The Demise of Tel Aviv's Bohemian Caf Culture

Soon Tel Aviv itself as a cultural entity will disappear. Instead, it will become a real estate asset

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Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

In 1962, the philosopher and scholar of religions Jacob Taubes published an article titled The Intellectuals and the University, arguing that intellectuals fulfill an essential role in the emergence of modernity, because they cast doubt on the existing social order. Intellectuals sprang up in the university, an institution whose origins lie in the Middle Ages. The university was a community of students and teachers from different social classes, which constituted a departure from the feudal, hierarchical structure of medieval society. Because the university was outside the existing order, it was capable of thinking about it – that is, of not seeing it as necessary and self-evident.

In and around the university were people who viewed thinking and science, in its humanistic sense, as a necessary activity possessing a validity of its own. Siger of Brabant, a 13th-century philosopher at the University of Paris, wrote in 1273 that life without science is death and a woeful grave for humanity. Accordingly, Taubes considers him the first modern intellectual.

At the same time, in the course of centuries, the universities lost their status as bastions of opposition thought. According to Taubes, in the 17th and 18th centuries the universities were assimilated into the dominant system. They became mechanisms for preserving the status quo and for the professional training of clerks, judges and teachers. The Enlightenment did not take place in universities but outside them, in a different institution: the coffeehouse. As Taubes observes, it is the coffeehouse more than the university that was among the breeding grounds of political and spiritual unrest. The coffeehouse became the salon of the homeless and impoverished writers, and the authorities became compelled to take action against the discussions in the coffeehouses, while the disputations at the university evidently caused them much less concern.

Baccio Café in Tel Aviv, days before its closing, December 21, 2017.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In the 200 years that followed, the coffeehouse competed with the university as a site that enabled thinking that undermined the existing order. Taubes was not alone in developing this insight. The philosopher Justin Smith argued in his 2016 book The Philosopher that most true philosophers across the ages did not have a Ph.D. and were not members of university faculties.

This is being written in light of the closing of the Baccio Caf on King George Street in Tel Aviv. Following protracted death throes, the caf shut its doors last month, to the regret of its regulars, many of them journalists, writers and artists. The closure might have been dismissed as a minor matter if it hadnt followed the shutdowns of other Tel Aviv institutions that bore intellectual heft. In 2015, Caf Tamar on Sheinkin Street closed down, and before that, Caf Noah on Ahad Haam.

In some cases, these institutions were succeeded by other coffeehouses, livelier than their predecessors. Thus, in place of Noah we now have Bucke, and Caf Rega recently opened on the ruins of Tamar. But they do not even pretend to possess intellectual added value. Possibly they serve better food, and the atmosphere in them is more jubilant, but its hard to think of them as bastions of humanism.

Israelis enjoying the cafe life in Tel Aviv in the 1960s.Credit: GPO

Life will go on

Of course, there is no lack of cafs in Tel Aviv, and new establishments have opened in recent years. The salons of impoverished writers, as Taubes put it, have shifted to the citys south. Still, given the rise in property values and the transformation of the urban fabric, it looks as though the era of the Tel Aviv coffeehouse is drawing to a close. The new Tel Aviv is a city of food markets and culinary entrepreneurship, but not of coffeehouses. With their final liquidation, Tel Aviv itself as a cultural entity will disappear. Instead, it will become a real estate asset.

The problem is not confined solely to Tel Aviv. In a recent article in the German magazine Cicero, the writer and critic Boris Pofalla maintains that caf culture is dead. In metropolises worldwide, veteran cafs take pride in their history, which they print on the inside of the menu. But upon entering this type of caf, the visitor knows for certain that the place is a dead letter, that only tourists frequent it.

Baccio Café scene from 2007. The popular Tel Aviv café recently closed.Credit: Asaf Avron

Up-to-date cafs are no better. The haven of intellectuals and bohemians has become, according to Pofalla, an aquarium of digital autists with laptops, or a consumerist temple of high-end food and coffee. The coffee itself has actually improved, and people talk incessantly about the quality of the brew theyre drinking. But instead of the coffee serving thought, thought now serves the coffee. In this connection its noteworthy that in the famous, now defunct Caf Kasit, as well as at Caf Tamar and Caf Noah, the food was lousy.

From this point of view, current talk about the crisis of the humanities needs to be understood as a systemic disruption that goes far beyond the situation in univsersity departments of literature and philosophy. In fact, those venues may even be in better condition, relatively, than other branches of the world of thought and intellect whose importance is just as critical: publishers, bookstores, coffeehouses and more. In a sense, the influence of a caf like Baccio was comparable to that of a host of departments of Hebrew literature.

If we adopt Taubes analysis, we can say that there were periods in which the university constituted a platform for intellectual ferment, and periods in which the coffeehouse supplanted it. Whats distinctive about our period is that both the university and the coffeehouse are dying.

What will happen after their death? Nothing. Life will go on, while the problem itself will fade. The very existence of problems is dependent on the existence of a world in which they can be talked about. In other words, spaces are needed in which a particular situation can be posited as a problem. For hundreds of years, in the Middle Ages, scholars addressed the problem of the relations between form and matter. Numberless treatises were written about the issue, and it occupied the best minds of the time. That problem was never solved, but few talk about it today. People have shifted to talking about other problems: capital and labor, religion and nationalism, sex and gender. Generally speaking, problems disappear from the agenda in one of two ways. In rare cases, something changes in the world and they are resolved. More commonly, they simply fade away, because no people or venues remain for whom theyre important enough to talk about.

Lets admit it: Doesnt the complaint about the condition of intellectuals already sound wearisome? We will soon all be tired even of complaining about it. The world will hurtle ahead amid unresisting technical idiocy. Probably a few solitary people will remain who will be bothered by all kinds of questions that have become outmoded. But to deal with that kind of nagging thoughts, you can turn to Lexapro.

A couple at a café on Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv in the 1960s.Credit: GPO

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