Register Sunday | December 5 | 2021

Books Not Bombs

A profile of a literary landmark: Jerusalem’s Tmol Shilshom café.

DAVID EHRLICH REMEMBERS sitting with friends, high on red wine and verse, when he first heard the gunshots. Famed Israeli actor Gil Alon had just completed a dramatic reading of some of his favourite love poems, and the whole of Tmol Shilshom café was still buzzing from his performance.

Suddenly two terrorists ran up Yoel Salomon Street towards Zion Square. They sprayed bullets from their machine guns into the jewelry shops and kosher restarants. Inside the café, everyone heard the shots getting closer. By chance, there was an off-duty policeman among them. He went to a window, drew his pistol, and told everyone to get down. He needn’t have bothered. Israelis already know to hide beneath the tables and wait for the shooting to stop. But there were tourists in the café, and new immigrants. David crawled to them and tried to keep them calm.

Nearly fifty, and recognizable by his untucked shirts and ever-present mugs of tea, David opened Tmol Shilshom in 1995. He borrowed the name—which translates into “yesterday and the day before”—from the title of Israeli Nobel Prize laureate S. Y. Agnon’s famous novel, much of which is set in Nahalat Shiv’a, the same neighborhood where the café stands. When David chose this location for Tmol Shilshom, he knew the risks. The nearby Zion Square and its adjoining pedestrian mall were popular targets for terrorist acts. And while the café’s location off the main street granted it some protection, the setting also means enduring the occasional close call: the morning after the machine gun attack, David found two bullets lodged in a window frame.

Tmol Shilshom is a restaurant, a café and a bookstore. In its thirteen-year history, it has hosted first dates, last dates, anniversaries, marriage proposals and wedding ceremonies. But it is a sanctuary for writers first. Tmol Shilshom, with its book-crammed windowsills, ranks alongside Paris’ famous Shakespeare and Company and City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco as one of the world’s few literary destinations. Jerusalemites Amos Oz, David Grossman and the late Batya Gur have read here. So have overseas authors like Yann Martel and the late Frank McCourt. Their portraits hang on the walls like holy icons.

At each of the café’s old tables, beneath the old stone arches, you’re liable to find an author. They bend over notebooks or clack away on laptops. Even one of David’s bartenders knocked off a novel between shifts. Many have also written about this place. The protagonists in Meir Shalev’s novel Fontanelle gather at Tmol Shilshom, and a religious woman in Yoram Yovel’s What Is Love? meets her blind dates here. The café also gets an unexpected cameo in a Japanese novel and a crime thriller from Russia. In the late nineties, young American author Nathan Englander left his rundown apartment each morning and came to the café where he wrote the stories that fill his acclaimed book For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. One day a triple suicide bombing in Zion Square was so close and so powerful that it set the café’s chandeliers swaying. Nathan Englander was at his usual table when it happened. The final story in his book is an account of the attack:

Three blasts. Like birds. They come through the window. Wild and lost. They are trapped under the high-domed ceiling of the café, darting round between us, striking the walls and glass, knocking the dishes from the shelves. And we know, until they stop their terrible motion, until they cease swooping and darting and banging into walls, until they alight, come to rest, exhausted, spent, there is nothing at all to do.

Tmol Shilshom occupies a building that used to be a family home. “This is where I was born,” some of David’s customers tell him, or “I used to visit my grandparents here.” The place became a puppet store, of all things, then a tailor’s shop. What is now the café’s storage closet was a one-room apartment where the neighborhood prostitute entertained her clients. When David leased the building in 1994, rubble and glass were heaped on the floor. But David could see the potential in the stone walls, arched window frames and old tiles.

When David told his friend Yehuda Amichai about his plans for a bookstore and café in central Jerusalem, the beloved Israeli poet did not think it was a good idea. “What if people spill coffee on the books?” he mused. “Then they might not pay for the coffee—or the books.” Still, Amichai agreed to recite some of his poetry at the café’s opening. By the time he approached the microphone that night, clutching pages of handwritten Hebrew verse, the place was filled to bursting.

David had always expected a crowd. “It was like saying Leonard Cohen was coming,” David explained. “The man was like a god.” The real shock, however, came the next morning when he walked up the café steps. Ten o’clock and Tmol Shilshom was already bustling. People were drinking espresso, eating quiche and reading the morning papers. David was struck by how comfortable everyone looked, how naturally the bodies filled the chairs. Tmol Shilshom was barely a day old, but seemed to have always been there.

If Amichai’s opening-night reading was Tmol Shilshom’s baptism, the al-Aqsa Intifada that coincided with his death in 2000 threatened to be the café’s last rites. David draped a black ribbon over Amichai’s favourite chair during the traditional week of mourning, while outside, suicide attacks left blasted bodies on the streets. During the darkest days of the Intifada, people feared buses, cafés, pizzerias, and discothèques. Paranoia seized the country. Every Arab was a potential bomber: What’s in his bag? What’s strapped beneath his shirt? Palestinians working in a nearby restaurant were arrested for plotting to poison their customers’ food. Some of David’s patrons left when they discovered he, too, employed Arabs.

Café owners were compelled to post guards at their front doors. At first, David acted as his own security guard. He remembers one night in particular when a singer was performing and her voice floated out to the bottom of the stairwell where he stood. Suddenly he was awash in a familiar unease. During his military service David’s unit was one of the first into Lebanon during the 1982 invasion. He stood guard over remote posts on isolated hills. Now, nearly twenty years later, David was on guard again, this time in his hometown, in front of a business he owned, checking backpacks and purses for nail bombs.

Business plummeted. “The situation had reached this sad stage in which I had to support my business rather than having it support me,” David said. He considered closing the café altogether. Instead, he traveled to California. He gave speaking engagements about life under the Intifada in order to raise funds to keep Tmol Shilshom afloat. He spoke of how Tmol Shilshom had grown to represent Jerusalem’s contemporary culture, just as holy sites like the Western Wall were the city’s spiritual keystones. He spoke of the century-old arches, of the chandeliers bombs had once swung, and the stone floor where great writers had stood. He spoke about the musty smell of old books on the shelf giving way to a waft of ginger-lemon tea. He spoke of steam rising from a plate of baked salmon with white wine and figs, a house specialty. Mostly he spoke of his dream: a café in the centre of Jerusalem that is a part of the city’s ongoing history, a link to its literature, a piece of its infinite yesterdays.

The support of the Jewish communities in the US inspired David and strengthened his resolve. “If we are at war, then a place like Tmol Shilshom must survive because we fight not just to sustain a physical life, but a cultural life as well. We fight for the soul of a people. That is what Tmol Shilshom represents to me.”

Today the Intifada is at a low boil. Jerusalem’s streets are lively again, and the biggest challenge to Tmol Shilshom isn’t bombs, but the recession. The only blasts that shatter the café’s quiet come from the construction going on next door.

Writers still scribble in the corners. The espresso machine still screams and grinds. When there are readings, clientele still drag antique chairs across the room towards the lectern, shout greetings at arriving friends and wave at the poor servers whose mobility is hampered by the sudden reconfiguration of the café furniture.

Now the father of twins, David isn’t at the café much. but if he’s around, and he warms to you, he’ll tell you about the time he helped Amichai, ever distrustful of technology, Xerox his final manuscript. or about the homeless man who used to order half glasses of orange juice and shout at his invisible tormentors. or about the two English poets who once exchanged punches over who was the better writer, or the poetess who insisted on hanging her photo on the wall alongside Oz, Grossman et al. “how do you tell someone they are no Amos Oz?” David will ask. he’ll sip his ginger tea and maybe raise an eyebrow at the server who, carrying a chair over his head, bumps the chandelier, and sets it swinging.