Today’s coffeehouses are typically filled with impatient patrons waiting for lattes to go, or remote workers transfixed by their laptops. In other words, they have no resemblance to the cafés described in Shachar Pinsker’s absorbing new work of nonfiction, A Rich Brew. Pinsker uses the café as a vehicle both to describe the development of modern Jewish culture, and to delve into the topics that drove its progression. The impact of immigration, Zionism, and capitalism is explored through the rise of the café, particularly from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century.
Divided into six chapters according to the prominent cities where Jewish intellectualism flourished — Odessa, Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin, New York, and Tel Aviv — Pinsker takes the reader on a journey across what he refers to as “the silk road of modern Jewish culture.” In this context, the café was much more than a place to grab an overpriced beverage: it provided visitors with a place to linger, share ideas, debate, question, and hypothesize. Much of the advancement of Jewish culture, including the birth of organizations like B’nai Brith, is shown to have its roots in café conversation. The text also discusses the changing roles of women and the intermingling of the classes — both progressive ideas at the time.
In each of the six cities, we are introduced to both the sociopolitical climate and to the prominent Jewish and gentile artists, writers, and revolutionary thinkers who populated local cafés. Moses Mendelssohn, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholem Asch, Emma Goldman, Abraham Cahan, Theodore Herzl, and Henry James all make appearances. Pinsker pays particular attention to how café life is incorporated into the literature, artwork, and music of the time. The cafés themselves are also described in depth, from the opulence of Café Arkaden in Vienna to the sleek coffeehouses of Tel Aviv.
Unrelenting anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, the resulting waves of immigration, and the aftermath of World War II all played a role in the atmosphere of Jewish cafés. But there is another theme that pulsates just beneath the story Pinsker tells: the kind of personal, face-to-face human connections described throughout A Rich Brew no longer exist. There is more than a twinge of nostalgia in learning about all that Jews accomplished during those many hours sipping coffee and discussing politics well into the night. The reader won’t be able to help but wonder what advancements are simply passing us by without the distinctly Jewish experience of the café.
Amy Oringel is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, BusinessWeek, and The Forward.