I love to read historical novels, especially if Jews are main characters. A couple of years ago I read The Coffee Trader, by David Liss. It’s the story of how Jews—some refugees from the Inquisition—created the coffee trade in the 17th century. Jews have a long standing relationship with coffee, and so I would like to share with you 3 stories about Jews and coffee—truly a rich brew—stories that have lessons to teach us about how we should celebrate Shavuot which is rapidly approaching. These stories were sent to me by my colleague Rabbi Jack Reimer.
Elliot Horowitz, a professor of Early Modern Jewish History at Bar Ilan university, wrote an essay in which he proposed a connection between coffee and Tikun Leyl Shavuot, the custom of staying up all night to study on Shavuot. Coffee, he claims, made it possible to make use of the night hours for Torah study and it was then that the Kabbalists of Tzefat instituted programs of all night study and prayer—Tikun Leyl Shavuot being one of them.
How wise these Kabbalists were to make use of the latest development in food technology for spiritual purposes. They could have said: “This is new and therefore we’re against it.” or “This is something the non-Jews do and so we forbid it. It may lead people to go to the coffee houses, and who knows what they will be tempted to do there?” Instead, they said: “Everything on Gd’s earth should be used to serve Gd—even this new coffee.”
And what is the lesson for us? The Pew Foundation made a study recently, in which they asked children in elementary school: if you need some information, who do you go to? Can you guess what the answers were? 14% said they would ask their teachers, 16% said they would ask their parents, and nearly 70% said they would go to Rabbi Google and ask him. And rightly so, because Rabbi Google knows more and can answer questions faster, than any teacher or parent.
This tells us that we should not be wasting our time trying to keep our children from using the Internet as some religious Jews do—despite the dangers. They will find a way to use it whether we permit them to or not. Instead we should be making sure that our values and our ideals and our ideas are there, so that if our children have questions about the Torah and what it has to say about the world, the answers will be found there.
If a synagogue doesn’t have a website today, it might as well not exist; for there is simply no other way that young people will find them. There was a time when, if you were looking for a shule, you could go to the yellow pages. Now the telephone book itself is a relic. And so, the lesson of coffee from the Kabbalists is to do with the new technology of our time what they did with the new technology of their time—learn it, and use it for sacred purposes.
The next story comes is about the Coffee Shop Rabbi, Ruth Adar—Reform, from Northern California. If you know anything about Northern California, you know that is not exactly a center of Jewish piety. There are many Jews there, but most are completely unaffiliated with anything Jewish. They consider the synagogue an intimidating place for they don’t know Hebrew and are not familiar with the service, and so, they stay away in large numbers.
Rabbi Adar puts the following ad on line, and on Facebook: The Coffee House Rabbi will be at such and such a coffeehouse at such and such a time on such and such a date. If you have any questions you would like to ask me about Judaism, or if you would just like to schmooze with a Rabbi, come join me.
One person came because she had just found out that her grandmother had been Jewish, and she wanted to explore what that meant. Another came because his mother used to say that she was 25% Jewish, and he wanted to know what that made him. Another was a secular Jew who was going to conduct a Seder for the 1st time, and was in a panic.
The word got around, and now Rabbi Adar has plenty of people who meet with her in coffeehouses around the Bay area. Some have questions that are easy to answer. Some have questions that open up the deepest spiritual concerns. Some she is able to direct to synagogues that will fit their needs. When they ask her how much she charges, she tells them that they can pay whatever they want to. Some just pay for her coffee; others make larger contributions—some even very large. Little by little, this “Coffee House Rabbi” is becoming known all over the Bay area, and people who would never set foot in a shule come to share a cup of java with her all the time.
What we learn from the Coffee House Rabbi is that there are more people out there who are in search of meaning—something spiritual—than we realize, but we have to reach out and find them. That means that we may have to move out of the synagogue sometimes, and have classes in offices and business places and even in Starbucks, where people will feel comfortable—something to think about as we plan for our future.
Speaking of Starbucks…when Howard Schultz started Starbucks, people thought he was crazy. Who in his right mind would spend $5 for a cup of coffee when you can buy a cup at McDonalds for a dollar? All the experts thought he would fail. And yet today, Starbucks has more than 5,500 stores all over the world! When asked what was the secret of his success, Schultz said, “All you have to do is make a coffee which tastes better than any other coffee on the market, and people will buy it—regardless of price.” Think about that.
I fear that one of the great mistakes American congregations have made in the marketing of Judaism today is that sometimes we water it down in order to attract people. But that never works. Judaism is a profound religion with great depth. And therefore, when we teach it, we should teach it seriously in all its depth. If people don’t understand it at 1st hearing, then let them concentrate and listen carefully, until they begin to comprehend it. We should talk a little bit over their heads—so that people have to stretch a bit in order to understand it, rather than reducing it to clichés that are obvious and banal and that impress no one.
This is why I wince when I hear that some synagogue is having a “Bark Shabbat” or a “Bark Mitzvah” in which people bring their dogs to shule to give them Jewish names. And this is why I wince when I hear of synagogues that have “Bnai Brith Shabbat,” a “Scouts Shabbat,” and “Opening Day of Baseball Season Shabbat,” and never have a “Shabbat Shabbat,” in which the meaning of Shabbos is explored and celebrated.
And so the lesson I learn from Howard Schultz is, if he had watered down his product, he might have saved some money, but his coffee houses would have been a failure. And so it is with us. If we reduce Judaism, if we sell it cheap, if we have no standards, who will care and who will come?
That’s the essential lesson of Shavuot that celebrates the giving of the 10 Commandments and the Torah. Gd could have given 5 commandments instead of 10. Gd could have convened a focus group in order to determine which of the 10 people would like and which they would not. Gd could have offered the people “10 Suggestions for Creative Living.” But Gd didn’t do that. Instead, he set a standard and a goal that is almost impossible for us to reach. He told us to strive to become a Mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, “a Kingdom of priests and a holy nation”—nothing more and nothing less. Smart money would have told him to come up with a program that would be more acceptable—something like: “Keep the Torah and you will be popular” or “Keep the Torah, and it’ll be fun”—but Gd chose to offer us the best product so that we would stretch ourselves as we fulfill it.
What if, when someone joined our shule, we not only required them to pay dues, but also required them to commit themselves to signing up for at least one series of classes a year or to a certain number of services a year or acts of chesed. What if I asked each of us to begin now and read one book of the Torah before Shavuot from beginning to end? Each book is a little over 200 pages in English in our Chumash and much less in others. What better way to prepare for Shavuot? What would happen if we did these things? No one can say for sure, but judging by the success of Starbucks, it just might work.
Here, then, are 3 stories about coffee and Judaism. One teaches us to make use of the technology of our time for the sake of Torah. One teaches us to go wherever our people are, and to do whatever we can in order to make the Torah accessible. And the 3rd teaches us to set standards and reach high.
What do you think of these 3 lessons? If you would like to talk to me about them and explore them further, would you please join me after services, and let’s talk about them over a shot of scotch—or better yet—a cup of coffee. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis