Martin Elliot Jaffe discusses the history and joys of Jewish coffee house culture.
‘One cannot attain presence of mind without the aid of coffee’. These words of Italian Rabbi Hezekiah Da Silva from the early 1600s fueled my immersion into the rich Jewish role in the rise of European coffeehouses and the cultural, political and intellectual ferment inspired by my favourite beverage. While the story of Starbucks and its Jewish-American CEO Howard Schultz may be well known, the vibrant role of European and especially British Jews is less well documented.
My journey into Jewish coffee culture began with one short sentence in Michael Pollan’s This Is Your Mind On Plants: Opium-Caffeine-Mescaline, in a chapter on caffeine, where Pollan stated, ‘the first coffeehouse in England was opened in 1650 by a Jewish immigrant known as Jacob the Jew’. This short statement started my research quest and immersion into the long arc of Jewish coffee and conversation.
Just to be clear on the historical record before we go further: Jews did not discover the coffee plant or how to process it as a beverage. The credit for discovering coffee dates to an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi c.900 CE, who noticed his goats frolicking and dancing about after chewing the berries of the Coffee Arabica plant. After some trial and error, brewing coffee to drink became wildly popular across the Arab world and within a century had spread north and westwards with the Ottoman Empire.
Dear readers, please let me introduce a critical point in this history of Jews and coffeehouses where everything might have been different if Rabbi David Ibn Abi Zimra had influenced the trajectory of coffee culture. Coffee was so popular among the Jews of Cairo by 1553 that Rabbi Zimra wrote several commentaries on coffee for his congregants: Rabbi Zimra was quite fond of coffee and advocated it for Cairo’s Jews but perhaps being wary of the non-Jewish population warned Jews to avoid public coffeehouses and advised Jews to have coffee delivered to their homes.
Perhaps due to poor internet connections or postal service, his message never took hold in Europe or Britain. In 1632, a Jewish merchant in Livorno, Italy opened the first coffee house in Europe. And, as noted earlier, Jacob the Jew, a Lebanese immigrant, opened a coffee shop in Oxford, followed in 1654 by Cirques Jobson, a Syrian Jew, whose coffee house in Oxford stood in Queen’s Lane where the Queen’s Lane Coffee House, the oldest in the world, stands today.
Jews were key participants in the rich brew of change caused by the cultural, intellectual, artistic and social ferment of the late 1700s in Europe. Shachar Pinsker, associate professor of Hebrew Literature and Culture at the University of Michigan wrote in his book, A Rich Brew: How Cafes Created Modern Jewish Culture, about Jews and coffeehouses across Enlightenment-era Europe in such places as Odessa, Berlin and London, noting, ‘Jews gravitated to the coffee house — many Jews owned them — f you were Jewish establishing a journal, newspaper, poetry group — it all happened in the coffee house.’
Pinsker argued that ‘for a lot of Jews who grew up with traditional Jewish education coffee houses were a secular modern substitute to the house of study –a place to argue modern culture modern literature/politics. Sholem Aleichem wrote in coffee houses.’
Pinsker cited the noted intellectual Moses Mendelssohn as an example of the revolutionary spirit of the Enlightenment age coffee house. ‘This was the first time he was out of the small confines of a small Jewish community and a way to enter the world of German and European Enlightenment thought.’
Not to imply that this social intellectual political ferment was always loved by the powers that be. Coffee houses were often viewed by political democrats and autocrats alike as dens of sedition and revolution where plots were brewed as well as a French roast. This was particularly so following the revolutions of Europe in 1848 when there were crackdowns on coffee house radicals, free thinkers and bohemians.
Here on the other side of the Atlantic, coffee house culture was tainted by an incident and follow up by two noted Jewish radicals: Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.
In 1889, radical writer and speaker Goldman met radical activist, writer and speaker Alexander Berkman. Berkman was quite captivated by Goldman who he described as ‘well-knit with the ruddy vigor of youth –she diffuses an atmosphere of strength and vitality.’ They met at Sach’s Café on Suffolk street in the Lower East Side of New York.
On July 23, 1892, Berkman armed with a revolver and dagger, shot and stabbed industrialist Henry Clay Frick in his Pittsburgh office. Berkman spent the next 14 years in prison and described his act as, ‘the first terrorist act in America.’ Goldman became an avid speaker on behalf of Berkman and his revolutionary views even though she was not involved in his actions.
Worn out from my journey into Jewish coffee culture, I’m headed into my kitchen to brew an invigorating cup of what our Judeo-Spanish ancestors called ‘caves de Alegria or coffee of joy.