New Book Tells Story Of The Coffeehouse As Silk Road For Art, Politics, Ideas


After Shachar M. Pinsker wrote a series of articles for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz about the coffeehouses of Europe of the last century and their connection to modern Jewish culture, he received an outpouring of responses — photographs, stories about Jewish grandparents and their cafés, queries and invitations to speak.

“People were nostalgic for places they’ve never been to,” Pinsker, professor of Hebrew literature and culture at the University of Michigan, tells The Jewish Week in an interview. “I understood it immediately. I felt the same.”

His latest book, “A Rich Brew: How Cafes Created Modern Jewish Culture” (NYU Press), grew out of the newspaper series. The book goes beyond nostalgia, based on extensive and creative interdisciplinary research, drawing on archival records, newspaper articles, memoirs, letters, photographs, stories, novels and poems; Pinsker made use of sources in Hebrew, Yiddish, German, English, Russian, Polish and occasionally Arabic. His interest was piqued while writing his first book, “Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe,” when he was asking questions about where writers met.

Pinsker tells the story city by city, including Odessa, Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin, New York City and Tel Aviv/Jaffa, and says that he could have added additional places. He found that the urban coffeehouses were connected to immigration and networks of migrants. These were places where a newcomer to a city — transplanted or exiled from a town or smaller city — might feel at home and find a sense of community with like-minded Jews. He says, “Despite taking root in various cities and countries, and acquiring local attributes, it was a traveling, transnational, essentially diasporic institution.”

He invokes the image of the Silk Road, the centuries-old network of trade routes linking East and West. For Pinsker, the silk road of Jewish culture is a “spatial metaphor to describe a network of mobility, of interconnected urban cafés that were central to modern Jewish creativity and exchange in a time of migration and urbanization.” Coffeehouses were anchors along this silk road.

Another concept he uses to study the café is “thirdspace” — a place that mediates between public and private, real and imaginary, elitist culture and mass consumption. (Starbucks is sometimes referred to as a third space, a place between home and work.) Among the writers and café-goers he discusses are S.Y. Agnon, Stefan Zweig, Abraham Cahan and Israel Rubin, who wrote in 1930 that, “The Romanisches Café [in Berlin] is a place where one has his own table and he must come here every day, just as one has to pray every day.”

Pinsker writes that the items for sale, whether coffee or pastries, were “often the entry for something more profound” including sociability, imaginative exchange, commerce and debate. “Literature, journalism, politics, business, theater, music, cabaret, visual arts, religion: all of these elements — both what is considered ‘high’ and ‘low’ modern Jewish culture — were created in cafés. But it’s also true that Jewish immigrants created, to some extent, café culture in many cities,” he tells The Jewish Week.

Most of the places he writes about — whether elegant European cafés or more humble joints — no longer exist. And he’s quick to point out that this history isn’t altogether joyous, as among the reasons people frequented coffeehouses was that they had no place else to go. At times, there were also tensions between Jews and non-Jews.

When asked about surprises in his research, Pinsker said that he kept discovering new material even after he thought he had found everything. One example, he writes in an email, is “discovering that the young Moses Mendelssohn, who became the father figure of the Haskalah (Enlightment) movement, made his first significant entry into German Enlightenment circles in a “learned coffeehouse” in 1750s Berlin, and those connections launched his career publishing in both German and Hebrew. He wrote and co-edited a German journal Der Chameleon, and then wrote and published Kohelet Musar, the first modern Hebrew weekly journal. Both of these journals, were intimately related to coffeehouse culture.” 

The New York chapter of “A Rich Brew” — “Kibitzing in the Cafes of the New World” — is full of interesting facts about this city’s long history of coffeehouses and café culture that, as he explains, intersects with the history of the Jewish population, particularly between the 1880s and 1960s. But he digs back even further to Colonial times, when New York coffeehouses were sites of commerce and exchange. Jewish businessmen would visit these coffeehouses, and he reports that the first synagogue building of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun was purchased in 1840, at an auction at Tontine Coffee House, on the corner of Wall and Water streets.

Beginning in the 1880s, with large waves of Jewish (and other) immigrants arriving in New York, many found homes outside of their crowded apartments on the Lower East Side in cafés, small establishments that may not have been as beautiful as their European counterparts but served the same purpose. These places attracted intellectuals, writers, artists, actors and others, “a rich culture that emerged within the poor, densely packed district of tenements, factories and docklands.” Emma Goldman, the political activist and writer, was one of few women who frequented these places.

Each café, with names like “Three Steps Down” and Sholem’s Café, had specific clientele. The literary cafés were frequented by writers who discussed literature and may have written in these places or about them. Some cafes, he writes, were like secular houses of study, where a more established writer might be at the head of a table, with his followers around him, just the way a chasidic rebbe might have gathered his followers.

He says that in the late 19th century and early 20th century, “New York café life in the East Side was similar in some sense to café life in the Jewish area in Warsaw, around Nalewki Street: small places with Jewish owners, simple and cheap food and very little décor and amenities. However, later on, places like Café Royal on Second Avenue were very American but also similar to places in Berlin, Odessa, and Tel Aviv.” He also mentions that a place like the Garden Cafeteria on East Broadway — a longtime favorite of Isaac Bashevis Singer that was self-service and open 24 hours a day — was very different from the European cafés.

Pinkser, 50, was born and grew up in Netanya, Israel, and later lived in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He first came to the United States in 1996 and earned his Ph.D. at the University of California Berkeley. He taught at UC Davis, Harvard and Ben-Gurion University before moving to the University of Michigan in 2003. While a student at Hebrew University, Pinsker worked at the popular Jerusalem bookstore/café Tmol Shilshom. His wife was the founding chef there.

“I made sure to visit all these places and get to know them really well, as well as to visit coffeehouses. Some people never believed that I’m writing a book, and thought all of this is just an excuse to visit these cafés. More seriously, I like to write in places with people, whether libraries and archives (like the Center for Jewish History in NYC, the National Library in Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv Public Library) or coffeehouses. Working alone in a quiet office (or home) is sometimes necessary for me, but I feel more alive, creative and alert in these public/private spaces,” he says.

“A Rich Brew” evokes the sense of lingering in a timeless café, savoring the flavor and scent of good coffee and the conversation that goes along with it.