Cafe owner struggles to stay open, appeals to diaspora

When an Israeli cafe owner travels to the United States to keep his Jerusalem business afloat, it's a sign that times are tough.

David Ehrlich, owner of the landmark literary cafe Tmol Shilshom, finds he has little choice but to appeal to American Jews. It's either that or join the legions of other nearby cafes forced out of business by "the situation."

"Dear customer," read the handwritten notes posted on nine out of the 12 cafe doors surrounding his eatery near the Ben Yehuda mall in downtown Jerusalem. "I'm very sorry but I've had to close down. I'll see you in better times."

Ehrlich, 43, described the dreary scene in the otherwise picturesque Nahalat Shiv'a neighborhood to a receptive crowd at the Marin Jewish Community Center last week.

"Walking down the street is a really sad experience," said the former journalist. "Realistically, who wants to go to a cafe that could be exploded at any moment?"

But even though the cafe's stone-interior rooms are near-deserted, the bookcases barely scanned and the business going "down, down, down," Ehrlich refuses to close his doors.

"I cannot bear to think of a city devoid of all cultural life," he explained.

It was 10 years ago that Ehrlich, an instructor at U.C. Berkeley for a year, was inspired by Bay Area bookstore cafes to open Tmol Shilshom. Since its opening in 1994, the cafe has been known to attract Israel's literary greats for readings, discussions and panels.

"Talking and listening to great literature is a source of inspiration and therapy," said Ehrlich, himself a short-story writer who recently published "Tuesdays and Thursdays," a collection of vignettes from the cafe.

"Writers often have words of wisdom, which many of us could use these days."

Many events are still scheduled, though the crowds are less likely to linger before or afterward.

Before his trip to the United States, Ehrlich, who is openly gay, was spending most of his days in the cafe, chatting with his Palestinian chef, Marjes. The decline in business recently caused him to lay off his dishwasher and some other staff.

The intifada is a frequent topic of discussion for Ehrlich and Marjes, a father of seven, whom Ehrlich described as "a good friend" with similarly moderate political views.

But it is "a paradox," he said, that while they share much and work together, and Ehrlich even drives Marjes home after suicide bombings to help him get through the checkpoints — still, no matter what, "He's on the other side of the line."

Serving with the reserves in the West Bank two months ago, for instance, Ehrlich granted an interview to British journalists who had a Palestinian driver. Even though he was standing there in his full Israel Defense Force garb, somehow he and the Palestinian warmed up to one another and became engaged in conversation. Ehrlich, out of force of habit, invited him to his cafe.

"Then it hit me. I own a restaurant in the heart of Jerusalem and I gave him the name. For five or 10 minutes I was wondering if I was just being paranoid. Was I just worrying or was it for real that today in the heart of Jerusalem a restaurant could be attacked?"

The paranoia may not have been entirely unfounded. Once, when he asked his colleague Marjes what he thought of the suicide bombers. Much as he's against violence, Marjes said that "shahids," as they're known in Arabic, "are people who are holy…an elated person willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of the people."

It was a revelation for Ehrlich that "if even someone moderate and sane and a good friend like Marjes thinks highly of terrorists," it must be "a state of mind" among Palestinians.

He has asked Marjes, who hates the Palestinian Authority government as well as leader Yasser Arafat, "Why don't you overthrow him and change your government?" In turn, said Ehrlich, "I never get a straight answer. He'll say, he lives in a system that's not democratic" and add, "What can we do?"

Ehrlich, who formerly worked for Israel's left-leaning daily newspaper Ha'aretz, went on to express frustration with the Bay Area's far left because "they see the plight of the Palestinians, as I do, but they don't see us anymore. The situation is more complex than the Israelis oppressing the Palestinians. To see only that is missing the bigger picture."

Israelis "do expect and, I feel, don't get a certain kind of care and reaching out" from diaspora Jews.

"You don't want a father who sends you checks every month and never calls to see how you're doing."

He realizes that "it's hard to relate to what we're going through" from so far away, and that American Jews "might know the headlines, but not the full network of emotions that come with it." But like his cafe, he added, life goes on in Israel.

"I'm still here, and I'm not just an abstract item in a newspaper."