Jews Wel­come Cof­fee: Tra­di­tion and Inno­va­tion in Ear­ly Mod­ern Germany

Robert Liber­les

  • Review
By – July 17, 2012

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.

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