate business. But remember, officially Jews had been expelled from Spain and Portugal (Portugal was also a center of the chocolate trade). Some, the conversos, stayed and got involved in the business. Many others were exiled and moved around Europe. They moved to France, the Netherlands, England, Belgium, and eventually to the New World of the Americas. This is known as the Jewish diaspora. A diaspora is a scattering or dispersion, when an ethnic or religious group is forced to move away from their original homeland. And wherever the Jews went, they brought the chocolate business with them.

Some people say that Jews introduced chocolate to France. Pamphlets claiming this can be found today in chocolate shops in Paris. The story is that Jewish exiles from Spain, or Jews with relatives in Spain, moved to Bayonne, a port city on the southwestern coast of France, near the Spanish border. Bayonne became the center of French chocolate-making at the beginning of the 17th century. About 60 converso Jewish families lived there at the time, outwardly pretending to be Christians. Because the Inquisition wasn’t as strong in France, they gradually became more open about their Judaism. By the end of the century there were about 800 Jews in Bayonne, with 13 synagogues. These Jews became expert chocolate makers, and were also active in the shipping and smuggling of cacao beans from South America to Spain and Amsterdam. There were problems, of course. Non-Jewish chocolate makers tried to push the Jews out of the business. Jews had to leave the city by sundown every evening (they lived in a Jewish district, not the main city) and weren’t allowed to sell chocolate on Sundays or Christian holidays. Nevertheless, after legal battles, the Jews won the right to continue making chocolate. Today Bayonne brags of its chocolate history and claims that Jews introduced chocolate to France.

Wherever Jews moved—pretty much everywhere—they brought chocolate. One big center of Jewish chocolate-making was Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. Chocolate-making became a Dutch Jewish specialty. A converso Jew opened the first coffeehouse serving hot chocolate in Oxford, England, in 1650. On the French Caribbean island of Martinique, a Jew formerly of Bayonne cultivated the first cacao trees and established the first cacao-processing plant in French territory. Chocolate eventually became the most important export from Martinique. Sadly, all Jews were expelled from the French colonies in 1685, ending the Jewish chocolate business in Martinique.

In Denmark in the 18th century, where Jews weren’t permitted to work in many professions, coffee, tea, and chocolate became known as the “Jew trades.” The expression was abolished when Jews became citizens in 1814. It was a Jew, Franz Sacher, who developed the famous Viennese dessert still known today as the Sachertorte: dark chocolate and apricot jam. He was only 16 at the time.

American History

Jewish families with roots in Spain—Sephardic Jews—were active in the manufacture and sale of chocolate during the Revolutionary and Colonial periods of U.S. history, particularly in New York City and Newport, Rhode Island. The Gomez family was a great example. Over two generations at least, from the late 17th century through the early 19th century, they built a chocolate business in New York.

The first Jewish settlement up the Hudson River was established by Luis Moses Gomez, who escaped the Inquisition to France before coming to America. His father Isaac was a Spanish nobleman who was warned by the king that the Inquisition was about to arrest him. That’s how the family escaped. The Gomez Mill House in Newburgh, New York, is the oldest surviving Jewish residence in North America. Rebecca Gomez was the first woman to manufacture chocolate.

Baker’s Chocolate Company calls itself the oldest and says its first sale was in 1772, but Jewish grocers were selling chocolate as early as the 1750s. It was mainly consumed as a drink. There were no chocolate ice creams, candy bars, or cakes yet. Jewish merchants in New York were at the center of the chocolate trade, importing cacao and trading it throughout Europe. It was an intercontinental trade with ties to Jews in other countries, often friends and relatives. Many got rich.

Chocolate drinking was very popular in colonial times. Some Pilgrims who arrived at Plymouth Rock were shocked by all the chocolate and called it “the devil’s food.” Now we call chocolate cake devil’s food cake.

Jewish immigrants to the U.S. have a long history of succeeding in the chocolate and candy business, beginning in the 1800s. Immigrant Louis Auster developed the chocolate egg cream in his candy store on the Lower East Side in 1890. (This is disputed.) Herman and Ida Fox developed Fox U-Bet Chocolate Syrup in Brooklyn in 1895, offering a kosher-for-Passover version. Leo Hirshfield, who learned the candy business from his family in Austria, invented Chocolate Tootsie Rolls, named for his daughter, in 1896. He saved money by using cocoa powder instead of actual chocolate. David Goldenberg, who immigrated to Philadelphia from Romania, developed the Goldenberg Peanut Chew. His children, Sylvia and Harry, began selling individually wrapped Peanut Chews in 1921.

During the Nazi era, the Jewish-run Bartons candy company, called Barton’s Bonbonniere, helped refugees escape to the U.S. The head of the company, Stephen Klein, an Orthodox Jew himself, had fled from Vienna the day after the 1938 Nazi march into Austria, known as the Anschluss. In Vienna he had owned one of the city’s biggest chocolate companies, but the Nazis seized it. After he escaped to New York, he started the Bartons company here. He aided many immigrants, refugees, Holocaust survivors, and displaced Jews all over the world. Bartons produced Jewish-themed chocolate, like candy in the shapes of Hebrew letters, chocolate-covered hamentaschen, and chocolate matzah.

Other Interesting History About Chocolate

Chocolate isn’t just popular here in the U.S. or in Europe. Israelis love chocolate! They especially love milk chocolate. Chocolate is a big business there. Israelis prefer local chocolate to anything imported. Max Brenner Chocolate—a chain now here in New York and all over the world—was originally Israeli (named after its founders, Max Fichtman and Oded Brenner).

Chocolate Hanukkah gelt has ancient origins. This tradition of giving money (Hanukkah gelt) originated in the 17th century to provide kids with money to give to their teachers—demonstrating that even hundreds of years ago Jews valued education. Over time, money was also given to the kids to keep. Even in ancient Israel, descendants of the Maccabees supposedly minted and distributed coins to commemorate their victory. As early as the sixth century the Talmud taught that poor Jews must light Hanukkah candles even if they had to go door to door begging for the money to do it.

Why is gelt chocolate? One story is that 18th and 19th century European Jews who became prominent in the chocolate business starting making the coins for Hanukkah. Or maybe it’s that the American companies Loft and Barton began making the coins in the 1920s.

A really interesting connection is to Christmas customs, of all things! In St. Nicholas’s Festival, which has been celebrated in Western Europe since the 13th century, St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sweets, supposedly journeyed from distant Spain to reward children with gold-covered chocolate coins. The Dutch call St. Nicholas Sinterklaas. Children collect the coins—geld, or gold—from their shoes the morning after his visit. And Christmas isn’t the only Christian holiday with a connection to Jewish chocolate. It is said that Jews may even have made the very first chocolate Easter eggs.

Ethics and Values

As you know by now, I love chocolate, but it’s very difficult to buy ethically produced chocolate today, a fact I find very sad. There are many different ethical issues someone might consider when buying chocolate (or anything). Someone might only buy kosher chocolate, for instance. Someone else might care most about the environment and only buy locally produced chocolate. Demand for chocolate creates a great disconnect between the standard of living of most growers of cocoa beans and that of the manufacturers and consumers of these luxury products.

The really disturbing thing to me is that almost all cocoa beans today are harvested by children, often slaves, in western Africa. Some of these children have been kidnapped from or sold by their families. They are not paid for their dangerous work, imprisoned at night, denied education, forced to work long hours, and often beaten. Most of them have never even tasted the delicious products they produce. And child slavery in the chocolate industry is unfortunately very common. In the Ivory Coast alone, there are an estimated 200,000 children working the fields, many against their will (even though child labor is illegal there). Leaders of a Mali human rights organization estimate that child slaves are found on at least 90 percent of the Ivory Coast cocoa plantations. And since about 80 percent of the world’s cocoa supply comes from West Africa, it is likely that almost all the bulk cocoa used by the world’s big chocolate companies is really child slavery chocolate.
Even though I love chocolate, I don’t want to eat chocolate produced by child slaves! But fortunately I found one company, Grenada Chocolate, which has gotten around these problems. It was founded in 1999 by three men named Mott Green, Doug Browne, and Edmond Brown. The three decided to create a chocolate company in an ecosystem-friendly factory without slave or child labor. The chocolate is organic. The company uses solar energy to power the factory. Sadly, the founder, Mott Green, died last June in the factory in an accident.

Jews helped bring chocolate, my favorite food, to Europe and America, and now I hope Jews will help make sure that chocolate is produced ethically everywhere in the world. For myself, I will try to eat only chocolate that is produced without slave labor. Other chocolate may taste sweet, but it won’t feel right in my mouth.

In honor of Mott Green, I would like to end my talk by showing this 3-minute video in his memory.

End on the Grenada video: