Tel Aviv’s Café Tamar, a Vestige of a Bygone Era, to Shut Its Doors

The Bohemian meeting place will close in June after 74 years.

Nir Kafri

Israel’s 67th Independence Day saw the announcement of the end of the road for an Israeli symbol, an extinct cultural arena – Café Tamar at 57 Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv. The café will be closing in June after 74 years, most of them under the management of Sarah Stern, who celebrated her 90th birthday a few days ago surrounded by her regulars, writers, artists and journalists, both living and dead.

As a young songwriter, MK Yair Lapid mentioned the café in the song “I live on Sheinkin,” which became the biggest hit of the girl band Mango in 1989: “Living on Sheinkin/ drinking at Café Tamar/ wanting to make a short film.” The place was also mentioned in quite a few songs by poets who patronized the café.

Anyone who gambled that Sarah would survive the changing business landscape enjoyed years of supportive friends, hot coffee and a regular but dynamic artistic environment. The café’s walls have been almost completely covered for decades by left-wing political stickers and posters calling for an end to the occupation or recalling assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The much-loved proprieter of Cafe Tamar, Sarah Stern. (Credit: Moti Milrod)

The café opened in 1941, and in 1956 was taken over by Abraham and Sarah, after they met in the British army in the Egyptian sands. In 1966 Abraham died, and Sarah took over and managed the café in a domineering manner, served toasted bagels and Nescafe, fumed and smiled, and became a favorite of the local bohemians, who patronized the place religiously and spent many hours there every day.

With the announcement of the café’s closing, the Stern and Nahmias families issued an announcement to the effect that “Café Tamar is the first and second home of our family – both our personal and extended family. For 60 years, rain or shine, Sarah opened the café and it was a place where she was the unquestioned and exclusive ruler. Sheinkin Street would not have become an interesting street without the combination of reporters from the nearby daily Davar, politicians who came to conduct their business and people from the world of culture and art who made the café their home.

MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin in the foreground, Sarah Stern in the background. (Credit: Moti Milrod)

“If they could talk, the café’s unique walls would tell the story of the development of Tel Aviv from a city in the sands to the center of Israeli culture. The first day that the café doesn’t open will be very hard for our family, but it’s the right thing. We’ll miss the café and its regulars very much.

“The Tamar clientele are a regular and changing club of friends, which over the years included the late musician Shmulik Kraus, artist Meir Pichhadze, writers Yoram Kaniuk and Ronny Someck, the late actor Amos Lavi, journalists Natan Zahavi, Eran Sabag, Avia Ben-David and Yossi Melman, actors Yossi Pollak, Evelin Hagoel and Uri Gavriel, directors Doron Tsabari and Rani Bleier, and Judge Hanan Efrati, who made the place their second home and conducted complex and loving relationships with Stern. The living and the dead still mingle there, the dead as newspaper clippings, paintings on the wall and death notices, the living drink and argue and watch the changing street and miss those who are no longer with them.”

“I feel that I’ve lost my home, and now I’ll have to look for a new one,” says Dudu Busi, a writer and café regular. “Our gang is examining all kinds of options. Maybe Café Bialik. I had a wonderful period in Café Tamar, I’ve been going there for 12 years, with ups and downs in relations with myself, with the people, with the wonderful Sarah. She’s like the grandmother I haven’t had for a long time. I’m one of the few who she loves – usually she stings and kicks. It’s a period of sourness, of loss. But we’ll get over it.”

MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin (Labor), Stern’s granddaughter, says that they aren’t closing because of an attractive real-estate offer. “Even if it’s true, that’s not the story. We could have continued to keep the business. We came to a rational decision in light of grandmother’s age, in light of the fact that my brother runs a big business and I’m an MK, and in the end even for us the place wouldn’t be the same without her. It’s one of the most difficult decisions we’ve ever had to make.”

MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, Sarah Stern's granddaughter, at the Cafe Tamar cash register. (Credit: Moti Milrod)

“The knowledge that one day this café would close was always in the air,” said David Tartakover, Israel Prize laureate for design and a regular customer for the past 30 years. “The waning of Café Tamar is like the waning of the press. Café Tamar achieved its status and its presence thanks to the newspaper Davar, at the corner of Melchett and Sheinkin streets where today there’s a large residential building. The editorial offices were actually in Café Tamar and after Davar closed they continued to come to the café. Because it’s a café of regulars, not a place where you stop off, drink coffee and continue on your way. You come for Shabbat, there are tables and there are hours, and you know which people you’ll meet at which hour and at which table they sit.”

He adds that on weekdays the place had declined in terms of occupancy. “Fridays are still flourishing – a table of journalists, a table of artists, a table of poets, a table of groupies, everything is there under Sarah’s direction. The place is a seismograph of Israeli politics, mainly the stickers in the area of the cash register, or the type of photos hanging on the walls of figures from the café who had their 15 minutes of glory. You have to remember that this is a café identified with Yitzhak Rabin and [Rabin’s wife] Leah, who used to sit there, and to this day there are two large Uri Lifshitz paintings there of Rabin in the show window. For me the place was a bulletin board for my work. I would paste posters on Tamar’s window. People would see, stop, get angry or curse, but there was a reaction.”

Three generations of Cafe Tamar regulars. (Credit: Moti Milrod)