Kibbitzers, Coffee, and Kiklekh

An Unheralded Glory of Yiddish Culture: Its Literary Cafés

Written by:
David Mazower
Summer 2016 / 5776
Part of issue number:
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Like literary folk everywhere, Yiddish writers loved cafés. (Illustration by A. Richard Allen)

The big cities of continental Europe expanded at a dizzying pace in the nineteenth century. Between 1850 and 1900 the number of Parisians doubled, while Berlin and Vienna grew fourfold. Along with their imposing boulevards, grand squares, and public gardens, Europe’s great cities now boasted elegant cafés—gleaming visions of marble, mahogany, and crystal—that soon became the favorite meeting place of urban intellectuals and the new middle class.

Jews were well represented in both groups, and since café life was essentially about talking, eating, and being seen—activities for which Jews seemed almost genetically predisposed—Jews and cafés were a natural match. Jewish patrons had their regular seats in the fashionable cafés of Budapest and Berlin, just as they did in the heymish kosher restaurants. And like literary folk everywhere, Yiddish writers loved cafés. From Odessa to Buenos Aires, it was the same story: the one place where you could be sure to find the local Yiddish writers and journalists was at a café table.

Around 1912 the Yiddish poet and essayist Melech Ravitch spent some time in Lemberg, today the Ukrainian city of L’viv. Five minutes’ walk from the main Yiddish theater was Café Abacja, a dark coffeehouse with a few chess tables where, at any hour of the day or night, Lemberg’s Yiddish-speaking actors, journalists, and writers could be found. Ravitch was then a teenaged bank clerk, but he spent his days dreaming of escaping to the Abacja:

I liked nothing better than to while away time there . . . to sip warm coffee, snack on a filled pastry (rogale) which the Café Abacja called “kipferl,” Viennese style, and just gaze out through the big window. But you could never just sit for long in Café Abacja. Soon one person came in, then another and another, and very soon you were drawn into a conversation about poetry or short stories, bad-mouthing one friend to another or just gossiping. Like a flock of pigeons who can only live in company, and who immediately begin pecking at one another as soon as they come across a grain of food—that's how the artistic crowd in Café Abacja behaved: the artists, the actors, and also we—the writers.

Ravitch here captures the essence of the Yiddish literary café—its informality and companionship, at once a refuge, social center, and cultural community. Every Yiddish-speaking town or city had its equivalent of Lemberg’s Café Abacja. The big centers like Warsaw, Odessa, and New York had dozens of them. Writers went there for the warmth and the gossip, to shnor a loan, read the Yiddish newspapers, maybe even to write. But literary cafés were also places of commerce, where a theater manager might strike a deal for a new play or a newspaper editor agree terms with a columnist or poet. 

An early meeting place for Warsaw’s young Yiddish writers was the small dairy restaurant run by Yekhezkl Kotik. Kotik had been a shopkeeper, a melamed (grade school teacher), an estate manager, and a tavern owner before opening his small premises on Warsaw’s bustling Nalewki Street. It soon became a regular haunt of revolutionary activists, young intellectuals, and impoverished Yiddish writers. The Hebrew writer Jacob Fichman found it soon after his move from Odessa in 1903: “In a few days I was a regular in Kotik’s tiny and grubby café. There I sat over a cup of coffee with Sholem Asch and Avrom Reisen . . . the bohemian life attracted all of us to the Polish metropolis.”

Lodz had the Astoria and the cheaper Pod Szklanka (Under the Sign of the Drinking Glass). Odessa had Café Franconi, where Jewish writers and gangsters rubbed shoulders at white marble tables. The Yiddish actors and writers of interwar Vilna hung out in the popular vegetarian eatery run by the chef and restaurateur Fania Lewando. 

Berlin’s famous Romanisches Café had separate tables for Hebrew and Yiddish writers. The latter mockingly renamed the place the Rakhmonisches (Pity) Café, an acerbic comment on the quality of its food and interior decor. One of its regulars, the writer Hersh Dovid Nomberg, who suffered from tuberculosis, once described it as an ideal sanatorium, its air “so filled with tobacco smoke that not a single bacillus can survive here.”

On a visit to London in 1913 the celebrated Austrian Jewish journalist Egon Erwin Kisch noted that the only part of the metropolis where you could find a continental-style coffeehouse was the Jewish immigrant quarter of Whitechapel. Kisch’s brief sketch of the New Yorker Restaurant is a brilliant snapshot of East London’s Yiddish literary bohemia. Against the wafting aroma of baked fish, Kisch portrays the café’s proprietor, a man “with literary inclinations, an eytsesgeber, that is, literary advisor, to the Yiddish publishing house”; a regular with a goatee, known only as “Avroymele,” once a medical student in Berlin, now a Yiddish satirist; alongside them, a “spindly local composer of songs whose speciality is rhyming Yiddish and English words”; and at a nearby table a “Yiddish literary historian . . . who has discovered an 18th-century Yiddish drama in the library of the British Museum.” Kisch doesn’t name these figures, but he gives us enough clues to identify most of them. The proprietor is Harry Steinwoolf, a Russian Jewish immigrant who ran a restaurant and boarding house on Whitechapel Road and was associated with the Pavilion Theatre. “Avroymele” was the pseudonym of Avrom Margolin, whose humorous journal Der blofer (The Bluffer) rained down barbs on local bigwigs. And the literary historian is Ber Borokhov, the noted political theoretician and Yiddish philologist who immersed himself in the British Museum in 1913.

New York’s Jewish immigrant café culture goes back to the late nineteenth century. During the golden age of Yiddish theater, in the 1890s, rival groups of theatergoers, each loyal to a different venue, plotted their campaigns from local cafés. Yosl Mamelige and his Romanian patryotn (fans) from the Windsor Theatre met up at the Campus Café on Delancey Street, where Mamelige (real name: Yosl Yaffe) was employed as a waiter. Moyshe Goulash (real name: Moyshe Belas) led a rival fan club loyal to the Thalia Theatre, with a base at Schwartz’s Hungarian Café on Rivington Street. Finally, Yisroel Melnik, a stable owner from Lithuania, and his People’s Theatre patryotn assembled at Sigmund Manilevscu’s Café Essex. The writer S. L. Blumenson frequented Manilevscu’s as a young immigrant and recalled years later (in a piece for Commentary magazine) how the Romanian proprietor secretly despised his Litvak clients: 

While Sigmund as a matter of national pride carried mameliga [polenta] on the menu, he didn’t feature it; in his neighborhood, there were few customers for this Rumanian delicacy. “Vos vayst a khazer fun lokshn?” he would say, summing up the situation. “Does a pig appreciate noodles?” Could a Litvak appreciate a luscious bowl of mameliga, with sizzling sweet butter, sprinkled generously with pepper cheese? Could such cold fish understand the work of Goldfaden? Sigmund boiled inwardly when he heard the intellectuals who came to eat his famous twelve-cent, seven-course dinner speak of his beloved actors as Purim-shpiler [amateur Purim performers] and of famous authors like Hurwitz, Latteiner, Zeifert, and Sharkansky as purveyors of trash. Sigmund knew that all these critics spoke out of envy; the fact was that all the early playwrights were Rumanians, Bessarabians, and Bukovinians. 

All three rival groups came together to defend their heroes’ reputations at the neutral ground of Schreiber’s Saloon on Canal Street. Schreiber’s functioned as a Yiddish theatrical marketplace. Newly arrived actors, unemployed choristers, prompters, composers, and arrangers all gathered there to seek work or compare notes. Schreiber was a staunch supporter of the Yiddish theater, with a reputation for generosity; his free lunch, wrote Blumenson, “literally saved the early Yiddish stage from extinction by starvation.”

Two or three decades later the Yiddish literary and theater crowd had migrated to the old-world elegance of the Café Royal on Second Avenue. One of its regulars, the American Jewish journalist and Yiddish poet Judd Teller, described it as “the Yiddish writers’ Algonquin, the Yiddish actors’ Sardi’s, and a hostel for chronic gamblers with intellectual pretensions.” The writers sat on the left, the actors on the right, with stars like Stella Adler and Bina Abramovich holding court at separate tables and the card shufflers and racing tipsters out of sight behind drapes at the rear. At the Royal you might bump into the renowned Russian singer Feodor Chaliapin, E. E. Cummings, or Isadora Duncan. But its real presiding genius was Herman the majordomo, a Hungarian Jew who was rumored to have converted to Christianity, a moneylender to the regulars, and part owner of the café. Although the Royal closed in 1952, it is immortalized in Hy Kraft’s play Café Crown. Fyvush Finkel, another Royal regular, won an Obie for his portrayal of Sam, the Café Royal waiter. (“I ate there for thirty years and never got what I wanted,” Finkel once told the New York Post. “The waiter always talked me out of it.”) 

Like immigrant street markets, shuls, and sweatshops, the Yiddish literary café and coffeehouse is long gone. Today it’s the subject of museum exhibits and academic monographs. Curators and literary historians will be hard-pressed to capture its flavors and smells, its feuds and intrigues, let alone its unique mix of raconteurs, kibitzers, wits, and ghetto philosophers. But at least they can put on record the sustaining role these establishments played across the Yiddish-speaking world. And in the process we can celebrate the many vivid accounts of literary cafés in Yiddish-language memoirs and autobiographies.

David Mazower edits the daily news discussion show World Have Your Say on BBC World Service radio. He writes on Yiddish culture for Pakn Treger, the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project, and others, and is working on a biography of the Yiddish actress Fanny Vadia Epstein. The author thanks Sima Beeri, Natalia Krynicka, Shachar Pinsker, and Amanda Seigel for their generous help with linguistic tips and literary sleuthing.