Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

 “The Assassination”— A New Documentary


 “The Assassination”

A New Documentary

Amos Lassen

A new documentary by Avi Weissblei investigates the unsolved case of the murder of a Zionist leader in 1933.

On Saturday, June 16th 1933, at 23:00 while vacationing with his ‬ wife Sima near the shores of Tel Aviv, Haim Arlosoroff was shot ‬ dead at the age of 34, by two unknown assailants. Arlosoroff was ‬a promising leader and a rising star in the Zionist movement. The assassins quickly fled through the side streets of the city, taking ‬‪with them the answer to a question which is unresolved to this very day: Who killed Arlosoroff? ‬‬

After all these years the movie reveals what happened during those minutes, what caused the fatal shot and how it affects us until today.

“Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement” by Joyce Antler— Influencing Each Other

Antler, Joyce. “Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement”, NYU Press, 2018.

Influencing Each Other

Amos Lassen

We are all aware of the influence of the women’s movement on the way we live and now we learn of the influence on how we believe. It has been some fifty years since the beginning of the women’s liberation movement and we can now finally read how the women’s movement and Judaism have influenced and impacted each other. We certainly can see that Jewish women were undeniably instrumental in shaping the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. What makes this interesting is that their contributions have been overlooked The natural reaction is to ask “why?”. Joyce Antler wrote this book to answer just that question. She has done amazing research and conducted many interviews with the pioneers of the movement to bring Jewish and feminist together, openly and proudly. She brings us biographical narratives that show both the struggles and achievements of Jewish radical feminists in Chicago, New York and Boston, as well as those who participated in the later— “the self-consciously identified Jewish feminist movement that fought gender inequities in Jewish religious and secular life.” Jewish women’s liberationists helped to provide theories and models for radical action that were used throughout the United States and abroad yet we may hear of the work but not of the women. Their articles and books became classics of the movement and brought about new initiatives in academia, politics, and grassroots organizing. There were also other Jewish-identified feminists who were able to bring the women’s movement to the Jewish mainstream and Jewish feminism to the Left. Antler tells us, and this is important, that for many of these women, feminism in fact served as a “portal” into Judaism.

It comes as no surprise that the role of women was regarded as a deeply hidden history since traditionally this has been the place of women (except in the more liberal congregations). Having grown up in an Orthodox congregation myself, women were severely separated from men during prayer and for many that remains true today. Antler reminds us that Jewish women’s activism at the center of feminist and Jewish narratives. She shares the stories of over forty women’s liberationists and identified Jewish feminists–from Shulamith Firestone and Susan Brownmiller to Rabbis Laura Geller and Rebecca Alpert and these show us how women’s liberation and Jewish feminism came together over the course of the lives of extraordinary women who had profound influence on the social, political, and religious revolutions of our era.

Now Second Wave Feminism is certainly one of the most important social movement of the last century and when we look at the stat of Judaism in the world today, we certainly see that this is true. Antler brings us revisionist history in which she measures how over-represented Jewish feminists were exactly and she groups together theologians, lesbians, secular liberals, Communists, and others, defining “radical” broadly. If these groups had not struggled, there would be no Second Wave.

Antler looks specifically at two groups: the mostly secular Jewish radical feminists of the late 1960s who did not share or speak about their Jewish pasts and those Jewish radical feminists in the 1970s and 1980s for whom “feminism enabled” their Jewish identity. These woman wanted to reshape their Jewish identities through feminism.

What I really found in this book is that Antler puts many current disputes about gender and Jewish identity into perspective. Looking back at the 1960s, many Jewish leftist founders redefined themselves as Jewish universalist feminists who were dedicated to getting rid of racism and anti-Semitism. In the 1970s, Jewish feminists looked to either update Judaism or their private lives.

Antler states that to become a Jewish feminist cost—there would be opposition from the Jewish establishment who would think that this would bring about the destruction of the family and many of the men of the left refused to support these women who were tried to change Jewish ritual, change the family and challenge stereotypes. It is never easy to be radical.

Antler looks at Orthodox women like Blu Greenberg, the founder of Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, who challenged the patriarchy while still preserving some tradition and Arlene Agus, who was responsible a number of reforms to Judaism including some that helped women trapped by Orthodox divorce. Antler also examines Rabbi Laura Geller, the third reform female rabbi ordained, and the theologian Judith Plaskow. These are indeed JEWISH feminists as are others and we see that the unifying factor is “the struggle against anti-Semitism, the trauma of the Holocaust, and the feeling that no matter what Betty Friedan had written about housewives in 1963, it didn’t speak to their generation.” So these women founded their own organizations.

This is a provocative exploration of being Jewish and Feminist in the 1960s and 70s.  We read personal stories of leading activists and see how intertwined identities produced powerful political consequences.  This is a critical volume for feminist Jews to be able to understand the past as well as an excellent primary source for historians of feminism and Judaism. It is quite academic but with a little effort everyone can read and understand what Joyce Antler has to say.

“Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” by Yossi Klein Halevi— Through Israeli Eyes

Halevi, Yossi Klein. “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor”, Harper, 2018.

Through Israeli Eyes

Amos Lassen

Writer Yossi Klein Halevi makes an attempt to end the impasse between Israelis and Palestinians in “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor”. We are immediately aware that he with Palestinian suffering and longing for reconciliation and he explores how the conflict looks through Israeli eyes.

In a series of letters, Halevi explains what motivated him to leave his native New York in his twenties and move to Israel and take part in the renewal of a Jewish homeland. He committed himself to see Israel “succeed as a morally responsible, democratic state in the Middle East.”

This is the first time this has been done by an Israeli author. Halevi directly addresses his Palestinian neighbors and describes how the conflict appears through Israeli eyes. Halevi looks carefully at the ideological and emotional stalemate that has defined the conflict for nearly a century. He is both provocative and lyrical and as he brings together the ideas of faith, pride, anger and anguish that he feels as a Jew living in Israel and he uses history and personal experience as his guide.

Halevi’s letters speak to his Palestinian neighbor and to all concerned global citizens, hopefully helping us understand the painful choices confronting Israelis and Palestinians that will help determine the fate of the Middle East. He does not shy away from the difficult questions and these include the ideas of people hood and choseness the Holocaust while at the same time acknowledging his neighbor’s “darkest biases.” The letters are filled with faith as expressed through sincerity, humility and gorgeous prose. We do not have to agree with any thing that is written here but we must allow ourselves to disagree when feeling necessary to do so. Halevi demonstrates that there are those who are willing to listen, “if only we’d talk.” It is important, of course, to understand why we returned home to Israel after the proclamation of the State.

Halevi lives with the hope that one day both sides come together in peace. He wants us to better understand the Israeli side and therefore perhaps humanize Israelis in their minds and convince them of his arguments of the necessity for peace. This is a wonderful idea that is not new and the real problem is in the execution. The letters primarily give a short history of the State of Israel and a number of arguments to justify her existence and actions over the years.

We go back to the story of Israel that we are all familiar with— the same story that Jewish children have learned in religious school— the centuries old connection to the land, the exile and the return. Halevi admits that the haganah expelled and massacred a handful of Arabs during the independence war, and he laments the Hebron massacre in the early 90s. Each concession he makes is always carefully rationalized in a way that leaves the basic Israeli narrative intact. It is as if he was saying that he Jews may have a few bad players but they are generally good while the Arabs are intransigent and even their children are bloodthirsty for Israeli blood.

Halevi is brutally honest about Israel’s obstacles to peace with its Palestinian neighbors. Jews have yearned to return to Zion for two millennia and now here, they’re staying.

I call you “neighbor” because I don’t know your name, or anything personal about you. Given our circumstances, “neighbor” might be too casual a word to describe our relationship. We are intruders into each other’s dream, violators of each other’s sense of home. We are incarnations of each other’s worst historical nightmares. Neighbors?

“WITNESSES”— Three Stories


Three Stories

Amos Lassen

“Witnesses” is made up of three intertwined stories, told from the perspective of a pair of shoes, a German shepherd puppy, and a violin. They come together in this powerful Holocaust drama directed by Konstantin (“Costa”) Fam. It was filmed in Moscow, New York, Prague and Brest and is the first Russian production on the Holocaust and the first production to film in Auschwitz (even Steven Spielberg was not allowed to film there).

With neither dialogue nor faces, a pair of red women’s shoes discovered in a store window tells the story of the round up of the Jews and ends on display at Auschwitz in ‘Shoes.’

A German shepherd puppy (‘Brutus’), given as a gift to a Jewish woman, becomes a tool of terror when an SS officer commandeers it after an edict is issued that Jews can no longer own pets.

The three stories come together in ‘Violin,’ which follows a lovingly-crafted instrument from its creation in pre-war Europe to modern-day New York. Discovered by a modern virtuoso, played by Lenn Kudrjawizki, the violin finds its way to the Wailing Wall in Israel for a final concert.

“THE STRANGEST STRANGER”— Jewish, Gay and in Japan


Jewish, Gay and in Japan

Amos Lassen

In Haruki Murakami’s novel ‘Kafka on the Beach’, we meet a mysterious man who calls himself Johnnie Walker. Is he modeled on Joni Waka, a Jewish man living in Tokyo, or is it the other way round? The charismatic and talkative Waka is a true chameleon and a self-proclaimed outsider, a “mythomaniac”, a homosexual and the natural center of every party. He claims to come from an age-old Jewish lineage.

“The Swedish artist Magnus Bärtås met Waka 20 years ago, and has since been fascinated by how this professional oddball has cultivated his entire life story as fiction. Joni Waka ignores all social norms – and there are a few of these in Japan – and sees himself as a ‘henna gaijin’, the strangest among strangers. He has a self-image that launches him into many confrontations and adventures, and he insists on living it out every single moment of his life. Rumor has it that there is something about the African man whom Waka once seduced in Daqar.”

Waka claims that he is the only Jew left in Japan descending from the old Jewish families in the country. Confronted with a social pressure, he seems to ignore dominating norms and moral, and at the same time using his outside position, as a henna gaijin (the “strangest stranger”) as a space of freedom to stage his life and create an everyday comedy.

This is a mesmerizing documentary with more questions than answers, not just about Waka, but also the very nature of truth.

“BIBI: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu” by Anshel Pfeffer— Understanding Israel/Netanyahu

Pfeffer, Anshel. “BIBI: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu”, Basic Books, 2018.

Understanding Israel/Netanyahu

Amos Lassen

Anshel Pfeffer’s “BIBI: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu” is a “deeply reported biography of the scandal-plagued Israeli Prime Minister, showing that we cannot understand Israel–its history, present, and future–without first understanding the life and worldview of the man who leads it.”

Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself involved in scandals that are all of his own making, and may soon be ousted from the office he has held longer than any prior Israeli Prime Minister aside from David Ben Gurion. Bibi is no stranger to controversy. For many in Israel and elsewhere, he is “an embarrassment, a threat to democracy, even a precursor to Donald Trump” yet he continues to dominate Israeli public. He may survive his current crises, the most challenging of his career.

Pfeffer argues that we must see Netanyahu as “representing the triumph of the underdogs in the Zionist enterprise.” Born in 1949, Netanyahu came of age in a nation dominated by liberal, secular Zionists. His grandfather and father left him with a brand of Zionism that integrates Jewish nationalism and religious traditionalism and he identified with the groups at the margins of Israeli society including right-wing Revisionists, orthodox, Mizrahi Jews, and small-time professionals living in the new towns and cities of Israel. He carefully cultivated each faction individually and then brought them into a coalition that has frequently proven unstoppable in Israeli politics.

Netanyahu also spent many years in America where he learned the techniques of modern political campaigns as well as the necessity of controlling the media cycle. He is product of the affluent East Coast Jewish community and the Reagan era whose politics and worldview were formed as much by American Cold War conservatism as by his family’s right-wing Zionism.

It appears that Netanyahu’s influence will endure even if his career soon comes to an end. The Israel he has helped make is a mix “of ancient phobia and high-tech hope, tribalism and globalism–just like the man himself.” Pfeffer brings together stories from Netanyahu’s time in America and Israel, and from his family history, military service, and political career to show that Netanyahu is the indomitable outsider who became Israel’s three-time prime minister. We see the ways in which the prime minister is both a product and a beneficiary of the divides that have shaped the nation’s politics from its earliest days. He is the changing face of his divided nation. Pfeffer explores the complex ideological and familial foundations that continue to shape the thinking and governing of the man who might become Israel’s longest serving Prime Minster.

Benjamin Netanyahu is haunted by scandal and is a controversial figure at home and abroad. He makes headlines and arouses strong feelings because he deals with big and enormously divisive issues (war and peace in the Middle East, the nuclear ambitions of Iran, the future of the Palestinians and the fate of the Jewish people. He has a strong sense about his in making history.`

His identity as someone who has always stood outside the mainstream might just be the key to understanding the man who sees to be beyond understanding. His grandfather and father were members of the right-wing “Revisionist” movement at a time when Zionism was dominated by the left in Eastern Europe, America and Palestine. There is a theme in the history of Israel. The country’s founding fathers and their sons behaved very differently. In the case of the Netanyahus, it was because they were not allowed to become part of the establishment and this made for unusual continuity between the generations.

Netanyahu was born in Tel Aviv in 1949, a year after Israel’s independence and what Palestinians call the Nakba (“catastrophe”) forged one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. While attending high school in Philadelphia, he saw his views as out of sync with what was Israel’s collectivist ethos. By the early 1980s, after studying at M.I.T. and working as a management consultant, Netanyahu was rising quickly at Israel’s Washington embassy. It was there, and later as ambassador to the United Nations, that he perfected his public relations skills by becoming friendly with columnists, talk-show hosts and influential and wealthy Jewish and other Americans, including the then real-estate entrepreneur Donald Trump. In 1988, he went home to join the Likud Party.

In 1995, before the trauma of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination by a Jewish extremist, Netanyahu was widely accused of “incitement.” Yasser Arafat paid Rabin’s widow a condolence call; Bibi was not welcome but he still won an election by a tiny margin soon afterward.

Pfeffer focuses on Bibi’s attitude toward the Palestinians. In his first term of office in 1996, he inherited Rabin’s Oslo agreement with the P.L.O., which the Likud opposed, but grudgingly complied with it. Back in power in 2009 after a period that encompassed the second intifada, Arafat’s death and Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, he came to appreciate how Oslo maintained Israel’s security while allowing settlements to expand as the American-led “peace process” was not going anywhere. Initially, Netanyahu was seen as committed to a two-state solution while simultaneously demanding that Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. However, just a few years later things changed. Pfeffer says that the only peace that Netanyahu will consider “is one where Israel bullies the Palestinians into submission.

Netanyahu has always seen the Palestinian issue as a diversion and terrorism and unchanging Arab and Muslim hostility were and are what he prefers to emphasize. In recent years he has been obsessed with the danger from Iran whose plans to acquire nuclear weapons threaten a new Holocaust. Barack Obama’s support for the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement and his efforts to halt Israeli settlements gave the two major leaders a reason to hate each other.

Bibi has had to deal with investigations into bribery and corruption — accused of accepting gifts of cash, champagne and cigars and by the behavior of his wife, Sara, “whose tantrums and lavish sense of entitlement at public expense made for damaging leaks.” Nonetheless, Netanyahu wins standing ovations from supporters, in particular in the United States. He sees himself as not just Israel’s premier but as the leader of the Jewish people and he seems to have little or no concern for the problem that challenges Zionism 70 years after the birth of the Jewish state and that is what to do about the other people who live on the contested land. It seems, according to Pfeffer, that the greatest achievement of Bibi’s career can be seen as a negative one, “trying to ensure that Israel did not have clearly defined or internationally recognized borders.”

By the time this book was published and hit the stores, it was already out of date and we still have more Netanyahu to deal with.

“A Life Rebuilt: The Remarkable Transformation of a War Orphan” by Sylvia Ruth Gutmann

Gutmann, Sylvia Ruth. “A Life Rebuilt: The Remarkable Transformation of a War Orphan”, Epigraph Publishing, 2018.

The Stories We Need to Hear

Amos Lassen

I am quite sure that some of you are already over reading abut the Holocaust and I must admit that I have sometimes felt that way but we are now at the end and the Holocaust survivors that are still here will be leaving us and their stories are much too important to lose. These are stories that we need to hear—not so much because of the horrible ways that Jews were treated but how they managed to hold on during the darkest event in history. It is hard not to notice the tremendous number of books that come out very year about the rise of Nazism and the destruction of European Jewry but each book is different and while the terrible atrocities rarely vary, the people who were forced to endure them certainly do. It is really amazing to some of you to know that there are many people who know nothing about the Holocaust and it is only in recent years that it has become part of the curriculum of schools. We have been told you never forget and I do not see how we can especially when so many were affected by it.

That takes us to Sylvia Ruth Gutmann’s “A Life Rebuilt”. We do not always think of rebuilding lives but after considering what the victims of Nazism endured, it is easy to see why people want to build anew and leave behind what they experienced but that is easier said than done. Besides writing is therapeutic and doubt that anyone can deny that those who lived through the period of Nazi power, is in need of therapy. We have those whose lives were taken from them and it was necessary to rebuild. This is a story of loss and survival, resilience and the desire to live to live. It is also a story that inspires its readers to say, along with the rest of us, “Never again!!”.

Sylvia Ruth Gutmann was born to Jewish parents in 1939 in Belgium. Just six months before her birth, her parents were forced out of their Berlin home and fled across borders. From Belgium it was on the south of France where she spent the first three years of her life hiding. Then in 1942 during the summer, she and her mother and sisters were arrested by the Vichy police and sent to Rivesaltes, a French interment camperHear. After that her mother was sent to Auschwitz. In the summer of 1942, three-year-old Sylvia, her two older sisters, and her young mother were arrested by the Vichy police and shipped to the French internment camp in Rivesaltes. Shortly thereafter, her mother was deported to Auschwitz and forced to leave her children behind. Her father who was bedridden was also sent to Auschwitz and the children never saw heir parents again. Needless to say, she was traumatized and then when she was just seven, she was sent to New York where her aunt and uncle would help take care of her but this was not easy. Her uncle was a caring man but his wife was quite cruel. Sylvia was told to think ahead and not to look back and try not to remember what she had seen. The kind of messages she received in this country made her a silent person and she was forced “to hide in plain view”. For the next fifty years Sylvia tried to put her life together again. When all of this happened she had been too young to grasp what was going on but she knew she lost her parents. Like so many others, Sylvia had to build a life but she had no real awareness of what to build it on. Really the only memory that she had was that of her mother leaving her behind as she got on a train. I cannot imagine a more difficult basis upon which to build a life.

Having lived in Israel with many Holocaust survivors and being active in the American Jewish community, I have had no shortage of Holocaust stories and each affects me differently. I have tried to picture Sylvia saying goodbye to her mother at such a young age and I can’t but that is probably because I do not want to see something so terrible. I do not want to feel what Sylvia felt that day. Yet I do see it and so much more like it whenever I think about that period of history. This is a bloody and cruel heritage that we must never forget. From all of this Sylvia suffered from depression; she gained weight and it appears today that she was suffering from PTSD. She writes of her marriages, financial problems and being a mother to a child with special needs.

Sylvia was saved and hired by the United Jewish Appeal as a spokesperson and began to piece her life back together as best she could. Sylvia is a wonderful story teller which is difficult for a story of this kind but I must say that I was totally mesmerized and read the book in one sitting. And, yes, I wept because I am human. This is a story that covers sixty years and three countries. Sylvia even returned to Germany to live there for several years and while she was there, (as to why and how she got there, you will have to read to find out and then try to understand) she began to share her family’s story and fate with German students, senior citizens, and even neo-Nazi groups. She says that when she returned to Germany, she was able to honor the memory of her parents and remarks that the irony is that it was the Germans who took her parents and their freedom but then turned around and gave it to her. Her time in Germany allowed her “to reconcile with the people she had feared and loathed, and resurrected the lives of the parents she cannot remember, and cannot forget.” I doubt that there are many others who could say the same or even want to. I have a hard time with that but I did not allow it to take away from the read.

“THE INVISIBLES”— Jews in Berlin, Hiding


“The Invisibles”

Jews in Berlin, Hiding

Amos Lassen

You might find it surprising that even under the oppressive National Socialist regime, at the height of the war, homelessness afforded a cloak of invisibility—fortunately. The air raid blackouts also helped. Even after Berlin had been declared “free of Jews” in 1943, an estimated seven thousand remained in hiding throughout the city. About 1,700 would survive the war and outlive those that tormented them. Four of those survivors tell their stories in Claus Räfle’s dramatic-documentary hybrid or mockumentary, “The Invisibles”.

Cioma Schönhaus set a new standard to the meaning of survival. For a while, he lived night-to-night pretending to be a new draftee summoned to Berlin, living in spare rooms provided by patriotic Germans for recruits awaiting their formal mustering. Eventually, he became involved with a counterfeiting ring and saved thousands of German Jews and dissidents with his fake papers, while also making enough money to eat in fancy restaurants.

After dying her hair blonde, Hanni Lévy spent her days in cinemas and window-shopping on the Kurfürstendamm, but she never knew where she would spend her nights or where her meals would come from. Ruth Arndt and her sister would eventually become maids for a high-ranking military officer, who knowingly shielded them from his colleagues. Eugen Friede probably lived a more typically “hidden” existence, but he too would become involved with the resistance. The people we meet here did not spend much time locked away. Instead, they largely followed a hide-in-plain-sight strategy, which seemed to work, because the National Socialists never expected it. Of course, their involvement in resistance networks would raise the stakes even further if they were caught.

There have been other films that combined talking head documentary segments with dramatic representations. Director Räfle gives them both equal weight. Probably the strongest performance is that of Alice Dwyer as the desperate Lévy, but the late Schönhaus’s recollections are the most fascinating. Nevertheless, the entire ensemble is quite strong and the oral history of all four survivors is profoundly valuable.

The film adds another dimension to what we know about the horrors of National Socialism. All four survivors go out of their way to celebrate the righteous Germans who sheltered them. What this film documents and dramatizes is incredible.

“The Israel Bible” edited by Tuly Weisz— God’s Focus on the Land and People

Weisz, Tuly. “The Israel Bible”, Menorah, 2018.

God’s Focus on the Land and People

Amos Lassen

I have been hoping to see a Bible centered book about Israel and it is finally here from Menorah Books. “The Israel Bible” is centered around the Land of Israel, the People of Israel, and the relationship between them. It was designed for both Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike and is a unique commentary explaining God’s focus on the Land of Israel. The commentary is alongside the original Hebrew text and the New Jewish Publication Society translation. The chapters are highlighted by verses that relate to Israel, including relevant quotes and perspectives from prime ministers, as well as maps, charts, and illustrations. For the 70 years since of its existence, the State of Israel has been at the forefront of the world’s attention . Today, there are efforts to vilify the Jewish state and take her to task. Nonetheless, there is also an ever-expanding movement of biblical Zionists who stand with Israel as an expression of their commitment to the word of God. It is very difficult to understand the clash between the conflicting ideologies, while at the same time trying to understand what the modern world thinks.

Rabbi Tuly Weisz helps to draw the reader in to the Torah, and to the Land of Israel. In this bible, we are witness to the land and the people as one. It is almost impossible to read the Bible without thinking that the Bible, the land, and the people of Israel are one. It is so important to know about the past of Israel and its significance of Israel past, present, and future. In 1948, the prophecy came to fruition and today no one can disconnect the people from their land. Jews and Christians share a biblical heritage, and The Israel Bible shows clearly shows us that this is the land God chose for the Jewish people.

At its core, the Hebrew bible is a description of a love story between a people and its land, between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. From its earliest history, the land has been central to Jewish living and Jewish destiny. The Jewish people lived there were exiled from it, mourned it, returned to it and went to war over it. Now with the return, Israel regains its place at the center of Jewish life.

“The Israel Bible” has clear translations, introductions and incisive commentaries written by a team of impressive scholars. There are also transliterations and maps thus making this a fine study especially for those who understand and appreciate the absolute fundamental importance of Israel for the rest of the world.


“A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture” by Shachar Pinsker— Coffee, Jews, Modernity and Culture

Pinsker, Shachar. “A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture”, NYU Press, 2018

Coffee, Modernity and Culture

Amos Lassen

Shachar Pinsker gives us a fascinating look into the world of the coffeehouse and its role in shaping modern Jewish culture. There are, without question, certain places that we associated with Jews but I do not think that the coffee house is one of those. This is what makes Pinsker’s thesis so interesting to learn that coffee houses have influenced the creation of modern Jewish culture from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. It is certainly true that in Israel, coffeehouses are places from which culture evolves but I never really thought that to be the case in the rest of the world. Roots of coffeehouses go back to the Ottoman Empire when coffee began to gain popularity in the rest of Europe. Pinsker maintains that “’otherness’” and the mix of the national and transnational characteristics of the coffeehouse might explain why many of these cafés were owned by Jews, why Jews became their most devoted habitués, and how cafés acquired associations with Jewishness.”  

Cafes “anchored a silk road of modern Jewish culture.” There was a network of interconnected cafés that were central to the modern Jewish experience in a time of migration and urbanization and these were in places like Odessa, Warsaw, Vienna, and Berlin to New York City and Tel Aviv. When I lived in Tel Aviv, a typical night out began at a coffeehouse and usually ended at one as well. Dizengoff Street was coffeehouse after coffeehouse and we would see the literary world there all the time. Pinsker tells us that it was in coffeehouses that Jewish culture was created and he learns this from newspaper articles, memoirs, archival documents, photographs, caricatures, and artwork, as well as stories, novels, and poems in varied languages set in cafés. Jewish modernity was born in the café, “nourished, and sent out into the world by way of print, politics, literature, art, and theater.” The experiences and creations that came out of the coffeehouses were felt by those who read, saw, and took in a modern culture that redefined what it meant to be a Jew.   

Pinsker’s approach here is literary with  examples of poetry and prose written in and about cafés. What we get in this book is a mixture of the social sciences and the humanities as a way to analyze and explore Jewish history. Coffeehouses are both intimate and public and religion really plays no part in that aspect of culture. While Jewish culture in most cases began in temples, synagogues and houses of studies, that culture was nurtured in coffeehouses. Modern secular Judaism is one of the byproducts of the coffee industry. I cannot help but wonder if that will continue now that there seems to be one coffeehouse for every three people and the conversations that we see and hear there are now electronic.

I am a coffee aficionado so this was a fun read for me. I remember coming to Boston from the south in the 60s and being impressed by the number of coffeehouses and the numbers of people that went to them. We had nothing like that in New Orleans except for the beignet and coffee stands in the French Quarter but it was an effort to get to them. Now these cafes are everywhere and they seem to be the preferred meeting places.

The book is heavily documented and wonderfully written besides having something interesting to say. We read “discussions of many long-forgotten or unknown texts and [see]a generous sampling of photographs of the sundry cafes’. How could that not be fascinating? Here is a Jewish cultural and literary history that shows how the café served as a place where Jewish writers, artists, and intellectuals met in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We can now add another place of Jewish culture.