“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.

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