Cafe Society

Cafe Kassit was a veritable cornerstone of Israeli cultural life, as a two-part Channel 8 documentary recounts.

"One day, when school was over, one of the girls from an older class approached me and said: 'Come here, boy.' She asked what I was doing that evening, and I told her I was open to suggestions. Then she said, 'Fine, you're going to Kassit with me.' We went on foot and arrived at some cafe. I had never been in a cafe before. That was the first time. I went inside: noise, smoke, cigarettes, chaos. She told me 'This is where the actors, writers and poets are, you have to come here. If you want to be an actor, you have to come here. This is the home of all the actors in Tel Aviv.' And that sentence - that's exactly what happened to me. We used to eat lunch at Kassit. We used to get mail at Kassit. We used to get a loan from Hatzkel [the owner, Yehezkel Ish-Kassit]. Suddenly we had a home, and suddenly there was a father. Hatzkel is the father of all of us," recalls veteran actor Shlomo Bar-Shavit in the documentary film "Kol Anshei Kassit" (All the people of Kassit ).

Tzachi Ostrovsky

Cafe Kassit in Tel Aviv, an institution that one could call "legendary" without being suspected of sentimentality or exaggeration, is the star of the documentary by Meir Suissa, to be broadcast next Wednesday (June 2 ) on Channel 8. The veteran cafe, which operated for 50 years on Dizengoff Street, for years served as a home and meeting place for the best artists in Israel, attracted those who were part of Tel Aviv's tempestuous bohemia, and helped Hebrew creativity flourish thanks to a constant flow of alcohol, food and regular or incidental muses.

When you watch Kol Anshei Kassit it is hard not to wonder how such a film wasn't made until now. The cafe, which was established in 1944 by Yehezkel Weinstein, who shortly after opening the place Hebraized his name to Ish-Kassit (Man of Kassit ), served as a home to so many local artists that documentation of what took place there seems almost essential for studying the development of Hebrew culture. Writers Avraham Shlonsky, Natan Alterman, Leah Goldberg, Avraham Halfi, Alexander Penn, composer Yaakov Orland, and actors Hannah Rovina, Aharon Meskin and Raphael Klachkin are only a few of the names of those who frequented the place in its early years. In the ensuing decades dozens of additional local artists were added to this list, including poets Haim Gouri and Haim Hefer, writer Dahn Ben-Amotz, artists Uri Lifshitz and Yosl Bergner, entertainer Uri Zohar, singers Arik Einstein and Shmulik Kraus, and journalist Uri Avneri.

Since there are so many people and several decades of activity, Suissa divided his film into two parts. It tells the story of the members of the first generation in Kassit, led by Alterman, Shlonsky, Penn and Rovina, whereas the second half of the film, "How to Make a Recording in Kassit," (which will be aired a few months from now on Channel 8 ) will focus on the members of the second generation (the "Palmach generation" ) and the third generation (artists from the 1970s, led by the "Lul" entertainment troupe ) who frequented the cafe.

In the films Suissa interviews dozens of artists and their relatives, who through stories and memories breathe new life into the place, try to decipher the secret of its charm and talk about the works of art created at its tables, under the nose of the two unchallenged kings: Hatzkel Ish-Kassit and his son Moshe (Moishele ), who continued to manage the place after his father's death.

The roses of Orland and Zeira

"This cafe was actually the Facebook of the period," says Suissa. "Kassit was everything. There you could meet new people, get things moving, receive criticism, praise, support, reinforcement, food and drink, and fall in love. It had everything."

The dozens of interviewees talk about the bread and mustard that was offered free of charge to guests, and attracted down-and-out actors to Kassit; about the possibility of eating and drinking on credit, which attracted the artists who were short of money; about the Tel Aviv heat in a period when there were no air conditioners, which caused the artists to flee from their homes and seek refuge outdoors; about the compassionate Hatzkel, who used to nap in his chair and demonstrated a very forgiving attitude toward the impoverished artists; about Alterman, Shlonsky and Penn, who drank tremendous quantities of alcohol there and aroused a lot of passions; and about several mainstays of Hebrew culture that were created there.

"Anyone who created anything in the country lived in Tel Aviv," says Uri Avneri, one of Kassit's regulars, in the film. "In Jerusalem there was nothing, and in Haifa there was nothing. They lived in Tel Aviv. And anyone who lived in Tel Aviv sat at Kassit, and they rubbed shoulders with one another, and in friction itself there is inspiration. For poets, it was paradise."

Haim Hefer, for example, recounts how Shaike Yarkoni, husband of the famous singer Yaffa Yarkoni, used to come to Kassit regularly in order to play chess, and one day asked another regular, Haim Gouri, to write a song for his wife. Gouri agreed, and wrote one of Yarkoni's greatest hits. "He got two liras from Shaike for 'Bab el Wad,'" laughs Hefer.

Another hit that was written after a meeting in Kassit was "Shnei Shoshanim" (Two Roses ). One day poet Yaakov Orland and composer Mordechai Zeira were sitting there with their wives, said director Danny Valin, and suddenly a flower seller approached their table and gave two flower to the two women: one lily to each. At that moment, claims Valin, Orland was inspired to write the famous song.

The godfather stayed awake

What is the actor Meir Suissa doing directing a documentary? And what is there about the bastion of Tel Aviv Ashkenazic culture that attracted and interested the Moroccan-born entertainer? "I have an obsession for documentation," he confesses. "For 30 years I've been documenting everything in my life. It's only by chance that I came to this interview without a camera," he smiles.

Suissa arrived in Kibbutz Yifat from Morocco at the age of 15 as a Zionist ("In Morocco I walked around with a picture of Moshe Dayan in my pocket," ) and says he was fascinated by the new culture he encountered, "this combination of Ashkenazic culture and the idea of equality on the kibbutz. Later, the vagaries of fate brought me to a path that follows the anthology of Israeli culture," as he put it.

He was recruited into a military entertainment troupe, became famous thanks to his appearance in "Halahaka" (The Troupe ), Avi Nesher's 1976 film, and in the 1980s, when he married Ruthie, Yaffa Yarkoni's daughter, he received direct access to the inventory of stories of one of the symbols of the development of Israeli culture.

As a result of the meeting with Yarkoni ("She's also obsessive about documentation and her albums are a real archive," he says ), he got the idea of creating a film or a television series that would present the story of the development of Israeli culture. He dreamed that it would be a musical drama. For years he worked on the idea, studied the history of local culture, interviewed people - and then, one day in the early 1990s, he conducted an interview that really captivated him.

"With great chutzpah I contacted Arik Einstein and invited him for an interview," says Suissa. "I told him what I wanted to do, and he said it was a great idea, but impossible to implement. Despite that he left his house, took a taxi, came to my house and gave a three-hour interview. In effect, the entire idea of the film was born thanks to him, because Arik has a phenomenal memory and he remembered all the details since he was a boy of nine and came to Kassit with his father, who was an actor with the Ohel Theater, up to the days when he himself sat in Kassit and became friendly with Moishele Ish-Kassit."

Segments from that interview were used in both parts of the film.

Although Suissa recruited Naftali Alter and Assi Dayan to create the series, they were unable to raise the money necessary to produce it. Suissa was forced to abandon the idea, and left a symbolic tribute to it in the television series "Karov Levadai" (Almost Certainly - a quasi-autobiographical series that he wrote and in which he starred, about a former actor who tries to rehabilitate his career and meets model Miri Bohadana. Suissa's character tried to sell a TV series about Kassit to broadcasting groups ).

Afterwards he decided to combine his obsession for documentation with the ambitious series about dreams, and to create a documentary about Kassit. "That's what was left," he said. "After all, it's impossible not to tell the story of that marvelous cafe."

Suissa himself happened to visit Kassit once in his youth, he says. "At the time I had no idea what this place symbolized, but I won't forget that day. It was very early in the morning, I was 21 years old, on discharge leave from the army, and I had come from the kibbutz to a meeting in Tel Aviv, because they had invited me to rehearsals for the Halahaka on Dizengoff Street. I came with the kibbutz ride two hours before the rehearsals, walked around Dizengoff, and found an open cafe that looked to me like a cafe in a little Italian village. Inside was a man dressed in black, who looked like the Godfather. Of all of them, I was the only one who caught Hatzkel awake!" he laughs.

In the film there are many testimonies to Hatzel's love for napping on his chair in the cafe, to the backdrop of stills that show the owner in action.

According to Suissa, only during the work on the film, which was produced by Doron Eran (with the support of Channel 8 and the Yehoshua Rabinowitz Foundation ) did he understand that he was not making a film only about a cafe, but about a genuine cultural institution. "I didn't imagine how important this film is," he says. "All I wanted was to tell the story of Hatzkel, Moishele and the cafe, and suddenly, as I was working, I understood that in fact the entire Israeli culture began there. All the poets, actors, painters, musicians - all of them passed through there. The country's most important artists. Each one of them deserves a film himself. They sat there and created there too. It was a place of culture, creativity, passion."

"Kol Anshei Kassit" provides a glimpse of the culture, creativity and passion that flourished in the heart of Dizengoff Street, and arouses thoughts about the ability of such a meeting place to encourage artistic creativity. "[In Kassit] there was the relaxed feeling of a cafe," says media figure Yitzhak Livni, who also frequented the place, in the film. "[There was] the calm of time without a crowded schedule. The conversations at Kassit were also less about political issues and more about literature, about girls. It was based - without the guys being aware of it - on the claim made by the ancient Greeks, to the effect that leisure time is the father of culture."