Cafe Levinsky 41
by W.S. Chahanovich
Coffee is, arguably, a post-modern religion, at least for me. Levinsky 41, however, takes this holy rite to an entirely new level of religious devotion.
Walking out into the dry afternoon breeze of an early June in Tel Aviv, the jet lag hits me. Smooth train rides into cities from peripheral airports—Valladolid to Madrid, Schoenefeld to Berlin, Fiumicino to Rome, Mohammed V to Casablanca—all seem to exacerbate sans aucun doute the discombobulating effects of international travel. The trip from Ben Gurion Airport to Ha-Haganah Station is not long, but the smooth 15-minute sojourn sufficiently slipped my mind into a quasi-catatonic state. I want to move. I want to breathe free circulating air. More importantly, I want to hit the beach for the first time in well over 365 days. Such an indulgence was well-earned. This past year’s apocalyptic New England winter, clocking in with nearly 9 feet of deepest snow, has made basking in warm water under open fields of blue sky both desirable and somewhat foreign. And, like all good things foreign for the Wonder Bread-and-Velveeta Cheese sated American mind, the notion was all that more desirable and valuable.
Tel Aviv (a.k.a. “The White City”, ha-‘ir ha-levana) in itself is a very manageable metropolis for the dedicated pedestrian. Paying up for a monit (taxi) or waiting interminably for the next sherut (discount shared taxi-bus) are types of transportation one can easily avoid. So, with the intrepid cheapness of a graduate student, I make a move to schlepp my baggage down Levinsky Street. This stretch of concrete runs from Ha-Hagana rail station into the heart of what is now hipster central in south Tel Aviv: Florentine. This is my new destination for the remainder of the summer; I will temporarily become a Florentine expat as I collect information on modern Mizrahi poetry. It’s a niche academic focus, I am aware. But in the world of publishing papers and struggling to get employed as a would-be professorial type, one needs to delve, occasionally, into the strange and unusual.
Levinsky Street is a vibrant inner-city vein that throbs with a more nuanced—and, sadly, marginalized—beat of the Israeli metropolis. Each new block leads into one of Israel’s immigrant neighborhoods—Ethiopian Jewish, Ethiopian Christian, Sudanese, Kenyan, Filipino. Aesthetically, the strip is just a wall of large windows decorated with laundry lines. Bedsheets, bras and underwear, t-shirts, pants, and blouses seem to fan the buildings from burning in the hot sun. Luckily, either due to city ordinance or sheer aesthetic appreciation, the buildings only stretch 5 to 8 floors maximum, leaving a blessed canopy of Mediterranean sky open and wide. Within 15 minutes—I am a fast walker—I reach the Levinsky and Ha-Aliya intersection, the threshold of Florentine.
A few words on Florentine. Named for the Saloniki Greek Jew Shlomo (Solomon) Florentine, the neighborhood emerged in the 1920s and 30s as a Jewish settlement on the outskirts of the Palestinian city Jaffa. Florentine’s earliest incarnation served a mix of Jewish bourgeois businessmen and craftsmen from Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, as well as from far off Bukhara (Uzbekistan). Architecturally, Solomon and the first inhabitants constructed a city that resembled more properly the Mediterranean style of Athens and Alexandria, the latter of which remained a prominent Egyptian Jewish metropolis well into the 20th century. Having lived in Egypt during my early 20s, the similarity between Alexandria and Florentine is shocking. In a region beset by turmoil, these little parallels of life between two unfriendly neighbors—the aesthetic of stocky buildings, streets lined with shops and markets, the perfume of cumin, pepper, cardamom, and dried figs mixing with bitter aromas wafting out of olive and fish merchants' stalls—subtly suggest to my peace-praying mind that, yes, there is some hope. But now is not the time to indulge in leftist musings.
Florentine’s early days witnessed in the 60s a slow "flight" of the original denizens. Consequently, the city sector fell into dilapidation. Tel Aviv in general was, up until the 90s, severely in need of a face lift, and the city undertook a massive metropolitan restoration project that, as luck would have it, included the southern outpost near Jaffa: Florentine. Today, some buildings still exhibit desperate need of repair. Overall, however, the neighborhood has emerged like a phoenix from the ashes of urban decline. Buzzing shoqs (markets) now line the streets with a motley mix of dried fruit purveyors, dairy vendors, coffee grinders, baklava bakers, and tchotchkes merchants. The youthful vigor of Florentine is also pulsating. One of the best bars in the city—the hilariously named Bar-Mitzvah—is also located in this quarter.
Against bromidic comparisons penned by popularizing travel writers—the "SoHo of Tel Aviv," the "Lower East Side of the White City"—Florentine is more, I argue, a mix of Bedford (Brooklyn), Kreuzberg (Berlin), and the Pest side of Budapest (Hungary). That is, Levinsky Street in Florentine is too much the amalgamation of history, too far indebted to its Mediterranean roots to really reach full comparison with hipster neighborhoods of the Eastern Seaboard or European hotspots for those starving artists seeking to escape high rent rates in the Lower East Side.
Into this mosaic of organized chaos, redolent with the spices and perfumes of the Middle East, my olfactory senses pick up the distinct odor of what the jet-lagged mind most profoundly desires. The coffee is what brings me here, the very item that has carried me past the voluptuous melons and honey-soaked desert shops. Proceeding further another two blocks, I come upon a parked jalopy, maker unknown, with a back bed for transportation. Something akin to a European-style mini pickup: small, inconspicuous, with a pastel aquamarine coat. There is again that sense of sea, sand and summer life that permeates this place, that connects the dots and makes the city come together as some quilted extension stitched at the seam of land and water.
I ask myself, dumbfounded, where the coffee is?
The old miniature pickup is filled with youth in the back bed sipping on cups redolent with that deep chocolate perfume we all recognize as the perfectly pulled shot. No major coffee house or shop is to be seen, however. Rather, all I see is a 5- to 6-foot-wide by 8- to 10-foot deep stall in the wall. Peering into what was obviously an old and very modest storage unit, a recess in the series of shops lining the street, its size strikes me as risible, comically qatan, like a missing tooth in a child’s mouth.
Levinsky 41—both the address and the name of the café—is a converted storage unit with a permanently parked old pickup as make-shift sitting space. The owner, Benny, appears to be a late 30s / early 40s something entrepreneur with genuinely courteous eyes that nictitate under a shaggy pepper-grey mane of hair. I caught a glimpse of him hurriedly gesticulating to locals and regulars at his kiosk. “Shalom, Benny” I hear called out from the street. “Shalom, Shalom! Az, le-hitra’ot” Benny shouts as he jumps back into the recesses of the café to pull another shot from his 1960s piston-operated hot orange espresso machine. Such a unique hand-pumped coffee contraption stands out in my mind. I have only ever known of the ubiquitous portafilters that Milanese or Neapolitan baristas shove into massive chrome-plated La Ciambali espresso machines. Thus, Benny’s device looks like something out of a different world and time. Perhaps I had in fact seen something similar, as an unnoticed detail in a Pierpaolo Pasolini film? At least for those who have personal memories from the 1960s when a shot was quite literally pulled and pressed in front of you, this encounter is a cherished moment for the modern mind. My caffeine-deprived eyes focus on how deliciously thick the coffee oozes out of the double-sided spout, the late afternoon sun pouring obliquely into the interior and illuminating the contrast of chrome, stainless steel, and hot orange.
I stand in—or, more properly, edge my way in—line (Israelis don’t believe in lines). Immediately I notice that the thin counter separating the interior kitchen from the clientele is decorated with glasses and bottles filled with blades of lemongrass and sprigs of lavender. Involuntarily, my neurons begin to fire. Have I found the modern man’s version of a temple? Coffee is, arguably, a post-modern religion, at least for me. Levinsky 41, however, takes this holy rite to an entirely new level of religious devotion. Benny has emulated cultic practices of designating the sacrosanct by introducing perfume into the cultural performance of a caffeinated faith. Man shall not live by coffee alone.
A hand stretches out from behind the counter and pushes a small glass in my other hand. “Kakh, take” the kind woman says to me. In the vessel are several slivers of lemongrass submerged in fizzy water. My face comes close to the cup and, as I take a sip, my lips prickle from the carbonation and perfumed lemon liquid. My palate is clean, my nose refreshed, my mind at ease. Benny has clearly mastered the art of slowly seducing his customers into a world of utter indulgence. “Mah ata rotzeh, moteq, what do you want, sweety” she asks as Benny bounces back and forth from pulling another shot and saluting one of his regulars. The size of the kitchen is only large enough to accommodate two workers at one time. I make a typical American order: iced coffee. To my ignorant amazement, they do indeed know of iced coffee in Israel, a fact I should have known from the sheer number of American Jews that come in and out of the country every day. But this is not self-explanatory. Elsewhere in the Middle East I have only ever come across hot beverages in cafes, the argument being that the hot liquid habituates one to the torrid summer temperatures.
As I wait for the double shot of black wine to be pulled through the valves and tubes of Benny’s vintage espresso machine, I stand listening to the guttural sound of Hebrew hemming and hawing. Inside the kitchen of wonders, cream-tiled walls reach at least 10 feet high and are lined with various jars of preserved fruits and jams. Benny makes everything by hand: the preserved fruits and their syrups are used in mixed fizzy and refreshing drinks for whoever wants a cool-me-down rather than a pick-me-up, and the jams sold to those wishing to smear some thick fig or apricot ribah on Benny’s homemade muffins and scones that rotate on a daily basis. It strikes me as somehow—if I may be a little trite—magical how Café Levinsky 41 was once a storage unit. In its stead, a fully equipped kitchen fills the void with the ebullient dreams and vivacious gesticulating of its creator and owner.
Finally, I receive my iced coffee. A mere 10 shekels (about 2.30€ or $2.50). “Todah, thank you,” I say as I bring the long awaited cup to my lips. This is it. That the creamy hot liquid was pulled by hand seems to have made the viscosity of the caffeinated concoction extra thick. It is perhaps a milky-cream texture that also borders on being a chocolate mate or black-cherry soup. The comparison may strike the reader as strange, but the flavors do in fact linger on my lips and in the back of my mouth. How is it that the cold ice cubes do not numb the robust flavor a bit? There is a cherry-chocolate texture and taste. And the double-shot—as it turns out, the iced coffees are made with double shots because of the added water to make it fill an entire cup—hits my head like a hammer that shatters my jet-lagged mind and sends me whizzing into a coma of caffeinated euphoria. I have never taken poppers or cocaine, but the enthralling jolt of energy that is infused with each sip of Benny’s coffee is, I am sure, comparable with the narcotic effects of these heavy drugs. A tawny-ochre froth floating at the top of the dark caffeinated syrup that rests heavy inside the cup adds an artisanal optical appeal. Each sip is without any of the quick-pressed and mass-produced bitterness the intrepid traveler can sample at airport cafes or, worse, for the American, the ubiquitous Starbucks. This cup of coffee is not a cup of hot liquid that you toss back in a jolt to get from point a to point b. This is meant to be savored and sipped while sitting in the back of an old jalopy, while reading some pocket-sized poetry, or flipping through the feuilleton section of some bougie-leftist newspaper, and forgetting the troubles of the world. A toffee swirl of caffeine, cherry and chocolate, with cool dewdrops of icy water swirl in my mouth and, for the first time, I can say that coffee can be more than refreshing. Coffee can be an experience.
This is the best cup of coffee I have ever had in my life. Without exaggeration. Why else would I write about it? But, admittedly, such a profound experience of epicurean ecstasy is difficult to put into words. Perchance you too, dear reader, may have the opportunity to experience Café Levinsky 41 and, like me, become a supplicant at Benny’s altar of caffeinated delight.