A Rich Brew

How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture

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Shachar M. Pinsker
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , May
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this invigorating book, literary scholar Shachar M. Pinsker argues that in the 19th and 20th centuries a loose network of cafés across Europe and beyond became “a silk road of transnational modern Jewish culture” (18). The café was not merely a place of idleness or sin, as its critics argued, nor was it the totally egalitarian space of public discourse that peaked in the 18th century, as Jürgen Habermas has argued. Rather, as Jews became emancipated and migrated to urban centers, cafés became crucial “thirdspaces,” sites of intense mediation between the various dualities of modern culture—including the  “private and public, professional and recreational, bourgeois and bohemian, and literary and consumer culture" (9). 

A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture proceeds through capsule histories of six cities—Odessa, Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin, New York and Tel Aviv—each one focused on its cafés and the confluence of Jews, commerce, and art that took place within them. Pinsker’s greatest strength is in assembling evocative descriptions, both of individual cafés, and of cafés as a species of urban space. He expertly weaves together real-life accounts of cafés, including many in the journalistic-literary genre of the feuilleton, and their fictional depiction in the work of some of the most important Jewish writers of the 19th and 20th centuries.

What we find is that while local conditions varied, in each city male intellectuals—women were rarely included as equals—found one another in cafés, which served as birthing places for various artistic and political movements as well as battlegrounds of Jewish culture. Those of a similar linguistic or artistic bent—Yiddishists, Hebraists, expressionists—gathered around tables at particular spots, scoffing at their rivals who were doing the same at some other café. Even in Nazi-occupied Warsaw “ghetto cafes were among the few places where modern Jewish culture, in Polish and Yiddish, could still be created under the most devastating circumstances” (96). For their part, Zionists rejected cafés, at least in theory, using “coffeehouse Jew” as a shorthand for the weak diaspora Jew; in the “first Hebrew city” of Tel Aviv, cafés were further associated with neighboring Arabs, and with an unwillingness to contribute productively to the Yishuv. Nonetheless, cafés emerged there too, and along with them a multilingual artistic scene.

For much of European history, cafés were often run by foreigners and associated with Jews, and they could become the target of anti-Semitic musings and actions. In Vienna, “the Jews belong in the coffeehouse” (111) became a common quip, transforming a genuine affinity into an ugly sign of irreconcilable difference. The Nazi regime picked up on this too; on Rosh Hashannah in 1931 thugs were posted outside of the synagogue in West Berlin and the Romanisches Café. 

The year before, Yiddish writer Israel Rubin had himself described the Romanisches Café as “a place where one has his own table and he must come here every day, just as one has to pray every day” (142). In 2001 the Hebrew writer Aharon Applefield echoed this sentiment: “towards evening a café can resemble a secular prayer house in which people are immersed in observation” (306).

The index of A Rich Brew includes no entry for “religion,” although in some ways it permeates the book, spilling, as it were, out of a study filled to the brim with Jewish ethnicity, language, and politics. The café is compared to a synagogue, where men gather with ritual purpose and regularity, but also to a study house, where they hold heated debates; a steam-bath, where Jewish men in Eastern Europe would go before the Sabbath; a Hasidic tisch, where men gather around a charismatic leader; and the ancient Temple, where priests manipulated liquids toward holy ends. 

Is this language just a literary flourish, revealing of no deeper truth? Or do cafés actually have something to do with religion? Pinsker shows that the cultural politics of the café intersected with Jewish observance. Coffee is kosher, and in Berlin, the great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn frequented the Gelehrtes Café; in the next century, Hirsch Hildesheimer, an Orthodox editor, went to Café Bauer even on the Sabbath. On the other hand, in 1898 Herrick’s Café, a popular gathering-place for Jewish intellectuals in New York, remained opened on Yom Kippur, leading to a violent melée.

Cafés also functioned in ways that we might describe as religious. The café, according to Jewish writer Friedrich Torberg, was“the catalyst and focal point of [Jews’] existence” and “a spiritual home” (120). Pinsker himself argues that the café could be a “spiritual place” (225). As religious studies scholar J.Z. Smith reminds us, sacrality is fundamentally a spatial category created by humans through marking and memorialization (To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual, University of Chicago Press, 1987). Through this lens, the persistent attention to and “nostalgic desire” for cafés—of both Pinsker and his subjects—works to “re-recreat[e] the thirdspace of the café” (310), but also to sacralize it.

Pinsker’s work also brings to mind the scholarship of Tracy Fessenden and John Lardas Modern, who have used literary texts to show that the secular is shaped by and intertwined with the religious that it purports to exclude (Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature, Princeton University Press, 2007, and Secularism in Antebellum America, University of Chicago Press, 2011). From this perspective, the café’s ritualized practices and the religious language used to describe it might be seen as part of a transnational Jewish secular. It is no accident, then, that there was a “link that existed—for so many people and for so long—between traditional Jewish spaces and the modern cafe as a 'Jewish space' in a time of radical transformations" (306).

I raise this literature on religion and secularism not to blame Pinsker for his lack of engagement with it. After all, Jewish studies and religious studies have a somewhat awkward relationship, as Samual Hayim Brody pointed out in his recent reviewof The Jewish Economic Elite: Making Modern Europe (Indiana University Press, 2018) on this site. Rather, I do so to gesture towards the generative possibilities at this very intersection. Beyond illuminating the pathways of modern Jewish culture, A Rich Brew shows how central both Jews and spatiality can and should be to our understandings of religion in modernity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shari Rabin is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at Oberlin College.

Date of Review: 
July 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shachar M. Pinsker is Associate Professor of Hebrew Literature and Culture at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe


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