The ProsenPeople

The Jewish Women Writers Who Made Their Mark on Café Culture

Thursday, May 31, 2018| Permalink

Shachar Pinsker is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Black and white photo of Leah Goldberg smoking at an outdoor table with Yaakov Horowitz

When I did research for my previous book Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe, I asked myself: Where did Jewish writers and intellectuals who migrated to large cities at the turn of the 20th century live and work? Where did they find inspiration and a place to meet others? The answer I kept coming to repeatedly was the coffeehouse. I discovered that not only the allure of the café was very strong, but that it became a key site for the creation of modern Jewish culture, which is how I came to write my new book, A Rich Brew.

As I read numerous articles, memoirs, letters, stories, novels, and poems that were written in and about cafés, and examined photographs, cartoons and artwork that portrayed these spaces, gender emerged as an essential aspect. In theory, coffeehouses—from their early years in the Ottoman Empire, and their spread throughout Europe—were open to everyone. This accessibility and inclusivity was one of the reasons why coffeehouses attracted so many modern Jews in various cities in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century. However, cafés, especially those that were known as “literary cafés” were mostly masculine spaces, or at least they were experienced as such. Many Jewish habitués of the café described it as a modern, secular substitute to the traditional House of Study, where the older and more established writer is like the Rabbi of yesteryear, his café table like the Rebbe’s tish, and the students who follow him gather around to listen to his words. Instead of Talmud or Midrash, this secularized rabbi and his followers would interpret, discuss and analyze a poem or a story. Not only the debates in these cafés had the flavor of the Yeshivas and houses of study, where some of the participants had spent their youth, but also the male camaraderie of traditional Jewish society was very much part of the experience.

Where were Jewish women in the coffeehouse? What was their place in café culture?

In cities like Vienna and Berlin, certain women were hostesses of salons, a competing institution to the coffeehouse, but a very different one. From the late 18th to the early 19th century, Jewish women such as Fanny von Arnstein, Rahel Levin-Verhangen, and Dorothea Mendelssohn-Schlegl (Moses Mendelssohn’s daughter) found a new role outside the patriarchal structures of their families in these salons. But these women were quite exceptional, and their Jewishness meant that their outsider status was guaranteed, as both a woman and a Jew. Nevertheless, the emergence of the “new woman” did not pass over Jewish society in eastern and central Europe, the United States and the Middle East, and it was felt in the coffeehouses as well. Women were sometimes owners of cafés, as part of a family business, or on their own; they were often servers, and sometimes costumers. In a few cafés, like Café Fanconi in Odessa at the beginning of the 20th century, there was something akin to a "women's section,” often created ad-hoc by those who ventured into the new, alluring space. However, a woman who sat at the café alone was a rare and often a suspicious sight.

The presence of women in the café was marked by the curiosity, desire, and frustration of male habitués and writers who tried to explain and define these modern women. The same applied to the “politically radical cafés” of the Lower East Side, as Abraham H. Fromenson describes: “where the cigarette smoke is thickest and denunciation of the present forms of government loudest, there you find women!” He was referring to women like Emma Goldman, who wrote about her first day in New York City, August 15, 1889. Hillel Solotaroff, a Russian-born Jewish anarchist took the twenty-year-Old Goldman to Sachs’ Café, which, as he informed her, was “the headquarters of the East Side radicals, socialists, and anarchists, as well as of the young Yiddish writers and poets.” Goldman recalled how, for one who had just come from the provincial town of Rochester, the noise and turmoil at Sachs’ Café was intimidating. And yet, Goldman saw her initiation into Sachs’ Café as establishing her lifelong intellectual and political engagement, as “red Emma,” or “the most dangerous woman in America.”

Another extraordinary woman in New York’s cafés was the poet Rosa Lebensboym, best known by the pen name Anna Margolin. In 1913, she settled in the city and joined the staff of the Yiddish newspaper Der tog, where she wrote a weekly women’s column. When Margolin began publishing her modernist Yiddish poetry under her pen name in the 1920s, it aroused much attention with many believing that the mysterious poet must really have been a man. Reuven Iceland, who was Margolin’s lover, wrote to her: “Why people want Anna Margolin to be a man is beyond me. The general opinion, however, is that these poems are written by an experienced hand. And a woman can’t write like that…As we were talking in the café Saturday night, [the poet Mani Leib] told me how much he liked Margolin’s poem . . . and of course, no woman could have written such a poem. Now do you understand?” Margolin has written an exquisite cycle of poems In Kafe (“In the Café”), which starts with the line: “Now alone in the café.”

In Berlin, the German-Jewish poet Else Lasker-Schüler was at the heart of Café des Westens and the expressionist circle of writers and artists there, which was nicknamed “Café Megalomania.” Her friend, the Jewish anarchist Gustav Landauer, confirmed that “she doesn’t fit anywhere and certainly not in the milieu in which you see her.” Lasker-Schüler played with her identity, crossing borders of gender by dressing up as her masculine or androgynous literary characters, such as Prince Jussuf of Thebes. As a modern Jewish woman and writer, Lasker-Schüler was both included in café culture, and yet regarded with uncertainty for crossing boundaries that tangibly existed in the café. Lasker-Schüler recorded her imagined, self-made world in vivid poems, sketches, and an epistolary novel, My Heart.

The poet and writer Leah Goldberg met the old Lasker-Schüler in the Jerusalem of the 1940s, in Café Sichel. They could have met a decade before at Berlin’s Romanisches Café, but the young Goldberg arrived there as a student just before Hitler rose to power, when Lasker-Schüler withdrew from the place. Goldberg immigrated to Tel Aviv in 1935, and quickly became part of a literary and social circle that included some of the most important Hebrew writers and poets of the 1930s and 1940s who met in coffeehouses. Descriptions of Goldberg in the café emphasize a precarious presence, “like a spirit” who is only a “short-lived phenomenon.” As a woman, she was viewed as separate and different, as the editor and critic Israel Zmora wrote, “In most cases, the habitués of the café were all men. Women writers were very few . . . Leah Goldberg was the exception. She used to go to the café almost daily, but on her own, and only occasionally mix with all of us.”

Jewish women writers like Goldberg, Margolin, and Lasker-Schüler, who wrote many poems, stories, and articles about the coffeehouse, shared the experience of exceptionality and isolation within a dominantly masculine culture. These women—writers, performers, servers, radicals—were marginalized not only due to their gender, but often also as Jewish migrants crossing borders of language, ideology, and space. Nonetheless, they made their mark on Jewish café culture, both inside and outside of the space of the coffeehouse.

Shachar Pinsker is the author of A Rich Brew: How Cafes Created Modern Jewish Culture and Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe.  He is Associate Professor of Hebrew Literature and Culture at the University of Michigan.

Have You Read...