Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Q&A with Deborah R. Prinz




Deborah R. Prinz is the author, with Tami Lehman-Wilzig, of the new children's picture book The Boston Chocolate Party. She also has written the book On the Chocolate Trail. She served as a congregational rabbi for three decades, and she lives in New York City.


Q: What inspired the two of you to write The Boston Chocolate Party, and how did you collaborate on the book?


A: The Boston Chocolate Party (Behrman House, October 2022) started with a brilliant association by my co-author, Tami Lehman-Wilzig.


Tami read my first book, On the Chocolate Trail, and as she absorbed the chapter titled, “Jews Dip Into Chocolate in the American Colonial Period” about Sephardi Jews in the chocolate business and how chocolate drinking supplanted tea after the Boston Tea Party, “Boston Chocolate Party!” popped into her head. That title stayed with her.


She also checked the date of the Boston Tea Party (1773) in the Jewish calendar to find that the last night of Hanukkah coincided with the Boston Tea Party.


I met Tami four years later when she was looking for content for the February pages of the Jewish children’s calendar that she edits. She recalled On the Chocolate Trail and reached out to me for material.


Then, I reached out to her to see if she wanted to collaborate on a children’s book since I like to share the stories of Jews and chocolate to as many audiences as possible. That’s why I co-curated the exhibit “Semite Sweet: On Jews and Chocolate” for the Bernard Museum of Temple Emanu-El, NYC (now available to travel around the world).


Similarly, a children’s book about Jews and chocolate would expand the Chocolate Trail. That initiated our own “party”: Tami focused on plot development, I contributed my chocolate expertise with plenty of brainstorming. Now we get to celebrate the recent release of The Boston Chocolate Party!


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything especially fascinating, especially about the Jewish community in the US in the 18th century? 


A: My research for On the Chocolate Trail built the foundation for the historical context of The Boston Chocolate Party. That was supported by a Starkoff Fellowship and a Director’s Fellowship from the American Jewish Archives, as well as a Gilder Lehrman Fellowship from the Rockefeller Library. For the Chocolate Trail, I explored in Europe, Israel, and North America.

In addition, Tami and I investigated many details for the illustrations in The Boston Chocolate Party.


We wanted the images to reflect an authentic Sephardic home and Hanukkah, so we sought out a Sephardic style Hanukkah oil menorah. We also worked to insure the accuracy of clothing and carriages for the period. Also, the shape of the moon at the end of Hanukkah needed to be precise and consistent.


Most surprisingly, members of the Jewish community in the US in the 18th century engaged in the trade, manufacture, retail, and consumption of chocolate. Some of those families were also major contributors to the establishment and maintenance of their local synagogues and communities.


Q: What do you think Fede Combi's illustrations add to the book?


A: We hear very positive feedback about Fede’s illustrations. He deftly portrays emotion and movement, in addition to interior/exterior views. He fulfilled Tami’s vision for a double spread of the home chocolate “factory” to portray pre-industrial chocolate making and also the children working together. Behrman House staff also attended to details in the visuals and enriched the book. 


Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story, particularly about the idea of freedom?


A: I hope that kids and their adults will enjoy this unique Hanukkah story set in Colonial America at multiple levels.


First, there’s the coincidental timing of the Hanukkah and the Boston Tea Party to highlight the parallel stories of freedom sought by the American colonists and the ancient Maccabees.


Second, it’s also a story of friendship modeled by ingenuity and risk-taking to help others.


Third, readers learn about Jewish diversity through the Sephardic Hanukkah customs practiced by many of the original Jews who settled in America.


Finally, especially during these times of increased anti-semitism, the story reminds everyone that Jews have been part of America’s history since the very beginning of our country.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My next book, On the Bread Trail (Behrman House, 2023), serves up explorations of heritage Jewish breads. Puffy yeast doughs, as expansive and mysterious as the survival of the Jewish people, mix with Jewish celebrations to yield surprising and diverse stories for all seasons.


The spirit and creativity of our ancestors through their migrations and adaptations surface when we dig into the background of these diverse doughs. It will also include approximately 25 historical and contemporary recipes.


Tami’s also working on multiple projects, including the forthcoming Luis de Torres Sails to Freedom (June 2023, Kar-Ben) and On the Wings of Eagles (Fall 2024, Apples and Honey).


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I love that The Boston Chocolate Party offers up opportunities for home and school choco-Hanukkah celebrations through the activities posted at the Behrman House website and also at my blog.


Readers can devote one or more Hanukkah nights to light an oil lamp, taste the buñuelos and hot chocolate from the book’s recipes, discuss the questions in the activity guide, and toast the shared values of freedom sought by the Maccabees and the American colonists at their own Chocolate Parties.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Deborah R. Prinz.

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