Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Crazy for Coffee

It is a fact fit for any game of trivia that the first coffee house, known as The Angel, in England was opened in Oxford by a man known as Jacob the Jew around 1650. Coffee has its origin in Africa and the Arabian peninsula, but it is not surprising that Jews, known for their international trade connections, became involved in the commerce of coffee. It is believed that Jews not only imported the coffee bean to Europe, but also the idea of a coffeehouse (Livorno, Italy 1632). Coffeehouses were very popular in the Arabic world. These establishments, which were most often for men only both in the Middle East and Europe, were popular for more than just their caffeinated beverage as they were also places to gather for “intellectual” conversation and political debate.

As coffee became more popular, the rabbis of the time were presented with several questions, such as what blessing should be recited over a cup of coffee. (The answer is sheh’ha’kohl, a blessing for food that has been processed.) One of the most important questions among European Jews was whether coffee beans were considered kitniyot (legumes), which are rabbinically prohibited to Ashkenazim on Passover. Don’t worry - the majority ruled that they are permitted because the “beans” were actually berries that grow on trees.

There is one other interesting connection between coffee and Passover. In late 19th century New York, there were numerous coffee businesses of Jewish origin, such as Martinson’s Coffee, Savarin and, perhaps the most well-known, Chock Full O’ Nuts. In the 1930s, however, Maxwell House (not Jewishly owned) won a huge swath of the Jewish market when they began distributing free haggadahs The Maxwell House Haggadah, which was the idea of Jewish advertising executive Joseph Jacob, is still published and distributed, and is a part of the fond Passover memories for many American Jews.

*It is interesting to note that Jews were not readmitted to England until at least five years later.


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