Jerusalem literary landmark Tmol Shilshom looks to tomorrow

Owners of storied downtown bookstore-café – central to some of Israel’s most noted writers – to put worst-ever year behind them

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Tmol Shilshom founder and co-owner David Ehrlich (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)
Tmol Shilshom founder and co-owner David Ehrlich (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

Tmol Shilshom is a storied Jerusalem landmark. A bookstore-café located in a hidden courtyard off downtown’s Yoel Salomon Street, it has existed for 20 years. In that time, it has served as the literary heart and soul of secular, Zionist Jerusalem and as an attraction for both locals and tourists.

The great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai read his poems at Tmol Shilshom’s opening in 1994. Since then, many of the most prominent contemporary Israeli writers — like Amos Oz, Aharon Appelfeld, David Grossman and Etgar Keret — have regularly given readings from their latest books there. American Jewish writers have also come to love the place. It is well known, for instance, that Nathan Englander wrote the short story collection that launched his career, “For The Relief of Unbearable Urges,” while sitting at a favorite table at Tmol Shilshom.

It might seem to those who love Tmol Shilshom, which shares its name with a novel by Nobel Prize-winning Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon (translated into English as “Only Yesterday”), that it will always be an integral part of Jerusalem. A few months ago, however, the city almost lost this cultural asset.

Although Tmol Shilshom managed to weather the Second Intifada and other challenging periods over the past two decades, last summer’s war with Hamas in Gaza and the string of terror attacks in Jerusalem throughout the fall nearly did it in.

Thanks to an uptick in business since late December, it appears that Tmol Shilshom has been pulled back from the brink. However, its emergence from this recent crisis is being taken by co-owner and founder David Ehrlich as a sign that measures need to be put in place to prevent it from being so greatly affected again by the vicissitudes of Israel’s security situation.

“It was a long, dry season we just survived. 2014 was our hardest year ever,” Ehrlich told The Times of Israel over breakfast at his establishment one rainy day in late January.

“The war and terror killed tourism on the spot. I realized how crucial tourists are to us. They come on vacation and are bigger spenders than the locals,” he said.

A reading corner at Tmol Shilshom is dedicated to the late poet Yehuda Amichai. His favorite armchair is still there. (Courtesy)
A reading corner at Tmol Shilshom is dedicated to the late poet Yehuda Amichai. His favorite armchair is still there. (Courtesy)

The security situation had a noticeable effect on Jerusalem residents, as well. The heavier mood in the capital, combined with the fact that downtown Jerusalem is no longer the only entertainment hot spot in the city, spelled trouble for Tmol Shilshom.

Yitz Landes, a 26-year-old graduate student, was at Tmol Shilshom for the first time in two years on the day that The Times of Israel spoke with him there. He used to frequent it more in the past as a yeshiva student, sitting for hours reading a book and appreciating the more secular intellectual environment.

“There are simply more cafes to choose from now,” he said in explaining his long absence.

Ehrlich confirmed that his establishment’s location is more of a challenge than it was in the past.

“Where do all the young people go to hang out now? The shuk,” Ehrlich said of the newly gentrified Mahane Yehuda market, where chic restaurants and bars can be found alongside the traditional fruit and vegetable stands, bakeries and butcher shops.

He also pointed to the eateries at the high-end Mamilla outdoor shopping promenade outside the Old City and the renovated First Station complex, as well as along the German Colony’s Emek Refaim Street, as competitors that for the most part did not exist when he opened the business.

Yehuda Amichai reading his poetry Tmol Shilshom's opening in June 1994. (Courtesy)
Yehuda Amichai reading his poetry at Tmol Shilshom’s opening in June 1994. (Courtesy)

To a certain extent, Ehrlich can count on regular customers who love Tmol Shilshom’s old-Jerusalem-style, homey ambiance and excellent food, including its shakshuka, which has been hailed as a don’t-miss dish by major travel guidebooks and websites (Lonely Planet called the cafe’s shakshuka one of the 10 best breakfasts in the world).

“I know it’s been a hard year for David and Dan [Goldberg, Ehrlich’s business partner], so I wanted to give them the business and exposure,” said Aryeh Green as he took a break from greeting guests who had come to wish him a happy 52nd birthday.

Green, the founder and director of Media Central — an NGO providing support services for journalists based in or visiting Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the region — has a long-standing tradition of sitting in a Jerusalem café all day on his birthday each year. Instead of throwing a party that people must attend at a certain hour, his friends instead stop by the café at their convenience any time between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m.

For 10 of his last 13 birthdays, Green has celebrated his birthday in this fashion at Tmol Shilshom. His friends come and sit with him for a while, almost all of them ordering a meal, or at least a cup of coffee and pastry.

“I keep coming back over and over because it’s so comfortable that it feels like an extension of my home. It love its history, the amazing food and incredible service,” he said.

Jerusalem deputy mayor Ofer Berkovitch lights Hanukkah candles at Tmol Shilshom, December 2014. (Courtesy)
Jerusalem deputy mayor Ofer Berkovitch lights Hanukkah candles at Tmol Shilshom, December 2014. (Courtesy)

Jerusalem deputy mayor Ofer Berkovitch told The Times of Israel that his Hitorerut party (Hebrew link) purposely chose Tmol Shilshom as the venue for some of its recent events. The party’s young supporters gathered to light candles at Tmol Shilshom one night during Hanukkah, and on a snowy night in January, they met there for an evening of communal singing.

While Berkovitch has personal recollections of romantic dates at Tmol Shilshom, he was all business as he explained how he and others in local government are trying to establish a business improvement district, a public-private partnership that would benefit Tmol Shilshom along with other downtown businesses.

“It may be a private business, but it is a cultural asset for the city,” he said of the famous bookstore-café. “It’s an anchor for the creative class and important to the cultural development that is going on in the center of the city.”

Since the beginning, Ehrlich, who is a published author himself, has used his friendships with many of Israel’s top writers and intellectuals to help build and sustain his business.

“In the beginning it was about my personal connections, but over time the big names have heard of this place and see it as an honor to come read and speak here,” Ehrlich said.

Many of these major figures have been receptive to his reaching out for much-needed support in these tough times. Israel Prize-winner A.B. Yehoshua, for example, spoke about his latest book at Tmol Shilshom in mid-February, drawing a crowd.

However, following the extremely trying past year, Ehrlich has decided he needs to rethink his strategy. He is investigating what it means to be a bookstore-café in the Internet age. When he started Tmol Shilshom, no one had an e-reader or was capable of virtually attending a book launch event in real time via online streaming.

Ehrlich said he was not yet sure exactly in what direction he was going to take things, but he did say he felt it was time to bring a third partner into the business.

“We need someone younger, in his or her 20s, who is more business-minded than we are. We definitely need to update some things,” he said.

A.B. Yehoshua discusses his latest novel with literature fans at Tmol Shilshom, February 2015. (Courtesy)
A.B. Yehoshua discusses his latest novel with literature fans at Tmol Shilshom, February 2015. (Courtesy)

Some worry that the application of MBA smarts to the matter may not be all that’s needed.

American-born Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi, who routinely holds the Jerusalem launch events for his books at Tmol Shilshom, sees its struggles not merely as the financial challenges of a small business but rather as part of a larger, ideological conflict in Jerusalem.

“This is one more sign that the Jerusalem of the Hebrew renaissance is dying. It’s being killed by Haredization [increased ultra-Orthodox influence], commercialism and in another way by terrorism,” he said.

“The humane, open, literary Jerusalem is facing a lethal threat. The ability of Tmol Shilshom to survive is a key indicator of whether the Jerusalem of [former mayor] Teddy Kollek, [philosopher] Gershom Scholem, Agnon and [poet] Yehuda Amichai will be able to survive.”

It’s a heavy load that Ehrlich carries as he digs his beloved business out of the hole that the difficult year of 2014 put it in.

“This place has an importance far beyond my making a living,” he said.

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