To say that Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz likes chocolate would be a gross — or rather, delicious — understatement.
For seven years, she’s traveled around the world and written about the delicacy, culminating in October with the publication of “On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao.”
This Valentine’s Day — not a Jewish holy day, to be sure, but one many celebrate with loved ones — the book is as close to edible knowledge as one can get (though, surely, a box of chocolates makes a nice gift, as well).
For Prinz, who lives in New York City but grew up in Los Angeles, the story began in 2006 when she kicked off a blog called, “Jews on the Chocolate Trail.” She had always loved chocolate, and when she traveled the world, she made sure to stop and try the local take on it. Her research included going to different regions and diving into history books.
She turned her pursuits into the book, which goes into detail about how chocolate relates to Jewish culture and religion. It also covers the relationship that other groups — Catholics, Quakers, Protestants, the Mayans and the Aztecs — have had with chocolate. In “On the Chocolate Trail,” Prinz said that her Nancy Drew-esque “choco-dar — my internal, serendipitous radar for chocolate discoveries and experiences” led her to “uncover the stories of Jews, religions, and chocolate.”
For example, did you know that a bishop in Mexico was once poisoned because he banned local women from drinking chocolate during Mass services? Or that chocolate gelt for Chanukah might be derived from St. Nicholas traditions?
Mainly, though, Prinz said she wanted to shed light on the connection between Jews and chocolate.
“I wrote the book because it seemed like the story called out to me. It’s been ignored for a long time,” she said. “There was so much there that would excite, inform and tantalize people. It was a story that had to be told.”
Prinz is director of program and member services and director of the joint commission on rabbinic mentoring at the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. She’s been a rabbi for more than 30 years and served as the senior rabbi at Temple Adat Shalom in Poway, Calif., for nearly 20 of them.
During journeys to countries like Spain, Italy, England, Israel, Switzerland, Belgium and Egypt, Prinz tasted and wrote about all sorts of regional chocolates.
“Every place was fascinating,” she said.
The history of Jews and chocolate dates back hundreds of years. According to the book, Jews on Christopher Columbus’ voyages are believed to have been some of the first Europeans to view cacao, the basis for chocolate.
After exile from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1496, Jews continued to participate in international business and worked with cacao, opening up workshops where they made chocolate in various cities across Europe. The first coffeehouse in England was run by a Converso Jew who served hot chocolate there.
In France, Jews had a strong influence in the chocolate industry as well. During the 1600s, they introduced the product through a port in Bayonne. Due to anti-Semitism and discrimination, however, Jews could not sell chocolate on Sundays or Christian feast days, and they had to leave the town every evening at sunset. Still, Prinz wrote that when she spent time in Bayonne, she visited chocolate museums that confirmed the importance of the Jewish traders.
Europe isn’t the only place where Jews and chocolate became intertwined. Prinz delves into the American Colonial period, and another part is titled “Israelis: Meshuga for Chocolate.”
Although much of the book is about Judaism and chocolate, Prinz said that the food is not celebrated enough in Jewish culture.
“While there are chocolate customs for Chanukah and Passover, we could really throw in a lot more chocolate,” she said. Could you imagine chocolate-covered apples for Simchat Torah or chocolate-covered challah? We could go so much further with it.”
Not surprisingly, people love to ask Prinz what chocolate is her favorite. She said she has many — depending on which day you ask her. One that stood out during her travels and received mention in her book was bicerin, a special chocolate drink from Turin, in northern Italy. She wrote that she and her husband, Rabbi Mark Hurvitz, drank the layered drink made of hot chocolate, coffee and cream while feasting on torta di nocciole con cioccolata calda, a warm chocolate soup poured over hazelnut cake.
“It was amazing to be able to drink bicerin [where it comes from],” she said. “That was definitely a highlight.”
Prinz said that those who exchange chocolates on Feb. 14 should be responsible and consider fair-trade items.
“I hope that when people celebrate Valentine’s Day with chocolate to express love for their partners, they also think about supporting people in the industry and farmers who often don’t even taste the product they produce. They’re very, very poor,” she said. “We have to be mindful of the children and the slaves who labor to produce chocolates in some countries.”
Despite the downside of producing chocolate, Prinz said that she enjoys just how much the upcoming holiday incorporates one of her most beloved subjects.
“I love the fact that there’s a restaurant called City Bakery in New York City that offers a different hot chocolate flavor for the month of February to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Any excuse for chocolate is terrific.”