Israeli Life: A Most Intelligent Café
On Dizengoff and Ben Yehuda Streets, cafés once rang with the sounds of poetry and literary discourse. Today, Tmol Shilshom is continuing in that intellectual tradition. By Rochelle Furstenberg
The late Paul Erdos, a noted Hungarian mathematician, used to say that mathematicians transform coffee into equations. He might as well have said that writers transform coffee into novels and poems.
Much of Israeli literature has been identified with cafés, where not only coffee but cognac and wine flow freely. In the 1930’s through the 1950’s, Tel Aviv coffee shops were the center of the city’s cultural life. Cafés provided the stage for lively, sometimes acrimonious, discussions on literature. Abraham Shlonsky and Nathan Alterman, longtime arbiters of Hebrew poetry, voiced their dissent from national poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik behind the barricades of Cafe Sheleg Levanon, the first center of bohemian Tel Aviv. Alterman dedicated a poem to the café, declaring “The city sings in chorus/ But you alone are its solo.”
Afterward, the writers moved to Casit on Dizengoff Street, the most famous of all the Tel Aviv cafés. Here, young writers would pay allegiance to the older masters. Every Thursday night they would all wait for Alterman to bring in—hot off the press—his weekly “Tor Ha’shvi’i” poetry column published in the Labor news daily Davar, which set the public debate for that week.
Iconoclast Yonatan Ratosh sat in Bitan Cafe on Dizengoff. And when the next wave of young writers, including Natan Zach and David Avidan, rebelled against the Shlonsky-Alterman school, they set up shop at the Krau Cafe.
Jerusalem cafés have also inspired writers and philosophers, providing forums for the latest intellectual currents. Hungarian immigrants met at Tuv Ta’am on King George Street, while Cafe Rehavia on Ramban Street and Cafe Hermon on Keren Kayemet in Rehavia were haunts for German-Jewish scholars and thinkers. Cafe Atara on Ben Yehuda Street bustled with journalists, authors and artists.
Tmol Shilshom (5 Solomon Street, www.tmol-shilshom.co.il), a Jerusalem coffee shop and bookstore, has recaptured some of that Old World atmosphere and culture. The two-room café is almost hidden, its entrance tucked away on Solomon Street in Nahlat Shiva, one of the first neighborhoods built outside the Old City. With its antique furnishings, shelves of used and new books and intimate corners for reading, it has become a city landmark, a favorite for many writers, readers and restaurant-goers.
David Ehrlich and Dan Goldberg created the café almost 12 years ago. They took its name, Tmol Shilshom (translated as Those Were the Days), from the title of S.Y. Agnon’s novel about a Second Aliya pioneer who ends up in Jerusalem.
The gentle, genial ehrlich has written two books of short stories, Kahol 18 (Blue 18) and Ha’bkarim Shel Shlishi V’Chamishi (Tuesday and Thursday Mornings), both published by Yediot Aharonot. His literary sensibility has given Tmol Shilshom its character. Ehrlich, who lived in the United States for several years, was influenced by the Oxford bookstore and café in Atlanta, Georgia; coffee shops in Berkeley, California; and the Haymarket near Amherst, Massachusetts.
“I saw the combination as natural,” he says. “Between coffee and books you have everything. What else do you need?
“Some writers need the woods, some the sea,” he adds, “but it’s difficult to get there, so the next best thing is a café, a quiet place between home and work.”
American Nathan Englander frequented Tmol Shilshom as a struggling young writer. He later published his much acclaimed For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (Vintage), in which he describes how Ehrlich calmed him down after a terrorist bombing on nearby Jaffa Street caused the restaurant to shake from the reverberations of the explosion.
Israeli novelist Yehuda Amichai was another faithful patron.
“That was Yehuda Amichai’s chair,” Ehrlich says, pointing. “He loved the place. He didn’t just sit down and write a poem, but would write little notes to himself. He took deep satisfaction from the little things in life, would enjoy the warm setting, ensconced in his chair sipping coffee.
“When we opened up [about] 12 years ago,” he recalls, “[Amichai] suggested that he give a reading at the celebration marking the opening. This started us off on the right foot. I feel that I have been very fortunate. I’ve had the support of many writers.”
This was especially important during the recent intifada. “There were no tourists and people were afraid to come into the city,” says Ehrlich. Restaurants closed in the downtown area. Nahlat Shiva looked like a ghost town. Well-known writers like Amos Oz, Aharon Appelfeld and David Grossman gave special readings to help out Tmol Shilshom. Oz even instructed his listeners “to keep on coming to Tmol Shilshom and eating here,” Ehrlich recalls.
Julian Sinclair was a Hillel rabbi in Cambridge, England, for 10 years before immigrating to Israel; he now writes at Tmol Shilshom a few days every week. He is working on a doctorate on the late Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, as well as doing some creative writing.
Sinclair feels he was safe in the café during the intifada because “anyone who wanted to blow it up would have to go through a lot of trouble finding it behind Solomon Street. And then they’d have to climb up all the stairs.
“Working at Tmol Shilshom stimulates my left brain,” he adds. “David is in and out encouraging me, and it opens creative energies that’s hard to access in other places. The waiters and waitresses also cheer me on. [They] set the tone for the place.”
“In Tel Aviv, the waitresses see themselves as fashion models whose current job is a prelude to a more glamorous career,” explains Ehrlich. “Jerusalem waitresses are no less aesthetic, but they are often students who want to please the clients.”
Business has picked up in the last half year and the place is teeming. Soldiers and tourists gather at tables, couples meet for dates and women meet for coffee, gossip and heart-to-heart talks.
Tmol shilshom’s food offerings, all kosher, are excellent. Its salads bear literary names such as the feta and goat cheese Blue Mountain, which refers to Meir Shalev’s novel of the same name, a parody on Zionism. The Lover, a stir-fried vegetable dish on a bed of wild and white rice, is taken from A.B. Yehoshua’s novel about an Israeli living in France who returns to Israel and gets caught up in the Yom Kippur War. Classic literature is also given a bow; there is a passionfruit mousse cake called Madame Bovary.
Readings take place twice a week and often reflect the pluralistic nature of Jerusalem, something not usually recognized. Aside from mainstream writers, speakers include religious Jewish and Arab poets, gay writers, even lecturers on science and globalization.
Recently, mathematician Aner Shalev read from his novel Ha-Homer Ha-Afel (Dark Matter; published by Zmora-Bitan). One critic held her toddler as she listened to the author.
Shalev points out that Israeli cafés were inspired by their European counterparts, the formal Viennese coffee shops and French cafés where intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir held court.
“Cafés allow the writer to be… alone and at the same time feel as if he’s part of something,” he says. “The combination of being an outsider looking at people anonymously and being an insider in an intimate setting creates a certain intensity.”
But critics, such as the late Barukh Kurzweil, have been skeptical of the café as a literary center or source of inspiration. They see it as frivolous, believing that literature should be a product of high seriousness.
Aharon Appelfeld, however, has expounded on the deep connection between art and coffee shops.
On the back of the Tmol Shilshom menu is his quotation: “There are times I feel that a café is a port to which all gates of the imagination are open. You set sail toward distant lands, connect to people that you loved, and return and begin everything over again. Toward evening a café can resemble a secular prayer house in which people are immersed in thought.”
He has elaborated on these views in A Table for One (Toby Press; see review, page 72), a beautiful memoir of his life in Jerusalem.
Appelfeld is a child survivor who lived on the run in forests and backwoods and lost everyone but his father during the Holocaust. He has written many delicately constructed novels and stories, both lyrical and tormented, about the Jewish experience in Europe. Most were written in Jerusalem cafés.
“When I ask myself where I’ve spent the most time and the happiest hours throughout these years, I have to admit it’s in cafés,” he writes. During his university years in the 1950’s, he ate, studied and wrote his first hesitant works in Cafe Peter in the German Colony. The immigrants from Transylvania, Bukovina and Hungary who gathered there helped him shape his unique literary voice.
Today, Appelfeld often travels from his suburban home to write in the café at Ticho House, the gracious building off Rav Kook Street that artist Anna Ticho bequeathed to the Israel Museum.
Appelfeld continued going to cafés throughout the intifada, insisting that “it’s my fate to write in a coffee shop and I’m not willing to give it up.”
Ehrlich feels these cafés offer a nonmystical oasis in the holy city, a comfortable place to enjoy a drink a few feet from the madding crowd. The coffeehouse, filled with debates on history, literature and anything in between, typifies the unique qualities of Jerusalem, its ancient feel, stone-faced houses and old neighborhoods.
“There’s nothing more Yerushalmi for the secular Jew,” he says, “than Tmol Shilshom café bookstore.”