The Stimulating Story of Jews and Coffee
by Eileen M. Lavine
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.”
In America, coffee drinking flourished thanks to the Boston Tea Party, which made it unpatriotic to drink tea. When European Jews arrived in the 19th century, they brought along coffee cake, the essential “go with” based on the German kaffeekuchen and streussel, which soon replaced the English teacake. They also entered the coffee trade in cities such as San Francisco, New Orleans and Tucson. “Jews found that trading and peddling were commercial areas open to them, so they plied their trade in seaport cities dealing in coffee as a commodity,” says Donald Schoenholt, president of Gillies Coffee Company in New York, the oldest coffee company in the country, founded in 1840 and purchased by Schoenholt’s grandfather in the early part of the 20th century.
The New York market was particularly competitive. Joseph Martinson, a Latvian immigrant, first sold his beans from a pushcart on the Lower East Side and then opened a factory on Water Street in lower Manhattan in 1898. By the 1930s, he had built a thriving business catering to leading hotels and restaurants, making deliveries in Rolls Royce trucks and soon branching out to packaging Martinson’s Coffee in cans to sell retail. His rival and Water Street neighbor was another Jew, Samuel Schonbrunn, who produced the high quality Savarin brand served at the Waldorf-Astoria. A later entrant was William Black whose nut stores became Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee shops. Some of these brands were bought out by larger businesses, but Schoenholt and a number of other old Jewish families remain in the coffee business, mostly producing specialty brands. (Full disclosure: Joseph Martinson was the author’s uncle.)
These companies fought one another for the non-Jewish market and also for Jews, many of whom erroneously believed that coffee was a bean that couldn’t be eaten during Passover. That led Joseph Jacobs, head of one of New York’s first Jewish advertising agencies, to find an Orthodox rabbi in 1923 who ruled that coffee was a berry and certified that Maxwell House coffee (made by the non-Jewish General Foods) was kosher for Passover. Jacobs went even further and in the early 1930s talked the company into distributing free haggadahs, printed with illustrations and ads. Some 50 million copies have been printed since then, in what’s been called the oldest and longest-running sales promotion in advertising history.
In recent decades, American coffee culture has been reinvented by the omnipresent Starbucks, acquired in 1987 by Howard Schultz, a Brooklyn-born Jew. Interestingly, Israel, where coffee is also king, has resisted the Starbucks lure—the stores famously flopped in the Jewish state. Even before the founding of the state, Israel had a strong café scene; members of the underground Haganah forces would meet in Jerusalem’s Café Atara, as would writers such as Shai Agnon. For a long time there were only two widely available options: Nescafé, the generic term in Israel for “instant coffee,” originating from the Nestlé brand, or a thick Turkish coffee known as botz, meaning mud. Today, café hafuch—the name means “upside down coffee,” referring to the overwhelming ratio of milk to coffee—dominates the booming café scene. Coffee shops line streets like the popular Emek Refaim in Jerusalem’s German Colony. But instead of Starbucks, Israel’s coffee connoisseurs prefer a homegrown chain of cafés, appropriately named Aroma.