In A Rich Brew, the literary historian Shachar Pinsker looks at the role of coffeehouses in Jewish intellectual life in the period from 1848 through 1939, focusing on the six cities of Odessa, Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin, New York, and Tel Aviv. Jeffrey Yoskowitz writes in his review:
Pinsker packs his history with titillating behind-the-scenes snapshots of a cast of fascinating . . . Jewish figures in cafés throughout history, including luminaries such as Moses Mendelssohn, Karl Marx, and Theodor Herzl. It’s a rather ingenious organizing principle for a book: since there was so much cultural output produced in cafés and, consequently, about them, the author is granted the latitude to quote rich passages from seminal works of Hebrew and Yiddish literature to put them in context. It’s hard to imagine figures like Abraham Cahan, the editor of the Yiddish Forverts, and Lincoln Steffens, the famed muckraker and author of The Shame of the Cities, crossing paths, yet Steffens served as Cahan’s editor at The New York Commercial Advertiser. Cahan even managed to drag Steffens to his preferred Jewish café, Café Herrick on [Manhattan’s] Lower East Side, where Steffens observed “the debate was on at every table.” . . .
As Pinsker explains it, taverns and clubs were frequently off-limits to Jews in Europe and North America, which is why cafés were rare spaces where Jewish intellectuals and literary figures could feel at home. The café often became a de-facto Jewish club where writers and thinkers posted themselves each day to hear the news and gossip, network, argue, and write. When they entered a new city, Jewish intellectuals knew where to find likeminded souls. . . .
In his novel Wandering Stars, Sholem Aleichem described London’s Café National where, at any time of day, “you would find a collection of Jews of every type that your heart desired,” including “stockbrokers, doctors of philosophy, traveling salesmen, missionaries, peddlers, actors, diamond merchants, office workers, journalists, chess players, clerks, Zionists, Territorialists looking for a piece of land—even in Africa—where Jews could settle, and young people from who knew where, shouting and blustering.” . . .
As important as the café was to the Jewish literary world, Pinsker reminds us that [it] wasn’t open to all. Only those ready to adopt an urban way of life, and, in some cases, leave their families and religious observances behind, sat in cafés as part of the intellectual class. . . . Jewish women, like the poet Leah Goldberg in Tel Aviv, were [rare] figures in the coffeehouses. Goldberg, who visited cafés every day and usually sat alone, was described as attempting to find “a café of her own.”