Coffee, revered for its taste, aroma and caffeinated properties, is having its moment at Jerusalem’s L.A. Mayer Islamic Museum of Art with “Coffee: East and West,” an exhibit focused on Israeli coffee habits along with the brewed beverage’s history and innovations.
The exhibit opened in July and will remain in-house through April. Three of the museum’s main galleries are devoted to all things coffee, with a specific emphasis on the java habits of this corner of the Middle East.
“Everyone has their culture of coffee and their customs for making it,” said curator Yahel Sheffer. “Morning coffee isn’t the same as 10 a.m. coffee or 4 p.m. coffee.”
Sheffer, who has also studied culinary and gastronomic arts in France, first began thinking about coffee while working on a Foreign Ministry exhibit about the origins of wine in the three major religions. It was a topic that touched on other beverages, including coffee.
“I learned how rich its history is,” said Sheffer, who spent five years researching the subject. “It’s the product that has no equal. Neither tea nor rice have had this kind of path and journey.”
The exhibit lays out the origins of coffee — its discovery in Ethiopia and its subsequent spread to Yemen and beyond, reaching Mecca and Cairo by the end of the 15th century. It was the Ottoman Empire that spread the word of coffee, delivering it among its trading routes, and serving Turkish coffee in coffeehouses in the familiar short cup of coffee with the grounds resting at the bottom.
Part of the exhibit is dedicated to the Turkish influence on coffee, with an impressive display of coffee sets, including one particularly amusing demitasse cup made for mustachioed drinkers, all lent by Turkish collectors Murat and Nihal Bursa.
The exhibit then moves into Israel’s history with coffee, including the fact that growing coffee in Israel — an idea pursued for some years — was abandoned as too expensive.
Curator Sheffer discovered that Israel has maintained two distinct coffee cultures for more than 120 years.
There has always been the Arab coffee tradition, in which coffee is brewed in a small pot over a fire and then poured into a finjan, a small, handleless espresso cup, Turkish style.
When the German Templars settled in the Holy Land, they brought the European traditions of filtered coffee. That coffee-drinking culture was augmented by the British Mandate period in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as by German Jews who later opened coffeehouses similar to those they had frequented in Europe.
“In Jerusalem, people would drink Arab coffee for their first coffee of the day, and then later sip European coffee with cake in the afternoon,” said Sheffer.
While Israelis didn’t grow their own coffee beans or build sabra espresso machines, a local coffee-related industry did spring up: Artisans, many of them European-born, designed ceramic and metal coffee sets that reminded immigrants of the coffee sets used back in the old country.
The “Coffee: East and West” exhibit includes extensive collections of those sets, which are part of what’s known as Israeliana, made-in-Israel souvenirs and household objects that are now considered collectors’ items. There are also 1940s and 1950s era coffee cans and advertisements for Atara Coffee and Landwer Coffee, coffee roasting companies that eventually opened cafes (Landwer still exists).
There’s also an entire wall of coffee machines, both sleekly modern and impressively antique, many loaned from local collectors.
“I met people and they introduced me to others,” said Sheffer.
One of those coffee aficionados is Yoav Kayam, 78, who has been collecting coffee-related technologies, books and memorabilia for the duration of his long career working for a jewelry firm with offices in Italy.
“They don’t actually grow coffee beans in Italy, but they’re great with technologies for making coffee,” said Kayam, who “got stuck on coffee” throughout his many work trips to the land known as the world’s coffee capital.
Kayam’s own mother always drank Elite instant coffee, a habit he never disparages, as “the best coffee is the one that you love.” However, as a lifetime collector of many different objects, Kayam learned about coffee culture from the espresso machines designed and developed in Italy. And he began lugging some of them home.
“I don’t count how many I have in my collection, and I don’t spend a lot of money, I buy them on the cheap,” said Kayam. “But if I find something I don’t have, and it’s unusual, I need to have it.”
His personal favorite? A Bezzera, created by Milanese inventor Luigi Bezzera, who came up with the idea of forcing pressurized water through ground coffee to produce the short, concentrated drink known as the espresso. According to several accounts written about Bezzera, the espresso was so-called because it could be prepared expressly for each customer and the water had to be expressed through the coffee.
“The sound of the espresso being made is as soft as snow falling on the ground,” said Kayam, waxing poetic about his espresso machine.
Another set of fellow coffee enthusiasts who lent items to the exhibit are Iris and Ram Ivgi, who own Coffee-Tech Engineering, an Israeli company that makes coffee roasters.
“It’s very moving because whoever loves coffee connects you to others,” said Sheffer.
Drinking java is a social tool, said Kayam, who doesn’t drink as much coffee now that he’s retired, but loves nothing more than drinking coffee with friends, both old and new.
“I wouldn’t say, ‘Come over,’ but I would say, ‘Come over for coffee,'” he said.
Sheffer’s original plan was to open a coffeehouse in the museum for the duration of the exhibit, but the ongoing pandemic made that idea too complicated to carry out.
Still, “it’s a very happy exhibit because coffee is a bridge between people and cultures,” said Sheffer. “Think about it, when we go to a new city, we look for a good place to have coffee.”
And, indeed, as several couples finished their tour of the exhibit, they turned to the guide and asked for the best coffee in the neighborhood. Thankfully, there are several:
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