Pho­to: Leah Gold­berg and the writer Ya’acov Horowitz, 1935. Cour­tesy of the Gnaz­im Archive and Yair Lan­dau. Back­ground: Tapete Gold­ene Schmetter­linge” (“Gold­en But­ter­fly Wall­pa­per”), from Die Quelle: Flächen Schmuck (The Source: Orna­ment for Flat Sur­faces), 1901, Aus­tria. Gift of Jer­rol E. Gold­en to Coop­er Hewitt. Illus­tra­tion: Kather­ine Messenger

Where did Jew­ish writ­ers and intel­lec­tu­als who migrat­ed to large cities at the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry find inspi­ra­tion and a place to meet oth­ers? The answer was often the cof­fee­house. Indeed, the draw of cafes was so strong that they became a key site for the cre­ation of mod­ern Jew­ish culture.

In the­o­ry, cof­fee­hous­es — from their ear­ly years in the Ottoman Empire, to lat­er, as they spread through­out Europe — were open to every­one. This inclu­siv­i­ty was one of the rea­sons they attract­ed so many mod­ern Jews in var­i­ous cities in the eigh­teenth, nine­teenth, and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies. That said, they were most­ly mas­cu­line spaces, espe­cial­ly those known as lit­er­ary cafes.” Many Jew­ish habitues of the cafe described it as a mod­ern, sec­u­lar sub­sti­tute for the tra­di­tion­al house of study — the old­er and more estab­lished writer had the sta­tus of the rab­bi; his cafe table was akin to the rebbe’s tish; and his stu­dents, just like a rabbi’s, would gath­er around to lis­ten to his words. Instead of Tal­mud or Midrash, this sec­u­lar­ized rab­bi and his fol­low­ers would ana­lyze and dis­cuss a poem or sto­ry. Not only did the debates in these cafes have the fla­vor of the yeshiv­as and hous­es of study where some of the par­tic­i­pants had spent their youth; the male cama­raderie of tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish soci­ety was very much part of the expe­ri­ence as well.

Where were Jew­ish women in the cof­fee­house? Was there a place for them in cafe culture?

In the late eigh­teenth and ear­ly nine­teenth cen­turies, Jew­ish women such as Fan­ny von Arn­stein, Rahel Varn­hagen, and Dorothea von Schlegel (Moses Mendelssohn’s daugh­ter) found a new role out­side the patri­ar­chal struc­tures of their fam­i­lies as host­esses of salons. But these women were quite excep­tion­al, and the fact that they were Jew­ish as well as female meant that their out­sider sta­tus was guar­an­teed. Nev­er­the­less, as the idea of the new woman” spread to Jew­ish soci­ety in East­ern and Cen­tral Europe, the Unit­ed States, and the Mid­dle East, it was felt in the cof­fee­hous­es as well. Women were often café servers; some­times they were own­ers or cus­tomers. In a few estab­lish­ments, like Cafe Fan­coni in Odessa, there was some­thing akin to a women’s sec­tion,” cre­at­ed ad hoc by those who ven­tured into this new, allur­ing space at the begin­ning of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. How­ev­er, a woman sit­ting alone was a rare sight, often con­sid­ered suspicious.

The pres­ence of women in the cafe was met with curios­i­ty, desire, and frus­tra­tion by male habitues and writ­ers, who tried to explain and define these mod­ern women. In 1905, Abra­ham H. Fromen­son, describ­ing the polit­i­cal­ly rad­i­cal cafes” of New York’s Low­er East Side, declared, where the cig­a­rette smoke is thick­est and denun­ci­a­tion of the present forms of gov­ern­ment loud­est, there you find women!”

Fromen­son was refer­ring to women like Emma Gold­man, known as red Emma,” or the most dan­ger­ous woman in Amer­i­ca.” In 1889, when she was twen­ty years old, Gold­man spent her first day in New York City. Hil­lel Solotaroff, a Russ­ian-born Jew­ish anar­chist, took her to Sachs’s Cafe, 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 lat­er recalled how, for one who had just come from the provin­cial town of Rochester, the noise and tur­moil at Sachs’s Cafe was intim­i­dat­ing. And yet, she saw her ini­ti­a­tion there as estab­lish­ing her life­long intel­lec­tu­al and polit­i­cal engagement.

Anoth­er extra­or­di­nary woman in New York’s cafe scene 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, for which she wrote a week­ly women’s col­umn. When she began pub­lish­ing mod­ernist Yid­dish poet­ry under her pen name in the 1920s, it aroused much atten­tion — many believed that the mys­te­ri­ous poet was real­ly a man. Iron­i­cal­ly, suc­cess as an author meant some degree of anonymi­ty. One of Margolin’s works is an exquis­ite cycle of poems enti­tled In kafe (“In the Café”), which starts with the line, Now alone in the cafe.”

In Berlin, the Ger­man Jew­ish poet Else Lasker-Schuler was part of the expres­sion­ist cir­cle of writ­ers and artists nick­named Cafe Mega­lo­ma­nia.” She record­ed an imag­ined world in vivid poems, sketch­es, and an epis­to­lary nov­el, My Heart. She also played with iden­ti­ty and con­cep­tions 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-Schuler was includ­ed in cafe cul­ture, yet regard­ed with uncer­tain­ty. A friend of hers, the anar­chist Gus­tav Lan­dauer, con­firmed that she doesn’t fit any­where and cer­tain­ly not in the milieu in which you see her.”

The poet and writer Leah Gold­berg met Lasker-Schuler in Jerusalem’s Café Sichel in the 1940s. (They could have met a decade before at Berlin’s Roman­is­ches Cafe, but the young Gold­berg first went there as a stu­dent just before Hitler rose to pow­er, when Lasker-Schuler had stopped fre­quent­ing it.) 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 of the 1930s and 1940s, who met in cof­fee­hous­es. Still, as a woman, she was viewed as sep­a­rate and dif­fer­ent. In 1971, the edi­tor and crit­ic Israel Zmo­ra wrote, In most cas­es, the habitues of the cafe were all men. Women writ­ers were very few … Leah Gold­berg was the excep­tion. She used to go to the cafe almost dai­ly, but on her own, and only occa­sion­al­ly mix with all of us.”

Gold­man, Gold­berg, Mar­golin, Lasker-Schuler and oth­ers shared the expe­ri­ence of excep­tion­al­i­ty with­in a pre­dom­i­nant­ly mas­cu­line milieu. These new­com­ers to the café — writ­ers, per­form­ers, rad­i­cals — were mar­gin­al­ized not only due to their gen­der, but often also as Jew­ish migrants cross­ing bor­ders of lan­guage, ide­ol­o­gy, and space.

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.