Thursday, July 04, 2013

Jews and ... Coffee

From this book by Robert Liberles, Jews Welcome Coffee: Tradition and Innovation in Early Modern Germany. reviewed by Sarah E. Wobick-Segev :-
A Strong Brew

...Robert Liberles’s volume, Jews Welcome Coffee, is not primarily about the social and sociable parameters of coffee drinking, but far more about the drink itself and what it “can teach us about early modern Jewish life” (p. xii). Liberles’s book explores both the religious and social responses of Central European Jews to coffee in the early modern period, as well as the economic and everyday history of coffee’s introduction into German Jewish life.
...Juxtaposing the more conservative and negative response to coffee among German Christians, especially the authorities, with the largely positive acceptance of coffee among Jews...Liberles insists, coffee did not change the world, it did reflect symbolically the changing social, cultural, religious, and economic landscape of German Jews and the larger society in which they found themselves...the author concludes that coffee became a lightning rod in debates over “changes in daily life and to challenges to the reigning social structure” where coffee was seen as a metaphorical (and economic) rival to beer (p. 13). The chapter ends with a suggestive linking of the social and political changes facing the growing Jewish population in German lands with the debates over the introduction of this new, foreign drink...Viewed with greater unease in German lands, coffee consumption among the lower classes was greatly feared by elites and authorities as a potential threat to the existing social order. This anxiety manifested itself in repeated attempts to legislate against the consumption of coffee among certain groups.
...Chapter 3, “The Rabbis Welcome Coffee,” plots out the rabbinic response to coffee consumption among the Jews of German lands. It begins with the challenges faced by rabbis who in the very early years of coffee’s distribution in Europe neither agreed upon its appropriate blessing nor knew the various manners by which it could be made. Nonetheless, the rabbinic response to coffee was far more positive than that of German Christian elites...Liberles notes that Jews began drinking coffee habitually at about the same time as middle-class German Christians. Yet he also notes that Jews, at least in the early eighteenth century, preferred to drink their coffee in coffeehouses, including those owned and run by non-Jews, because few knew how to prepare the beverage at home...Much of the chapter is dedicated to a discussion of petty trade in coffee in the Jewish Gasse in Frankfurt, particularly the practice of making and selling “Shabbos coffee.”
.... Lower-class Jews of the region, especially widows, often supplemented their income by preparing coffee for the Sabbath. This practice, which could involve preparing as much as between thirty and fifty pounds of coffee over a larger fire on a Thursday evening, raised the ire and consternation of neighbors who feared that their homes might burn down...Liberles...examines] the case of a local, Christian coffeehouse owner who repeatedly denied service to Jewish customers in 1806...The affair, which continued for the better part of a year, involved attempts on the part of Jewish customers both to take legal action and to take up arms in defense of their right to drink coffee in such a public establishment...lower-class and sometimes unkempt Jews used more rowdy methods as they demanded to be served in a regular coffeehouse” (pp. 130-131). In some ways, the lower classes were more successful because they sought equal access to a social space and not, as in the case of the upper class, social acceptance...

I can only bemoan no references to the imbibing of coffee as reflected in Hassidic literature as in Elliott Horowitz's "Coffee, Coffeehouses, and the Nocturnal Rituals of Early Modern Jewry," ASS Review 14 (1989), 17-46.


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