I am not exactly sure when I decided to give up chocolate for the year. It was an idea that came to me while I was on a meditation retreat and I offered a chocolate chip cookie to another rabbi who informed me that he had taken a vow not to eat chocolate and now, when faced with my offer of a cookie, he was thinking of breaking his vow. The other rabbis who were standing there encouraged him to keep his vow and I don’t remember if he ate the cookie or not, only that I felt bad that I didn’t know about his vow when I offered the cookie.
Over the next six months the idea of going a year without chocolate began to sound good to me. I was not a serious chocoholic, just a rather ordinary one. I was not fussy about my chocolate. I used to say that I had a “blue collar” addiction. I ate any chocolate that came my way. I would tell people not to waste the really good chocolate on me since it really didn’t matter. I was just as happy with M&Ms or a Hershey Bar. I would tell people that I never met a chocolate chip cookie that did not know my name. I would walk into a room and complain that the chocolate on the dessert table was calling my name so loudly that it was hard to hear anyone else. I could even smell hidden chocolate.
Each year for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, I would write a very personal sermon about the past year to put my own Heshbone HaNefesh, the accounting of my own soul, out in public so that my congregation would have a very clear idea of what was required during the Holy Days, to assess their lives and determine how to live better in the year ahead. Last year, as I sat to write this very personal and emotional speech, the chocolate vow was still in my mind. So I added it to the sermon. I would promise God that I would not eat chocolate for a year. It was not a formal vow that would involve invoking the name of God and would leave little room for mistakes. I figured that it was very possible that I could make a mistake or just give up on the whole thing and I didn’t want to have to go through the formal process to get a vow annulled. I just promised to do my best to not each chocolate for the year.
At first my congregation thought I was kidding. When I announced it they laughed. My friend, the woman who arranges the food for my synagogue, even thought I was kidding. This was a big problem. If you hang around a synagogue long enough there is enough food there to kill any diet. I told her that I was very serious and would need her help. She looked at me like I was insane. “Is this some kind of “Lent” thing?”, she asked. I assured her that I was taking my promise seriously. Although she still thought I was crazy, to her credit, for the year she made sure there were some sweets without chocolate for me to eat. If something did have chocolate in it, she would warn me away.
Out in the community it was more difficult. The very next day one of the Kosher bakers in town wanted me to taste her latest creation. She had heard that I was a chocoholic so she brought me a very large chocolate cake. She wanted my opinion on what I thought. I pondered that cake for most of the day and with my wife, we decided that I would take a small taste so I could give her the information that she wanted without finishing the cake all by myself, which would have been an easy task for me just a few days earlier.
The first month was the hardest. I could still hear the chocolate calling my name. I admit I stared longingly at it and more than a few times contemplated putting a bit of the icing on my finger just to taste it. But a promise is a promise. I would laugh and think of my predicament in terms of the Dr. Seuss book, “Horton Hatches an Egg” “I said what I meant and I meant what I said, an elephant is faithful one hundred percent”
I quickly learned that when I was invited to dinner an someone’s home, I would mention that not only do I keep Kosher but I am not eating chocolate this year. My wife, was always quick to remind people that SHE had not made any promises and was eating chocolate. I admit now, but I never said it to her, that I was disappointed she chose not to join me in my promise. I would have appreciated the companionship and not having chocolate around the house would have made things easier. All the way to the end of the year there was chocolate ice cream, chocolate covered almonds and cocoa roasted almonds in the house most days. Sometimes it was the only snack available and I would go to bed with a snack craving that was unanswered. Yes, I know I could have gone out and bought myself a non-chocolate snack, but I figured that nothing was better than going out of my way for sweets.
Candy completely stepped out of my life. I just had no taste for candy that was not chocolate. There were cakes and cookies that did not have chocolate in them and I did continue to eat them. In fact, I ate way too much of them. It was not the same as chocolate chip cookies, those I used to eat a whole bag of them all by myself in just a day or two. But I quickly came to understand a very sad truth. As much as I missed chocolate, I was making it up with other cakes and cookies. The chocolate was really just covering up a different addiction. I clearly was heavily addicted to sugar. During the year I saw a couple of articles about the addictive nature of sugar, a trait that goes back to our prehistoric ancestors who loved sugar when they could find it. Sometimes they discovered a honeycomb or some sweet fruit. But the sugar we eat today is now way out of balance in our diets. It certainly was in mine and my giving up chocolate was not doing anything to curb my desire for sugar.
There were some annoying moments. It was a cold winter and I had to endure it without hot chocolate. I don’t drink coffee (I never liked the taste) and was not a big tea person. Most of the time I decided to stay with water. My wife and I were, off and on, trying to lose weight and I discovered most of the diet bars were made from chocolate. The ones that were not did not really seem that appealing but I needed to kill the craving for sweets so I ate them anyway and dreamed about the day when I could diet and eat chocolate. I know it sounds weird but you go to the supermarket and see how many diet aids have chocolate in them.
The year had two events that were life changing for me. In January, the two houses next to mine burned to the ground and only through a miracle and the hard work of the Birmingham Fire Department, my home was saved with minimal damage. The Fire Captain and the Insurance Assessor were beyond amazed that there was so little damage to my house. Being woken up in the middle of the night by police and standing on the sidewalk watching the two houses burn was traumatic enough for me. I didn’t think of chocolate at all for two full months.
Next my wife went in for knee replacement surgery. My mother-in-law came to stay at the house and many members of the congregation provided us with meals during the days after the surgery and during the time my wife, Michelle, was in Rehab. Everyone knew not to make me chocolate so again for a few months, I didn’t have the time to think about it.
I have to admit that there were just two mistakes I made during the year. I ordered a cheesecake for dessert on day in a restaurant and found that there was chocolate at the bottom of the little cake dish it came in. In the other instance, I thought I was eating a raisin cookie and it had chocolate chips. It was only a bite sized cookie but I took to asking my wife about any sweets that may have been questionable. For the most part, however, I realized that if I had to ask what was in it, I probably could not eat it. It was just wishful thinking.
My children were very supportive. I think they considered it another diet I was on and was trying to lose weight. In some way I was hoping that I could lose weight too. Except for the cakes, I was eating better, more whole grains, more salad, less junk food. I did not lose weight however, and my weight stayed the same all year.
As the summer came, people began to start asking me when I was going to end my chocolate free year. I really didn’t have an idea how it would end so I told everyone that I would pick up chocolate again after the fast of Yom Kippur. People began to plan chocolate parties for me when I would be eating it again but in the end, the lady who arranges the food for the synagogue just planned to have chocolate desserts for the break the fast when Yom Kippur was over.
As I began to write my annual sermon for the New Year I decided not to make another promise. I still need to do something to end the grip that sugar has in my life. I just was not up to making any new promises. God knows that there are things I need to do in my life to make me more patient and to listen better, but those stay between me and God. The year would expire without any new promises.
When the fast was over, as usual, I was not in a hurry to eat. Officiating at a service that takes all day; going through the different parts of the service with its complicated liturgy and making a series of important sermons always leaves me, at the end of the day, in need of a bit of quiet before I am ready to eat. Our synagogue has a break the fast dinner for everyone who wishes to stay and before I would sit down to eat, I wanted to greet the people who stayed and wish them a happy and healthy New Year. I did not take any dessert at first, just a plate of food and then I went to get some water to drink. We don’t take food or water for the fast so I was first of all in need of both. The woman who takes care of the food for the synagogue brought me a plate of dessert with a selection of chocolate desserts on it. I am really grateful she looks after me with such dedication.
The strange thing was, that eating chocolate again turned out to be anti-climactic. So far, at least, I don’t have the cravings I once had. The desserts were good but the old enthusiasm was gone. It was a cold night and the next day, my wife made for me a hot chocolate and it did taste good, but I had no need to go back for seconds. My diet is a bit healthier now, and I want to keep it that way. I know that a number of people in the congregation have been waiting for me to go back to chocolate because they think I will love their brownies, cookies and cakes. I am sure that they are wonderful. They are wonderful people and I can easily assume they put the love in their baking as they put their love into their faith. I just don’t think I will be eating a whole pan of brownies anymore.
I am happy that my love of chocolate is not gone, but I am also happy that I don’t seem to have that craving anymore. I was never really proud of my multiple trips to the dessert table, my second, third, fourth and fifth servings of chocolate chip cookies and my immediate gravitation to anything chocolate. I don’t miss that at all. I seem to be a bit fussier about the chocolate I eat. All this is not bad. I am a bit in awe of the fact that I did it, I refrained from chocolate for the year and that it seems to have changed my life. I am also a bit annoyed that it took a public promise to achieve this result. Judaism says that at times we need our community and clearly I needed my community to accomplish this.
My doctor tells me that dieting is the hardest thing a person can do. After all, you just can’t stop eating. My next big issue will be to bring my weight down. Now I can’t blame chocolate for that. And I can’t blame other people. It will just have to be a commitment to another promise. And this time, my wife says she’ll join me. Just not right now. It is holiday time and the idea of not eating does not appeal to me right now. Maybe in another six months….