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The Closing of the Old Café

Dispatch from the last day at Tel Aviv’s iconic Café Tamar, after 74 years of service

Alex Cocotas
August 07, 2015
Photo collage by Tablet. Original images from Wikimedia Commons & Flickr 1, Flickr 2
Photo collage by Tablet. Original images from Wikimedia Commons & Flickr 1, Flickr 2
Photo collage by Tablet. Original images from Wikimedia Commons & Flickr 1, Flickr 2
Photo collage by Tablet. Original images from Wikimedia Commons & Flickr 1, Flickr 2

When Tel Aviv’s famed Café Tamar announced in April that it was going to close, via the novelist Dudu Busi’s Facebook page, the seats were full the next day, as they almost always are on Friday afternoons; only now, the customers, most of them regulars, were filmed by TV crews: Participants were directed to talk as they normally would, as if such a thing were possible under the circumstances, then stopped and filmed from a different position, perhaps a more naturalistic angle.

Beyond the camera’s view, the café buzzed as usual: The parliaments—what Israelis call the large, boisterous conversations at cafés: largely male, typically older, invariably solving the world’s problems by fiat—roiled and rescinded on the same tide of insults, denunciations, and interruptions, balancing delicately between argument and jests. Customers played chess, discussed the news, smoked, drank; service was slow; there were still only two things on the menu. Busi said the family of the café’s matriarch, Sarah Stern, was upset that he broke the news.

For 59 years Sarah ran the café, which originally opened in 1941. She and her husband Abraham, who met in Egypt while serving in the British Army during World War II, bought it in 1956. When Abraham died in in 1966, Sarah took full control of the café.

A short, stout woman with a shock of ash-gray hair who exudes an enormous presence, her personality was the café’s guiding spirit. She is fiercely independent, did not hesitate to argue with or insult her customers, and did not indulge sentiment: Her smile is the hint of a smile. An electronic cigarette constantly hangs from her lips. Her resting expression is disapproval, tinted by confusion. Above all, she commanded fierce loyalty from her customers, especially those that endlessly enjoy goading her.

While Sarah has slowed down in recent years, it is not hard to see how she must have once dominated the place. In a video from several years ago, taken when she was a spry 81, her jaw appears to be in perpetual motion as she stands with arms akimbo, framed by the café’s entrance. Even now, when she was largely confined to a seat on the front patio, where she was occasionally enjoyed an ice cream bar, eaten with a fork and knife, she was fastidious about the café operations. Upon her first hunch of a customer in need, she called out, “Girls, there’s someone here that needs help.” She would often slowly rise and just ring them up herself, playing coolly oblivious when staff and family members beseeched her to take it easy.

Her stock phrase of choice these days is, “This doesn’t interest me.” On the TV cameras: “This doesn’t interest me.” On an old customer who stopped by and wanted to take a photo with her: “This doesn’t interest me.” On her recent 90th birthday: “This doesn’t interest me.”

I happened to be in the café on her birthday. A parade of guests came to wish her a happy birthday, to which she replied, laconically, “It’s not my birthday.” Regulars sang various birthday songs in various languages, to her great annoyance.

A certain distaste for time was central to Café Tamar’s appeal: It didn’t look like anything about it has changed in years. The olive green Formica tables were stacked on top of one another with minimal regard for ease of passage. Many of the chairs were plastic. There were at least six different kinds of light fixtures, including a mysterious glass flower in one corner. The sink to the bathroom, which you had to exit the café to access, was a rusting wash-basin with faucet. The television, from the days when televisions were still markedly 3D, sat in a specifically designed cubbyhole and may have been the most advanced piece of technology in the place, although there was theoretically a Wi-Fi router lying about somewhere. I only remember the TV being turned on twice: once for the release of a bombshell report that would supposedly derail Netanyahu’s reelection; the other to watch Sarah’s granddaughter, Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, being sworn into the Knesset, after Netanyahu’s reelection. There were only seven outlets in the café, accessible at four of the 30 or so tables. The Wi-Fi was spotty, and few noticed when it went down.

The wait staff consisted of four women who were on a first-name basis with most of the customers. They smoked indoors even though that is theoretically illegal, interspersed with occasional bursts of exertion. On Fridays ringers helped with the overflow; one week, Sarah’s granddaughter, the aforementioned member of the Knesset, served us coffee. There were only two prepared items on the menu: bagel toast, basically a grilled cheese on an oversized bagel, with or without egg, and served with a side of grated tomatoes; and a salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce, topped with shredded radish and feta, with green olives on the side. There were also burekas, pastries stuffed with cheese or potato, and cakes: cheesecake, poppy seed, and cinnamon. Café Tamar was once famous for having the worst coffee in the city, although it had improved in recent years. No one really came for the food or coffee.

People came, read newspapers—not an anachronistic activity in Israel—attached themselves to groups, dissolved into smaller discussions, the more boisterous attracting eavesdroppers, a fateful interjection transforming them into participants. And they came for a long time. One man told his grandchildren that he had been a regular customer for 50 years. The walls are lined with obituaries and little monuments to former regulars: the actor Amos Lavi; Yossi Harel, the commander of the Exodus 47 (the inspiration for the novel, and later Otto Preminger’s movie starring Paul Newman); and the actor and poet Yitzhak “Picho” Ben Tzor. (“At the funeral, [friends] poured Arak on the fresh grave ‘so that he would not be thirsty.’ ”) No ghost haunts the place, however, as much as former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Two large paintings of Rabin by Uri Lifshitz sit in the show window, flanking the entrance. Inside there are more portraits, photographs, and posters. Then there are the bumper stickers, occupying every available space of the counter and cash register: “Rabin, hero of the generation”; “Israel is waiting for Rabin”; “Shalom, friend” (the last words of Bill Clinton’s famous eulogy); “I miss you, friend”; “Friend, I remember”; “Friend, you are missing.” Others expound policies associated with Rabin: “Who needs more war?”; “Peace with Syria and Lebanon”; “The majority decided for peace—me too!”; “For the future of our children.” There are also many anti-Netanyahu stickers—from the first time he was prime minister, in the nineties. The stickers are the mosaic of an alternative history of Israel, one which mysteriously ends in the middle aughts, although the posters for Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s unsuccessful effort to dislodge Netanyahu pick up the thread a bit. If you had settled down for a 15-year slumber in the café, you would emerge into a shocking new world.

But such is time and such is the life of an establishment. Like New York City, or America for anyone under the age of 35, one senses that Café Tamar was always better before you came around.

The café was long a hub for writers and journalists. In the eighties, when the surrounding neighborhood was the center of Tel Aviv’s bohemian scene, Tamar, the only café on Sheinkin Street at the time, became a natural home for artists, intellectuals, and aspirants, earning mention by a young songwriter named Yair Lapid, later the minister of finance. Davar, the newspaper of the Israeli labor movement, had its editorial offices down the street. The late novelist Yoram Kaniuk was a regular; poet Ronny Someck still came every Friday. If a customer couldn’t afford to pay, Sarah would let them drink anyway. There are so many paintings of the café and its characters contributed over the years that some just sat neglected against a back wall. Sarah appeared in expressionistic portraits, in realistic portraits, and, most frequently, in the caricatures by Ze’ev Farkash; smiling in almost none of them. Even a few politicians, like Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, frequented the café.

And yet in recent years it was unquestionably on the wane. The customer base was aging and wasn’t replaced by younger patrons: Sarah had outlived many of her most loyal customers. The next generation of artists and intellectuals moved further south, as prices rose and the neighborhood became a bastion of clothing stores, salons, and swankier cafes. While it was still full on Fridays, it was mostly empty during the weekdays.

While it is tempting to take the café’s decline as a parable for broader political changes in Israel, it is a strained point: Its demise is as much a product of changing cultural tastes as political shifts. At a time when most Tel Aviv cafés are indistinguishable from their American counterparts, Café Tamar looked like a kibbutz cafeteria plucked from the 1950s. The food and coffee were an afterthought. It did not cater to computers. There was no privacy; most of the seating was at a shared table and conversation intermingled freely; and that’s all there really was to do, talk. It was the other home, not the other office.

However, “late Tamar” still had its charms. You could sit in there, sealed off from the world, time gently rolling over you, the sound of traffic crashing in from Sheinkin and Ahad HaAm with indifferent certitude, the air-conditioning humming, customers slowly stirring, small flicks of sugar packets, spoons rattling around the rims of narrow, cylindrical glasses, interrupted only by the intermittent static of conversations; there was no music, and you could still listen to your own thoughts, which often revolved around why they need run six air-conditioning vents all the time, or simply to your neighbors’ arguments.

A group of six or eight regulars formed the core of the front porch’s daily parliament, including the radio host Eran Sebag; the stage actor Asher Tzarfati, perhaps best known to some as the lead in the cult film An American Hippie in Israel; the novelist Busi; and another theater and film worker, Arieh, whose periorbital folds look like the furls of a grand stage curtain. The photographer and documentarian Shlomit Carmeli fastidiously films the proceedings. They drink beer; they smoke; they laugh; they argue. Eran and Asher bandy lines of Greek back and forth, gleaned from some shared reserve. Occasionally they all lapse into silence, like people who have already said it all to each other, then someone hums or taps a beat, and they are all singing old songs. Sarah sits outside with them, tells them to shut up when they yell, and calls them crazy when they sing.

Ritual likewise reigns inside. A former editor at Davar comes around the same time every day, reads through the stack of newspapers, and discusses their contents with whoever is at hand, often other older women, sometimes a professor with whom she shares a cigarette. The journalist (and Tablet contributor) Yossi Melman holds loud political discussions with various guests, never failing to tell them that they are sitting in a historic place. A young Palestinian boy passed through once or twice a day, selling trinkets and tchotchkes; lighters, hand towels, and battery-powered back massagers on a recent day; conducting negotiations with customers, some of whom he is clearly acquainted with, one of whom usually buys him a lemonade, in lieu of a lighter for himself.

For a place so resistant to change, however, it didn’t indulge great shows of nostalgia. When my girlfriend’s mother, a former customer, told Sarah that she had driven 40 minutes to come see the café before it closed, she responded, “So what?”

After the announcement and the TV cameras, the café returned to its usual rhythms. No hard date was set for the closing. Sometime in the next month or two, it was said. After a few weeks one of the waitresses told me that that the last day would be June 12. Still, not much changed. Occasionally a regular would question, in a strained voice, almost rhetorically, “Where will we sit? But where will we sit?” A Whatsapp group was set up to discuss alternatives. Partisans of Café Bialik pleaded for a respite in Internet comments after Busi named it as a potential option. No successor has been publicly announced.

Café Tamar was the other home, not the other office.

On the Friday before the final week, the café was full, slightly more so than usual, and TV cameras from Channel 2, the country’s biggest station, arrived—apparently they missed the bumper sticker on the counter: “Channel 2: wool over the eyes”—conducting interviews; and yet still, not much changed. A young man filmed everything for a documentary he was making. One regular asked a waitress to take a picture of him posing with his coffee, his cheesecake, and his newspaper.

The cameras from Channel 2 returned on Tuesday; the footage from the previous Friday was apparently no good and had to be reshot; the presenter wore the same outfit. There were stirrings of lament. “My heart is broken,” said one regular. “It’s interesting what will be come Sunday,” added the former Davar editor. “But where will we sit?” chimed in a third.

Sarah seemed to take it in stride. She argued with regulars; she alerted the wait staff to new customers; and she obstinately rang up bills. She ignored the cameras, enjoyed family and friends, and refused sentimental alms. When an older woman came to commiserate with her, or so she thought, Sarah responded, “I don’t want help. I don’t need help.” When a group of regulars invited her to sit with them, she responded, “I’ll sit where I want,” and pointedly sat at the opposite table.

On the final day the café was completely packed. Customers sat on crates, others on the narrow ledge that wrapped around the room; the crowd spilled out on to the sidewalk. One man loudly exclaimed, “Most of these people haven’t been here for years!” Parents brought their children; grandparents, their grandchildren. There were cultural and political luminaries, in addition to the usual figures: the poet Mati Shemoelof, fresh from Berlin; MK Mirav Michaeli; and the actor Sassoon Gabai. There was a young man taking video testimonials, in addition to the documentarian and Channel 2, and six or seven photographers.

A group of the most devoted regulars assembled away from the noise out back, next to the bathroom, intermittently singing in French and other languages. “Look what the crazies there are doing,” Sarah called out. Other regulars bussed tables and delivered dishes. When I asked one if she volunteered, she responded, “Of course. This is my home. For 20 years, this is my home.”

But how would it end? Someone said that something would happen at four. Nothing happened at four. Just before six, the official closing time, the group of devoted regulars migrated inside and gathered in the back corner. The dim hushed, as much as a gathering of one hundred or so Israelis can hush. They started singing, old Israeli folk songs, written not long before the café’s opening, soon taken up by the whole room. “Oh what a night of nights / Silence across Jezreel.” The regulars moved toward Sarah, behind the counter, and continued singing, and even she began to sing, Eran Sabag’s arm hanging around her, rocking slightly from side to side. “Sleep my beloved, land of glorious beauty / We shall be your guardians.” There were no grand reminisces, no great speeches reflecting on the past. Someone bought bouquets for most of the women present, and soon flowers were flying across the room. The chess players continued to play. The waitresses poured out shots of Arak for everyone. All week long the staff said that they were definitely closing at six, that they wouldn’t let people linger into the night. Toward seven, the café was still full.

Sarah spent the entire day working the cash register. She was in high spirits, smiling freely, telling old customers to come say hello, letting anyone take a pictures with her who wanted. It didn’t stop her from yelling at one point, as a wave of noise rippled through the café, “Quiet, you animals!”


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Alex Cocotas is a writer based in Berlin.