The Jewel of Ben-Yehuda Street

I’m sipping my Cup O’ Joe coffee. Playing with a spoon that I don’t use. I take my coffee black and without sugar. I don’t drink it. I sip it. And the crowded kanyon (mega shopping mall) of hungry shoppers pause to gaze at the luscious cakes in display windows.

But what do they know of good coffee and fine pastries? Most of them never experienced the jewel of coffee houses in all of pre-State Palestine or Israel.

That jewel was the legendary European coffee house on # 7 Ben-Yehuda street, Jerusalem’s pedestrian mall known as the midrachov.

Café Atara was founded in 1938 by a Jewish immigrant from Germany, Heinz Greenspan, whose dream was to establish a coffee house in the style of those in Berlin, Prague and Paris…a place where only the finest coffee and delectable pastry specialties were side by side on a printed menu.

Coffee lovers could sit inside or outside at umbrella-covered tables in cultural conversations with fellow coffee habitues. One could sit for hours over a single cup of coffee. No one would ever think of asking the customer to leave or to relinquish the table for others.

Palestinian coffee was made from chicory, a bitter tasting brew. But Greenspan imported his roasted coffee beans from the European coffee houses and introduced Palestine to the tiny cups of espresso with a slice of lemon peel, something previously unknown in Palestine.

Overnight, Atara became renowned throughout Jerusalem and coffee lovers flocked to the center of Jerusalem and made their way to # 7 of the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall.

During the British Mandate, Café Atara was frequented by high ranking British officers and their fur-clad wives. And sitting at nearby tables were members of the Haganah, the Irgun and the Stern Gang, dressed nicely, sipping their coffee, munching on strudel or cheesecakes, Atara’s popular pastries, while listening into the conversations of British officers to relay any important news to the Jewish underground forces in Palestine.

Among one of the frequent customers, always in different disguises, was a man who would one day become Prime Minister in the Jewish State of Israel. His name was Menachem Begin.

Atara was the piece-de-resistance for Palestine’s Jewish artists and poets and politicians. Great books that were later published were written on Atara’s tables over steaming cups of fine coffee.

During the end of the Mandate,  Arab riots became more frequent and the Ben-Yehuda mall was subjected to bombing. Many of the shops were destroyed. But with courage and the support of Atara’s faithful, it was rebuilt and re-opened in its former glory.

My wife and children and I always enjoyed our pastries at Atara whenever we travelled to Jerusalem.  No café in Tel-Aviv could compare to the glories of Atara and the love and devotion of its patrons.

Sadly, after 58 years of success, Heinz Greenspan’s grandson closed Atara’s doors in 1996. It was sold, I believe, for the price of three million dollars.

A sushi restaurant opened on the spot of #7 Ben-Yehuda but has since passed into the hands of a coffee-house plus, whose proprietor hopes to re- create the atmosphere of Café Atara.

I don’t want to hurt his feelings but I’d like to inform him that there was only one jewel in the crown of Jerusalem’s coffee-houses. And that crown belonged to Atara.

So now I sit at Cup O’ Joe, sometimes at Aroma, sometimes at Café Café, but the dreams of Café Atara do not fade from my taste buds.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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