Shachar Pinsker discusses his book A Rich Brew: How Cafes Created Modern Jewish Culture and the ways in which cafes provide a window into understanding modern Jewish culture and modernity: What it means for cafes to be sites of the production of Jewish culture, how cafes sold not just coffee but also a concept of modernity, and the transformation of cafes and Jewish culture.
- Read the introduction to A Rich Brew: Cafes and Modern Jewish Culture
- Follow Shachar Pinsker on Twitter at @spinsker
Shachar Pinsker is Associate Professor of Hebrew Literature and Culture at the University of Michigan, and his research focuses on Hebrew, Jewish and Israeli literature and culture, and this book follows his 2010 monograph “Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe.”
A Rich Brew: How Cafes Created Modern Jewish Culture takes us on a tour of Jewish cafe culture in six cities: Odessa, Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin, New York, and Tel Aviv. In the course of the book, we see how Jews who migrated to cities gravitated towards cafes as important spaces and sites for producing Jewish culture. It’s a story of the global aspects of Jewish modernity, what it means to be part of the public sphere, and the ways in which cafes present an important backdrop to the changes and challenges of modernity.
Some of the items, topics, and figures we talked about in this episode:
- Third Place (or third space)
- Novels and Films
An edited transcript of our conversation follows:
Cafes and Modern Jewish Culture
Jason Lustig: I was hoping that today we could talk about your book and how it relates to how we understand the modern Jewish experience. I think a major argument you’re trying to make here is this idea that cafés help to produce modern Jewish culture. What do you mean by that? What should we take away from that, in terms of how we understand modern Jewish culture. and the modern Jewish experience?
Shachar Pinsker: So yeah, this is one of the questions about Jewish modernity: What is Jewish identity? How do you define it? What is modern Jewish culture? And what is modern Jewish literature? I think that is very difficult to define, as opposed to when you look at ancient Jewish culture or even Jewish culture in in medieval period, or in the early modern period, where what you create is part of the community. What does it mean to be a Jew, to belong to a community, and to create modern Jewish culture? In the earlier context, it’s very clear: It’s always something that is connected to Jewish religion and to religious texts. And then when you move into modernity, things become a little less clear. What is modern Jewish culture? I mean, if somebody writes a novel, or poem, or participates in theater or in a newspaper and political movements, just because somebody’s Jewish, does this make what they create Jewish? So, you know, this is part of the whole complicated question of what is Jewish modernity.
And when you come to modern Jewish culture, as you move from something that is tied to a community and something that is tied clearly to more than Jewish culture, you talk about something that has to do with Jewish migration, with acculturation, with urbanization. These are the big topics that we always think about. And then it becomes very messy, right? How do you follow it? How do you organize it, that they have a point of beginning, an end? These are questions the Jewish historians and scholars of Jewish literature always grapple with. And I found that the coffee house—even though it seems to be not at the center, just in the background, just a place where things are happening—it’s actually an excellent way to get at this question. And then, we think about how in different cities, the large cities to which the Jews immigrated to and other centers of Jewish culture, places like Odessa and Warsaw and Vienna and Berlin and New York and Tel Aviv. These are not the only places, but it’s a good sample of the centers of Jewish cultural activity.
And then you think about how the cafes were central to all of them: Jews gravitated towards the coffee houses. Many Jews owned them, at many cafes the regulars or the habitués were Jewish. Although the places were never exclusively Jewish, and there were many non-Jews in them, they were very important for so much of Jewish culture that was created.
Now, if you want to think about the fact that so many initiatives like establishing a new newspaper or poetic group or a journal—many of these activities are happening in coffee houses. Sometimes people meet and edit the new journal magazine or discuss the new theatre production, it all it all happens in the coffeehouse. And if you think about the fact that so much of what they write about is focusing on the coffee house. You start to get an idea of why cafés kind of really produced or shaped modern Jewish culture as we know it.
JL: You’re really giving us kind of a tour of Jewish modernity through these coffee houses that were in a number of major cities and centers of Jewish culture. Why does the cafe provide a particularly useful or inviting window into the experience of Jewish life and culture in modern times? What is it that people were doing there that made it so interesting to you, and to us as readers?
SP: Obviously, the coffeehouse is not the first place you think about when you think about Jewish space. When you think about Jewish spaces, you think about the synagogue, you think about house of study, you think about the community center. You think about, mostly, spaces that have to do with the Jewish religion or the Jewish community. And when you think about coffee house and cafes, you don’t think about a “Jewish” space. You don’t think about anything Jewish in particular.
However, if I want to talk about Jewish modernity and take us on a “tour” of Jewish modernity and talk about the development of modern Jewish culture by the coffee house, this is actually something that became clear to me as I went along: I was thinking about why so many people, so many writers, so many intellectual, so much of what we associate with modern Jewish culture and literature and with political activity, why it centers on coffee houses. First of all, it’s something that most people are familiar with. We’ve all been to coffee houses. Some of us love to go there. Contemporary coffee houses are very different from how it was at the time that I focus on. But if you know something about the history of the coffee house, it is something that has to do with modernity and with urbanity. Coffee houses developed in in in big cities. It started the in the Levant and the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, in the context of the Islamic world, and then it moved to Europe. And especially if we are familiar with the Viennese coffee houses, we’re thinking about a European institution. So it’s something that is very much connected with big cities, with urban culture and with European culture.
So then the question is, why is it important for modern Jewish culture? And in what sense is the coffee house a “Jewish” space? Now, one of the points that became clear to me, and I write about it in the book, is that it’s only in modernity that you can think about the coffee house as a “Jewish” space. Because there’s nothing inherently Jewish about it. It’s not related to religion. It’s not a space that people pray or study Jewish texts, and it’s also never exclusively “Jewish.” At the same time, it did develop—for all kind of reasons that we can talk about hopefully—into something that was very attractive to Jews. Many Jews owned cafes. Many Jews were attracted to cafes, and at different points in history and in different places people started also to make a kind of association or identification of coffee houses with Jews. So in Vienna, for example, around the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, there was a kind of dictum that says that “the Jew belongs in the coffee house.” Another thing that I saw everywhere and I started thinking about why that is the case, why is it that a space that doesn’t look like it’s “Jewish” in any traditional way, and it’s also never exclusively Jewish—because even when people said “the Jew belongs in the coffee house,” this place is never just a place of Jews, they were always open to everybody. And yet, people are associating coffee houses with Jews and to some extent with Jewish culture, when so many of the regulars and the habitués, the people who go to these confess and make them their home, were Jewish. So it works in different ways in different cities, but there’s a kind of pattern that emerged as I was doing research and thinking about it, and that kind of set me on the way to try and examine and try and understand the reasons the role of the cafe in the development of modern Jewish culture, and literature in particular.
Cafes: Selling an Idea, Not Just Coffee and Cake
JL: I want to jump off of what you’re saying, this idea of a pattern of Jewish cafes and cafe culture. You’re really bringing us to a number of major cities—Odessa, Warsaw, Berlin, Tel Aviv—and identifying a similar kind of a culture of these coffee houses that Jews were attracted to or that they inhabited. And it’s very interesting because it’s using the coffee house to tell a global history of modern Jewish culture in a really interesting and exciting way. One of the things you wrote about this that I think is really fascinating is that the cafes in all these different cities were selling something more than just coffee and cake. They were selling an idea. So, what was really for sale in these cafes that was so compelling, in these disparate and diverse settings around the world?
SP: You’re right, and that’s kind of a little surprising. You might think it’s all about the coffee. The coffee, to some degree, is important, because when when the commodity and drink of coffee came to Europe that was the initial reason why people set up coffee houses. But very quickly, from the very beginning actually, going back to the Ottoman Empire and to the first coffee houses in Europe, which were actually in London and Oxford, in England, it was very clear that it’s not just about coffee. It’s the space itself.
It’s something that, from the very beginning, was associated first of all with sociability, with people coming together. The space of the cafe is very different from the private sphere, the home, on the one side, or the public square, places where people are coming together. It’s something that is really in-between. And it allowed all kinds of people to come together, to socialize, to talk to each other in a different way. So very quickly, the coffee house emerged as all kind of things. First of all, it emerged as a kind of a penny university, as an alternative place for people to learn, to discuss the issues, to argue, to learn from each other. And that’s something that has to do less with the coffee itself.
The coffee is important because unlike taverns, for example, where people drink alcohol, drinking coffee wakes people up and makes them alert, rather than the opposite. But the coffee is really just the beginning: you have the space, and the activities that went in the so a way of socializing meeting people and discussing things, arguing. These are all very important. I think it something that is urban. It is about cities. I actually start the book with S. Y. Agnon, the famous Jewish writer who received the Nobel Prize, and how he himself went from a very small town and to a big city, to Lemberg, and later to other cities, and then he also writes about it in his novel. And it’s something that sounds very simple, but it’s actually very profound: He says, in a small city, people go out to the street and they meet everybody, they know everybody, and they know they don’t need a special place. In a big city, days and weeks and months can go without people meeting each other or seeing each other.
And so the coffee house is really a place that is very essential to urban culture. And since so much of Jewish modernity and modern Jewish history and culture is about big cities, it is about migration, it is about people leaving small towns and shtetls and moving to these new big cities, whether it’s Odessa in the Pale of Settlement, or Warsaw, to the capital of of Congress Poland and later on independent Poland, not to mention to places like Vienna, which was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or Berlin, or people migrated all the way to America, to New York, or to Tel Aviv. These are all big cities, that were very different from the places where people left. The connections between all these different cafes constituted a network or, as I talk about in the book, it’s a modern kind of silk road of modern Jewish creativity.
So something that doesn’t seem like it’s really a “Jewish” space was something very attractive, especially to those Jews who immigrated from small towns to big cities. And since so much of modern Jewish culture—not all of it, there is Jewish culture, obviously, that was created in small towns or villages—but so much of modern Jewish culture really has to do with big cities, with urbanity and with migration, they sort of all come together. And then I think you start to understand why coffee houses became so important as kind of points on the map of migration and the connection between different people in different places.
JL: I think there is really a lot to unpack. One of the things that really surprised me, reading through the book, was that I figured that this was a book about coffee. But in reality, the coffee is in a supporting role. What is really in the foreground? I think, in the book, the coffee house as a space. I think this goes back to what you were saying earlier in the conversation, the way in which Jews gravitated toward this space that was not “Jewish” but which they inhabited and made their own. In a way, I think it’s similar to some of the other ways that people have written about other kinds of hybrid spaces, whether you’re talking about the print house or the salon, and it’s this question of finding a public sphere in which uh Jews could participate.
SP: The space itself is really at the center, rather than the coffee. By the way, I have to say that when you look at all these different different coffee houses, people mostly complainabout how bad the coffee is. So obviously, they’re not attracted to these places just because there’s great coffee. And you know, this is because they can’t go elsewhere. So they don’t go to these places because of the of the great coffee. They go to these places because of the activity that takes place in them, and because of the connections that they have and how they draw people. But then you start getting into the issue of what kind of activity actually takes place in the coffee house, and how people also understand it.
So one of the things that I found almost consistently—it doesn’t matter which city it is—that for a lot of Jews who grow up with the traditional Jewish education, they find the coffee houses are kind of secular, modern substitute to the house of study, to the beit midrash or beis midrash in Yiddish, or to the synagogue. And if you think about it, even though it seems totally different (it really isn’t). I mean, the space of the house of study is where people study the Talmud and argue with each other on a point of the law or about the text. And if you think about it a little more, for these people who grew up with this kind of education, in a way what substitutes the traditional text—let’s say the Talmud or midrash—is modern culture and modern literature.
So they do the same thing! They get together, they discuss a story or a poem or the news of yesterday or the merit of some new movement, expressionism, modernism, and they participate in it. And they discussed these issues and it’s very much like the space of the house of study for a lot of people. That was the experience. So even though there’s nothing “Jewish” about the space itself, and the activity itself is not “Jewish” in the sense that it’s not studying Jewish texts… But then, when it’s about politics, when it’s about literature, this is what modern Jewish culture is. And people gravitated to these places, one, because poems and stories and theaters and politics and newspapers were all connected to the to the coffee house. But then also they spoke about what happened. They had newspapers available to them. Many of the coffee houses supplied people with newspapers when they couldn’t find them elsewhere.
So when you think about it in this way, I think it starts to make sense that this is actually a kind of perfect way of thinking about what this Jewish space means in the context of modernity.
Cafes and the Public Sphere
JL: So are you essentially using the coffee house as an example to further prop up this idea of Jews trying to enter into a bourgeois public sphere, in the sense of Jürgen Habermas, or are you trying to say something perhaps different?
SP: Habermas spoke about the public sphere, and that’s a very powerful and very important notion that is very relevant to this. And in a sense that this coffee houses are really very essential both for the creation of something like a Jewish public sphere, but it’s also—because it’s never exclusively “Jewish”—the coffee house is very important in the context of the European public sphere in general, (which) Jews are entering into. And coffee houses are really very central to the story of integration and acculturation. So that’s something that I am taking from Habermas and the idea of the public sphere.
At the same time, the idea that the public sphere just kind of puts people on equal footing and everybody can come together as a “public”… That’s something that, in the very idea of the public sphere, has been criticized. And also when I look at the materials I’m working with, I don’t get a sense that the coffeehouse really enables people to come together and to kind of smooth (out) differences. Because sometimes, it exactly the opposite.
The fact that people are attracted to the coffee house, and they try to use it as a way to enter into, let’s say, Russian society, Polish society, Austrian and German Society… It’s also a place of many tensions. And there are many places where the identification of Jews with the coffeehouse actually brings antisemitism out, right, because this is a way for Jews to enter into into non-Jewish society, and then if Jews start to dominate it, it really is kind of an easy target for many people, to say “Oh, you know, the Jew belongs in the coffee house, and Jews don’t belong anywhere else.” There are number of examples in Vienna, in Warsaw, and in Odessa, where a lot of people say, okay, there’s a kind of Jewish visibility in the cafe, and that attracts a lot of criticism and a lot of antisemitic sentiments. So that’s one area where, yeah, you have the public sphere, but at the same time the space of the effect is the place of tensions—not just around issue of Jewish and the relationship between Jews and non-Jews and antisemitism, but also between many different kindsof Jews, and also around issues of gender and class.
One of the important things about the coffee house is that many people think that, you know, it’s relatively cheap. People can afford it, you only need to buy a cup of coffee and you can sit there. But in reality, not everybody can afford it and not everybody can stay in the coffee house. So you have class distinctions. You have people who are more part of this culture and community that is being created, and people who are not. In terms of gender, even though coffee houses are open to everybody—in theory, women are part of it—what I mostly find is that it’s a very kind of masculine space. That’s very interesting because if the coffeehouse is the modern secular substitute to the beit midrash or house of study, in terms of gender, you have the same kind of homosocial space in the coffee house. And then you have the occasional exceptional woman, people like Else Lasker-Schüler or Anna Margolin or Leah Goldberg who were really at the heart of the coffee house.
So yeah, it’s very useful to think about the coffee house as an example of the public sphere, and maybe specifically a Jewish public sphere. And at the same time, we shouldn’t romanticise and shouldn’t just think that it’s this wonderful place that brings everybody together. Because actually a lot of thoughts people experience and also what people write about are exactly those tensions that you find in the space of the coffee house.
JL: I think this issue of Romanticism really important. I think that if you travel to Vienna or you travel to Berlin or even to Tel Aviv, there is an entire business model built upon the romanticization of the cafe and what it represents. I think that what you’re really hinting at here is that it’s not as shiny, you know, as it first appears. That access to the cafe, you know, is not equal for everybody. And that it’s easy to identify the cafe and the newspapers that are readily available there with all of these aspects of modernity and modernization, whether we’re talking about Habermas’ public sphere, the idea of imagined community, the creation or the re-creation of community among these migrants and so on and so forth. But it’s really a very complex and gritty story at the same time.
SP: Yeah, maybe it is a complex story. I mean, it’s very clear, even if you look at the language that people use—you know, the concept of habitué or regulars, or the stamgas or the stammtisch. In different languages you have different words for it, but it’s the same idea: that you have kind of the regulars, the people who are the insiders. And it’s very clear that not everybody is inside. And so, you know, this creates all kind of interesting tensions that, you know, some people coming to a new city and, for them, going to a cafe and becoming part of this society, this is what enables them to be part of something that is larger and it enables them to, you know, to get away from, say, being alone in a cold room and to have sociability. But then for a lot of people, they find it very, very difficult because there is this idea of the regulars and who is “in” and who is “out.” So we should be very careful of this kind of romanticization of the of the coffee house as a space that is open to everybody. But I think that that’s also what makes it so fascinating, that in theory, it is always open to everybody right? I mean, there’s no place that says, “This is a literary cafe, only writers can enter,” or “this coffee house is only for for journalists.” So all these places are in theory open to everybody but in practice when you see the kind of dynamics that goes in and who is in and who is out and sometimes even who is in, but who becomes visiblebecause they are in… It just brings all the tensions of modernity and of Jewish Mobility into into into the picture.
Cafes as a Metaphor for Modernity
JL: Right—doesn’t that really, in a certain way, paint the cafe as a perfect metaphor for Jewish modernity? In theory, everyone is welcome, but in reality, you know, there are many who are excluded.
SP: Right. I think that this is also the reason why a lot of the materials I’m working with, novels and stories and poems that people are writing about the coffee houses, and it’s also kind of the question. you know, of why so many people who visit these cafes are also writing about it. And I think that what you said goes to the heart of the matter, that for so many modern Jewish writers, people like I mentioned, like Agnon, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Sholem Aleichem, people like Shintzler, in many different languages they write about the coffee house not just because they know it so well and because they themselves were attracted to it and because so many literary movements and circles are created around the cafe, but because the coffee house, like you said, the coffee house is kind of a perfect metaphor or place to kind of capture what was going on in modernity and in Jewish modernity, which is a lot more complex than the story that Jews are entering into the world that they couldn’t be part of before.
The story is a lot a lot more complex, and writing about it and using the coffee houses as a third space, as I call it in the book, I think that it’s kind of in between—in between the public and the private, it’s in between reality and imagination. Because so much of what is going on in the coffee house is really kind of the way people experience it. And in a way writers and people write poems and stories and novels are very well equipped to write about these places. And sometimes they write about real cafes. Sometimes the right about fictional cafes. But if you do the research, you know what are the places that they are kind of basing it on. And there is a whole that’s all body of literature that written about coffee houses. And it’s something that is astounding. How come you have so many literary texts that are focusing on coffee houses? I think because coffee house really capture something about Jewish modernity, it becomes a way for writers to write about the coffee house as a microcosmos of the cities and of the modern Jewish existence and condition in general.
Cafes and Other Public “Third Spaces”
JL: As you’re talking about the coffee house as a kind of a third space, there are other potential candidates for this kind of a space. For instance, all the writing about salons. This is a much earlier period, I know that you’re really focusing in your work on the turn of the twentieth century and early twentieth century. But if you look a little bit earlier, people have written about the salon as also a kind of a hybrid space of interaction between Jews and non-Jews and so on and so forth. So what’s the difference, then, between the cafe that you’re examining, on the one hand, and other kinds of public places like a salon, a club, or even a tavern, especially when we consider taverns as places that Jews often owned or were the proprietors of. What is it about the cafe that is distinctive from these other kinds of spaces?
SP: So I should say that that’s correct. The cafe is not the only space. And sometimes you find a little bit of competition between, let’s say, salons and the coffee houses and different kinds of spaces. And some people are finding themselves more comfortable in one space or the other. In a sense these are competing spaces. Also, sometimes the borders between them are not so clear. Because sometimes we say coffee houses or cafes were places without alcohol, but some of them did have alcohol. So, you know, the border between the coffee house and the tavern becomes a little a little less clear.
So that’s one thing that we have to take into account, that it’s not always very clear what we are talking about. And there are many, many different kinds of coffee houses. But I think, in general, we can see the difference. I mean if you think about the salon, almost by definition a salon is open. But it’s open only to certain people. It is in someone’s house. It is in the private sphere, and some people are invited to this salon. And if you look at the early nineteenth century, it’s very famous in Berlin, in Vienna, you have some Jewish women who have salons in their houses and it’s a place where Jews and non-Jews can meet. But it’s always Jews and non-jews who are from higher socio-economic background, highly educated, and you can have a list of guests who are invited.
And the activity that takes place in there is very different. When you have a coffee house which again, in theory, is open to everybody and everybody can go in—and we set about how it’s not accessible to everybody in terms of being able to afford it or feeling welcome—but it’s much more open. You never know who is about to step in, right? So in that sense, it’s very different.
And you know, I can just give a little example. In Odessa, for example, there were some coffee houses like Cafe Fancomi and Cafe Robina and Cafe Libman, some owned by Jews and some owned by non-Jews, that were very attractive to a lot of people. But then there were some people who were very central to Jewish culture who felt that these places were too chaotic. They have a mix of business and pleasure and culture and commodity, and they didn’t like it. And they wanted to create something kind of more similar to the model of the salon. Mendele Mocher Sforim, the great Yiddish and Hebrew writer in Odessa, he felt he and many of the people around him felt more comfortable having a kind of salon in their houses. Y.L. Peretz, the great Yiddish writer in Warsaw, also had kind of a salon in his house. But most people couldn’t have this salon. They didn’t have houses that were big enough for a salon, and also many people felt that the coffee house is a much more interesting or open place, despite all these tensions, than a salon.
Now when it comes to a tavern, the dynamic there is very different. I already mentioned that in a tavern, as you say some some Jews owned in the earlier period, but the fact that people owned it didn’t mean that they felt comfortable with.
And now that doesn’t mean the Jews did not drink alcohol or liked alcohol. That’s sometimes the stereotype, but it’s a wrong stereotype. But what I find in all the materials that I looked at is that even the people drink alcohol, they very often don’t feel (like) doing it in a place like a tavern, together with Jews and non-Jews together, or with a friend. It’s also kind of a different dynamic, where people get drunk. The dynamics of the coffee house is very different from the dynamics of the tavern. It’s also interesting how, for example when you talk about New York in the Lower East Side in the twentieth century, it’s very important for people to make a distinction between the coffee house as a space that is different from the saloon or the tavern. It’s a clean place. It’s a place without alcohol. In other places, this distinction really doesn’t make a lot of sense. For example, in Cafe Ziemiańska there was a lot of alcohol. You come to Tel Aviv, ad places like Cafe Kassit, some of the most famous places were open until very late at night and people were drinking liquor and vodka just as much as coffee. But still there were always, I think, distinct from the tavern and the saloon where people go to just drink, even to socialize, but very rarely to have a discussion around politics and literature and the kind of activities that are more associated with the coffee house. So it’s true, that there are other spaces in this period that are associated with modernity and places were Jews went to, but I think that the coffee has still is distinct as the space that has some similarities to other spaces, but is still kind of unique in itself.
The Flexibility of the Cafe
JL: A big part of what you’ve been describing is this disconnect between the idea of the cafe and its reality. And I think looking at writers and literature is actually a great way to delve into this, because you’re able to understand that the idea of the cafe is very much an imagined one, that people were projecting their ideal of what the cafe actually was. And this is really quite interesting because I think that it’s fascinating, the way in which, as you document in the book, the way that you argue that Jews around the world look to the cafe as a signpost of modernity. And this is quite interesting, as well, the book sort of has these bookends, the chapter on Odessa which you begin with and then the chapter on Tel Aviv which is the last one. I’m not trying to say that you are making any kind of teleological argument, by any means, about the state of Israel and the Jewish settlements in Palestine, but this is very interesting because Odessa really is the model for the Jews who are trying to build Tel Aviv, among many models. But this idea of Odessa and its culture is something that they look to. So there’s a very interesting discourse here around Zionism and cafes: the importance of the cafe within Zionist culture as sort of they are trying to emulate sort of a European liberal society, on the one hand, and on the other hand, you talk about how for some very prominent Zionists they saw the cafe in a kind of a negative light. They saw the cafe as a kind of an emasculated space to escape from, as sort of this kind of Zionist project of creating the “new Jew.” So what’s interesting about this is the way in which the cafe plays all of these roles simultaneously, that it’s such a flexible and malleable concept.
SP: Right, it is it is a very flexible concept. And it’s the imagining of the cafe, but also it’s the experience of the cafe that is so different. I just want to mention how people can experience the same space, the same activity, in such a different way. I’m just going give you a small example: There’s Romanisches Cafe in Berlin. Very famous in the Weimar period, in the interwar period, it was the place that everybody gravitated to. And then we read some Jewish writers and politicians. you read the description of the cafe and you see that they talk about it as if it was a completely “Jewish” space. You had one table with Zionists, one table with Yiddishists, one table with this, one table with that, and you get a sense that everybody there was Jewish and it was this kind of pan-Jewish space where all the differences between different Jewish movements can really be seen. Then, you read some descriptions from German non-Jewish writers or people who went there, and they hardly mentioned the Jewish presence there. We have to ask ourselves, is one wrong and one right? Is this like all that somebody’s imagining it, or is there some kind of reality?
I think that whatever the reality is we can somehow get to it, but it’s so important how people experience it, some people to go into this place and even though it can be really just three tables with, you know, some people that they know from Jewish cultural and political activity. The fact that there is this concentration really put the coffee house, in their mind, as this kind of “Jewish” space. There’s another example from New York, where Chaver Paver is one of the one of the young writers who come to New York who says, “the land of Yiddish writers in America is the size of Cafe Europa, this very, very small place, you open the door and you’re in an alien country.” So it’s very much this kind of experiential sense of what the coffee house is about. I think that’s something that is very important to understand.
And again, this is why writers who kind of imagine and try to make sense of it give us the most important insights into the space. But you’re right that when you look at Zionism and when you look at what happened in Europe and what happened in America, and in Tel Aviv, it’s extremely complicated. Because you know, if you think about people like Theodor Herzl, he was in Vienna. He was one of those people who went to cafes, he was an habitué of coffee houses in the late nineteenth century as a student and then later when he wrote feuilletons and as a journalist in Viennese cafes. But then, when he became the leader of the Zionist movement and when he wrote his novel Altneuland, he actually begins the novel with a scene in a Viennese cafe and then, suddenly the coffee house becomes a very negative place. You have this character Friedrich Levenberg who is overeducated and has nothing to do. He goes to the cafe and he sits and reads newspapers all day. And he has these chats with his friends and really this is a way for Herzl to show that end of Jews in Europe and how this can’t go anywhere. And his solution is, of course emigration to Palestine and building a new society there.
But then if you continue to read the novel you see that in the imagined Palestine of the “old new land,” there’s no coffee houses. And actually when you look at Tel Aviv, at the beginning—when the people who founded Ahuzat Bayit, they got out of Jaffa and they built the neighborhood that became later Tel Aviv—many of them didn’t want any coffee houses there, because they thought that coffee houses are really part of the Jewish diaspora and culture that they wanted to get away (from) with the creation of the “new Jew,” right? So the “new Jew,” if you look at Nordau and Herzl and many of the Zionist thinkers, is kind of you have the “coffee house Jew” and you have the “new Jew” that’s supposed to be all about the healthy, Jew right? Whether it’s in agriculture and kibbutsim or even the urban Jew, but the productiveJew.
But when Tel Aviv is actually created—not just this kind of Zionist dream but in reality—Tel Aviv is the major city where Jews are immigrating to. And they immigrated from Odessa, and from Vienna, and from Warsaw, and from Berlin, and they bring these places with them. For them. Tel Aviv and Palestine is an alien place that’s supposed to be their homeland, but it’s alien for them. They’re supposed to speak Hebrew but many of them don’t. And then the coffee houses in Tel Aviv become something different, something that some of the early Zionists didn’t think about and didn’t imagine. But it becomes both a place for the creation of this kind of new Hebrew culture. So you have new cafes with Hebrew names like Sheleg Levanon (the snow of Lebanon) or Hermon or Kassit, and you have Hebrew writers who are creating everything that existed before: journals and newspapers, political movements, but in Hebrew.
So you have that on one hand, but on the other hand you have these people who come from Berlin or from Vienna or from Odessa, and they don’t care about all this Zionist ideology and the attempt to create new Hebrew culture. They bring Russian and Polish and Yiddish and German into the coffee house and then you have a movement of some people, the “Battalion of the Defenders of the Hebrew Language,” who are very distressed about the activity that goes on in the coffee house because the coffee has because this can multilingual space. So I think about this dynamic—like you said, that the book starts with Odessa and then ends in Tel Aviv. It doesn’t end in Tel Aviv because it is kind of the end point. I think it’s the opposite. Through talking about and thinking about the coffee house, you see the very complex dynamics of Zionism and ideology and the attempts to create modern Hebrew culture. And at the same time how all the tensions around Jewish modernity in the diaspora comes to Tel Aviv and to Palestine and then later the state of Israel around the coffee house. And you know, the fact that today Tel Aviv is very proud of having this thriving Jewish cafe culture brings really interesting questions about this kind of dynamics.
Cafes and Orientalism
JL: It’s interesting when you talk about a Jewish cafe culture, because on the one hand, I think part of what you’re saying is that these cafes were never really “Jewish,” right? And it raises interesting questions about how Jews produced not just culture in terms of newspapers, books, the written word, but the production of this idea of the Jewish cafe, to make it their own. And it brings us, I think, to this very interesting question about cafes and orientalism. Because when you look at coffee and the cafe in Palestine, in the land of Israel, well this is a drink which was drunk by the native people, by the Palestinian Arabs. And so for Jews in Palestine to take up this practice was part of this very complex process of the relationship with the Orient, so to speak. Because, on the one hand, coffee is a product which is often associated with the East, especially in the nineteenth century, with the Ottoman Empire. But then it was also something Western or modern that Jews wanted to identify with. What’s the relationship, then, between cafe culture, modernity, Orientalism, and this question of Zionism and Jewish culture?
SP: This is a really important and really fascinating point, because one of the other elements that separated the coffeehouse from, let’s say, the tavern and the wine house is that the fact that coffee itself, as you said—the commodity, the drink of coffee—came from the East, came to Europe via the Mediterranean and the Levant and the Ottoman Empire. In the beginning, this was really something that was very important and everybody felt. The first coffee houses in all these cities—in Odessa. in Vienna, in all of them—they were all founded by people who came from the Ottoman Empire. Armenians, Turks, sometimes Sefardi Jews as well. And I think that’s something that kind of carried on. Even as the coffeehouse developed as a European institution, there was always kind of a feeling or a knowledge—even if it was very faint—that it’s not really from the place. It’s not it doesn’t belong to the land, unlike wine or beer. Both coffee itself, the drink, or tea as well, and the coffee house as an institution is something that came from elsewhere. And in this sense, It’s a little bit like Jews. You know, Jews are very much rooted in the cities, but they also came from elsewhere. So there’s a lot of interesting discourse around that, about the Jews as belonging to the Orient, whether it’s East European Jews coming to Western Europe or kind of the trope of Jews in general as coming from the Orient or the Hebraic element. And I think that was part of the reason why people associated Jews with the coffee house.
But you’re also right that when Jews—European Jews—come to Palestine, to the land of Israel, they very often think they bring a very European institution to the place, and are completely unaware of the fact that these Arab Jews and the coffee houses the Jaffa and in Jerusalem that they encounter, many of them look at it and they say, “These are coffee houses? They don’t look like coffee houses.” They experience them as dirty. You know, people sit on low chairs and it’s half outside, and they find it very strange. Then they want to establish their own kind of Viennese style or Odessan style or European style coffee houses.
But some people are very aware. For example, Agnon, who I already mentioned, when he writes about coffee houses, he doesn’t use the word “beit cafe,” which simply means coffee house or cafe house in Hebrew, which was available at the time. He uses the word “beit kahava” which in Hebrew preserves the Arabic kahawa, the original Arabic. Now, a lot of people think Agnon is doing it just because he wants to play and it was to show kind of the archaic language. But I think he wants to kind of show exactly that: that when the immigrant Jews like himself came to Palestine, to the land of Israel, and encountered these Arab coffee houses, they found something very alien. But at the same time, he writes about the similarities and differences between the Arab coffee house and the German coffee houses and the Jewish-owned coffee houses.
You can’t get away from the fact that the origin of the coffee house is in the Ottoman Empire and the Levant. But at the same time, the coffee house really went through so many changes and in a sense did become kind of “European” institution. Another interesting thing about this encounter is that even the Arab coffee houses, at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, they might look like old coffee houses from the sixteenth century, but they already have a lot of the European elements, because they Orient itself also doesn’t change. There’s a lot of the habit of reading newspapers and people getting together and reading and writing. That’s also something that something that happens also in the Arab coffee houses as well. It’s really fascinating, this whole element of Orientalism and the coffeehouse. It’s something that has a origin in the Levant, that becomes European, and what is the place of Jews in this story?
Cafes in the Holocaust
JL: There’s so much to unpack there, in terms of this history of food, this history of a food culture, and also the transformation of Jewish culture in modern times. Unfortunately, I don’t know if we can really delve into that. I wanted to maybe shift gears a little bit and think about another instance that you talk about in the book, a surprising one in a certain way: you talked about cafes in the Warsaw Ghetto during the period of the Second World War and the Holocaust. And to me, this was really striking. You were talking about cafes as sites of the production of Jewish culture. And we don’t usually think about the ghetto as a site of the production of Jewish culture. Now, of course, there are many ways in which we can talk about the production of Jewish culture in the ghettos, whether we’re talking about education or collecting historical materials or any of the other ways that we can talk about the continuation of Jewish life under incredibly harsh and difficult circumstances,. And so the creation of cafes seems almost, in a certain way, like kind of an impossibility, but one that fits this growing pattern of scholars trying to understand the nuances of Jewish life under the Nazis. And so the existence of cafes in the ghetto might seem to undermine some of our assumptions—or certain popular assumptions—especially about what this whole space was like. What does this tell us, then, not necessarily about Jewish life in the ghetto itself, but what does the creation, the continuation of cafes in the ghettos tell us about the significance of cafes for Jewish culture on a broad level?
SP: Yeah. So, this chapter of the cafes in the Warsaw ghetto is really interesting, very controversial and difficult to understand. And I have to say, I was surprised myself when I did research. And I kind of thought, I’m going to have a Warsaw chapter. I know where it starts, and I thought it was going to end, just like other chapters in Europe, with the beginning of World War II. But then, I kind of saw that there is a continuation, despite these very difficult and harsh conditions. So, you know in a sense I think the way to understand the existence and the activities in these cafes in the Warsaw ghetto is, they picked up exactly from the point where Jewish culture in Warsaw ended.
In the interwar period, you have this very tense coexistence but also a separation, kind of difficult relations between Jews who assimilate, who Polonize, and some people who are Jewish or come from a Jewish background who are at the heart of cafe culture in Warsaw. They’re Jewish, they don’t try to hide their Jewishness, but they really see themselves as contributing to Polish culture, to cabarets, to music, to newspapers, to poetry. And then you have Jews who are not going to Ziemiańska and they find their own spaces where you have Hebrew and Yiddish culture that is being created in places like the Association for Jewish Writers who had a space that kind of like a coffee house in Tłomackie 13.
And then comes the beginning of World War II, and everybody’s put into the ghetto. And they want to continue some cultural activities, and they don’t know where to do it. And they they work really hard to try and create these places. And then suddenly you have these cafes. Now, I have to say that some of these cafes are created because the Nazi establishment allows them to happen. There are many collaborators or people that are kind of “in between,” and they’re able to open these cafes. I mean, must people in the ghetto couldn’t own a cafe and even could not afford to go there because they were just struggling to find a piece of bread to eat. But then you to have these coffee houses, and then you have Jewish artists and writers who are writing for the cabaret, people who perform in them. The film The Pianist is based on this.
And how should we understand it? I think it’s a very, very complicated question. One way to look at it that this was a kind of defiance: against all odds, you continue with Jewish activity. For a lot of people, it was simply a way to survive. But for a lot of people, it was terrible. It was something that really, the whole existence of the cafes when people are dying or struggling and starving, was something that they couldn’t even think about. So, I mean, I’m not sure that I have a very good, concrete answer. But I think it really shows us how the beginning of World War II and the ghetto in Warsaw, on one hand it’s a very radical rupture, it’s something that you can that see everything that existed before and what happens after is totally different. And on the other hand, you see this kind of continuity. And I mean, I don’t know, maybe it’s a way to think about the paradoxes of modern Jewish culture and Jewish modernity in a new way. The ghetto of Warsaw as a kind of microcosm of so many of these tensions that existed even outside. Of course, not it’s such a drastic way under the Nazis and knowing that some people are dying and are going to die. But in a sense, we can we can look at these small examples of places and see how it reflects in general on what Jews are trying to do and what they can do, what kind of tensions you have between different kinds of Jews, people who are assimilated or acculturated as opposed to people who are not, people who feel comfortable being in these places or even have the money to go, with the ability to go to these places, and people who look at what is going on in these places and they think, “What are these people doing? It’s terrible.” I think you can really look at it and kind of try to think about the general element or the kind of the larger picture of modern Jewish culture and how complicated it is.
JL: Right. I think, when we talk about the ghettos and the Holocaust, broadly speaking, one of the things that is interesting is that we see Jews from all over being brought together and forced to live in such close quarters. You know, if you talk about the cafe—and you talked about it earlier as, you know, you have one table for the Yiddishists, one table for the Zionists, one table for the anti-Zionists, and so on and so forth, or even different cafes that are for each of these different groups, the many different kinds of Jewish identities and ideologies and practices… But when you get to the ghetto, all of the Jews from many different places were forced together. And it’s really quite interesting, the way in which Jews were now forced to live in an urban center. They still created cafes. They still had to do something that would have, on the one hand, a semblance of normalcy, but also something that is so profoundly urban. If you understand the creation of the ghettos as sort of the ultimate urbanization of Jews from small towns all over Eastern Europe, well, of course they’re going to have cafes.
SP: Right. Yeah, I mean it seems crazy and paradoxical. And indeed, it did for many people. But then if you look at it in another way, it makes total sense. You know, if Jews in cities always had cafes, then of course they should exist in the ghetto as well. But yeah, it’s really something very unique. I have to say it’s unique within the book, because we don’t have any other instance where it’s so extreme. It’s very thought-provoking. I Thought that I had to include it, and I should just have my thoughts about it. But I’m hoping that the readers are going to read the chapter about Warsaw and also this sub-chapter about the ghetto, and can think about it and what does it mean to them? How do they understand it, kind of, open-ended?
The Transformation of the Cafe
JL: So I had hoped that we could maybe talk briefly about the conclusion of the book, where you write about a decline or, even better, a kind of transformation of coffee houses. I’m a little bit wary of narratives of decline. You probably are also to some extent right, but it really strikes me because this kind of declension narrative is one that is common especially when we think about this idea of Jewish food spaces. Especially, you think about another great example of this—the deli—where there’s been like a handful of books written over the past number of years about the death of the deli.
And you even write this in the conclusion, in a certain way saying “Where have all the cafes gone?” Do you think that the cafes have really disappeared? Or that their position has changed? What is happening at the end of the book, in terms of the transformation of the cafe or their disappearance?
SP: I have to say, this is also an open question for me. And I wanted to write it in a way would really invite readers to think about it, and to think about what exists today and whether it’s similar or different to what is described in the book. I should say that the book really ends both in Tel Aviv and in New York. In Europe, it really ends with the Second World War, or even before. But in Tel Aviv and New York, these are the two centers where obviously modern Jewish culture continues to thrive. It ends more or less around the same time, in the seventies, where you have the last few places like the garden cafeteria that Isaac bashevis Singer writes about, or Cafe Kassit that was such an important place for early Israeli culture. And then it’s an end of an era, and then it brings us to the present.
And there’s something very strange and paradoxical about it because, as I write in the book, on one hand in all these different cities there still are coffee houses. I mean what can claim that there are more coffee houses today than there were ever before, in any of the periods that I’m talking about. And yet, the feeling is that even though they exist, there’s something very different about them. And that’s something that I’m trying to explain. Like you said, it could be read as a kind of story of decline because it’s an end of an era. But I don’t think really it is about decline. I think it is more about transformation. It’s not that coffee houses are gone. It’s that thesekinds of cafes are gone. These kinds of cafes that I’m talking about, these places are gone. And it’s really kind of the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new chapter that we don’t really know what is the role of coffee houses in today’s society in general. What is the role of coffee houses specifically in modern Jewish culture?
The reason why I’m saying that a chapter is closed is because that kind of migration that began, maybe, at the end of the eighteenth century or mid-nineteenth century and continued throughout the twentieth century, of people moving from Eastern Europe, from shtetls or from small towns into big cities, and then the migration to American, and the migration to Palestine, that that’s process is more or less gone. And I think that’s why when you look at places like Cafe Kassit or garden cafeteria, these places are gone because you don’t have any more new immigrants. You have the Russian immigrants from the former Soviet Union, but that is gone. So you don’t have coffee houses where you have a mixture of immigrant Jews. For them, the coffee house is really a place to mix. So that’s one.
And the other element is that the coffee houses themselves, and the role in our current society, is somewhat different. I mean, many people say—it’s not my original thought—that we have the internet and social media as something that replaces what the coffee used to be. And many people, if you think about in the early days of the internet and social media and all that, many places were like internet cafes or chat houses or rooms or places where people can get together. And, you know, even when people go to coffee houses today very often they go with their laptop, with their phone, and instead of this kind of intense activity of a meeting and socializing and talking you’re going to have the technology that is going to replace it. So maybe one way of thinking about it is that, really, what replaced the coffee house in today’s culture, and something that is actually very, very important I think for the production of contemporary Jewish culture, is the way on the internet social media people can communicate with each other in a way that is very different.
But also, other places that never existed in the period that I’m writing about—you have Jewish museums, you have academia, you have all kinds of other forums that I think the substitute (for) was the coffeehouse. And that’s why I end the book with this open question. I bring people Aharon Appelfeld. He used to go to coffee houses in Jerusalem and loved these places to write in them and about them. But he also says, you know, in the fifties these places were still connected to the coffee houses that I knew for my childhood with my father. And the coffee houses, already in the eighties and nineties, are very different.
And you have a novel (Ground Up) that’s set in the Lower East Side, but it’s about a Jewish couple who tried to try to recreate a Viennese-style cafe in the Lower East Side and It doesn’t succeed. It has to close down a few months after it opens. Or you have a film, a fantastic film made by the young Israeli woman, Cafe Nagler, about her family in Berlin and the coffee house that they owned. And you know, this is what she’s trying to find and to recreate, but there’s no sense that going to a specific coffee house in Tel Aviv or in New York or in other cities has the same kind of role or function, something that is so central in contemporary Jewish culture.
So, you know, I don’t want to tell a story of decline—not of cafe culture and definitely not of modern Jewish culture. Coffee houses obviously still exist. I don’t know, maybe a few years from now when people see that social media and the internet is not exactly what they were hoping for, maybe coffee houses will become again very important places in general society and for modern Jewish culture. But I think, right now, I’ll be very hard-pressed to think of coffee houses in different cities where, say, Jewish culture in New York or in Berlin or in Tel Aviv or in other cities, you know, it wouldn’t exist without this coffee house or without the institution of the coffee house. So, you know, I really invite readers to think about what happened, what changed, and why the function and the role of coffee houses today is very different from the period that I focused on in my book.
JL: I agree entirely. I think that if we think about the numberof cafes, or the number of coffee houses or coffee shops, there are more now than ever. Think about New York City, you walk down the street and there’s a Starbucks on every other corner. And this is true in many cities, New York I think is just the most egregious in this particular situation. Clearly, people are drinking more coffee than ever. But perhaps to go back to something that we talked about earlier, now the cafes are selling coffee. They’re not really selling an idea.
SP: Yeah, I mean it’s interesting. Because I see that with Starbucks… And by the way, I have to say that Starbucks is really very American—they’re all over the world. You know, there are some cities that you can to, Warsaw, Tel Aviv, and you will see places that look very different from Starbucks. But it’s true in the sense that they sell coffee rather than the idea. At the same time, I find a lot of young people who try to open places and they have exactly this idea in mind of creating community and third space. They use some of the same language that I’m using. So I think there’s something—and you can use the metaphor of drink and thirst—I think there is some thirst, there are some people who want that kind of institution to come back as something against the Starbucks world of coffee shops, or maybe as an alternative to social media and technology. But whether coffee houses will in the future have the same function and role that they had in so many cities, and how and whether it’s going to become important for Jewish culture, I don’t know.
The other thing that we shouldn’t forget, again, I want to go against the romanticization of the coffee house. Appelfeld, who I quote in the book, says, you know, that coffee houses don’t exist anymore. These kind of coffee houses that you found in the early twentieth century or even in the mid-twentieth century, in the fifties and sixties, they are gone by the eighties and nineties. But in the same text, he says, well, maybe it’s not such a bad thing. Because after all, the coffee houses were so often places of refuge, places of migrants, for people who had nowhere else to go. A place where people had to run away to, because they live in a small cold room and the coffee house was the only place where they could find warmth and a place where they could be for a while and find some friendly faces. And if the situation today is that Jews are living more comfortably, and they have their own apartments and they don’t need the coffee house. Maybe it’s a good thing. I don’t want to be the one who says, “oh, you know where have all these cafes gone? And I wish that this cafe culture and kind of the intersection between Jewish culture and cafe culture will come back.” I think that there are certain elements of it that we’re missing. And I am longing for it. And I think a lot of people would want it to come back. But there are also some elements of the past that we are quite happy that they don’t exist anymore. So we have to remember the coffee house itself means so many different things for so many people.
JL: I think, to go back to something you said before, you’ve described cafes as the sites of the production of Jewish culture, but perhaps it’s the inverse. It’s Jewish culture that helped to create these cafes, inasmuch as it’s a result of the Jewish experience of migration or some of the hardships as well. That the cafe emerged as an important space, and that maybe as things have gotten better for many Jews this kind of a space is no longer necessary as you were saying,
SP: That’s a very interesting thought to have, I think when you read the book it’s correct: I mean there’s kind of two ways. Coffee houses and cafes created or shaped modern Jewish culture, but in a way the opposite is also true, that modern Jewish culture, it’s kind of the unique culture that developed with modernity and with urbanity and with migration. And we’ve moved from a traditional culture to a modern culture and the kind of search for new culture for new space. That’s something that actually was very important in the creation of the coffee houses, the institution that we know today. So in a similar way that coffee house created modern Jewish culture, modern Jewish culture created the coffee house. Again, despite the fact that coffee houses will never exclusively Jewish and despite the fact that if you go to cities like Vienna, they very much talk about the Viennesecoffee house—something that is not necessarily related to Jewish culture. Although, even in Vienna—you know, I’m using Vienna because Vienna has a UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Viennese coffeehouse—and they don’t mention Jews anywhere. But anyone who knows the history of coffee houses and the Viennese coffee house will know very well that Jews between the mid-nineteenth century and the twentieth century were absolutely central to this culture and you can’t really think about Viennese coffee houses without the existence of Jews. So it is true, as much as the cafes created modern Jewish culture, modern Jewish culture created the institution of the coffee houses as we know and think about in this context.
Why Cafes Matter
JL: As we conclude, I think it might be useful for us to think in broad strokes: you’ve obviously written a whole book about cafes, so you think, clearly, that they’re important. But why do you think that cafes matter? How does looking at the cafe help us to think through the totality of Jewish modernity, especially looking at the cafes in each of these different cities? Or even to some extent, would you say that the cafe is, you know, sort of the key to understanding modernity a large, you know, what is it that makes the cafe a lynchpin of understanding all of these processes that you’re trying to engage with?
SP: I don’t know if I would go so far to say that the cafe is the single most important element to understand Jewish modernity. But I think Jewish modernity is such a complex and difficult concept to understand because it’s geographically and chronologically and conceptually so difficult to grasp, because you have so many different people in so many different places. And by the way, I should also say that there are many other cities that my book doesn’t deal with, and they’re definitely very central. And I hope that other people are going to add about Paris and about many different cities in the Arab world that are very relevant. I think a lot of people are doing it. There’s a kind of moment of looking at coffee houses in the context of Jewish modernity. I’m not the only one who’s doing it. But I think I think the reason why I am doing it and why other scholars are doing it is that instead of speaking about concepts of like assimilation, the coffee house really enables us to grasp modern Jewish culture in a way that there’s a lot of discontinuities, there’s incredible variety that is very difficult to put under one rubric and to include everything.
And sometimes, the coffee house seems to be not the most important place. It’s a place that is maybe only a background to the really important elements of Jewish modernity: politics and literature and theater and press and all these elements, and the coffee house is just a background. It’s just a kind of vessel where so many of these activities are taking place. But I think that if you look at it from the other way, taking the coffee house and putting it in the center, actually it enables you to understand more this kind of transnational nature of Jewish modernity, how migration was absolutely central. And you know migration, of course, people know about migration, but people write about migration in a way that, “okay people are moving from one city or from one place to another, and then you have emigration and immigration…” But when you look at the coffee houses, you really look at the network of Jewish migration, the connections that exists between all these different centers and how people are taking elements from one place and moving them to another. You really have a kind of network that is being created.
It also goes against the grain of some of the of the most common narratives. We spoke about Zionism, about Israel, and how you have a story of coming from the Diaspora to a state. But if you look at the coffee houses in Tel Aviv and in the Jerusalem, you really see how the multilingual aspect of migration really continues. Even in Israel, even in Tel Aviv, even in New York. It really is, I think, a fantastic way to see the connections between all these different and very diverse places and a good way of grasping the story through a specific angle that enables you to see the larger picture in a clear way.
JL: If I could push you on this, you’re talking about the importance of cafes for understanding modern Jewish culture. But what about modernity broadly speaking, inasmuch as there are a number of scholars who have been writing about the history of commodities or the history of coffee and caffeine as a driver of productivity in modern times. And cearly here you’re interested in the space where coffee is consumed as opposed to the commodity. Looking at the coffee shop or the cafe as a space, how is this and why does it matter? Why does it matter to look at the space as opposed to what is consumed within it?
SP: Yeah, I mean what is consumed in it is fascinating. And the history of the commodity is really fascinating, and it is part of modernity. You know, it’s only in the modern world, it’s only beginning in the sixteenth century, that coffee was introduced into the majority of most of the world. But I think that as much as much as the commodity of coffee itself is important, you can think about the coffee house as something that really capturesmodernity with all the paradoxical elements of something that is open to everybody—the public sphere of modernity—something that couldn’t exist before the modern period, but at the same time is a place that is not really open to everybody. It’s a place of tension. When we think about modernity in general, it’s a place where some people are always at the center and some people can’t really participate. Tensions around class, around gender, around who is local, who is connected to the place and to the city and who is a newcomer here and outside, a migrant, right?
That kind of going back to something that I said before, that the coffee house itself with its history and the way it developed is something that is both very local, it belongs to the city, it has a special atmosphere in each national context or even in the local context of the city. But there’s no way around it, that the coffee house as a space and as an institution is something that is coming from elsewhere. It’s it’s been copied and traveling from one place to another. And for me, that’s a very central element of modernity. So I think even outside the question of modern Jewish culture, the coffee house is really a fantastic way of thinking about modernity and the space of the coffee house really encompasses so much of the central elements of modernity.