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The Stimulating Story of Jews and Coffee


It has been a millennium since Ethiopians discovered the stimulating effects of chewing the berries of native coffee trees and exported them to Yemen, where Sufi Muslims learned to roast and brew them into a tasty hot beverage. The drink caught on immediately, explains Gil Marks in his Encylopedia of Jewish Food: Not only did it serve as a social substitute for alcohol, which is forbidden in Islam, but it kept the Sufis awake for their evening prayers.

Coffee, often with sugar added to counteract its bitter taste, quickly spread throughout the Ottoman Empire. Religious Jews, like the Muslims, drank it to stay alert for nightly devotions, says Israeli professor of history Elliott Horowitz in his article “Coffee, Coffeehouses, and the Nocturnal Rituals of Early Modern Jewry.” Coffee, says Horowitz “extended the range of possibilities for making use of the night hours, whether for purposes pious or profane.” But at the same time, the new beverage generated debate throughout the Jewish world: Was it kosher? (Yes.) Should it be considered medicine? (No.) What blessing should be said over it? (Shehakol, the generic blessing.)

In the centuries before home coffee machines, most people drank the new beverage in coffeehouses, which first opened in Constantinople around 1550, then in Damascus, Mecca and Cairo. This led to another question: Should Jews drink coffee at non-Jewish establishments? While David ibn Abi Zimra, a Cairo rabbi, ruled in 1553 that Jews could drink coffee prepared by a non-Jew, he warned them against patronizing coffeehouses and told them to have their coffee “delivered home.”

Nevertheless, it was a Jew who exported the new kind of drinking establishment to Europe, opening the first in Livorno, Italy in 1632. In 1650, a Lebanese known as “Jacob the Jew” founded the first English coffeehouse in Oxford. Sephardic Jews, many of whom also became coffee traders, soon joined with Armenian and Greek merchants to bring the coffeehouse to the Netherlands and France. But the going wasn’t always smooth: Verona authorities forbade Jews from having “women of any religion” in their coffeehouses. Meanwhile, in post-medieval Germany, authorities attempted to restrict the Jewish coffee trade altogether, according to the late Israeli historian Robert Liberles, because they feared the new beverage threatened their flourishing beer industry. “My people must drink beer,” proclaimed Frederick the Great.

By the 19th century, coffeehouses in Berlin, Vienna, Budapest and Prague were at the forefront of societal change. Vienna’s “café culture” became an incubator for the Jewish intelligentsia: Luminaries such as writer Stefan Zweig, psychologist Alfred Adler and the young journalist and playwright Theodor Herzl were among those who sipped coffee in the Austrian capital. Zweig once described the scene as “a sort of democratic club, open to everyone for the price of a cheap cup of coffee, where every guest can sit for hours with this little offering, to talk, to write, play cards, receive post, and above all consume an unlimited number of newspapers and journals.”

“Coffeehouses became egalitarian meeting places where people exchanged ideas,” says Mark Pendergrast, author of the 2010 book, Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. “The American and French revolutions were planned in coffeehouses, Lloyds of London originated in Lloyds Coffeehouses, Bach and Beethoven’s creative juices were fired by coffee,” he says, adding that coffee also had a sinister side. “It was grown by slaves, whether they were abused natives in the East Indies or slaves brought from Africa to the West Indies and Brazil.”


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