Navigate to Belief section

Treat or Trick?

‘Bokser’ is supposed to be an exotic snack on Tu B’Shevat. But does anyone really like it? An investigation.

Miriam-Rachel Oxenhandler Newman
Mindy Trotta
February 07, 2020
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine

We initially met on Facebook in a children of Holocaust survivors group. But in addition to the natural connection that’s often forged between people whose parents are survivors, and the connection we shared as two writers, we also bonded over something else we discovered that we had in common: a mutual hatred of bokser—the waxy pods of the carob tree, also known as St. John’s bread, traditionally eaten on Tu B’Shevat.

Trotta: When Miriam-Rachel mentioned bokser on Facebook, it brought me back to my Hebrew school days. That’s where I encountered bokser. Hebrew school is tied in with one of the biggest regrets of my childhood: never being able to join the Brownies or Girl Scouts. I wanted to don those washed-out brown and green uniforms and prance around school, letting everyone know I was part of a select group that would be meeting later that day. I wanted to gather with my friends and do crafty things like making butterflies from toilet-paper tubes and snowman heads from upside-down flowerpots. But I couldn’t do any of these things because every Monday through Thursday from grades two through six, I had to join the other poor souls at the East Flatbush JCC for religious school.

The teachers were always men and seemingly not a day under 90. They were stern and musty, and committed to turning the Jewish youth of Brooklyn into educated followers of the faith.

So there I sat year after year, learning my aleph-bet and eventually learning enough Hebrew to understand it enough to please the geezers who pounded it into my head.

There were also lessons about the Jewish holidays, which served as respite for all of us, because with the holidays came a treat of some kind: latkes on Hanukkah, apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah. These holidays might also have even been discussed during a Brownie or Girl Scout meeting or two, but I’m sure the word bokser never crossed the lips of any troop leader. Only those “privileged” few who attended religious school got to hear about Tu B’Shevat and experience the long, flat carob seed pods that got passed around the classroom.

“New Year for the Trees” was how the holiday was described. The smooth pod reminded me of wood and the taste wasn’t much different. It was more akin to something my parents would not allow me to eat, rather than the “exotic treat” we were told it was.

When Miriam-Rachel told me she attended not Hebrew school, but Yiddish school, I was intrigued. (“A Yiddish school that doesn’t teach Judaism is a Communist school,” I’m sure my mother would say.)

Newman: The school was the I.L. Peretz Workmen’s Circle (now called the Worker’s Circle) school in Brooklyn. Your mom wouldn’t have been altogether wrong. Early on in its history, the Workmen’s Circle was sympathetic to the cause of the Russian Revolution, but that was officially renounced. By the time I attended, it had a generally leftist flavor—lots of stories and poems about the sweatshops and the tenements. We were taught about Judaism, but it was focused on the secular cultural aspects. Therefore Yiddish and not Hebrew.

Our teacher, Lerer Blank, of whom I was terrified, also distributed pieces of bokser to the class for Tu B’Shevat, but I threw it out in the bathroom before I even left shule for the bus ride home. I wrapped it in toilet paper so that no one would see. Even though Lerer Blank wouldn’t have occasion to have gone into the girls’ bathroom, someone could have tattled, so better safe than sorry.

My main bokser experience was at home. On Tu B’Shevat, my father would bring home a baggie with a small box of Sun-Maid raisins, some almonds in their shells, and a piece of what looked like petrified wood, the mysterious-but-not-in-a-good-way bokser.

“From Gitele!” he would say, handing it to me like he thought he was doing an act of great paternal kindness. Gitele was an Orthodox woman with whom he worked in the garment district.

I wanted to please my father. He was often distant and irritable during the day, and at night I could hear the screams from his nightmares of the camps. But on the Jewish holidays he was transformed into a present and joyful father.

Of course, as a child I thought I could and should make everything better for him, so if he was happy, I performed “happy.” I pretended to think the bokser was a special treat. At first, I thought I was just missing something—that I wasn’t understanding how good it was, and I kept gnawing at it like a rodent, hoping to be enlightened to its appeal.

I never thought that about p’tcha, the gelatinous mass of calves’ feet that my mother cooked when she wanted to treat my father to a great delicacy, or lungen—cows’ lungs cooked with large quantities of onion, garlic, and schmaltz. No amount of wanting to please my father could get me even close to being in the same room as these dishes—the smell sent me gagging and into my room, holding a pack of gum or a scented candle close to my nose. Bokser was different—it came in a baggie like other, real treats did, and it didn’t originate in my mother’s kitchen.

But no matter how many attempts I made to like it, it never happened. Nonetheless, when my father asked me if I liked the bokser, I brightly answered, “Yes!”

Neither of my parents ate any because they both had dentures, which would have been no match for the nearly impenetrable pod, so I didn’t know if they really thought it was tasty or not.

Trotta: During the 1970s and ’80s, some marketing genius transformed bokser into “carob.” I would often see it, no longer in its wood-like pod form, but in chips and bars in health food stores in the East Village. Back then, before the rich millennials moved in, the East Village was a throng of hippie establishments that sold food (like carob) in bulk. It seemed that if you got your food items via a metal scoop, it—and therefore you—were healthier. So those yogurt-covered carob chips were looked upon as something every health-minded person should be eating.

Newman: Yes! At some point in the ’70s, I realized that bokser was carob. My mother suddenly went on a health-food kick and began subscribing to Prevention magazine, buying massive quantities of vitamins and herbal teas and jars of Kretschmer’s wheat germ, and purging the house of any Drake’s Devil Dogs or Three Musketeers bars that managed to make their way in. She brought home carob bars and those yogurt-covered carob chips and pronounced that they tasted “just like chocolate!”

I was suspicious from the beginning. Why did we need a substitute for chocolate? The brown, waxy carob bars did resemble milk chocolate in appearance, but the similarity ended there. It was sweet and had a vague nutty flavor but it was more disappointing than anything.

Trotta: I have to admit, I fell for the scam, but it didn’t last long. It eventually dawned on me that carob was not the poor man’s chocolate or even the healthy man’s chocolate. Carob is vile. I can only imagine what those old rabbis would say if they had lived long enough to see bokser’s (short-lived) transformation.

Miriam-Rachel Oxenhandler Newman’s writing has appeared in The Forward, Forverts, Outlook, Dislocate, American Jewish World, and Pioneer Press.

Mindy Trotta’s articles have appeared in The Huffington Post, Times of Israel, Better After 50, and Medium.