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Gelt Without Guilt

Forget the yellow mesh bag. This Hanukkah, look for ethically produced and distributed chocolate coins.

Marjorie Ingall
November 27, 2012
Tablet Magazine
Veruca Chocolates' Hanukkah gelt, at left, and the more familiar variety.Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Veruca Chocolates' Hanukkah gelt, at left, and the more familiar variety.Tablet Magazine

’Tis the season for those little yellow mesh bags of Hanukkah gelt, the very sight of which make kids salivate and bounce. Adults, however, know that the chocolate coins inside those bags are generally so waxy and disgusting, you might as well eat the aluminum wrapper. Or the little yellow mesh bag.

Sentient adult Jews, you see, know a thing or two about chocolate, as Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz explains in a new book, On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals, and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao. As she traces Jews’ confectionery connections through the centuries, however, Prinz—director of program and member services at the Central Conference of American Rabbis—raises serious moral concerns with modern chocolate production, from the treatment of cacao growers to the policies of major candy manufacturers.

In other words, tastelessness may be the least of Hanukkah gelt’s troubles. No one wants to think that a holiday staple that brings children such joy can be associated with misery … but it can be. And right now is a fine time to think about the origins of the chocolate we buy. “Given the themes of Hanukkah around freedom of religion, and given the experiences Jews have had over centuries asserting ourselves as a minority culture,” said Prinz, “it seems appropriate that at this time of year we should think about finding ethically produced chocolate.”

We Hebrews didn’t invent chocolate. That honor goes to the pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica. Anthropologists have found cacao residue in Honduran pottery from 1400 B.C.E. But even if we didn’t invent it, Jews did play a critical part a few hundred years later in the business of cacao and its spread across the world.

Prinz writes that Christopher Columbus may or may not have been a Jew, and some of his crew members were certainly Conversos—Sephardim who’d been baptized to protect their lives but still secretly identified as Jews. They helped bring chocolate from the New World to the old. Columbus’ son Ferdinand wrote about his father’s crew’s discovery of cacao’s trade value by way of a cacao-bean-filled canoe in the Bay of Honduras in 1502: “I noticed that when [the beans] were brought aboard with the other goods, and some fell to the floor, all the Indians stooped to pick them up as if they had lost something of great value.” Clue!

Cacao’s popularity and cachet quickly grew throughout Europe. Prinz argues that by establishing themselves as chocolate gurus in France by the mid-1600s, Sephardic Jews may have started Paris’ reputation as a world center for fine chocolate. Many Converso families lived in the port city of Bayonne, near the Spanish border, because the Inquisition wasn’t paying much attention to converts who were secretly practicing their religion there. “Spain was the primary European market for chocolate at the beginning of the 17th century,” Prinz writes. “Bayonne’s extremely valuable port enabled traders to bypass the Spanish embargoes of 1621, creating lucrative economic traffic between Spain’s Castile region and other Jewish communities, particularly Amsterdam.” So, Jews became cacao smugglers, secretly transporting the stuff to Madrid via mules traveling through mountain passes and making and selling chocolate in France. (Jealous goyish Bayonnaise chocolate-makers often used anti-Semitic tricks to try to shut their Jewish competitors down, mostly unsuccessfully.) Elsewhere in Europe, and in the Caribbean, too, Jews were machers in the chocolate biz. (Sachertorte, for instance, was invented by a 16-year-old Austrian Jewish confectioner named Franz Sacher in 1832.)

And as a native Rhode Islander, I was thrilled to learn that one of the first big “chocklit” manufacturers in the American colonies was a Sephardic woman in Newport named Rebecca Gomez. Her family, along with the Lopez family in New York, actually started making chocolate before Baker’s, which calls itself “America’s Oldest Chocolate Brand.” Gomez figured out in the 1700s how to use advertising and marketing effectively; she bought newspaper ads calling her products “superfine, free from any sediments,” used bulk promotions, and industrialized production. Jewish feminist chocolate power!

Chocolate even had its place in Jewish ritual. Prinz reports that Mexican crypto-Jews used chocolate to welcome the Sabbath (wine was scarce in “New Spain,” and the fact that chocolate drinks could be made without milk was a bonus: That meant it could be served with milk or meat meals. And on the fast day of Tisha B’Av in 1832, a Jewish doctor in New York named Daniel L.M. Peixotto said that drinking chocolate was permissible during a cholera epidemic: Jews, he said, “should be permitted to take a light meal of coffee, tea, or cocoa, with dry toast” to stay healthy.

These days, though, it’s not only our own health and welfare we Jews should worry about. Eighty percent of the world’s cacao comes from West Africa, and many growers use enslaved children to harvest the beans. Big chocolate manufacturers like Cadbury, Hershey, and Godiva buy beans from middlemen, so they can’t say how much or whether they use the products of child slave labor. (Mars has announced that will certify all its products as fair trade by 2020.) But Prinz’s book offers evidence that thousands of children from Mali have been kidnapped or sold to work in Ivory Coast or Ghana, where they’re imprisoned, work long hours, suffer beatings and a lack of health care, and don’t attend school.

“Our tradition has sensitivity about humane treatment of workers and human beings. Oshek is the Jewish commitment to fairness to the laborer. It’s about economic justice,” said Prinz in an interview. “At one point, the Reform movement declared non-union California grapes non-kosher; I think we can take these ideas from our tradition and apply them to chocolate.”

Single-origin chocolate from Mexico and the Caribbean is less likely to use slave labor. (“But it tends to be a little more granular and perhaps less sophisticated,” Prinz said regretfully. “It can be more flavorful, though.”) One company that uses certified fair trade West African chocolate is Divine Chocolate, which is co-owned by Kuapa Kokoo, a cooperative in Ghana that’s democratically run and makes sure workers’ children attend school rather than work in the fields. Divine Chocolate, conveniently enough, has just partnered with Rabbis for Human Rights to sell fair trade kosher Hanukkah gelt. (Use promo code FTJUDAICA at checkout and Divine Chocolate will also donate 10 percent of all sales to Fair Trade Judaica, and you’ll be entered into a raffle to win a wire-and-bead Fair Trade menorah hand-crafted in South Africa.) A Bay Area company called Mama Ganache sells fair-trade gelt as well—it’s certified organic, and the dark chocolate is vegan, but it doesn’t have kosher certification.

Despite my earlier shout-out to Rebecca Gomez, I am now a loyal New Yorker and must also mention Li-Lac Chocolates, a local business since 1923. It’s not kosher-certified, organic, or fair trade, but its gelt (along with that of Lake Champlain Chocolates, which is kosher-certified) was often mentioned by Tablet readers as a gelty pleasure. (I did a nonscientific Facebook poll about the best gelt, because I am all about the research.) And there’s still an ethical angle: Li-Lac uses a foiler (the machine that wraps and stamps the individual coins—a fascinating video of the foiling process is online) belonging to Madelaine Chocolate, a Rockaways company founded in 1949 by two Jewish brothers-in-law from the Lower East Side. Unfortunately, the factory in Far Rockaway flooded during Hurricane Sandy and is currently closed, which means Li-Lac’s quantities of foil-covered coins are very limited. Buy them while you can, and feel free to donate to the National Confectionery Foundation’s Rockaway Disaster Relief Fund, which supports businesses destroyed by Sandy.

Finally, there is a brand-new entry in the upscale and ethical-gelt sweepstakes. Veruca Chocolates was started by Heather Johnston, a pediatrician who decided she wanted to spend more time with her children and trained as a chocolatier at Chicago’s French Pastry School. (She still moonlights in the ER.) She scandalously dispensed with the foil and made coins modeled on actual historical currency minted in around 40 B.C.E. by King Antigonus II Mattathias, the last Judean king of the Hasmonean period. Johnston sent a sample to Tablet, where the staff went into paroxysms of culinary ecstasy, or so I am told, but I was not there, and my colleagues are greedy horrible people who did not save me any. Thus I cannot testify to Verucan deliciousness. (I can tell you my editor gazed at me later with somewhat terrifying intensity and said, “It is the best gelt I have ever eaten in my life.” And I can say it is the prettiest. And I hate my coworkers.) Veruca uses ingredients from Guittard, an American company with a commitment to fair trade and sustainability practices and hand-crafts coins in grown-up flavors like dark chocolate with sea salt, or espresso and milk chocolate with cacao nibs. They’re probably too good for your shrieking little dreidel-heads. They’re not cheap, but they’re cheaper (and way more ethically minded) than the most expensive gelt I found on the interwebs, that of the venerable French brand Debauve & Gallais, which was developed for Marie Antoinette, a person not noted for her stance on workers’ rights. It is not fair trade and it is $200 per box.

As for why we eat coin-shaped chocolate on Hanukkah at all, that’s debatable. Rabbis for Human Rights goes with Eliezer Segal’s explanation that students in Europe used to give coins to their teachers as a play on the Hebrew word chinukh (education) which is very similar to chanukah (dedication). Prinz told me about an old Christian tradition of putting coins in one’s shoes for Saint Nicholas (whom the Dutch call Sinterklaas), to celebrate his feast day on Dec. 6. In her book, she recalls visiting Belgium on Dec. 6 and being approached by young people holding out glass mugs and asking for coins. “Christmas is a miracle story for Christians; Hanukkah is miracle story for Jews,” Prinz said. Given that it’s also a story about liberation and self-determination, shouldn’t our gelt fit the narrative?

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.