Last week, in honor of the cooler weather and the Jewish holidays, I made a Laughing Gull Chocolates version of Mexican hot chocolate. I sipped the aromatic hot chocolate, and savored the cinnamon spice in my mouth, basking in the heat of the cayenne pepper. As the hot chocolate warmed my throat and my soul, I contemplated the way crypto-Jews secretly observed the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, a solemn Day of Atonement ten days after the Jewish New Year. Drinking chocolate was customary for residents of New Spain, regardless of background. By necessity, all Jews living in Mexico had to keep their faith a secret, and imbibing this popular drink was one enjoyable way to assimilate into the new Mexican society. If their true religion was discovered, the consequence was death. Unlike those hiding their Judaism during the Inquisition, I can enjoy my hot chocolate and proudly practice my religion however I choose.
Like most Jewish families in the United States today, I comfortably practice Jewish customs and for the most part, I am assimilated into American society. And yet, when I was teaching Chai School at a synagogue in Rhode Island, my students and I frequently discussed the distinction between being an American Jew and a Jewish American. This distinction is important, and those terms mean something unique to everyone. Even my own viewpoint has evolved over time; the constant is that Judaism, its culture and traditions, are deeply rooted in me. This time of year, I sip on my hot chocolate, and connect that chocolate ritual to Jewish history and culture.
Autumn has always been my favorite time of year. Vibrant, beautiful fall colors, and the crunch of the leaves under my feet warms my heart. I love a crisp apple, as I bite it, the texture matches the fall air. There is something pleasant, “hygge” about this time of year, juxtaposing perfectly with the air of the season: mulled apple cider, chai tea…. My husband and I met around this time of year, just after Yom Kippur. On our first date, we walked along the river as we drank hot apple cider. It is symbolic, and maybe a little superstitious, that I cherish starting each year off with something sweet, apples and honey. I am excited to share this tradition with our daughter this year.
Apples and honey are symbolic of a sweet Jewish New Year, and most Jewish families that I know have both in the home this time of year. While I never need an excuse to consume more of what the cacao plant has to offer, I always appreciate occasions to consume more chocolate. In the fall, a freshly picked apple tastes even better with salted caramel chocolate sauce. Most of the year my Jewish and chocolate lives are independent of one another, but they intertwine this year with Laughing Gull Chocolates treats. These include a salted caramel chocolate sauce made with honey, a Mexican hot chocolate, chocolate dipped dried apples and a cinnamon apple chocolate bark. Nothing is more representative of a sweet new year than apples and honey.
When I was young, my family and I went to our synagogue’s Rosh Hashanah service, and Rabbi Rosenberg told a story that has stuck with me more than 25 years later. He recounted the tale of an apple tree that admired the stars from below, and spent years wishing and praying for stars of its own. The seasons came and went: the leaves on the apple tree grew and its flowers blossomed into a sweet fruit; still, as the years passed, there were no stars visible. Finally, when the apple tree was grown, once the leaves had turned a golden color, an apple fell from the tree and broke open in just the right way down the middle of the apple, and a star appeared. The star had been on the apple tree the whole time! We all have stars inside us – it’s just a matter of allowing them to shine.
The star in this tale has multiple meanings. The most obvious is that every person has something beautiful in them. I also appreciate that the star is in the core of the apple, just as Judaism is in my core, regardless of how much or little I practice its tenets. I am aware of how lucky I am to be comfortable with the duality of being an American and a Jew. Not everyone enjoys the same freedom. The balance of these two identities in today’s world may remain a challenge, but I’m happy that in this small way, I don’t have to choose between the two. Instead, the two facets help make me who I am, and will continue to shape who I become. I am fortunate to enjoy my chocolate dipped apples, drink my spicy hot chocolate each fall, each high holy day season, and say proudly, “l’shana tova.”
p.s. For other musings on Judaism and chocolate, see a blogpost I wrote a few years ago, in which I reflected about the connection between Yom Kippur and chocolate.
p.p.s. We’ll have samples of our spicy hot chocolate all week – stop by the shop to try a small cup!