Life Before Starbucks.

Author:Pendergrast, Mark


Shachar Pinsker

NYU Press

2018, 384 pp, S35.00

Since their origin in the early 1500s in Yemen and elsewhere in the Arab world, coffee houses have provided an important social meeting place for people from all walks of life, especially creative, political and business types. Over cups of coffee, the best minds became brighter and often more satirical, not only in Mecca, where the governor attempted to ban coffee houses in 1511--the customers were writing nasty verses about him--but throughout Europe, the Middle East, Russia and the United States, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Coffee houses quickly became a new space for public discourse and ethnic mingling. Many attracted a particular type of clientele, such as literati or merchants, and some drew certain religions and ethnic groups, such as Jews.

In A Rich Brew, Shachar Pinsker masterfully documents the impact of cafe life on Jewish culture throughout the civilized world. He focuses on six essential cities--Odessa, Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin, New York and Tel Aviv/Jaffa--creating overlapping storylines that are not always chronological. A professor of Hebrew literature and culture at the University of Michigan, Pinsker has a deep knowledge of modern Jewish literature, which he mines to good effect in this book. For instance, he quotes Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, about the Viennese cafes he frequented. Herzl wrote in 1887 of the young customers at the Cafe Griensteidl, who "boldly identified themselves with the idea of bringing about a radical change in all social, political, literary, and artistic affairs, gasping for fresh air, for new directions in defiance of the outdated systems and senescent authorities."

Pinsker describes a kind of "silk road" of Jewish cultural migration between cities and cafes across borders and continents, tracing a "network of mobility, of interconnected urban cafes that were central to modern Jewish creativity and exchange in a time of migration and urbanization." In the process, he documents the impact of recessions, war, anti-Semitism, sexism, the arts and squabbles among Jewish factions.

Many of these cafes were owned by Jews, although the coffee houses that Pinsker writes about were part of an overall cafe culture that served other ethnic groups as well. Unlike taverns and bars, however, the cafes were particularly attractive to Jews who sought a sense of a safe...

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