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September 3, 2015 | 19th Elul 5775


Galilee Diary #339, May 27, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

When the server gets to you, take the cup in your right hand… You should swirl it round the cup and sip it thoughtfully. When you have finished, do not put the cup down, but keep hold of it in your right hand. The coffee-server will return to you and take the cup and pour you a second and then a third. When you have had the third, shake the cup as you give it back to him. This signals that you have had enough…

-European Commission guide to Middle Eastern etiquette

Apparently not long after Islam conquered the Middle East, coffee came along, via Yemen from Ethiopia, and became a pillar of regional culture.

For the past six months, I have been coordinating a project for the Interfaith Coordinating Council of Israel (funded by the New York Federation) to teach imams about Judaism. Once a month, a group of about a dozen religious leaders of the mosques of various villages around the central Galilee get together to visit a different Jewish community in the area and meet its rabbi, for a lesson on some aspect of Judaism. We then go out to dinner together (of course). The group ranges from home-schooled Bedouins who need to have the rabbis’ remarks translated for them, to men who have an academic education and work as teachers in Arab public schools. Most are amazingly ignorant of – and curious about – Judaism, and love to discover the similarities and differences between biblical and koranic narratives.

Last time, at dinner at a local Arab restaurant, the waiter came around after the meal, as is standard, with a thermos pitcher of Turkish coffee. This is finely ground coffee, sweetened and usually flavored with cardamom, that is heated just to boiling three times, allowed to settle, and drunk in little demitasse-size cups. For me, this is the perfect end to a meal. But then, they had the waiter come back with traditional Arab “hospitality coffee.” Since this is, so to say, an “acquired taste,” most restaurants don’t offer it. And even casual – and non-Arab – guests in the home are generally served sweet Turkish coffee. Traditional coffee is something else – for special occasions, or to welcome a guest, coffee is custom pounded (rhythmically – even musically – in a carved wooden mortar), then cooked - with no sugar - until it has a syrupy consistency. The host comes around with a long-handled brass pot with a pointed spout, and a small handle-less ceramic cup; he pours at most a quarter-inch in the bottom of the cup for the first guest, who drinks and passes the cup on to be replenished for the next in line. My imam friends were watching eagerly as the cup got to me, but I knew what to expect, so I took my sip and savored the indescribable bitterness that shorted out my taste buds, without even grimacing. They were duly impressed. But I’ll probably have to go through this again next month. (No, don’t even think about asking for decaf.)

For Jewish Israelis, coffee is more a beverage or an addiction than a central cultural artifact. Now, of course, there are espresso bars on every corner in the cities (Starbucks tried and failed); but at home and the office, the two most common forms are “Nescafe” with milk and sugar (Nescafe being the name of one brand of instant coffee – and a pun based on “nes” which means miracle), and “botz” (mud) which one prepares by stirring finely ground Turkish coffee into a cup of boiling water and letting the grounds settle; essentially, it is weak Turkish coffee (since it is not boiled as above).

Just as we joke about bitter Arab coffee, I can imagine what they must think of the watery and milky concoctions we call coffee. Sugar, however, seems to be the bridge – it seems that our tastes meet at the little cups of sweetened, thrice-boiled Turkish coffee that are the staple of every Arab meal and coffee break, and are much in demand by Jews as the finale to a Middle Eastern meal.

Making ourselves at home: that’s what we’re doing here. Have another cup.

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