To this day my parents still describe coming to Michigan in the early ’90s as the chronotope of a sort of modern-day Dark Ages: “When we moved here, there was one coffee shop in town—and the coffee wasn’t even good!”
In their minds this single, lousy coffee shop represented all that our new hometown lacked. In the days before Starbucks and even after its rise to world domination, the number and caliber of local cafés was (and still is) considered directly indicative of the culture of a city; now that there are several mighty good coffeehouses in town, they feature in every Shabbat meal conversation shared with local friends, every week. I think they’ll enjoy reading Jews Welcome Coffee: Tradition and Innovation in Early Modern Germany by Robert Liberles.
Since the first known recorded mention of the drink in a Sufi text from the fifteenth century, coffee has always carried a social connotation; from bean to beverage, the complicated process of roasting and brewing made the ready-to-serve accessibility of the coffeehouse widely appealing; just as soon as the drink was introduced to a civilization, the coffeehouse became a “tavern without wine” — an instant nexus of social life across cultures and generations. But instead of presenting the plant and product as a catalyst of social revolution in itself, Liberles treats coffee as “an almost perfect symbol of the advent of new times,” a site upon which social and economic politics played out:
As a Jewish historian who has spent much time studying the debates about Jewish emancipation in Europe and especially in Germany, I have long felt that European historians have underestimated the significance of Jewish emancipation in Europe’s transition to the modern age. But now I have discovered that the debates on coffee contribute another fresh perspective, on the unfolding of Europe’s development into modern societies. In Germany, coffee was perceived as a threat to economic and social well-being, upsetting established consumption patterns and piercing long-established social barriers.
Liberles employs early modern Jewry’s interaction with coffee to depict Jewish communities’ conversation with the world around them: Ashkenazi-Spharadi rabbinical relations and politics, Jewish involvement in trade and national economies, Jewish emancipation and social integration in Europe, etc. This emblem becomes particularly fascinating when the discussion shifts from a mere outline of global history to a detailed exposition of how Judaism approaches a nolad gamur—“a totally new thing that did not exist previously.” As Liberles writes in his introduction, “Coffee is a complex drink, and Jewish society is a complex entity with wide-ranging differences along a spectrum between traditionalism and innovation.” The book assembles documentation of how rabbis and their communities determined the kashrut, classification, and social acceptability of coffee and its consumption — a brand-new encounter, with no direct precedents in Jewish law or practice — as the “cuppa” steadily became part of daily life.
Handling such a complex discussion, Liberles’ writing is good but perhaps not entirely the master of its subject. Structurally, the book echoes its content: where history repeats itself — as it is wont to do — the writing feels repetitive; where Jewish law and reasoning waxes convoluted or tangential, so does the narration. That being said, Liberles does articulate intriguing ideas about an interesting pocket of intersection between history, culture, and religious law. Liberles’ research is thorough and diverse throughout, and each chapter of Jews Welcome Coffee presents an entirely new lens through which to examine the history of coffee consumption as we know it today.
Nat Bernstein is the former Manager of Digital Content & Media, JBC Network Coordinator, and Contributing Editor at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.