A birthday party for the last empress
The world of Cafe Tamar and its 85-year-old proprietor is rapidly disappearing.
I get my coffee and accompanying poppy cake at the same time every day. Elated, I receive a complimentary little piece of yeast-risen cake, too. The weekly Haaretz Magazine waits for me in the drawer, saved for me alone. The other parts of the newspaper I need to collect on my own. Everything is unspoken. No annoying little questions like "what would you like to drink?" or "what would you like to eat?"
The poppy cake is divine; the coffee is mediocre. The regular customers gather - the intelligence reporter, the magistrate's court judge, the theater actor, the hummus man, the economics lecturer, the elderly wheelchair-bound singer and the retired amputee journalist, also in a wheelchair. It is early morning, and everyone is seated at his table, immersed in his own world, which is the wonderful world of Cafe Tamar, a world that is gradually disappearing along with all the regulars of this cafe who have already left this world.
The props have never been changed: the tree stump in the middle of the covered space, the aluminum chairs dating back to the Turkish era, the Mandate-era Formica tables, the register from the days of the Palmach, the tin teaspoons that sold for next to nothing, the Duralex glasses that sold for a shekel a piece and the memorials on the walls: countless versions of Yitzhak Rabin, illustrations by Zev, drawings by Uri Lifshitz. If there is an island in the murky waters, if there is an "institution" that is really an institution, and not just a two-year-old pub, if there is something Tel Avivian, Israeli, cool, real and authentic, this is the place, the sanctuary of the sandwich. Outside, the storm may batter, the plastic coffee house chains with foreign names and synthetic flavors, "like in Paris" and "like in New York," and only this place is like Tel Aviv; just don't call it "legendary." Go to Aroma, sit at the Coffee Bean, drink at Cafe Joe, meet at Ilan's, flirt at Cafe Cafe and you will never understand how a cafe can be like home and its proprietor like a mother.
Here reigns the first lady, the grande dame, the woman who is larger than life - Sara Stern of Cafe Tamar. She roves among the tables like Mother Goose, berating, chiding, cursing, speaking crudely and sometimes even lifting such a beloved and loving hand. She lives on Sheinkin, drinks at Cafe Tamar, but she does not want to make a short film. There is no greater contrast between this portly farmer woman from Nahalal and the Sheinkin culture she helped birth. There is no greater contradiction between Sara and her visitors, a slew of Technicolor tones, the poets, drunks, loners, losers and lost. She, who climbed a tree in her youth to watch the wedding of Ruth and Moshe Dayan in Nahalal, she who met her late husband in the British Army on the sands of Egypt and whose cafe was founded (before her) in 1941, on Saturday celebrated her 85th birthday. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, a fan of the cafe and a favorite of Sara's, whom she also curses and loves, arranged a birthday party for her at City Hall, as befits her.
It was an unforgettable evening, moving to the point of tears. Tears? Sara will not let that happen. With her, there is no expressing emotion, and there are no good words (except for Futana and Ikram from the adjacent hummus place). "The Last Empress" is what writer Dudu Bussy calls his film about her, which he has been working on for years. "The Last Empress" it said on the screen in the City Hall conference room, perhaps the most appropriate and most inappropriate place for this party. We sang "Sahki, sahki," the everpresent Shaul Biber played the harmonica, the jittery Natan Zahavi tried to dodge a lipstick-coated kiss from the baroness, and Amos Lavi danced with her in a scene straight out of a Fellini movie. All were moments that Sara would not tolerate being referred to as moving.
Someone said "the foundation of our existence" and was not exaggerating at all. Tali Lipkin-Shahak, who grew up in this cafe, read a letter she wrote Sara when she was 10 years old. Ambassador Alon Pinkas once wrote: "There is no Paris without the Eiffel, no London without Big Ben, no world without Shimon Peres and no Tel Aviv without Cafe Tamar." Huldai dubbed her "the mukhtar" of Sheinkin: "Each time I come, Sara gets on my nerves.' What's new?' 'Is everything okay?' and then comes the complaints about the property tax, the inspectors, the street sweepers and the tow trucks, and then she plops down some poppy cake even though I actually prefer cheesecake."
A word from Sara? "I thank you all, and that's the end of the story." When you read these lines, I'll be sitting with my friend at Cafe Tamar. Sara will get angry, the poppy cake will melt in the mouth, I will somehow drink the coffee and I will know that my life without this place and without this woman would be different.