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Café Society

Humming with immigrant voices, the coffee houses of Jerusalem fueled the imagination of a young refugee writing his way into a new world.

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My attraction to cafés probably goes back to the beautiful cafés of Czernowitz, in Bukovina, where I was born. The cafés there were full but not crowded. Those who frequented the Czernowitz cafés had their regular places, zealously kept for them by the waiters. Naturally, the tables by the windows were the most sought after. Every regular had his own spot. In contrast to the pubs, the cafés were quiet, circumspect, more like public libraries—everyone immersed in his own newspaper or book. The conversations, even the arguments, were not loud. These cafés of my childhood were distinguished by their secluded niches for chess. People sat for hours poring over the chessboards, as if the entire world hung in the balance. My father was an excellent chess player. When he would play, people would gather around our table, intently following the moves.

When I grew up and needed time to myself, I went to cafés. During the 1950s and 1960s, Jerusalem cafés were still quiet, there was no music, and they retained something of the aromas and manners of European cafés….


Café Atara, Jerusalem, 1950

Most cafés nowadays are not so much cafés but more like large, crowded spaces invaded with violent music. Don’t try to find any quiet there, or something mysterious, or that furtive connection with those surrounding you. It’s only a nexus, a point of transition, a place where you wait impatiently….

I have written all my novels in Jerusalem cafés. When I’m abroad, I may jot things down, edit a page or even a chapter, but I’ve never completed a short story or a novel abroad. Only in a Jerusalem café do I feel the freedom of imagination. That’s my starting point. That’s where I depart from and it is to there that I return.

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Café Peter in the German Colony was my first regular café. I used to go there for more than ten years, from 1953 till the mid-1960s. It was in its garden that I began my university studies and there that I completed them. The dark, narrow little room that I rented in Rehavia was just a place to sleep; I ate my meals at Café Peter, read, prepared for the examinations—but mostly I wrote there. To be more accurate, it was where I struggled to find my voice….

During the 1950s, young authors wrote in very high-flown language, either imitating the ancient texts or inventing a convoluted style. I was also drawn to these lofty expressions. But whenever I sat next to my brothers, refugees like myself, I saw that life’s mysteries should be clothed in facts. The simple and the factual lead to truth. An excess of words can be a serious obstacle. Another important lesson from my brother refugees is to see the essence and be sparing. What you don’t have to say, shouldn’t be said.

Everyone at Café Peter carried a cruel country in his soul, a home that had been broken into, and people from whom they would never part. How does one go on living with this in dignity? They actually didn’t discuss those “big” issues, but talked about practical matters. One of the useful unwritten rules was: A man should not talk about himself unless it carries some meaning for others. To speak about yourself just because something has happened to you is foolishness, or worse still, pure selfishness. For years I sat near them, and every day absorbed a tiny fragment of their soul. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that they were in me….

On the days that I wasn’t working to earn a living, I would sit in Café Peter from nine in the morning to three in the afternoon. If I was lucky, I might end up with only a single good page. To this day, I’m excited by a page of handwriting that doesn’t need more work.

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From the start of the 1950s, until it closed, I would frequent Café Rehavia on Ramban Street. The place reminded me of cafés in the resort towns that we used to travel to each summer. Unlike Café Peter, here all the conversations were in German. You saw at once that these refugees had not been in a ghetto; they had not been in railway stations crowded with people and packages, nor in a concentration camp. The comfort and ease of the places they had come from still clung to them.

I once saw a man sitting there playing chess against himself. I suggested playing with him and he agreed. He played a tough, decisive game, each move was well thought out and carefully considered. I was also careful, but only up to a certain point; then my patience would run out, and of course I’d lose.

That’s how we became friends and I acquired a chess partner. His name was Manfred Zauber. He was about fifty, tall and slim, and unlike most of the people who came to this café, simply dressed….

I loved playing with Zauber. His extreme cautiousness spurred me to take risks and make ever more imaginative moves. I loved his astonishment at the sight of one of my daring moves. In Hannover, the city where he was born, he had been the Registrar at the Hannover law courts. Perhaps because of his height and his long, gaunt body, he reminded me of Kafka. It turned out that I was not the only one who had noticed the resemblance; others saw it as well. It amused Zauber….

Zauber completely changed my relationship to Café Rehavia. Up to the time I met him, I had focused on only the distorted or even grotesque aspects of these lucky people who had fled Nazi Germany in time. Now I was faced with a man who, before each game, would stick a cigarette in a holder, light it with a lighter, stretch out his long arm and move one of the pieces. The tremor of hesitation always accompanied any movement of his hand. He was a very closed person who scarcely uttered a word.

Once he surprised me by asking me if I had read Kleist.

“No.”

“An important writer, I’ll lend you his books.”

As soon as I started to read them I understood: this was a writer from whom I could learn. Throughout the 1950s, I had written short stories, but wasn’t happy with them. It was clear to me that I knew neither the secret of plot development nor the power of simply stated facts. Instead of searching for a correct fact, I reach for metaphors. An excess of metaphors produces an unpleasant mist and a false sense of the poetic. The right facts, one following the next, are the driving force, the engine that moves a story along. A story, like a river, cannot stand still in one place….

The sights that I absorbed in Café Rehavia sometimes served as a platform and background for my novels, such as Badenheim 1939, or The Age of Wonders. As for Zauber himself—I have not yet written about him, but his name has crept into some of my stories.

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From the mid-1960s, I began to go to Café Atara on Ben Yehuda Street. Marriage didn’t change my habits. On the days that I wasn’t working, or rather, during the hours that I wasn’t working, I would sit in a café. Occasionally I would try to sit in a library. There, the thunderous silence muted my thoughts. I would sit there, or gaze at those leafing through books looking for an article or a quotation, and finally I would leave in confusion and distress.

Café Atara was not like Café Peter. Most of the day it was milling with people, but its upper floor was quiet and there was a corner by the window where my imagination conjured up the sights I needed. After a few hours of writing, I would take a stroll, walking up to Agrippas Street, meandering about for an hour or two. Then I would return home. The stroll was a continuation of the writing. On every walk I would recall some word that had eluded me, some phrase, or I would remove an obstacle that was obstructing the plot….

At Café Atara, I would meet Shai Agnon, Haim Hazaz, Arieh Lipshitz, Shalom Kramer, Haim Toren and Yehoshua Tan-Pai—all of them now in the Land of Truth. I was the youngster in this circle, which meant I had the privilege of looking on, following what was said and keeping silent. To this very day, I don’t feel that comfortable amid a group of people. There are some artists who come to life within a circle of people, even without a glass of cognac. I prefer to sit and talk to another person quietly, and even then I prefer to listen rather than be listened to….

At Café Atara, in the heart of Ben Yehuda Street, time pulsed at an accelerated pace. Here newspapers passed from hand to hand, every news item had its interpreters and explainers. This place was permeated with the here-and-now in the full sense of the phrase. After years at Café Peter, life here seemed to be effervescing. At first this sense of over-brimming bothered me, but I quickly got used to it. By now, I was no longer in need of “models.” The faces, the languages, the gestures, and the silences that I had absorbed at Café Peter…and at Café Rehavia were already part of me. I had but to link them to memory, to knead it carefully and then to allow the story to flow.

Agnon was astonished: “You write in Café Atara—in the midst of all that racket and confusion, with everyone looking at you?” He himself was a fanatic about quiet at home, and everyone was warned not to disturb him. I never made a fuss about my writing. It never bothers me when people talk. Many writers have tortured their families because the noise made it difficult for them to concentrate. True, literary writing isn’t regular writing, but then, neither is it a disease requiring the hushed silence of those around it. I have a great deal of respect for an artist who doesn’t impose his moods on those around him. Writing is a struggle, and it should be between you and yourself, without involving additional people.

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Café Society

Humming with immigrant voices, the coffee houses of Jerusalem fueled the imagination of a young refugee writing his way into a new world.

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