Associate Professor of Hebrew literature Shachar Pinsker’s most recent book was somewhat out of his comfort zone. A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture (NYU Press), looks at how the institution of the coffee house moved from one place to another, the tensions that existed within the cafés on local, national, and transnational levels, and the writers that migrated between these coffee houses and created networks as they moved.

“If you asked me years ago if I would write about coffee houses, I would have told you no, it’s not my area,” said Pinsker. “During my previous book, I came again and again to the coffee houses as a place. At the beginning I thought this is because I love these spaces and I was attracted to them. But it took me awhile to understand that there is more to them.”

Pinsker considered the topic not within his academic wheelhouse, and so the project initially started as a few articles published in Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper. After publishing a few articles, Pinsker received responses that made him reconsider limiting this research to newspaper publications.

“People volunteered to give me all kinds of information from the family members, grandparents. They sent me photographs and asked me questions. Some people even told me they had nostalgia reading these pieces; they had nostalgia for a place they had never been to,” said Pinsker. “I came to understand that this is a great topic and something that touches many different people in different ways.”

These responses reaffirmed the centrality of people in coffee houses and café culture as Pinsker explored cafés in Eastern Europe, New York, and Tel Aviv. Leaning on cultural geographers and sociologists such as Edward Soja and Henri Lefebvre, Pinsker focused on the Jewish experiential element of cafés.

“There is nothing Jewish about coffee or the coffee house; it is not a Jewish space in any traditional way,” said Pinsker. “But when you look at some of the figures that received traditional Jewish educations, they experienced the coffee house as the modern secular substitute to the house of study of synagogue, and they talk about the coffee house in these terms.”

Interpersonal connections that moved coffee from Ethiopia to the Ottoman Empire, where Jews first encountered cafés, also impacted Jewish practices.

“In all the cities that I’m looking at, coffee houses were always brought by people in the Ottoman Empire, by Armenians, Greeks, and sometimes Sephardic Jews,” said Pinsker. “Jews were also influenced by Sufis, doing religious practices at midnight and then we start to see something in Muslim societies, where you have debates amongst religious rabbis, asking, ‘Is coffee okay to drink? Yes. Is it okay to go to a coffee house? Maybe yes, maybe no.’”

Accompanying the transnational movement of coffee and its houses came an air of otherness or “orientalness.” Coffee houses were always understood as coming from elsewhere, and according to Pinsker, that explains a lot of the attraction to these spaces by Jews.

“There is this really interesting interplay between the local, national, and transnational because coffee houses are travelling, and it was very similar to how people understood the place of Jews in Europe,” said Pinsker. “On the one hand, they very much belong in the place. In eastern and central Europe, Jews lived there for centuries, yet they were never understood to be from the place—they were always othered.”

With regards to Jewish migration to Palestine, a level of irony emerges through Jewish expectations of what a café house and coffee culture are.

“In Jaffa and Jerusalem, obviously, there was a more traditional Arab café culture, but what I find so fascinating is you have these east European immigrants coming to Palestine and they go to Jaffa and they don’t recognize these places; they find them strange,” said Pinsker. “They are not aware themselves that the coffee houses are not a European institution, and that in a way they are coming to the origin of coffee houses.”

Pinsker was able to return to his literary roots in analyzing how writers addressed this irony when explaining and describing coffee houses of Palestine.

“Agnon, one of the famous Hebrew writers, used the word in Hebrew beit kahawa, which is like the Arabic word for coffee, qahwa. Most Hebrew writers actually used ‘café,’ as the Europeans,” said Pinsker. “Some people say he is using it to make coffee houses sound more archaic, but I think he is using it to show the irony that many of these European immigrants thought they are bringing this European café culture to the Middle East, but in fact it started there.”

The linguistic subversion that Agnon brings forth in his writing continued within the coffee houses of Jaffa and Tel Aviv.

“Coffee houses were always multilingual spaces. In cities like Warsaw and Udesa, you could have a table speaking in German, Polish, Russian, and Yiddish,” said Pinsker. “When it comes to cafés in Jaffa and Tel Aviv, there was a lot of pressure to move to monolingual culture and to revive Hebrew, but coffee houses always undermined it.”

Coffee houses also found their way into various narratives of Jewishness, as people added meaning to cafés existence.

“The fathers of Zionism used coffee houses as part of the whole discourse on the negation of the diaspora and tried to keep them out of Tel Aviv. People constructed the ‘coffee-house Jew’ as the Jew who is not productive and in opposition to the New Jew,” said Pinsker. “In this sense it is kind of the ultimate irony that Tel Aviv was established as the epitome of the Zionist dream and became famous for its coffee houses.”

While coffee houses created tension between narratives of the New Jew and Old Jew, Pinsker found writers who brought together the traditional religious culture and secular modern Jewish culture through the idea of the coffee house.

“I came across a Polish Jew who wrote, ‘I did not believe in the future of this Jewish Palestine, then when I came to Tel Aviv and saw these coffee houses, I knew it is here to stay,’” said Pinsker. “He said that every city needs to have a group of idlers, people who sit in cafés and create culture, and when you read it you think it is making fun of Tel Aviv, which he is, but at the same time he goes back to traditional Jewish culture. In the Talmud there is a question about what constitutes a city, how do you know the difference between a small town or village and a city. The answer that the Talmud gives is that you need at least 10 idlers. Why? Because you need 10 people to make a quorum to pray. So this is another example for me of how, for many Jews, the coffee house was a modern secular idea of the synagogue.”

The question of belonging, which in Eastern Europe made cafés attractive to the Jewish community, also comes forward again when looking at the state of cafés in today’s modern Jewish culture.

“I find that the golden age of coffee houses was at the time when you have migration,” said Pinsker. “People move from one city to another and from one place to another, and the café itself becomes a Silk Road of modern Jewish creativity, but it dies when people become very rooted in a place.”

Pinsker’s research has broken through the confines of this book; he has created an undergraduate course that uses cafés as a lens through which to introduce modern Jewish culture. Pinsker is also working on a digital mapping project that will house photographs, writings, and caricatures that he came across during the research process.

Pinsker always believed that this knowledge should not be solely bound in a book. It should be free and accessible to everyone: students, scholars, and the people with memories of these cafés.

This article originally appeared as "Cafés & Conversation with Shachar Pinsker" in the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies Spring 2018 Newsletter.