Beginning as early as 1500 BCE with the Olmecs, cacao spread throughout the world, becoming a luxury enjoyed by everyone from Mayan Ajaw, to Aztec Tlahtohqueh, from Spanish friars to French courtiers and English noblemen, to the chocolate loving throngs in the supermarkets of the world today. While chocolate was brought to the old world primarily by exploring Catholic Spaniards, many cultures and religions played vital roles in the development of the “food of the gods”. In this post, I will concentrate on the historical involvement of the Jewish people in the cacao trade throughout the centuries, and examine how, as a result of Jewish contributions that continue to this day, the holy land came to flow not only with milk and honey, but chocolate as well.
While some, including famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, believe that Christopher Columbus was actually Jewish (Wiesenthal), and others believe there exists a connection between the Maya and the Israelite ancestor Eber (“The Mayans And The Jewish Midrash”), it seems most likely that Jews discovered cacao along with the rest of the old world sometime after it was introduced to Spain by the various early Spanish explorers of Mesoamerica (many accounts of Jews and chocolate from the time appear to back this up).
In 1478, fourteen years before Columbus set sail for India (which turned out to be the Americas), King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I of Spain, the very same people who helped to fund the exploration of the new world, established the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, commonly referred to as the Spanish Inquisition. The
inquisition’s aim was to wage war on any non Catholic denominations in order to protect t
he Church’s majority. With the Spanish Alhambra declaration in 1492, hundreds of
thousands of Jews were forced to either convert to Christianity or face expulsion from Spain. Those who converted were called Conversos or Marranos, and many of them converted publicly, but continued practicing Judaism, with this latter group being called crypto-Jews (Marcus 51, Pérez and Hochroth).
At the time that Jews were being expelled from Spain, King John II of Portugal, seeing an economic opportunity, offered Jews asylum in return for one ducat (gold or silver coin) and one-fourth of the wealth they carried into the country from Spain (Marcus 53). It’s estimated that 120,000 Jews fled to Portugal to seek asylum despite the economic extortion, however within six months the King had declared that any Jew remaining in Portugal would be enslaved. Despite several recent Jewish expulsion orders from France, some of the Jews were able to get out of Portugal and settle in nearby Bayonne, France, and it is in this city that we get our first whiff of chocolate (“Bayonne | Jewish Virtual Library”).
While chocolate historians are unsure as to how exactly cacao was introduced to France, in “The True History of Chocolate,” Sophie and Michael Coe present three theories: First, it was introduced by the daughter of Spanish royalty, Anne of Austria when she was married to Louis XIII of France. Second, Spanish monks gifted cacao to the French. Third, it was imported as a medicine (Coe and Coe, 150-152). While any of those three theories could be the true portrayal of events, a fourth theory exists. Over the course of the inquisition, chocolate drinks imported from the new world grew in popularity with the Spanish elite (i.e., monarchs, nobles, and well-to-do merchants), and while Jews were never considered members of the elite in most countries at that time, they were often quite well off, and could have possibly afforded cacao drinks themselves, or handled the product in the course of their business trades. Additionally, later on in the inquisition period, various sources mention that those being held for investigation (often times crypto-Jews who later escaped Spain), were given chocolate drinks, so one could assume that many Jews had contact with the substance in Spain (Coe and Coe, 135). While supporting evidence is minimal, some believe that the Jews escaping Spain and Portugal brought cacao with them when they migrated to Bayonne, France. The city became a center for chocolatiers over the course of the 16th century, and although France subsequently expelled the Jews again in the 17th century, to this day the residents of Bayonne honor the Jewish contribution to chocolate in their city (“France Thanks Sephardic Jews For Chocolate, 500 Years Too Late”).
Whether or not the introduction of cacao to France can be attributed to Jewish refugees, the inquisition certainly assisted in the spread of chocolate. In addition to Portugal, Jews fleeing Spain also sought refuge in Holland, until persecution against Jews there began to rise as well. While King Edward I of England had expelled all Jews from the country in 1290, by the mid 17th century, Oliver Cromwell, an English political leader, assisted in the return of Jews to England, most of whom came from Holland (Coe and Coe, 164). Those coming from Holland were used to drinking coffee and tea, and in 1650, a Jewish businesswoman opened up the first coffee-house (many of which later went on to serve cacao drinks as well) in Oxford (Coe and Coe, 164). According to Jean-Baptiste Labat, a Dominican priest who lived in the Portuguese controlled island of Martinique for two years, there existed a Jew by the name of Benjamin Dacosta who was the first person to plant cacao on the island, although he was expelled and deported from the territory a few years later (Coe & Coe, 194).
While Jews continued to appear in reference to chocolate in various contexts throughout the next few centuries, they began appearing more frequently with chocolate in the mid-20th century. After World War II, several stories emerged about how various holocaust survivors had come to view chocolate as a symbol of hope. One holocaust survivor, Eva Kor, said that when Auschwitz was liberated, survivors were given chocolate and hugs by their Soviet army liberators (“Voices Of Auschwitz”).
Already pre-World War II, but even more so after, Jews from all over the world began emigrating en masse to their new homeland, Israel. It is in these mass emigrations following centuries of oppression and persecution that we find the roots of the modern Israeli chocolate industry — I would argue that Jewish history is the reason Israeli’s are so driven to create and innovate in their own land in all industries, including the chocolate trade. In 1933, a Russian-born Jew by the name of Eliyahu Fromchenko left his home in Latvia and made his way to Ramat Gan, Mandate Palestine (at that time, all inhabitants, including Jews and Arabs alike, were “Palestinians” — the country would later become Israel). Fromchenko founded “Elite,” the company that would dominate the Israeli chocolate and confectionery market in the coming decades with their highly popular para (cow) chocolates, with a heifer adorning each square (“Strauss Elite”).
While Fromchenko and para chocolate might have popularized chocolate consumption in the New Jersey sized country, chocoinovation didn’t stop there, with dozens of boutique and specialty chocolate shops and factories opening up across the country over the past few decades. Each chocolatier, influenced by his or her respective lineage and culture has brought forth a new spectrum of flavors and combinations. One such chocolate artisan is Ika Cohen, who runs a small chocolate shop in Tel Aviv, where she produces chocolate with a variety of interesting flavors, such as a Za’atar (a savory Middle Eastern spice mix) infused ganache (which won two gold medals at the International Chocolate World Final in Italy). Another company, Baracke, founded in 1983 by a government-sponsored collaboration between Israeli and Arab entrepreneurs, began producing halva (a Middle-Eastern sesame based, sweet and flaky treat) with cacao nibs sprinkled throughout (http://baracke.co.il/חלבה-לכל-המשפחה-שאמיות-חלבה-קקאו/).
Holy Cacao operates as the only fully bean-to-bar chocolate factory in the country, producing their Ecuadorian and Peruvian sourced cacao bars in Pnei Hever, Israel. Put simply, the Israeli affinity for chocolate has grown tremendously in recent years, with consumers eating up everything from chocolate rugluch (a pastry of sorts) produced throughout the country, to a chocolate craft beer produced by a kibbutz in Southern Israel (http://www.ketura.org.il/ViewArticle.aspx?articleID=189).
However chocolate production in Israel hasn’t been entirely conflict free in recent years, with the Israeli public boycotting Strauss (now the largest Israeli chocolate manufacturer), in protest against the high price tag their chocolate fetches, and the discrepancies between prices in Israel and abroad for Israeli made chocolates (Winer). With chocolate bars ranging in price from $1.50 to $5, the food that has become just as essential as coffee or tea to some Israelis, is beyond their reach price-wise. While the boycotts did cause Strauss to lower their prices some, chocolate still remains a pricey product in a country with primarily large families, where consumers might have to choose between a chocolate bar or a $1 large loaf of bread.
Additionally, despite various chocolate festivals held in the country (including Chocolate Week, and the 2013 International Chocolate Awards National Competition), and the many offered tours of chocolate factories and workshops across the country, the Israeli public is little aware of the labor and wage issues ingrained in the cacao trade. There is little-to-no public push for increased Fair-trade or Direct Trade cacao sourcing — this in contrast to the US where Fair-trade, Direct Trade and Utz certifications have become commonplace.
The burgeoning Israeli chocolate industry is certainly a boon to worldwide chocolate development, with it’s rich history, delectable palate of new tastes, sensations and products to offer. That said, I would certainly like to see the Jews persecuted history taken into account when sourcing cacao for Israeli made chocolate, so the holy land can flow with milk, honey, and ethically produced cacao.
- Wiesenthal, Simon. Sails Of Hope; The Secret Mission Of Christopher Columbus. New York: Macmillan, 1973. Print.
- “The Mayans And The Jewish Midrash”. Realbiblecodes.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 May 2016.
- Pérez, Joseph and Lysa Hochroth. History Of A Tragedy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Print.
- Marcus, Jacob Rader. The Jew In The Medieval World, A Source Book, 315-1791. Cincinnati: The Sinai Press, 1938. Print.
- “France Thanks Sephardic Jews For Chocolate, 500 Years Too Late”. The Times of Israel. N.p., 2013. Web. 10 May 2016.
- “Bayonne | Jewish Virtual Library”. Jewishvirtuallibrary.org. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 May 2016.
- Coe, Sophie D and Michael D Coe. The True History Of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
- “Voices Of Auschwitz”. Edition.cnn.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 May 2016.
- “Strauss Elite”. Strauss Group. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 May 2016.
- Winer, Stuart. “Boycott Threat Aims To Sweeten Chocolate Prices”. The Times of Israel. N.p., 2012. Web. 10 May 2016.