You Should Know: Jessie Duke

Jessie Duke. Courtesy of Jessie Duke

Ellen Braunstein

Jessie Duke of Marlton, New Jersey, drinks ceremonial cacao — a mindfulness practice that combines high-grade cacao beans with personal introspection.

By herself, one-on-one or in a group, Duke incorporates elements of her Sephardic Jewish heritage in a practice that dates back 6,000 years.

Duke, 29, said through her cacao practice, “I am on a “deepening journey of learning, exploring and embodying facets of Judaism, relationships, trauma and healing. I look at everything through the lens of Judaism.”

Duke is connected to the Jewish community through a fellowship offered by Tribe 12. It is a network of entrepreneurial Jewish people in their 20s and 30s.

Duke holds circle retreats where people set intentions and drink together in celebration of the Jewish holidays and moon cycles, which regulate the Jewish calendar.

Her practice is called Bendichas Manos or “blessed hands.” It’s a Ladino phrase native to her Sephardic Jewish ancestors.

“Even after my great-grandfather left Turkey, his family would continue to speak Ladino, a fusion of Hebrew and Spanish. This phrase was said to offer gratitude for a meal, or anything that was prepared with love and intention by one’s hands.”

Duke sources her beans from a Mayan women’s collective in Guatemala. Duke blends that cacao with herbs and spices, which she sells.

The drink isn’t hot chocolate, which is processed and filled with additives. Chocolate is good for heart health, and cocoa is even better, Duke said “It’s a plant medicine that’s a really gentle, but very powerful heart opener.”

Her life, she said, has changed with just a few minutes a day connecting with her body, heart and breath.

Her work with cacao helped get her in touch with the Ladino words spoken by her mother and grandfather.

“Cacao helps me connect with my ancestors and has given me a push towards learning,” she said. She found out that Sephardic Jews brought cacao into their Shabbat practices several hundred years ago.

Duke performed a pre-Passover ceremony last year.

“There is an opportunity to engage with the Jewish calendar in these contemplative and reflective ways,” she said. “Cocoa is perfect to bring into a space that says, ‘Let’s connect with these themes.’ Let’s deepen into the portals that these holidays offer us every year with the energies of this time.”

She came upon cacao in her search for remedies for her Crohn’s disease. She was diagnosed with gastrointestinal autoimmune disease 10 years ago when she was a film school student at the University of Southern California.

“I was trying to make sense of a truly traumatic experience that I was having of getting misdiagnosed and feeling like my body had turned against me.”

She discovered the practice of narrative medicine which examines the way society frames illnesses. “I was looking into the stories of illness and wellness in that journey.”
She made a film about living with Crohn’s. She interviewed patients about their experiences with Crohn’s and their search for alternative healing therapies.

She took away from the experience that “unless you look at your background and you deal with the emotional and mental health complications of having an illness, your healing will be very limited.”

Duke continued on the route of Western medicine, but she became open to other options like plant-based eating.

“I started to see the way food could make a difference for me,” she said.

She also discovered that she wasn’t paying attention to her life in the way she needed to.

“I was in a state of fight or flight trying to take care of myself.”

It was Rosh Hashanah 2018 when she declared her intention for the year to come to “really slow down and learn to listen. I realized I was probably missing many things I wasn’t picking up on because I was so activated all the time.”

Cacao drinking every day was part of her healing process and lessening the stress in her life.

“When you drink cacao with intention, the spirit of cacao comes into your body,” she said. “My life dramatically transformed with a consistent small practice of just a few minutes every day.”

She stays committed to bringing the practice to more people to “better meet the challenges and blessings we get to work with on a daily basis.”

She makes no medical claims, but she agrees that “there’s a huge mind, gut connection and the heart is in the middle of those two.”

Duke recommends drinking cacao long-term to people who are struggling with mental health and autoimmune disease. She describes cacao as rich in magnesium, calcium and iron with 40 times the antioxidants as blueberries. All the nutrients are stripped when cacao is processed into chocolate.

Duke keeps her day job. She works for an angel investor whose online community connects investors to founders to fund their startups.

Duke is creating an online platform to provide resources and different meditations and songs in a ceremonial cocoa practice. More information is online at

Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer.


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