When journalist and short-story writer David Ehrlich told poet Yehuda Amichai about his plan to open a literary café in Jerusalem, Amichai was less than enthusiastic. “Your customers will spill coffee on the books,” he said. “And they won’t pay for the coffee — or the books.”
Happily, Amichai’s fears proved unfounded. Not only did Ehrlich’s dream become a reality, but his enterprise has also come to personify Jerusalem’s cultural life. Located atop a rickety flight of stairs in the city’s atmospheric Nahalat Shiva neighborhood, literary café Tmol Shilshom is now celebrating its 10th anniversary.
Named after the masterpiece by Israeli Nobel Prize-winner S.Y. Agnon, Tmol Shilshom has served as a home away from home for a number of Israel’s literary lights. Nathan Englander wrote much of “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” at his regular table. Well-known Israeli authors from David Grossman to Meir Shalev have sung the café’s praises. And when New Yorker editor David Remnick came to Israel to interview Amos Oz, it was to Tmol Shilshom’s cozy abode that the author brought the journalist.
But Tmol Shilshom — whose literary translation is “only yesterday” — is far from being a celebrity haunt. Its bookish ambience — and tasteful food — has made it a favorite among locals and tourists alike. The recently revised menu, printed between faux book covers, includes salads, pastas and fish dishes — and desserts named in honor of literary greats. At midday, it might seem as if diners at each table are afloat in their own world of coffee and conversation, but in the evening the ambience becomes livelier, with readings and talks by Israeli cultural figures and, occasionally, international guests. Overseas visitors have included European authors in town for the Jerusalem International Book Fair, and such American literary personalities as Malachy McCourt and Ishmael Reed.
Aharon Appelfeld, a frequent café guest, once wrote that “a café is a port for all of the imagination’s gateways.” In a small land-locked city, Tmol Shilshom’s cultural calendar provides free passage through many such gateways: Programs can range from an academic discussion of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins to an evening dedicated to the transgender experience. The crowd at the café, like the city’s downtown pedestrians, includes a full spectrum of Jerusalemites: edgy artistic types, the religiously observant and the secular bourgeois. Couture — from head coverings and hairstyles to hemlines and body piercings — provides clear clues to personal-life philosophies.
Despite Jerusalem’s myriad strains, ideologues of very different stripes readily coexist as patrons of the café. In January, left-wing journalist Gideon Levy took the Tmol Shilshom podium to read from his book, “Twilight Zone: Life and Death Under Israeli Occupation 1988-2003,” and shared his acerbic political views. Yet his appearance did not draw hecklers, only sympathizers. More mainstream voices have a following, too, and there is also an audience for longtime Jerusalemite poets Balfour and Herzl Hakak, brothers whose names reflect their sturdy Zionism.
But Tmol Shilshom is not just a place where a separate peace has been achieved; there are writers and poets whose popularity affirms a broader common literary denominator. Highly regarded poet Agi Mishol has appeared several times to read from her new works. And during his lifetime, Amichai, despite his initial doubts, became a frequent patron. After he passed away in 2000, his favorite armchair was draped with a black ribbon during the week of his shiva.
Tmol Shilshom even managed to endure Jerusalem’s darkest days of terror and economic stress. During the worst of those times, friends helped Ehrlich organize a speaking tour in the United States, with the proceeds dedicated to keeping the café afloat. But Tmol Shilshom hasn’t only survived — it has prospered, and gained a reputation as a bellwether for literary trends. Ehrlich recalls the feeling of discovery a number of years ago, when he saw young audiences flock to a reading by novelist and playwright Etgar Keret, now called “the Amos Oz of his generation.” And there are moments when the lines between life and art become blurred. In “What Is Love?” a new work by popular author-psychiatrist Yoram Yovel, a despondent young religious woman meets her blind dates at Tmol Shilshom.
But beyond the episodic “15 minutes of fame,” Ehrlich believes that his café meets an abiding need for a cultural oasis in the middle of the city, a place where people can find a second home to enjoy a good meal and conversation while surrounded by shelves of books. As Appelfeld has written, “Toward evening, a café is like a secular prayerhouse in which people are immersed in reflection.”
Eva Weiss is a writer and editor in Jerusalem. She moved to Israel from New York City 12 years ago.