A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture
By Shachar M. Pinsker
New York University Press
A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture by Shachar M. Pinsker is a cultural history that focuses on Ashkenazi writers in the period of “the enormous historical, cultural and economic upheavals of the 19th and 20th centuries.” It reports that coffee and coffeehouses were imported to European cities from the Ottoman Empire beginning in the 18th century and that coffeehouses became popular literary gathering places.
The insight on which the book is based is that “modern Jewish culture… is fundamentally diasporic and transnational, no matter where it is provisionally located.” Jewish writers were physically on the move, trying to get from shtetls to cities, from countries where they didn’t want to be to countries that had more appeal, from places where they couldn’t get jobs or get published to places where they hoped they could.
A Rich Brew has an Introduction and Conclusion, and its main body is six chapters, each devoted to a city that was a major Jewish centre and home to famous cafés: Odessa, Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin, New York and Tel Aviv-Jaffa. It explores the similarities, and the differences, of café culture in those cities.
For wandering writers, and wandering Jews, a café anywhere could be a temporary home, or resting place, or meeting place. Coffee could be had, and pastries, and maybe sandwiches, at prices they could afford, in surroundings more elegant than their rooms. Writers could write on the tables provided, and meet other writers and publishers. Around them business was being done, and political groups were gathered. We meet familiar names including S. Y. Agnon, Isaac Babel, Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, Melech Ravitsh, and Lamed Shapiro.
There are the usual elements of Jewish life. There is segregation. Many coffeehouses were owned by Jews, but there were often sections where gentiles sat and Jews sat. Or they came together: “Moses Mendelssohn, the father figure of the Haskallah movement, made his first significant entry into German Enlightenment circles in a ‘learned coffeehouse.’” There is segregation by gender. In the period covered by the book, the patrons were almost entirely men. It is late in the story that we meet Leah Goldberg, a poet and writer who migrated to Tel Aviv in 1935 and did make “the café a home.” She gave sardonic interviews and wrote about the status of women both in the cafés and in the Yishuv.
Gender segregation has a background. The author quotes previous historians in raising “the intriguing idea that there is a strong link between the café… and the Talmudic culture of intellectual debate and homosocial camaraderie that characterized the traditional Jewish ‘house of study.’”
Pinsker, the author of A Rich Brew, is an associate professor of Hebrew literature and culture at the University of Michigan and as interesting as the book is, it carries the weight of a quantity of academic jargon (see the word “homosocial” in the passage just quoted). And I wonder whether the catchy subtitle – How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture – was suggested by an agent or publisher who thought it would improve sales. Did cafés create modern Jewish culture? In the age of the Internet café, did Starbucks create the Internet? Jews created modern Jewish culture. That’s what Jews do, and they do it in the situations in which they find themselves, and with the resources available.