A Rich Brew: How Cafés Cre­at­ed Mod­ern Jew­ish Culture

Shachar M. Pinsker

By – June 11, 2018

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 com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sul­tant for risk advi­so­ry firm K2 Integri­ty, as well as a free­lance writer whose work has appeared in The New York TimesBusi­ness­Week, and The For­ward.

Discussion Questions

In Rich Brew: How Cafes Cre­at­ed Mod­ern Jew­ish Cul­ture, Shachar M. Pinsker doc­u­ments the cen­tral role that cafes played in the devel­op­ment of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture in the nine­teenth and twen­ti­eth centuries.

Pinsker describes, and illus­trates with con­tem­po­rary pho­tos and fas­ci­nat­ing art­work, cafes in six cities — Odessa, War­saw, Vien­na, Berlin, New York, and Tel Aviv.

Some cafes were owned by Jews, and in oth­ers, Jews were peri­od­i­cal­ly exclud­ed. Reg­u­lar cafe cus­tomers includ­ed Moses Mendelssohn, Karl Marx, Theodor Her­zl, Sholem Ale­ichem, S. Y. Agnon, Sholem Asch, and Isaac Bashe­vis Singer, who referred to the Tomack­ie 13 cafe in War­saw as the tem­ple of Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture.” Leon Trot­sky (née Lev Davi­dovich Bron­stein) plot­ted the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion sit­ting at the Café Cen­tral” in Vienna.

Cafes were open spaces, both phys­i­cal­ly and intel­lec­tu­al­ly, where Jews of dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal, reli­gious, and cul­tur­al ori­en­ta­tions reg­u­lar­ly came to meet and dis­cuss top­ics that cre­at­ed the rich­ness of mod­ern Jew­ish culture.