Cafe Culture, Judaism, and World Making

Avery Robinson Reviews Shachar Pinsker

A Rich Brew
Shachar Pinsker. A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture. New York: NYU Press, 2018. pp. 384. $35.00.

Well over a century before “pumpkin spice latte” was uttered in Europe, coffeehouses were in the vanguard of Western revolutions. One need only glimpse the legions of laptop users or hear the constant chatter to recognize this to be true . . . even if a coup does not seem at hand. These busy coffeehouses filled with regulars and visitors embody what sociologist Ray Oldenburg described as a “third place.”

As a third place, the coffeeshop becomes a nexus for community and social engagement, another pillar in the three-legged stool of work and home that dominate one’s daily routine. As this third space, it ceases to be primarily a place for commodity exchange—though this does happen, and is often necessary for one to access this space—yielding itself to the social whims of its patrons. An international phenomenon that originated in Yemen, coffee quickly spread around the Ottoman world, reaching (Jewish) communities in Cairo, Palestine, and Istanbul. Like their Sufi contemporaries, Jewish mystics quickly gravitated to this caffeinated elixir as it enabled them to consistently perform their Tikun atzot (midnight vigils), a practice formally established by Rabbi Isaac Luria in Safed in the late 16th century and explained in great detail by Elliot Horowitz (1989). Due to the relative scarcity of coffee establishments at that time, it becomes clear that Jews—even the most traditional—were frequenting non-Jewish coffeehouses, establishing a tradition whereby coffee would be an acceptable consumable for kosher and observant Jews.

The universalism of coffee consumption becomes a critical component in understanding how the coffeehouse became, for over a century, a recognizable Jewish space. In A Rich Brew, Professor Shachar Pinsker illuminates this improvisational home of Jewish intellectuals who, having left the world of their parents (e.g., the rural shtetl of Eastern Europe) created a new community of culturally and socially engaged souls. At the forefront of modern literature in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, and German, these intellectuals laid the groundwork for an alternative beit midrash (Jewish house of study), engendering an emancipated individual home for these “Jews on the move.” Weaving stories of writers, artists, activists, and revolutionaries in the cafes of Odessa, Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin, New York City, and Tel Aviv, Pinsker takes us on a journey from Moses Mendelssohn’s philosophical writings in Berlin’s Gelehrtes Kaffehause in 1755 to the funeral of the last Yiddish-speaking café owner in 1979 Tel Aviv, “attended by a crowd of thousands.”

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This is not a book about coffee. Pinsker is less interested in Emma Goldman’s and Theodore Herzl’s preferred brewing method or coffee practices; rather, he writes about the way in which writers, artists, and activists engaged with the sociopolitical climate surrounding them to produce, primarily in coffeehouses, new societies, literary styles, and Jewish culture. In describing these predominantly “homosocial, masculine spaces” where the bulk of accessible material from this era was produced and published, Pinsker alludes to the difficulty Jewish women had in participating in these spaces. One author notably excluded from Warsaw’s Tłomackie 13 was Yiddish poet Kadya Molodowsky, who found it difficult to “find a place there as a woman writer who was mostly concerned about children and the poverty and desperation of Jewish life in interwar Warsaw.” For many of these male writers, the coffeehouse is their new home. In a new multilingual urban milieu, traditional Jewish study is replaced by existential ideas that are concerned with nationalism, capitalism, secularism, the proletariat, connections between I and Thou, and much more.

Pinsker argues that much of modern Jewish culture percolated from the coffeehouses frequented by migrant Jewish intellectuals, rooting a rapidly urbanized and modernized Jewish world that had no national center. In lieu of a center, there were many cities where Jews congregated, moved from, and traveled between. Based on census data from 1792, 1816, and 1864, the Jewish community of Warsaw grew from 6,792 to 14,600 to 72,800 residents! Economic opportunities, political developments, escape from persecution, and a common shift in rural economic conditions are among the chief reasons cited for the massive migration of Jews to cities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And when they came to a new city, they almost always went straight to the café. In his epistolary novel The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl (1905), Sholem Aleichem’s Menakhem-Mendl waxes rhapsodic about the ease of life in cosmopolitan Odessa, where one can “drop into a café, sit at a table, order a tea or coffee, and wait for the brokers to come by.” Pinsker describes the allure of this newfound institution:

[ . . . ] One can presumably sit in an Odessa café, where journalists and readers gather, read newspapers from all over the world, follow the news about the war in Paris and London, and speculate on currencies and stocks that are part of the new modes of capitalist economy. This economy is like the ephemeral “market” in the café that people like Menakhem-Mendl cannot really fathom, even if he desperately tries to.

Unsurprisingly, the stock market ruined the fictional Menakhem-Mendl, causing him to reluctantly return to his small-town life in Kasrilevke. But not for long. In 1913 he moves to Warsaw where he becomes a fixture of Kotik’s Café, working as a journalist. Opened in the 1890s by intellectual and activist Yehezkel Kotik, this real coffeehouse on Nalewki (now Ghetto Heroes) street in the beating heart of Warsaw’s Jewish neighborhood was the perfect setting for the worldly and unsuccessful Menakhem-Mendl. Warsaw was “the most significant publishing market for literature and journalism” in Yiddish and Hebrew, “with a readership that extended far and beyond into the rest of Europe.”

Many successful and aspiring writers arriving in Warsaw at the fin-de-siècle “found a home” in these ever-popular cafés. Many coffeehouses had their own reputation: there were the Zionist cafes where Nahum Sokolow’s Hebrew newspaper Ha-tsefirah and Ha-tsofeh, as well as his Polish Izraelita, were written and interrogated, as were Shmeul Yatskan’s Yiddish Ideshes tageblat and Haynt; in Kotik’s and other socialist, bundist, and workers cafés one could often find Yiddish and Hebrew poets such as Avrom Reyzen and Sholem Asch writing or performing for peer-review before publication; there were also the Yiddish territorialist cafes where Der Moment was written; the literati cafes like Bristol and Ostrowski, and many more. Many of the coffeehouses drew diverse ideologically-minded groups, often having “stammtisches” (regular tables) where one could debate and discuss the concerns of the day with like-minded people in their preferred language. Through close reading of poems, the countless feuilletons and editorials in newspapers, and the many stories written about these six cities, Pinsker details a world of Jewish “penny universities” and socialization. These cafes, he describes, become shorthand for modern Jewish life, oftentimes serving as the setting for much of the drama and introspection in modernist literature.

Akin to the adage about a Jew on an isolated island who is being questioned by his rescuers why he built two distinct synagogues—emphasizing the one that he would “never step into”—coffeehouses were frequented or completely avoided based on one’s politics and those of other patrons. Especially after the Russian Revolution and World War I, these divisions become even more pronounced. In the interwar years in Europe, the multilingual café became increasingly less common as different nationalisms, communism, Bundism, Zionism, and Yiddish folkism became stronger amongst Jewish writers (and Jews more broadly).

Pinsker notes two distinct styles of European coffeehouses that survived this division, albeit briefly. The modified literary café that survived World War I came to be dominated by a new breed of modernist writers who had inherited a coffeehouse mentality, but existed in a society reeling from the Great War. In this void, they produced a modified literary style and agenda, creating avant-garde journals filled with poetry, feuilletons, illustrations, satire, and criticism that would come to reflect the urgency, existential anxiety, and alienation of the times. Pinsker highlights Warsaw’s Tłomackie 13 club, Vienna’s bourgeoisie art nouveau Café Herrenhof, and Berlin’s Romanisches Café as three of many interwar Jewish coffeehouses. Another facet of this postwar shift is an increased female presence. Given the rapid inflation in much of Europe, these coffeehouses and writer’s clubs were much more accommodating to all who could pay. As Walter Benjamin explains, “the artists withdrew into the background, to become more a part of the furniture, while bourgeois . . . began to occupy it, as a place of relaxation.”

Another type of coffeehouse supported by the bourgeois was the café theater. Yiddish theater, which was popularized by Ukrainian-Romanian Avrom Goldfadn’s productions, spread throughout European Jewish communities and was often performed in crowded cafés. It was in this third space that displaced Jews became actors and singers, reciting impassioned poetry and prose from playwrights like Goldfadn, Jacob Gordin, Peretz Hirschbein, and Max Reinhardt. From Berlin to Buenos Aires, Jewish theater was inseparable from cabaret, vaudeville, nickelodeons, and early film. Not only were many silent film scenes based in or around cafes, but many shows were actually performed in cafes. In Café Savoy in Prague, Kafka witnessed Jakob Löwy’s Yiddish theater company, an epiphanic meeting that inspired a friendship, a devoted theater following, and eventually, The Metamorphosis. In Berlin’s “Café Monopol, Reinhardt gathered together a group of actors and dramatists and developed an agenda for a revolutionary symbolist theater.” During World War II, the coffeehouse cabarets and theaters provided some of the only entertainment within the ghettos. These shows were in such demand that Hungarians (non-Jews) complained about not being able to enter the Jewish ghetto and pay to be entertained in the Jewish cafes and theaters. Warsaw ghetto chronicler Emanuel Ringleblum “wrote in his diary on November 29, 1940 that at certain hours, ‘the cafes are full of people, the streets are empty.” While the cultural café was one of the few permitted spaces in the Nazi ghettos, it was a controversial space that catered primarily to the elite. However, Pinsker reminds us that despite its concomitant flaws, it did provide artists, actors, musicians, and writers a space (and a reason!) to showcase new creations.

Outside of Europe, the Jewish coffeehouse survived World War II, but not for long. While the pre-WWII café experiences mirrored those of their European kin, often hosting the same Yiddish and Hebrew writers, the experiences of post-Holocaust life were quite different. Assimilation to America and Israel, often facilitated by economic opportunities and the (assimilated, indoctrinated) children of these immigrant writers, yielded an emotionally rooted and integrated Jewish world who did not need the waystation café. In its stead, they had a home. In America, the Nobel Prize winning Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer dramatized the decline of Café Royal, a Yiddish kibitzarnya that closed in 1952 as the end of this first generation of Yiddish American writers. There was a second generation—which included Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and others—but for them, New York’s Garden Cafeteria was not so much a third place, but a place of nostalgia that reeked of the Old Country. One could speak Yiddish and be with displaced people, but it was not the energetic and discussion-filled cafes of Europe.

For those spaces are long gone. As far as the Jewish world is concerned, the freedoms of Western nations and the security of Israel preclude a “nexus of cultural migrant networks [and] spaces of refuge for people who could not find home elsewhere.” Twenty-first century coffeeshops are generally much closer to offices, casual gathering places for light conversation, and drug dealers (caffeine). But maybe in the course of #politicalmovements and #activism there can be a space for a pop-up Jewish coffeehouse model where discussion and dialogue can flourish. This safe space would allow people to meet each other and expand their worldview, validating one another’s backgrounds, identities, and experience as they share a warm beverage, participate voluntarily, and hopefully build a world where thoughts can be critiqued, analyzed, and developed.

Avery Robinson, MA, is a senior editorial assistant for the Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization. He recently lived in Tel Aviv for two years researching café culture and cultural foodways in the region.

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