An Ode to Jerusalem’s Unlikely Coronavirus Victim: A Literary Café and Its Proprietor

The decency of Tmol Shilshom founder David Ehrlich was legendary, as was his café’s place on the city’s literary scene. He died this week of a heart attack and Jerusalem will not be the same without him

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David Ehrlich at his literary café Tmol Shilshom in Jerusalem.
David Ehrlich at his literary café Tmol Shilshom in Jerusalem.Credit: Rafi Koots

There is only one institution in Jerusalem that is the manifestation of a single person’s soul: Tmol Shilshom, the literary café in Nahalat Shiva. All the cultural venues that we cherish – the Jerusalem Theatre, the Khan Theatre, the Symphony Hall, the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, the Hebrew University, the Science Museum and the Israel Museum – are public institutions and, we pray, will survive the present crisis and thrive again, supported by seekers of knowledge and beauty.

Tmol Shilshom is different. It was the brainchild of David Ehrlich, who – together with Dan Goldberg, his devoted business partner – kept it afloat for nearly three decades. Even as we grieve David’s sudden death on Sunday, we struggle to imagine how the place will survive without him.

Many authors frequented Tmol Shilshom, and many others were featured in the literary events that took place there: book launches, poetry readings, roundtables, dramatic performances. But two Hebrew writers were prominent figures in this space: S.Y. Agnon, who had died 24 years before the café was established but whose most significant novel furnished its name (“Tmol Shilshom” means “Only Yesterday” in English); and poet Yehuda Amichai, who inaugurated the venue in 1994 and graced it with his presence throughout the last years of his life.

In those precious few daylight hours away from the café, or at night after his beloved twins Nevo and Ofri were bedded down – either in his home or in the home of their loving mother, Tamar – David would write his own fiction. One of Agnon’s unfinished novels furnished the title of David’s book of intertwined stories, “Café Shira.”

Featuring local characters and visitors from around the globe, all seeking good coffee, human warmth and attention, these stories take place at the tables and in the courtyard of a literary café. The proprietor, Avigdor, is at times so burdened with the human miseries parked at the entrance, and the financial cares that follow him inside, that he fantasizes about walking away from the whole thing.

But that was not David’s way. Only death could have taken him from his pride and his burden.

Few people outside of his intimate circle had any idea of how concerned David was, on a daily basis, about the financial stability of the institution he and Goldberg had created. Uncertainty over payroll and debts, pricing new dishes and enticing tour guides, balancing the tried and true writers with the new and untested – all these cares wrinkled David’s brow and whitened his hair.

Yet for most patrons of the café – and those who spoke, read, sang or performed in the small space with the wobbly wooden chairs propped up against the stone wall with its iron window lattices – the café existed only to provide camaraderie and good food and drink, while reawakening faith in the Hebrew project.

David and I go back many decades; we first met in a seminar I taught at Hebrew University in 1988. The group was small and the conversation intense, and I was drawn to David’s eager mind and moral seriousness, tinged with irony and compassion.

When the course ended, he confided in me that he would refuse to do reserve duty in the occupied territories and felt compelled to leave the country until the guns of (what would later come to be referred to as) the first intifada fell silent. He also revealed to me his dream: to return to Jerusalem and establish a literary café in the heart of the city.

After traveling abroad, pursuing graduate studies at U.C. Berkeley and teaching Hebrew on the Greek island of Corfu, David returned. Six years after our initial conversation, he realized his dream – and in doing so, nourished the dreams of so many other readers, accomplished writers and aspiring writers, scholars, performers, young couples in love and singles seeking love.

A Russian poetry evening at Tmol Shilshom in 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

David may have been among the first in Israel to fall victim to the coronavirus – albeit as dreadful collateral damage. He died, it appears, of a heart attack. Its warning signs came a day or so before his death, but he refrained from going to the hospital for fear he would not be admitted – or that he would indeed be treated but then be exposed to the virus. So he stayed home and the Angel of Death found him there: alone and, one imagines, in pain and terror. Or maybe he was taken in his sleep, with a kiss, the mitat neshika that is accorded to tzaddikim.

David was, in any case, an unlikely tzaddik. He was too funny, ironic and self-consciously modest for the role. He wore his vulnerability on his sleeve, even as he leaned over intently and compassionately to hear the troubles and triumphs of his interlocutor, among the clatter of dishes and trays, of conversation and laughter.

His decency was legend. While in Tmol Shilshom, the needs of his customers, the concern for his chefs and his servers, for all those workers who facilitated the food and the cultural events, for every guest with the most extravagant culinary or emotional needs, were the focus of his attention. And he never quite grasped his own indispensability. He would sit with my husband, Bernie Avishai, during some tough financial times. Among the ways he thought to trim expenses was to cut down on the literary events that were so close to his heart, occasioned by his ever-expanding network of writers, performers and artists. He had to be reminded again and again that he was Tmol Shilshom’s greatest asset and that his heart’s desires were its brand.

For real conversations such as those he had with Bernie, or with me, and a host of other intimates, David actually preferred to go elsewhere: Café Efraim at the corner of Arlozorov and Azza streets in Rehavia was one place he could be nearly invisible, and completely available – while someone else fussed in the kitchen and cleaned the tables. There, burdens could be shared and brighter horizons imagined. And every ray of sunshine was the occasion for celebration. (The last such occasion, which we missed for some forgotten reason, was a wine tasting from a local winery of new blends for the café. That was on March 5, barely three weeks ago.)

Everyone who knew David, even slightly, thought of him as one of their best friends. Testaments have been pouring in from around the world – from readers, from once-penniless students or would-be writers who have since found their own niche in the academy or the world of letters. David’s presence in my own life seems a kind of fate. When our seminar ended in 1988, and we had the conversation about his upcoming journey and his ambitious dreams, I shyly told him what I had never told any other student: that I would like him to meet my daughter, who was then also a student. He gave me that sweet but somewhat sheepish David-smile and said, “I would love to meet her but I am gay.”

That turned out to be a source of serious loneliness for him; even while supporting the LGBTQ community in person and in his café, he never felt comfortable as a free-wheeling gay man, and never found the partner he longed for. But, sweetly, my daughter and David and Tamar became devoted friends; their children attended the same school and we have constituted an extended family unit all these years.

Jerusalem will, presumably, rise from the biological and political disasters that are currently befalling the city, as it has so many times in the past. And we shall, as a community, try to sustain the café from the ruins of our grief.

But we will never see David’s like again. It can never be ke-tmol shilshom.

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