Lecture Examines the Relationship Between Cafes and Jewish Culture

Professor Shachar Pinker lectured about the evolution of Jewish culture within European coffee shops in the 19th century.

By Rachana Muppa

This Monday, Shachar Pinsker presented an overview of his unpublished book, A Rich Brew: Urban Cafés and Modern Jewish Culture in a workshop sponsored by the Council on Advanced Studies. The book explores the expansion of coffee shops throughout the 19th century and their role in shaping the social, literary, and intellectual underpinnings in the life of the modern Jew.  

Pinsker is a professor from the University of Michigan’s Frankel Center for Judaic Studies and Near Eastern Studies department. He previously published an award-winning book, Literary Passports: The Making of Modern Hebrew Fiction in Europe

Pinsker began by prefacing the thesis of his book, explaining that many Jews were displaced following World War II. As Jews reestablished themselves all over Europe, there was a parallel incline in the establishments of cafés, which were often Jewish-owned. Pinsker specifies that these cafés were “not just areas of consumption.” On the contrary, because the coffee shops were frequented by politicians, intellectuals, and writers, he claims the establishments offered much more for the price of coffee.  

Pinsker specified that this new setting of open discourse reflected a larger change in society. It was during this period that Jews migrated from small religious communities to urban centers. Cafés became a “home away from home” for exiles and refugees that were not welcome in more exclusive places such as clubs and taverns.  

Coffee shops quickly became prevalent throughout Europe in Vienna, Paris, Budapest, and countless other cities. Pinsker said that “the café acted as a silk road” along which one could trace the physical and cultural migration of Jewish people. He went on to say that cafés were secular versions of “yeshivas,” the Hebrew word for traditional Jewish religious institutions.  

“The more we contemplate the café, the more complicated the institution becomes,” Pinsker noted. This is because, unlike the synagogue or yeshiva, the population of the cafés was not entirely Jewish. While Pinsker claimed that the café's patrons were akin to the rabbis of this age, guiding and teaching the Jewish population, he acknowledged that cafés were host to more complex, non-Jewish themes and influences. 

Any café-goer of the time was confronted with a multitude of opposing themes. Among these, Pinsker listed “bourgeois versus bohemian,” “private versus political,” and even “imaginary versus real.” Yet he claims that the café functioned as a “third place,” a metaphor that existed between such opposite factors. 

Pinsker claimed that it was this unique environment that influenced Jewish literature of the time. “What was written in these cafés influenced thousands and redefined what it means to be Jewish in Europe.”