A Stimulating Brew: Coffee and Jews

By Robin Jacobson.

When you linger over a cup of aromatic, freshly brewed coffee on a wintry day, you may think you are simply savoring a favorite beverage. In truth, as you sip that familiar, bittersweet concoction, you are tapping in to a rich vein of Jewish culture. For centuries, coffee has infused Jewish economic, social, and religious life – a tradition still going strong at Rabbi Harris’s lively coffeehouse gatherings.  For a taste of coffee-laced Jewish history, try Jews Welcome Coffee (Robert Liberles 2012); “Coffee,” Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (Gil Marks 2010); and the excellent historical novel, The Coffee Trader (David Liss 2003), all available in our library. For more general coffee history, look for Uncommon Grounds (Mark Pendergrast 2010).

From Ethiopia to Egypt

According to a delightful legend, an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi first discovered coffee. One fine day, more than a millennium ago, Kaldi noticed that his goats became frisky and energetic, even dancing on their hind legs, after eating leaves and berries from certain small trees. Curious, Kaldi cautiously chewed a few leaves and berries and soon was excitedly gamboling with his goats, certain that he would never feel tired again.

The coffee craze spread from Ethiopia to Yemen and then, after the Ottomans captured Yemen in 1536, swept through the Ottoman Empire, including its Jewish population. Coffeehouses became meeting places for conversation, entertainment, and business, a matter of concern to one 16th-century Cairo rabbi. Although he did not object to Jews drinking coffee, the rabbi was nonetheless wary of non-Jewish coffeehouses; he recommended that Jews arrange to have their coffee “delivered home.”

Coffee in Europe

In Europe, Jews were early coffee traders, mostly because other means of earning a living – through the craft guilds or by farming – were frequently off limits. Jews opened the first coffeehouse in Europe (in Italy in 1632), followed by coffeehouses in the Netherlands, France, and England. Rabbinic authorities enthusiastically embraced the new, exotic drink – readily dispensing advice about the proper blessing over coffee and permitting its use prior to morning prayers. Indeed, the 17th-century Italian rabbi, Hezekiah da Silva, declared, “One cannot attain presence of mind without the aid of coffee.”

In Germany, coffee was so popular that even poor Jews could earn extra money by selling “Shabbos coffee” – coffee prepared in advance and disbursed on Saturdays (customers paid for the coffee on another day). One Frankfurt widow roasted enormous quantities of coffee beans over a large fire every Thursday until her neighbors complained that Frau Spiegelin’s “Shabbos coffee” threatened to burn down the Jewish ghetto.

The Jewish coffee industry in Germany suffered when Frederick the Great made coffee a royal monopoly in 1781 and launched a campaign to root out unauthorized coffee merchants. In a comic, but effective move, he re-commissioned wounded soldiers as coffee “sniffers” and deployed these spies on city streets to track the smell of roasting coffee.

Many Jewish immigrants brought their coffee-drinking habit to the United States, but there was a misperception among some that “coffee beans” were legumes (rather than berries) and thus prohibited during Passover. Targeting these consumers, Joseph Jacobs, head of one of New York’s first Jewish advertising agencies, obtained Kasher l’Pesach certification for Maxwell House coffee, and then in 1932 persuaded his client to produce and distribute free haggadot.  To date, Maxwell House has distributed some 50 million haggadot, each implicitly connecting Judaism and coffee – both “good to the last drop.”