Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Jews Welcome Coffee by Robert Liberles

Our contemporary world is saturated with a plethora of full bodied flavorful coffees.  While living in Northern California I was partial to the strong aromatic coffee of Peete’s well before Starbucks inundated the marketplace!  One would be hard pressed to remember when coffee was not part of our daily ritual.  Not only is coffee socially relevant but it also is a staple in the Beit Midrash, study hall due to its stimulant caffeine.  I remember one of my teachers in Yeshiva dismissing a beverage because it lacked the stimulant saying in Hebrew “there is nothing in this!.”  A coffee station is universal in every Study Hall in the Yeshiva world.

However, there was a time when coffee was new to the world.  Coffee was introduced in the 17th and 18th centuries in European cities.  That introduction caused a social stir because as the popularity of coffee grew it began to rival and compete with the other beverages of choice: beer and spirits.  The fervor with which coffee caused had serious economic impact.  Beer, for example in Germany brought in tax revenues.  A decrease in beer consumption as a result in coffee’s popularity was felt immediately by the ruling class. In the non-Jewish world there was a social uproar on how to deal with the coffee trade and increased consumption.  At first, the beverage was savaged in upper class circles, however, its popularity was ever rising throughout the entire populace until it supremacy became evident.  Interesting enough, England adopted tea as the modern drink of choice and not coffee.

Robert Liberles wrote a creative history of the Jewish interaction with coffee.  The Jewish community adopted swiftly coffee as a choice beverage.  The rabbis saw quickly the advantages of coffee’s medicinal and stimulant qualities in Torah study.  For example, the custom of Tikkun Chatzot, a very old practice of rising in the middle of the night to say supplications, increased in popularity in the modern period directly due to coffee consumption.  Rabbinic literature is full of interesting discussions: Rabbi Yaakov Emden was lenient in his rulings pertaining to coffee: its kashrut, its preparation and drinking it in a non-Jewish public house.  The Chasom Sofer and others argued against frequenting the ‘coffee house’ as frivolous or wasting precious time from studying Torah or doing Mitzvos. 

There is an interesting court case of discrimination against Jews.  The proprietor of a coffee shop claims that serving Jews discourages his non Jewish clientele.  What makes this an important case is that Germany was still functioning under Napoleonic influence where everyone is equal before the law and thus discriminatory practices would be forbidden. The proprietor claims that had the Jews been wearing the 'French sash' he would have served them!  This injustice resulted in a brawl. 

This book is a fascinating study of the Jewish community during the time of its emergence from the ghetto and how the community interacted with the outside world through the consumption and trade of the now everyday drink.

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