A Rich Brew Of Ideas
Fri, 04/03/2009

At the turn of the 20th century, the presence of acculturated Jews in the renowned literary and artistic Viennese cafés was so pronounced that a proverb claiming that “the Jew belongs in the coffeehouse” was widely circulated in the city. Today, a hundred years later, the city of Tel Aviv can lay claim not only to serving some of the best coffee available anywhere, but also to fostering and sustaining a thriving café culture; a culture with heritage that goes back to the 1930s and the immigrants who came from cities like Vienna, Berlin and Warsaw. In institutions like the Café Central in Vienna circa 1900, a bookstore-café like Hanasich Hakatan (The Little Prince) in Tel Aviv or Tmol Shilshom (Only Yesterday) in Jerusalem today, one would most likely be able to find writers and poets congregating to read, write or discuss a recently published journal or book.

The examples of the cafés of Vienna, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — so different in time, location, language and style — might be indicative of a larger phenomenon, namely the links between Jews and the coffeehouse, and more specifically the important role of cafés in the creation of modern Jewish culture. How and why did the connection between Jews and cafés come into being? Where and when did Jews became closely associated, even identified with the café? Can one speak of the urban café as a “Jewish space,” and if so, in what sense? These are some of the larger questions that underlie my research on the role of “literary cafés” in the development of modernist Jewish literature and culture in Europe.

Like coffee itself, the institution of the coffeehouse was initially imported to Europe from the Levant. The model was the coffeehouses of Constantinople that were later emulated successfully in European urban settings like Venice, Oxford and London. Although scholars still debate the historical evidence, most identify Oxford as the location of the first British coffeehouse (called “The Angel”). This coffeehouse is believed to have been launched around 1650 by a certain Jew of Sephardic origin whose name was “Jacob.” Moreover, historians like Elliot Horowitz have shown that coffee and coffeehouses played quite an important role in Jewish life (in places like Egypt, Palestine and Italy) in the early modern period, mainly for pietists and kabbalists who used them to enhance nocturnal rituals like the Tikkun Hatzot.

The love affair between Jews and coffeehouses, though, becomes clearer and more focused when one considers how cafés, European modernism and modern secular Jewish culture developed concurrently. Whether called Kaffeehaus, Kawiarnia, coffeehouse, or caffee, the café has been central to urban, literary and artistic life in Europe since the 18th century. Cafés played a key role in the explosion of political, financial, scientific and literary exchange, as people gathered, discussed, and debated issues within their walls. The institution of the coffeehouse is a prime example in Jürgen Habermas’ concept of the “public sphere” of modernity because cafés — called “Penny Universities” in 18th century London —were crucial to the creation of what Habermas called “the bourgeois world of letters.” In their study of European literary modernism (1890-1930), Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane write that “literary cafés, journals and publishing houses encouraged the development of new styles of writing to meet new realities and needs.” Indeed, literary cafés — places like Café Griensteidl and Central in Vienna, the Café-de-Westens and the Romanisches Café in Berlin and the cafés of the Left Bank and Montparnasse in Paris — were indispensable for the creation of European modernism.

Urban cafés were especially attractive spaces for emancipated Jews. As Jews were not always welcomed in more exclusive meeting places — clubs and pubs where alcohol was at the center — the relatively new institution of the café emerged as a site for informal business and commodity exchange, and as a site of political, cultural and literary exchange. This was true not only in the cafés of Vienna and Berlin, but also in a “new” Russian city like Odessa, where local institutions like Café Fankoni and Café Robinat were frequented by Russian-Jewish writers, journalists and intellectuals.

The urban café was clearly an alluring space for Jewish writers who were immigrants, exiles and refugees in various European cities. The turn of the 20th century was a period of great migration, and most Jewish writers and intellectuals (writing in languages such as Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Polish or German) were immigrants in large cities and metropolitan centers. For them the café was more than just a place to drink and to meet people; it was often a substitute for a home and a community. Consider the perspective of Itzhak Kumer, the young protagonist of Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s novel “Tmol Shilshom” (the namesake for the Jerusalem café). Kumer travels from his shtetl in Galicia to Lvov (known then as Lemberg), which was, in 1908, the capital of Habsburg Galicia, and rushes to one of the local cafés. As the narrator explains:

    A big city is not like a small town. In a small town, a person goes out of his house and immediately finds his friend; in a big city days and weeks and months may go by until they see one another, and so they set a special place in the coffeehouse where they drop in at appointed times. Yitzhak had pictured that coffeehouse ... as the most exquisite place, and he envied those students who could go there any time, any hour. Now that he had arrived in Lemberg, he himself went to see them. 

A few hours later Yitzhak Kumer finds himself, “standing in a splendid temple with gilded chandeliers suspended from the ceiling and lamps shining from every single wall … And above them, waiters dressed like dignitaries … holding silver pitchers and porcelain cups that smelled of coffee and all kinds of pastry.”

Yitzhak Kumer — whose experience as a naïve, wide-eyed immigrant is based on the experiences of the young Agnon —exemplifies  the path undertaken by many Hebrew and Yiddish writers in this period. Most of them were born and raised in small shtetls. They received traditional education, which gave them access to a wealth of religious Jewish texts in Hebrew and Yiddish. Their new encounter with the big city and the disorienting pulse of metropolitan life was an overwhelming experience, and the café filled a decisive role.

In Weimar Berlin, the Romanisches Café, established in 1916, quickly replaced the Café des Westens as the most important place for artists and writers in the interwar years. The many Jewish writers, artists and intellectuals who came to Berlin from Russia, Poland and even Palestine were all attracted to the Romanisches Café, and it quickly became the main hub for meeting and for publication of Hebrew and Yiddish journals like Milgroym/Rimon (Pomegranate), Albatross and In Shpan (In Harness).

Some Jewish writers, like the Yiddish writer A.N. Stencl described the Romanisches as an almost all-Jewish space: “A kind of Jewish colony formed itself in the west of Berlin, and the Romanisches Cafe was its parliament. It was buzzing like a beehive with famous Jewish intellectuals and activists … Yiddish writers from Kiev and Odessa.” At the same time, German accounts of the café as an important space for expressionists and the “New Objectivity” movement mostly ignore the presence of Yiddish and Hebrew writers. If they mention Jewish writers, they focus on Else Lasker-Schüler — the undisputed queen of the Romanisches — and on her performance of Jewishness though writing “Hebrew Ballads” in German.

The Romanisches wasn’t “Jewish space” in any simple sense, and yet it was a highly important space of tense and creative encounter not only for German-Jewish but also for Hebrew and Yiddish writers like Stencl, Ya’acov Shteinberg, Dovid Bergelson and Uri-Zvi Greenberg. Literary cafés like the Romanisches were important spaces for Jewish modernism in Europe. New artistic and literary groups and magazines were formed in cafés; links with other European modernists were established in and around cafés. Writers wrote in cafés, and some of the most distinctive modernist representations of the cityscape focus on the café as a site of negotiation between inside and outside, public and private, men and women, Jews and gentiles, the “the local”  and the immigrant.

Lewis Mumford, the distinguished scholar of urbanism, wrote that “the best definition of the city … is that it is a place designed to offer the widest facilities for significant conversation.” The urban café that was so attractive to modern Jews has been (and perhaps still is) such a place: a space of consumption, conversation, creative encounters, art and literature.

Shachar Pinsker teaches Modern Hebrew and Jewish literature at the University of Michigan. His forthcoming book is “Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe.”

PQ: ‘For Jewish immigrants in large cities, the café was more than just a place to drink and to meet people; it was often a substitute for a home and a community.’