Book Review | A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture by Shachar Pinsker

Life before Starbucks
By | May 15, 2018
a rich brew

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

Since their origin in the early 1500s in Yemen and elsewhere in the Arab world, coffee houses have provided an important social meeting place for people from all walks of life, especially creative, political and business types. Over cups of coffee, the best minds became brighter and often more satirical, not only in Mecca, where the governor attempted to ban coffee houses in 1511—the customers were writing nasty verses about him—but throughout Europe, the Middle East, Russia and the United States, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Coffee houses quickly became a new space for public discourse and ethnic mingling. Many attracted a particular type of clientele, such as literati or merchants, and some drew certain religions and ethnic groups, such as Jews.

In A Rich Brew, Shachar Pinsker masterfully documents the impact of café life on Jewish culture throughout the civilized world. He focuses on six essential cities—Odessa, Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin, New York and Tel Aviv/Jaffa—creating overlapping storylines that are not always chronological. A professor of Hebrew literature and culture at the University of Michigan, Pinsker has a deep knowledge of modern Jewish literature, which he mines to good effect in this book. For instance, he quotes Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, about the Viennese cafés he frequented. Herzl wrote in 1887 of the young customers at the Café Griensteidl, who “boldly identified themselves with the idea of bringing about a radical change in all social, political, literary, and artistic affairs, gasping for fresh air, for new directions in defiance of the outdated systems and senescent authorities.”

Pinsker describes a kind of “silk road” of Jewish cultural migration between cities and cafés across borders and continents, tracing a “network of mobility, of interconnected urban cafés that were central to modern Jewish creativity and exchange in a time of migration and urbanization.” In the process, he documents the impact of recessions, war, anti-Semitism, sexism, the arts and squabbles among Jewish factions.

Many of these cafés were owned by Jews, although the coffee houses that Pinsker writes about were part of an overall café culture that served other ethnic groups as well. Unlike taverns and bars, however, the cafés were particularly attractive to Jews who sought a sense of a safe, non-alcoholic home and place of community not readily available elsewhere. The Jews may have split into cliques that were prejudiced and judgmental to one another, but their common faith and outsider status tended to unite them, especially as they migrated from city to city.

The book opens in the city of Odessa, which was founded in 1794, making it a relatively new city in the European context. It evolved into a cosmopolitan Russian city on the Black Sea, whose cafés attracted the intelligentsia as well as infamous gangsters. By the late 19th century, Odessa had become the center of modern Jewish literature and culture in Russia, drawing writers such as Sholem Aleichem to the Café Fanconi, where customers read newspapers from all over the world and speculated on currencies and stocks.

Simmering anti-Semitism in Odessa erupted in the 1905 pogroms in which 400 Jews were killed. In that same year, another café, Café Libman, was bombed by socialist-anarchists—ironically, many of the anarchists were Jewish, as were the café’s owner and many customers. By 1913, fashionable Odessa cafés such as Robina’s attracted upwardly mobile, aristocratic Jews who could afford the high-priced food and coffee. But after World War I, anti-Semitism exploded again, Yiddish and Hebrew were declared “reactionary” and many Jews fled to Berlin, New York and Tel Aviv. By the 1920s, many cafés in Odessa had closed.

Warsaw, where 375,000 Jews made their home, hosted the largest and most diverse Jewish population in Europe (before the 1939 Nazi invasion). Yiddish novelist and playwright Sholem Asch arrived in Warsaw in 1900 and wrote in—and about—its cafés. During the interwar period in the newly independent Polish state, divisions deepened within Jewish culture there, as acculturated Jews adopted the Polish language, while others chose to write in Yiddish and Hebrew. Isaac Bashevis Singer explored these issues in his writing about the Tomackie 13 Café, which he called the “temple of Yiddish literature.” In this literary café, Jews “ate, drank, chatted, played games, and gossiped,” writes Pinsker. At the Café Ziemianska, writers such as Witold Gombrowicz savored a small black coffee. “A café,” he wrote, “can become an addiction…For a real habitué, not to go to the café at the designated time is simply to fall ill.”

Unlike taverns and bars, however, the cafés were particularly attractive to Jews who sought a sense of a safe, non-alcoholic home and place of community not readily available elsewhere.

Even within the Warsaw Ghetto, where Jews were confined, persecuted and murdered by the Nazis, coffee houses provided a place for satirical performances about ghetto life. As Polish Jewish survivor Michel Mazor attested, the cafés were “the ghetto’s protest, its affirmation of the right to live.”

In Vienna, most Jews were acculturated into the German language and culture by the late 19th century. In 1900, there were a thousand cafés in Vienna. Leon Trotsky, the Russian-Jewish Marxist, regularly drank coffee at the Café Central, which dominated the cultural and literary scene through World War I. Austrian Jewish novelist Stefan Zweig described the Viennese café as “a democratic club to which admission cost the small price of a cup of coffee.” You could also listen to folk bards such as Velvel Zbarazher perform at Café Hackel. In 1896, an anti-Semitic incident occurred when a group of “Christian Social Women” protested outside Café Licht, shouting, “Down with the Jews! Invade the café.”

Viennese cafés were male-dominated spheres, as were the coffee houses in other cities, and the few women who sipped coffee were often treated as sexual objects. “For a woman to be a robust presence in a Viennese café, even if she is an artist, writer, or piano player, was perceived as a form of sexual exposure,” Pinsker observes.

Berlin, New York and Tel Aviv/Jaffa also had their own similar yet unique stories and histories—many with the same characters, who migrated from place to place. In 1884, Berlin’s Café Bauer was a cosmopolitan center for “representatives of nearly every nationality on earth,” observed The New York Times, and offered newspapers and journals in 18 languages. In 1914, at the beginning of the war, philosopher Walter Benjamin drank huge amounts of black coffee, hoping he would be declared unfit for the military.

New York City, with its huge influx of Eastern European Jews around the turn of the 20th century, developed a similarly robust café society. Political activist Emma Goldman, newly arrived in New York in 1889, visited Sachs’s Café. She wrote: “The place consisted of two rooms and was packed. Everybody talked, gesticulated, and argued, in Yiddish and Russian, each competing with the other.”

Cafés thrived in Berlin during the interwar Weimar period. They were lively, contentious places, as Yiddish educator and journalist Israel Rubin wrote: “At the tables of the Yiddish writers in the Romanisches Café, all possible topics have already been exhausted…Everyone has been denigrated and slandered.”

And in Tel Aviv, Arthur Koestler, a Hungarian-British author and journalist who had spent time in Viennese and Berlin cafés, found a new home at the Ha-kumkum, Israel’s first satirical cabaret. After World War II, the already flourishing café scene in Tel Aviv provided an important space for the revival of Jewish life and culture. Holocaust survivors like Zusman Segalovitsch, a Polish Jew, fled to Tel Aviv and reveled in its cafés, “because in Tel Aviv there are Jews from the diaspora, and I yearn for them.”

The world of these dynamic Jewish cafés is now long gone, although vestiges remain. At the end of the book, Pinsker laments that international chains such as Starbucks have homogenized the coffeehouse experience. But exploring the past explains much of how Jewish history and culture evolved over the last two centuries.

I have a few cavils with this intensely researched book. There are so many characters and cafés that the material is too dense to pleasurably read for long. In other words, readers are unlikely to finish the whole book in a rush. Also, Pinsker occasionally lapses into academese, such as a reference to a “thirdspace” that is “the interplay between subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined.” I never figured out exactly what that meant.

But these are minor issues. A Rich Brew is aptly named. Engagingly illustrated with many contemporary photos and cartoons, it offers a deep dive into the café world of six cities that gave birth to modern Jewish thought and culture.

Mark Pendergrast is the author of Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World, and other books.

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