Professor Shachar Pinsker with Kingsville Ontario resident Cathy Basskin, who attended the event
Professor Shachar Pinsker with Kingsville Ontario resident Cathy Basskin, who attended the event

Café society played central role in Jewish intellectual life.

Ron Stang Special to the Jewish News

Windsor, Ontario

Jewish café culture played a seminal role in the nurturing and transmission of Jewish ideas and, indeed, provided a refuge for generations of Jewish intellectuals in Europe and beyond, through the early part of the 20th century.

The central role of coffee houses is the subject of a new book by a University of Michigan professor Dr. Shachar Pinsker, who teaches Judaic and Middle East studies in Ann Arbor.

He spoke last month at Windsor’s Mazal Tov kosher restaurant, adjacent to the Windsor Jewish Community Centre, in an event also sponsored by Windsor’s Assumption University, a Catholic institution.

Pinsker is author of a new book, A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture (New York University Press, 2018).

The professor has surveyed a host of cafes from the late 18th century through the Jewish diaspora to Israel and the United States, chronicling how numerous artists, writers and philosophers gathered and held forth in these emporiums of social bonhomie which, of course, included non-Jews and, therefore, helped transmit Jewish thought and argument even further.

The names of these cafes are legion but, with the exception of Café Central in Vienna — now more a “museum” for tourists than anything else — they no longer exist, Pinsker said.

Famous writers and artists frequented them, people like Theodor Herzl, Stefan Zweig, Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, George Grosz and Arthur Koestler.

No less a figure than Moses Mendelssohn, considered the father of Jewish enlightenment, held forth in the cafes of his native Germany.

“This was the first time he was out of the small confines of the small Jewish community, and it was a way for him to enter the world of German and European enlightenment,” Pinsker said. “He met some of the most famous playwrights and philosophers, and he started writing in German and in Hebrew in that spirit after he went to the café houses.”

Emma Goldman, the famous anarchist and political activist, “started her career” in a coffee house, Pinsker said.

Coffee houses served many purposes for Jews. They allowed easy access compared to certain exclusive restaurants and clubs in anti-Semitic European capitals. Like their role for non-Jews, they were also oases that helped break down the anonymity of growing urban life and softened the harshness of “modernity” when Jews migrated from the countryside. They were inexpensive, allowing people to gather for hours on end. And their bohemian status provided a certain degree of freedom from censoring governments.

Indeed, for Jews, the coffee house was a freewheeling gathering place, “a substitute to the synagogue and the house of study,” Pinsker said.

One writer arriving in Tel Aviv didn’t think his new destination amounted to a real city until he saw Café Retzki, and then he “began to believe” the city had a future.

Admittedly, café society was a male bastion, and women tended to be frowned upon or eyed suspiciously as perhaps sexually loose.

The American Yiddish poet Anna Margolin even had her gender doubted. “People didn’t believe she was a woman,” Pinsker said.