May 21, 2019

Jewish Life Runs on Coffee

“Perhaps because I’m writing this as I sit in a vibrant, quirky coffee shop in Washington Heights, its walls decorated with graffiti-inspired art and fake ivy, it strikes me that whenever I arrive in a new city, I make a beeline for the nearest independent coffee house. But it wasn’t until I read Shachar Pinsker’s new book, “A Rich Brew: How the Café Created Modern Jewish Culture” (NYU Press), that I learned that Jews and coffee shops have been connected for at least a century; Jews, especially Jewish writers, he argues, have made the café their primary gathering place and, in many cases, their collective muse.

Pinsker, who teaches Hebrew literature at the University of Michigan, chronicles the history of cafés in six cities (Odessa, Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin, New York and Tel Aviv), showing that major Jewish journalists, novelists, poets and playwrights, from Sholem Aleichem to Isaac Bashevis Singer, were not just inspired by coffee shops but frequently used them as the settings for their work.

Jews have a long history with coffee. While coffee houses first sprang up in Constantinople, Cairo and other Middle Eastern cities during the mid-sixteenth century, it was a Jewish entrepreneur who brought the coffee house to Europe, opening one in Livorno in 1632. The first café in England was opened in 1651 in Oxford by one “Jacob the Jew,” who was an immigrant from Lebanon.”

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