Ayalah Revach orders a cappuccino and kicks off her platform shoes. “Ah, that’s better,” she says, sitting cross-legged at Cafe Nona, where she regularly meets her husband, friends, relatives and neighbors. The sidewalk café downstairs from her Tel Aviv apartment building is an extension of her living room. “It’s like going out, but at home,” she says. a A typical Friday afternoon means full tables, their placement both intimate and public. Passersby stroll on one side and cars zoom by on the other.
“I never used to sit in cafés when I was younger,” says Revach, 38, “but cafés have changed. And that has changed my lifestyle.”
Worldwide, from Britain to India and Japan, many societies that bonded over tea or spirits are evolving into coffee cultures. Israel, like most Mediterranean nations, has always had a coffee and a café culture, but one that was unique—founded on the disparate local, immigrant and pioneer attitudes. These lifestyle microcosms are fading as espresso bar culture and a longing for the Western lifestyle takes over.
The writer Aharon Appelfeld drives past Cafe Rehavia, one of Jerusalem’s new hot cafés, and laughs to himself. Fifty-odd years ago he used to sit at the original Cafe Rehavia, but he can’t find anything in common between the two. Today, through its slick glass walls, past the security guard, it looks like a dark, crowded café-cum-pick-up bar. Inside, speakers blast the latest tunes.
“Cafés used to be totally different,” Appelfeld says. “They were quiet, a place for learning, reading, for being with yourself. The owners, not waiters, served you, worried about you, took care of you, saved your regular table.”
A Holocaust survivor, Appelfeld typified the Israeli who sat in cafés in earlier generations: European, immigrant, intellectual—and lost. The first cafés were launched in the 1930’s by European artists and intellectuals. “It was a more bohemian crowd and the environment was on the side of European tradition—Parisian, Viennese,” Appelfeld recalls. “These were people looking for the homes they lost in Europe.”
Though cafés blossomed in central Jerusalem and Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff area, they represented a minority lifestyle. The average Israeli was drinking coffee at home with neighbors, with a small gas stove on hikes and as soldiers on break, cooking black coffee in a tin pot over a campfire. Social coffee drinking did not include hanging out in cafés.
Israeli sociologist Oz Almog says that the small percentage of European immigrants who sat in cafés from the 1930’s to the 1970’s was seen as decadent: “Coffeehouse culture became a stigma. [Israelis] used to believe a person should be a pioneer, work the land, be active, guard his nation—not sit and drink and chat.”
This was in contrast to the easygoing local tradition, where across the Middle East since the 1500’s loitering over a coffee was common in courtyards and public coffeehouses.
Starting in the 1980’s, Israelis began shedding their local coffee rituals. Israeli youth had their appetites whetted for a more metropolitan lifestyle by television, film and travel abroad. Israelis also became wealthier, explains Almog: “The youth of Generation X are the generation of revelers and peacocks. They started new cafés everywhere.”
Cafés started to fill main city streets, but only spread into local neighborhoods after Israel’s first espresso joint opened in 1992. “At first people would [complain],” says Nurit Raveh, cofounder of the Tel Aviv Espresso Bar chain. “We’d give them a real espresso shot and they were like, ‘What? There is no coffee in the cup.’”
Espresso and authentic cappuccino were unheard of when Raveh got the idea for the chain from her soon-to-be husband, who had just returned from San Francisco. “All he talked about was coffee, coffee, coffee,” she recalls. “There were little roasteries and family coffeehouses everywhere [in San Francisco]. But there was nothing like that here. In Israel the cafés were more like restaurants.”
When Espresso Bar launched, it didn’t take long to catch on. By 2000, a half dozen new espresso chains had opened. Looking to the West for design inspiration, the cafés are either industrial and modern or furnished with cozy, European, wooden furniture. Very few incorporate Middle East design, food or ritual, like the water pipe.
The new chains—Ilan’s, Aroma, Hillel, Cafes Joe and Arcaffe—proliferated and became so similar that the original Espresso Bar partners decided to rebrand. At a series of focus groups with Israelis of all ages and backgrounds, they asked how participants would feel if they woke up in the morning and there was no café near their house.
“They totally freaked,” Raveh says. “Israelis used to have to travel to find a cool café and good coffee and now they expect to find that under their house. A new café is opening on every corner.”
Today, according to Business Data Israel, there are 950 cafés, most dotting Jerusalem to Tel Aviv environs, but some expanding nationwide. Based on per capita figures from the NPD Group’s Spring 2005 Foodworld/ReCount study, Israel has about twice as many cafés as the United States. Fueling the expansion is the dramatic change from a “we”/socialist to a “me”/capitalist society, says food anthropologist Nir Avieli. “There is still a desperate need to socialize,” he explains. “Before, Israelis used to take pride that anyone could drop by their house for coffee. They made fun of Americans and Westerners for never inviting people into their ‘fortresses.’ Now they go out, too.”
Because they go out more socially now, and because alcohol is not a big part of the Israeli lifestyle, cafés have become the social equivalent of bars. Friends or dates often say, “Hey, let’s meet for a coffee,” instead of “Let’s have a drink.”
The reason that Israelis prefer coffee is not just cultural. While both alcohol and coffee are “social lubricants,” says Avieli, coffee is associated with intelligence, conversation and newspapers. “Coffee makes you alert. Alcohol does the opposite,” he notes.
Once Starbucks caught wind of Israel’s growing affinity for cafés and espresso bars, a franchise of the chain tried in 2001 to lay down roots. But Israelis gave it the cold shoulder for not being Israeli enough, with its emphasis on so many water-based rather than milk-based coffees. “You can implant McDonald’s because you don’t have competition with an existing notion of the same product and you have a stronger brand name,” explains Avieli. “But Starbucks just gave us American coffee.”
After failing to make profits, Starbucks closed shop in 2003. Still, many cafés in touristy areas quietly added the “Americano” to its menu, using water instead of milk in an espresso base. Most recently, the American chain The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf also joined the competition—but only in areas brimming with Americans.
What’s ironic about Israeli snobbery toward American coffee is that three of every four cups of coffee drunk in Israel is instant coffee—it’s what most Israelis drink at home. Israel’s first coffee merchandiser, Elite, introduced instant coffee in the 1950’s, naming it Nes, after Nestlé’s Nescafé brand. Almost any Israeli will tell you, erroneously, that the coffee was named after the Hebrew word nes, meaning miracle, as in “miracle coffee, wow, just add water.”
Israel’s love of fast, easy solutions affected even the drinking of Turkish coffee. Real Turkish coffee (referring to the fine grind, not the beans’ country of origin) is boiled over a fire. This is the same as Arab coffee, drunk by local Bedouin and Arabs, though they add cardamom. The Israeli version, with or without cardamom, is lovingly called botz (mud), and at home is treated as instant—just adding boiling water instead of cooking it.
Until cafés recently started getting espresso machines and importing fine espresso beans, the popular latte known in Hebrew as kafe hafukh, was also instant: instant coffee stirred into hot milk. The smallest mom-and-pop cafés still serve cappuccino this way. Israeli iced coffee, too, is really an instant powder-based frappucino-like blended drink. For a regular iced coffee one must order “cold coffee.” Though the coffee revolution has taken off around Israel, and may be seen as more civilized by Westerners and Israeli yuppies, Israel still has corners where the old coffee styles and rituals prevail.
In Jerusalem’s Old City, Arab men frequent small, smoky cafés for Arab coffee and water pipes. While wealthier Arab families always visited the fine hotels in Arab towns for a social café environment, today the younger generation is beginning to launch a few new cafés mixing modern and traditional elements, as in Haifa and the wealthy Beit Hanina suburb of Jerusalem.
Israel’s large Jewish immigrant populations from Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq, Iran and Yemen continue to meet for coffee as they always did. Around shuks and housing projects, nameless, neglected rooms are packed with unemployed and retired working-class Mizrahi men, playing backgammon and cards, smoking and sipping instant or Turkish coffee in small glasses. But these local courtyard hangouts are slowly becoming a thing of the past, as neighborhoods are gentrified and as a new generation of coffee drinkers is born.
The coffee bean has been fueling social life since its discovery in Ethiopia around 500 C.E. and its cultivation in Yemen. According to folklore, it was Yemen’s whirling dervishes who discovered caffeine’s exhilarating effects. As coffee spread around the Arabian Peninsula, it became so addictive that Turkish law once permitted women to divorce their spouses for not providing a daily coffee quota.
Israelis are not yet whirling or suing for their coffee, but they are lining up at their local cafés. “Cafés are the secular synagogue,” says sociologist Almog, “a place for the community to meet.”