In March 2020, at the very start of the COVID-19 pandemic, David Ehrlich, owner and proprietor of the downtown Jerusalem coffeehouse Tmol Shilshom, died suddenly from a heart attack.
Nearly two years later, his cafe is still operating, thanks to his business partner Dan Goldberg and the support of friends and customers through a successful crowdfunding campaign on the Headstart platform. The cafe continues to host authors and poets reading their latest works as customers nurse their cups of coffee, tea or chai on one of the deep couches or plush chairs.
Now, there’s a new attraction in this cozy, booklined establishment: a freshly painted, single white wall — dubbed Gallery Wall1 — to showcase exhibits of various types. The inaugural one is called “Nes or Turkish,” an exhibit of art plus text about Jerusalem’s Mandate-era coffeehouses.
The two curators, history professor Rina Peled and artist Leora Weiss, placed photos, scribblings and other objects throughout the rambling coffeehouse, named for a novel by Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon and situated in a 150-year-old building in the Nahalat Shiva neighborhood.
The exhibit forms part of the Jerusalem Biennale, an art show in place until December 31. The theme of this year’s Biennale is “Four Cubits,” the approximate equivalent of two meters (6.5 feet), with artists exhibiting works relating to the concept of home and close quarters and what these have meant for the months of the continuing pandemic.
For many, said Peled, Tmol Shilshom was like an extension of their own living rooms. Ehrlich had continued the longstanding tradition of the European-style coffeehouses that were established by immigrants to pre-state Israel (including an Israeli breakfast voted as one of the top ten on travel guide Lonely Planet).
Like many of the historic cafes shown in the exhibit — Cafe Alaska, Cafe Atara — Tmol Shilshom had to fight for its survival and has become a symbol of Jerusalem, a place that brings together all different types, she added.
“There was life that went on in coffeehouses in Europe and that was brought to Israel,” said Weiss. “There were the gatherings and meetings that happened there. The space was full of art and activity in a sense.”
Coffeehouses were places where writers and artists, academics and thinkers would sit and chat, plan and scheme, said Peled.
“I love cafes and the ones that were here were created by people who wanted to recreate what they had back in Europe,” said Peled, adding that she used to eat breakfast with a friend on the same Tmol Shilshom couch for many years. “They wanted to import the culture they had there.”
The black-and-white photos of “Nes or Turkish” — the title refers to two popular coffee drinks of the time, instant Nescafe and thick Turkish coffee — depict Jerusalem during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, focusing on Jewish-run cafes, as opposed to the city’s Arab coffeehouses, which were also plentiful but different.
The photos show well-known figures, from Harry Belafonte and Leonard Bernstein to local writers and academics, and a set of Australian Anzac soldiers in their wool trench coats, grinning widely.
The two curators dug through books and Facebook groups that focus on Jerusalem of the past, and spoke to local coffee aficionados who were a font of information.
“One thing led to another,” said Weiss. “People are proud of their cafe connections, they grew up in cafes, and they want the culture to continue.”
The coffeehouses of those times were used as meeting places, often with discreet corners or second floors — such as Atara on Ben Yehuda Street — where customers would sit if they didn’t want to be seen.
The photos and memorabilia of “Nes or Turkish” include images and objects from Fink’s, a watering hole frequented by foreign press in Jerusalem and revered by its customers.
The exhibit also includes some of Weiss’s artwork, papier-mâché sculptures of ice cream sundaes and plates of salted fish and fried eggs that symbolized the typical menu items of the era.
There’s a table seated with Weiss’s cardboard figurines: writers Agnon, Yehuda Amichai and Aharon Appelfeld, all familiar cafe guests back in the day.
“We wanted to represent cafes where there was a culture, where people sat and things happened,” said Peled. “They didn’t just drink and leave. Something significant happened in these places.”
Peled and Weiss will be curating new exhibits at Tmol Shilshom’s Gallery Wall1 every two months. They’re finding that while artists were at first “a little snooty” about being shown in a cafe, they now realize it’s an interesting twist that offers exposure to a wider viewing public.
“It doesn’t limit us to be here,” said Peled. “People are here all the time, and they suddenly realize there’s something to see on the walls.”
“It’s a literary cafe that has a name,” said Weiss. “And let’s be honest, people don’t go to galleries and museums as much as they come to cafes. Artists love the exposure they get when people actually see their work.”
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