Jerry Seinfeld and Jon Stewart ate hummus here — the forgotten Middle Eastern history of a comedy legend
The most important table in stand-up comedy can be found in the back corner of the Olive Tree Cafe, a dark Greenwich Village restaurant. The two slate tables pushed together serve as a makeshift green room for comedians who perform downstairs at the legendary New York club, the Comedy Cellar. Both “The Cellar” and the Israeli café are owned by Noam Dworman. They share a kitchen and a bathroom and are connected by a narrow stairway lined with signed photos of famous comics who got their start at the club, which opened in 1981.
After their sets, comedians make their way up to the “comedy table” for free hummus and banter, joining other Cellar performers, including major stars who may have dropped in. The table reserved for the club’s comedians began in the late 1990s when it was first implemented by the previous owner, Manny Dworman, who also happens to be Noam’s father.
This table is so sacrosanct that in 2016 when the table was moved 10 inches, a New Yorker article recorded the complaints of a who’s-who of stand-ups. “This is not the table where Robin Williams sat, this is not where Ray Romano sat, this is not where Jon Stewart sat,” Chris Rock protested.
The roundtable roastings and political debates inspired Colin Quinn’s series, “Tough Crowd.” Later, Louis C.K.’s show “Louie” made it look like a family table — with comedians lifting each other up as often as they knocked each other down. In 2017, after Louis C.K. was accused of sexual harassment, New York magazine labeled it a “boys’ club.” Most recently, HBO’s “Crashing” featured an aspiring comedian striving to get a seat at the table.
While the table manners have been dissected, what is served usually goes unmentioned. Or worse, it’s the butt of a joke. Like in Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” In 2014, Seinfeld joked to Jon Stewart that seeing phlegm helped whet his appetite for the Olive Tree Café’s hummus.
But that the world’s premier comedy club is the basement of an Israeli restaurant isn’t just a quirky detail. The hummus isn’t the punchline; it’s the reason it all got started.
Before the Comedy Cellar, there was Café Feenjon, a lively Middle Eastern coffeehouse founded in 1960 by Manny Dworman. On the stage that would serve as the launchpad for many a comedian’s career, Manny led The Feenjon Group, a multicultural mix of musicians that played Greek, Israeli, Turkish, Arab, Yiddish and Armenian music. The house band recorded five albums and performed at The Town Hall and Carnegie Hall. Their blending of musical styles made the Feenjon a staple of Village nightlife for over 20 years. Today, a lone Café Feenjon sign outside and a couple of vestiges on the menu are all that remain. Still, it’s the bohemian cafe that laid the foundation for the world’s top comedy club.
The Feenjon Story
Manny, born Menachem, was a self-taught mandolin, oud and guitar player. Wiry and full of energy, he tried his hand as a cab driver, Hebrew teacher and Fuller Brush salesman. Finally, at the age of 29, he opened the first Feenjon Café — a tiny after-hours spot on 7th Avenue South and Commerce Street. “Informality was the rule,” the Israeli-born musician wrote in the liner notes of The Feenjon Group’s 1967 album, “Jerusalem of Gold.” “Very often I would sit down among the coffee drinkers and chess players with my guitar or mandolin to accompany one or another of the many musicians who wandered in.”
“We all came after work,” recounted Avram Grobard over the phone 60 years aftter he first went to the cafe. Back then, he was an accordionist at Café Tel Aviv and Café Casit, Israeli restaurants on 72nd Street. “We’d have a little hummus and coffee and play these instruments around the table,” he said.
Joining the Sabra musicians at Café Feenjon were the dancers and musicians who had finished their shifts at the now-extinct strip of Greek and Arab belly dance clubs on Eighth Avenue, places like the Grecian Cave, the Egyptian Gardens and Port Said. “We played until 6 or 7 in the morning,” said Grobard, who later owned the popular Greenwich Village club El Avram.
Cafe Feenjon’s name was fitting. A feenjon (commonly spelled finjan) is a long-stemmed traditional Turkish coffee pot. Noam said his father was inspired by “HaFinjan,” a popular Israeli song at the time. The copper pot is a symbol of friendship across the region, and the café’s logo became a beacon for musicians homesick for Near Eastern and Levantine coffee culture, rhythms and dance.
At first, it was not exclusively Middle Eastern. Bob Dylan, José Feliciano, Shel Silverstein and Leonard Cohen were regular musicians at the start. The coffeehouse quickly became known for an ethnic mix that was politically dissonant but musically harmonious. A Greek on a bouzouki joining an Armenian on an oud in a Turkish medley, or an Israeli military veteran and an Arab emigré playing a duet. Bill Bouris, Manny’s former roommate at Columbia University, who designed the Feenjon byzantine logo, explained it in an email, “none of us quite realized it, we were the inheritors of the defunct Ottoman Empire.”
The pan-Near Eastern jam sessions were raucous. The waiter might break into a belly dance mid-shift. “The crowd was absolutely completely liberated,” remembered Susan Sappir, whose ex-husband Jerry Sappir played guitar in The Feenjon Group. “Everyone just let their hair down and went wild on the dance floor.”
The Village’s Most Chic Coffeehouse
The café soon outgrew the seven or eight tables at the 7th Avenue South storefront. In 1963, it moved to 105 MacDougal Street, which was previously the Fat Black Pussy Cat (Noam Dworman also owns the current iteration located nearby). MacDougal Street was then the center of New York counterculture — a place where interracial couples walked hand-in-hand, a gay scene was starting to come out in the open, and sandal-wearing youth evolved from beatniks to hippies.
For the first time, Manny had a stage, and the roving musicians of the old Feenjon became an official band. Six nights a week, Manny led The Feenjon Group and ran the cavernous venue. The cafe, however, lacked liquor and cabaret licenses. So the all-night parties were fueled by coffee, not alcohol, and the police would raid Café Feenjon for the live music. Crackdowns urged on by Democratic district leader Ed Koch backfired.
Police raids on coffeehouses actually created publicity that “brought in huge crowds,” Manny said in an interview for the 2001 book “Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan,” by Howard Sounes.
In 1966, a half block up from Feenjon at Café Wha, Jimi Hendrix was discovered. Across the street at The Gaslight Café, the former home base of the beat poets, Joni Mitchell debuted. Nonetheless, that same year, The New York Times deemed Café Feenjon “probably the most chic coffeehouse in the Village.”
Even for the cosmopolitan downtown scene, the cafe was unusual. The menu had to explain each item in detail. The “chumus” came with instructions: “you dip the bread like you were eating a party dip.” The “phaelefel” was compared to the “hot dog of Coney,” and tahini was referred to as “sesame butter.”
The food was so new to most New Yorkers that the Culinary Institute of America’s collection miscategorized the menu as Armenian. The archivist can be forgiven. Feenjon is written in four different alphabets on the menu cover.
Manny was not trying to hide his Israeli background. His family immigrated from Tel Aviv when he was eight, and he was an ardent Zionist. The title song of the “Jerusalem of Gold” album is a celebration of Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. Years later, he would distribute copies of Alan Dershowitz’s “The Case for Israel” at the comedy table. Manny, however, was also captivated by Arabic music. “My father was very proud of his Jewish heritage, but he was also extremely musical,” said Noam.
The backbone of The Feenjon Group was a virtuoso Moroccan drummer, Ali Hafid, who Manny befriended at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. The Feenjon Group played in the Israeli Pavilion, while Hafid came from Morocco to lead his country’s musical contingent. “Ali had predictable Arabic politics, and my father had predictable Israeli politics, but they were good friends,” explained Noam.
Hafid, Dworman and the other musicians didn’t mix politics. Instead, they blended musical styles. On the album “Night at the Café Feenjon,” Hafid’s masterful dumbek drumming weaves in Arabic rhythms to old Yiddish and Greek standards. While Manny, on “Jerusalem of Gold,” infuses Israeli folk songs with the sound of an Arabic Oud.
On the groundbreaking 1967 Columbia Records album “Hard Rock from the Middle East,” Feenjon performers fuse 1960s rock with traditional Middle Eastern music. The Arab Israeli Kareem Issaq sings in Arabic and plays the oud alongside Jerry Sappir and Steve Knight, who stun with their psychedelic guitars. The music was arranged by Feenjon regular Felix Pappalardi, who later became the producer for three albums by Eric Clapton’s Cream.
Pappalardi also plays bass and the Indian tambura on the album, and the Israeli Eliazar Adoram accompanies on the accordion. After the one album, the group split ways. Pappalardi and Knight formed the hard rock group Mountain, which played at Woodstock. While Sappir, along with Hafid, joined the cast of the musical “Zorba The Greek.” Adoram might have the longest legacy. His widow Estee Adoram, who he met at Café Feenjon in 1970, would become the legendary booker of the Comedy Cellar.
For over three decades, Estee has been the gatekeeper of the club’s stage, which is widely seen as a stepping stone to a late-night spot or a Netflix special. In her job, she carries over Manny’s philosophy of prioritizing raw talent over politics.
“The principle of mixing it up is the same,” said Estee. “When I book a show, I go by who is funny regardless of the subject matter.” Her ability to gauge comedic talent in minutes has earned her the title of “most feared woman in comedy,” but the mention of the Feenjon brings a smile to her face. “The mixture of the young and the upcoming and the traditional. That was the beauty of it,” she said, beaming.
The Start of the Comedy Cellar
At Café Feenjon’s peak in 1968, Manny and his business partner Bob Englehardt had a falling out. The café closed, and the band bounced around the Village. The following year, Manny scraped together enough money to open the Olive Tree Café at 117 MacDougal. Soon after, he added a music venue in the basement. At the time, Englehardt owned the name “Café Feenjon,” so for a couple of years, the downstairs club where The Feenjon Group performed was called Café Levantine.
By the end of the 1970s, Café Feenjon had vacated the basement and moved next door to the larger former Café Wha location. Finally, in 1987, Noam Dworman, then the manager of Café Feenjon, resurrected the Café Wha name, turning the focus to American rock.
“The room downstairs was just kind of floundering,” said Noam of the Olive Tree Café’s basement in the early 1980s. “This guy Bill Grundfest had the idea of doing comedy.”
Grundfest, who later became a writer for “Mad About You,” was a comedian. Manny had the know-how to run and promote a successful club. Together, they quickly turned theComedy Cellar into the preferred club for up-and-coming comics.
In 1967, Manny wrote, “musicians came to look upon the Feenjon as their second home.” Later, comedians like Amy Schumer, Dave Attell, Ray Romano, Dave Chapelle and Jon Stewart would feel the same about the Comedy Cellar.
“He knew how to value and treat talent,” Noam said of his father. Manny became a mentor and trusted friend of a generation of comics. He was respected for his dedication to the club. Up until his death from cancer in 2004, he fretted over minor details of lighting and sound for the comedy club while carefully managing the food and service. In Noam’s eulogy to his father, he read, “From his hospital bed, he worried about the hummus in his last week with the same intensity that he would have 20 years ago.”
The Legacy of the Feenjon
On a recent Saturday Night at the Comedy Cellar and the Olive Tree Café, there is no live band, no chess boards; customers order cocktails, not espresso. The menu has expanded in recent years, now offering steak. Still, it has the intimacy and the informality of its coffeehouse roots. The Cellar features top stars (that night Colin Quinn performed), but anyone who needs the bathroom must awkwardly pass in front of the stage. The public, the comics and the management all mingle.
“The vibe just carries over,” said Noam, who has a strong resemblance to his father and is also a musician. With a mug of hot cocoa in his hand, the 59-year old club owner who grew up in Café Feenjon is constantly welcoming customers turned friends while chatting with the comedians. I asked if his ability to hold court came from his father. He told me it went back further, “My grandmother was a fantastic host. She just knew how to prioritize guests at any expense. My father understood that too.”
The Dwormans remain relevant by adapting to changing tastes. They create space for new generations of performers who grow up and keep coming back. In the 61 years since Café Feenjon opened, so much has changed, but the hummus remains the same.