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A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture
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Shachar Pinsker's A Rich Brew: How Cafes Created Modern Jewish Culture (New York University) might seem, at a glance, like one of those “Bagels of Our Fathers” books that a Leo Rosten could have written back when Jewishness, as a cultural subject, still struck Americans as fresh and mostly funny. The cover shows an appealing pastel of a sunny, amazingly high-ceilinged and arch-filled café in Berlin—a lost Eden of conviviality and conversation. And the book itself is hugely entertaining and intimidatingly well researched, with scarcely a café in which a Jewish writer raised a cup of coffee from Warsaw to New York left undocumented. Yet it’s really a close empirical study of an abstract political theory. The theory, associated with the eminent German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas, is that the coffeehouses and salons of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries helped lay the foundation for the liberal Enlightenment - a caffeinated pathway out of clan society into cosmopolitan society. Democracy was not made in the streets but among the saucers.
When social spaces were created outside the direct control of the state (including commercial ones, run for profit), civil society could start to flourish in unexpected ways. This was visible in the spread of café life through European cities, Pinsker observes, in the nineteenth century and afterward. It wasn’t that the conversations in the café were necessarily intellectually productive; it was that the practice of free exchange itself—the ability to interact on equal terms with someone not of your clan or club—generated social habits of self-expression that abetted the appetite for self-government. For Jews, with their constant habit of self-expression and their distant dream of self-government, the café was an especially inviting space.
There was a time - astonishing to a contemporary New Yorker, shuffling ratlike to a precarious lunchtime perch at a Hale and Hearty Soups - when the places you’d go for a nosh and a cup were genuinely splendid, spacious and rich in an overcharge of luxury. The Israeli Nobel laureate Shmuel Agnon wrote of his first experience as a kid from a town in Galicia visiting a big-city café in Lviv: “Gilded chandeliers suspended from the ceiling and lamps shining from every single wall and electric lights turned on in the daytime and marble tables gleaming, and people of stately mien wearing distinguished clothes sitting on plush chairs, reading big newspapers. And above them, waiters dressed like dignitaries.” All that for the price of a coffee.
One of the pleasures of Pinsker’s book, for anyone with a longing for a lost era of public splendor, is to be introduced to the locales where people shared that splendor. In Vienna, the Café Griensteidl proved a magnet for “malcontents and raisonneurs,” with bentwood chairs and plenty of reading light and newspapers on sticks. The still extant Café Central had an interior like a miniaturized San Marco, with hallucinatory Byzantine columns and swooping enclosing spandrels and squinches. (The fin-de-siècle modernist writer Peter Altenberg listed his address as “Vienna, First District, Café Central.”) Yet in its prime it was a “place of politics,” and crowded with émigré revolutionaries. A famous story had Leopold Berchtold, the Foreign Minister of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, being warned that a great war might spark a revolution in Russia. “And who will lead this revolution?” he scoffed. “Perhaps Mr. Bronshtein sitting over there at the Café Central?” Mr. Bronshtein took the name Leon Trotsky, and did.
For Jews, Pinsker argues, the investment in the café as a social institution was, across Europe through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly intense. The great cafés were “thirdspaces,” neither entirely public nor entirely private; they were escape zones where, contrary to the theme from “Cheers,” people often didn’t know your name, or what shtetl you hailed from. A patriotic Polish writer could meet other Polish patriots at a Warsaw café, read the papers, make plans, share poems, or just decide to flee to Paris. A Jewish writer in the same café had first to decide just how Polish to appear, and just how Jewish to remain. This affected how he dressed and whom he sat with, but also which language he wrote in, Yiddish or Polish, and what he chose to write about as he sat there. Pinsker, who teaches Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, tells the story of how, in Warsaw in the nineteen-thirties, a group of Jewish actors came into a café, dressed, as a comic provocation, as “Jews”—in caftans and fake beards—and were urged by the manager to go elsewhere. It was the Jewish regulars who were made most uncomfortable by the practical joke. Not because they were ashamed - as writers, they often wrote unabashedly as Jews - but because they were suddenly made aware of the ambiguities that they relied upon.
The cafés of the various European cities that Pinsker focusses on—Warsaw, Vienna, and Berlin—reflected, with startling specificity, the Jewish reality around them. In Warsaw, which had Europe’s largest concentration of Jews (and a vast hinterland of orthodoxy), the struggle for Jews to be both Poles and Jews, or neither Poles nor Jews, takes on particular pathos. The Warsaw café beats out a theme of “Otherness” and “Difference.” Many Jews were at once proud to be different and conscious of being readily “Othered,” even when they felt most at home. In the nineteen-twenties, the poet Antoni Slonimski wrote, in Polish, a poem in which he asserted his dual love of a still gestating Israel and of Poland, merged into the image of a single idealized woman. (“You are my snowy Lebanon, dark-haired girl. . . . For one kiss I’ll give two fatherlands.”) Polish nationalists saw betrayal in his preference for pluralism. Later, Slonimski was assaulted in his café by an indignant right-wing Pole.
The milieu of the Warsaw café can even be seen as the basis of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s entire œuvre. Singer wrote of his first night at a famous Warsaw café:
Before I opened the door . . . I tried for some time to summon courage. Why am I trembling like this?—I asked myself. . . . I opened the door, and I saw a hall. Opposite, on the other side of the hall, there was a buffet, like in a restaurant. The writers sat by the tables. Some of them ate, others played chess, and some chatted. All of them seemed terribly important to me, full of wisdom and higher knowledge of the kind that elevates man above worldly troubles. . . . I expected someone to ask me who I am, what do I want, but no one approached me. I stood there with wide-open mouth.
Singer eventually transposed the complexities of that space—the habit of argument and the uncertainty of origin, the pensive love stories shared and the brave assertions never quite backed up—into the humbler cafeterias of the Upper West Side.
The talk and arguments that went on in the cafés covered every imaginable subject under the Jewish sun, and the Gentile ones, too. Emigration, Zionism, assimilation, the flight to America, the urge to stay home. The cafés “are the meeting place of the like-minded,” a journalist wrote in the early years of Berlin’s café culture. “The merchant who wants to consider his affairs and the status of his stocks with someone; the journalist who must hear the latest and must catch up on the day’s events from the newspaper; the man of private means who does nothing and yet wishes to appear as something; officers, students, in short, everyone who has any kind of interest at all in public life.”
The cafés became theatres of flirtation and romance as well, especially in interwar Vienna. “The presence of so many women in the cafés,” Pinsker notes, “is described in literary texts by mostly male Jewish writers.” One of them, Melech Chmelnitzki, wrote a Yiddish poem titled “Beautiful, Strange Woman in a Noisy Café.” The cafés remained, though, largely a male preserve. Vicki Baum, who began her literary career in Vienna and went on to write “Grand Hotel,” adapted into the movie for M-G-M, said, acidly, “I don’t remember a ladies’ room in the Kaffeehaus.”
Each café town had its own character. In Vienna, the café city par excellence, the Jewish cafégoer wanted to seem not Austrian but, instead, a sophisticated cosmopolitan. City pride was the keynote. The patron writer-saint of the Viennese café in the first third of the twentieth century was Karl Kraus, who was at once Jewish and anti-Semitic, a satirist of the cafés and a habitué of them. In Berlin, you had a smaller Jewish population and a simpler problem: the choice seemed more narrowly poised between being Jewish and being German.
And finally, in New York, as café culture was exported, the model of the central café in which all kinds come together often gave way to the neighborhood café that belonged to a subsect, usually on the political left. Emma Goldman, as a young Russian immigrant, found herself at home in New York when she arrived at a Lower East Side café that was well known as an anarchist hangout. The melting pot of New York, curiously, produced the most distinct and separate crucibles, each annealing the complexities of identity into political causes. In every case, you could see your life in a single commercial space.
Pinsker, lovingly attentive to the habitués of his cafés, leaves the economics of the cafés quite shadowy. The rule, still in place in much of Europe, was that you need buy only a cup of coffee to occupy a seat indefinitely. Customer loyalty is the commercial principle here. Better to sell the same writer a hundred cups of coffee than to sell a hundred writers one cup of coffee, since the hundred-cup man is almost certain to return for the next hundred, and the hundred after that. Recent scholarship has made the case that repeat business is worth much more to a small enterprise than new business, given the stability of “recurring revenue.” The one proviso would seem to be that there has to be enough room for new customers to find a place. The café can’t become too exclusive a club and remain profitable. This may be why the adjective regularly applied to the café is “grand,” or why so many cafés in Europe were exceptionally large spaces, even if, to judge by contemporary drawings and photographs, they were seldom close to being fully occupied.
In one of the greatest of café comedies, Charlie Chaplin’s “The Immigrant,” the tramp, newly arrived in America from an unnamed but clearly Eastern European place of origin, tries to put off the arrival of a check he can’t foot simply by ordering more coffee. And it mattered that what café habitués were habituated to was drinking coffee. Pinsker is oddly reticent about how the coffee was made and dispensed. For coffee is in itself a kind of wonder drug—a stimulant that seems to ease attention-based tasks. The shape and meaning of a café surely has much to do with the connection between coffee and social stimulation. Indeed, one of the historical functions of coffee was to not be alcohol. European cultures that had always drunk beer instead of unsafe water were liberated from their own stupor by the rise of caffeinated brews. The cafés were training playgrounds in attentiveness. They made the town alert.
What, then, of the Habermasian vision of the café as an arena of civil society, and of civil society as the foundation of enlightened societies? Certainly the café could be the foundation of emancipated life—that was why Agnon’s generation rushed there so ardently. But the study reveals a paradox of some poignancy: no matter how elaborately articulated, no matter how high its ceilings and how dignified its servers, civil society can’t protect cosmopolitan communities from assault when it happens. The café may have been a foundation, but it could never be a fortress. The most heartbreaking scenes in Pinsker’s book are from Warsaw, where much loved ghetto institutions like Café Sztuka stayed in business right up to the final expulsion of the Jews to Treblinka, in 1943. Singers sang and dancers danced, with the forbearance of easily bribed Germans, and while many condemned the frivolity (and the implicit collaboration with the Germans) of these last cafés, the writer Michel Mazor rightly praised their “continuous existence in a city which the Germans regarded as a cemetery - was it not, in a certain sense, the ghetto’s protest, its affirmation of the right to live?”
Pinsker ends his book with a melancholy account of a couple on the Lower East Side of Manhattan who attempted to open a classic Central European-style café a decade or so ago and failed. The rent was too high, the clientele too restless. Still, the streets of every American city these days are littered with coffee shops that attract hordes of laptop-equipped patrons aspiring to fill them for as much of the day as possible. The standard thing to say, in differentiating our post-Starbucks civilization from the vanished café civilization, is that, where in the classic cafés the point was to interact with your fellows, the point of spending a day working in a Starbucks, or in its cuter and more local-seeming rivals, is never to interact with your fellows. Spending the day online, one may be in touch with friends and advocates and lovers, but they exist outside in the ether, not inside the coffee shop. We aren’t sharing space in a modern coffee shop; we’re simply renting it.
Yet all those lonely and alienated Jewish writers were elsewhere, too—lost in books and newspapers, which were the true pastime of the café. What matters is not the words of the person at the next table but the feeling of nearness—the sense of being able to carve out an identity among other identities, of being potentially private in a public space and casually public even while lost in private reveries. Those subtle habits of coexistence are taught by the simultaneous clack of keyboards in a glass-front espresso chain as much as by the jostling of elbows in Warsaw as the pages of the Literarishe Bleter were turned. Mere silent proximity of social kinds seems an ignoble and inadequate social ideal. But it remains the first principle of the more potable forms of pluralism.
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