The history of Jewish and chocolate is a long story.
If we could travel back to about 1100 BCE to and find ourselves in the lush jungles of equatorial Central America, we would arrive at the birthplace of one of our most beloved, contemporary delicacies: chocolate. We just might not recognize it.
Today, it seems amazing that the bitter cacao beverages imbibed by the early Mesoamerican peoples eventually morphed into the melt-in-your-mouth sweet goodness that the word “chocolate” now brings to mind. The evolution of chocolate is a long, interesting story, and one in which the Jews played a big part.
Jews and chocolate first met in 1492, when Spanish royals Isabella and Ferdinand signed the Alhambra Decree and the Jews were forced to leave the kingdom of Spain.
During that time of the Inquisition, displaced Jews established flourishing communities in the areas of the Caribbean and Central and South America that were under Dutch and English control. Crypto Jews, those hiding their faith, settled in Mexico and other areas that still had strong connections with Spain.
Jews were able to cultivate positive relationships with native peoples in the areas they settled because they did not attempt to convert them or steal their land. As a result, the natives taught them how to process cacao and extract vanilla from beans. Soon Jews were exporting the new products to factories in Europe.
But developing long-term success in the chocolate trade was not an easy process for the Jews. In 1685, the French took over all Jewish-owned cacao plantations after the French Black Code forced the expulsion of Jews from all French territories as “enemies of the Christian faith.”
On the English islands of Barbados and Jamaica, the Jews ran sugar plantations until local legislation was introduced stipulating that Jews could not employ Christians. They then turned to producing the less labor-intensive products of cacao and vanilla. By 1655, Jewish producers had secured a vanilla trade monopoly that survived for years to come.
Of course, it was the introduction of sugar to Europe that forever changed the history of chocolate and inspired creativity in bakers and candy-makers throughout the continent. Many of those sweet artists were also Jewish.
Centuries later, when the Nazis were on the rise, many Jewish chocolate-makers fled Europe. Two of the most prominent were Eliyahu Fromenchenko, who settled in Palestine where he founded Elite and Stephen Klein, who immigrated to New York City and redefined the kosher chocolate market with his brand name of Barton’s.
From the Spanish Inquisition forward, no matter how many times they were driven out of their homes, Jews brought their knowledge of chocolate along with them.
So the next time you bite into a chocolate bar or savor a piece of rich, moist chocolate cake, you can be thankful to those Jewish growers, traders, manufacturers and craftspeople across the centuries who helped make it possible.
Top photo: An open cacao pod reveals the necessary ingredient for all of our chocolate delights.