Book Review

Café Shira isn’t simply a place to grab cup of coffee. Oh, no. For many, its meaning is much deeper and far more divine. In David Ehrlich’s novel of the same name, Café Shira is a place where his characters seek transcendence, though not all may succeed in finding exactly what they are looking for.

Set in Jerusalem, Israel, Café Shira, translated from the Hebrew by Michael Swirsky, is a literary translation of the real-life coffee shop Ehrlich has owned for twenty-five years, Café Tmol Shilshom, which means “Only Yesterday.” Within the walls of the fictional café, characters like Avigdor (the café’s proprietor), Rutha (a waitress), and Christian (a French tourist) all seek to find a deeper meaning in life. Although each character’s destiny differs, the innerworkings of the café help them relate to one another. It’s a place where “the whole world and all the experiences it offers come together.”

Ehrlich’s creative liberty throughout Café Shira shines through. Although each chapter only shares morsels of a character’s life—and there are many— Ehrlich weaves together multiple stories that fuel the café and the occupants within while providing a unique voice and tone throughout the book’s chapters.

Some chapters follow traditional narration, with descriptions and exposition using a third person point of view. However, Ehrlich also uses his creative liberty to interject with different writing styles without necessarily following a specific pattern, or at least one that I noticed. For example, multiple chapters are named after the table numbers within the café. “Table One” consists of dialogue between two unnamed characters, while “Table Eleven” and “The Boy at Table Twelve” uniquely display dialogue similar to that seen in a play. Such techniques are curious to me, but they seem to work in the personification of Café Shira itself.

The personification of the café allows Ehrlich to maneuver throughout his novel with a sort of freedom other stories lack. It’s as if Café Shira overhears its patrons’ conversations and quietly interacts with them as they sip their coffee, while translating these moments for the reader into something beautiful. And it’s within the walls of this café that characters, like the poet Ruhama Shittin, find solace and friendship with the café. “Alone but not lonely, surrounded by her true friends—the ornate cups, the chairs with stories to tell, the big espresso machine that resembles a long, many-teated she-wolf—all these will stand by her while she realizes her destiny.” This destiny demonstrates how Café Shira also acts as a metaphor throughout the novel.

For many of the characters, Café Shira is a personal Garden of Eden—a place to discover solace, love, or the aforementioned destiny, all three of which Rutha, the waitress, aims to find. Rutha’s lack of confidence has left “gnawing doubts of her abilities,” especially when it comes to “taking herself seriously as an artist” and in the name of love. But when Christian, a French tourist seeking to follow Jesus’ biblical journey enters the café, Rutha feels as if her destiny is about to change.

Christian’s pilgrimage brings him to Jerusalem as he thirsts to become more like Jesus, even pondering the possibility of becoming a priest. Shortly after his arrival to the Holy City, however, Christian feels as if God has abandoned him and feels temptation creeping in after meeting Rutha at Café Shira. Christian begins to second guess his reasons for coming to Jerusalem in the first place. Café Shira, it seems, changes Christian’s path for the future, as he soon embarks on a new journey that will bring him a new form of happiness. Café Shira isn’t a Garden of Eden for all, however.

For Avigdor, his café, albeit loved by many, is his own “personal hell.”  After many years of owning Café Shira and bringing happiness to others through food, Avigdor now sulks about, pondering his own purpose in life. He has “lost his appetite” and his passion for the café itself. But by the end of the novel, even Avigdor’s journey of being proprietor allows him the growth he needs to move on and find his true self.

Accompanied with photographs throughout the novel that illustrate scenes within the café, the café itself speaks to its readers by sharing its thoughts aloud. While seeing an image of patrons chatting, while clinking their spoons against their mugs as they stir sugar into their coffee; it’s easy to hear coffee grinding in the background, while conversations gradually rise. The imagery of this comfortable atmosphere illustrates the idea of transcendence that so many of Café Shira’s characters seek. Whether they’re simply searching for a new goal, or hoping to reach their dream, these are relatable moments to the reader, as all of us have something to hope for.

Based on David Ehrlich’s own experiences of owning Café Tmol Shilshom, I can only wonder if there is truth to some of Ehrlich’s characters, especially between himself and Avigdor. Like the author and his characters in Café Shira, “the furniture and utensils are completely uncoordinated” and the “only thing they have in common being that each piece is one of a kind.” Having passed away from a heart attack at the beginning of the pandemic, David Ehrlich’s beautiful words will live on through his beloved novel, Café Shira.

About the Reviewer

Stephanie Nesja graduated in 2021 from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with her master’s degree in English, with an emphasis in writing. She enjoys writing nonfiction creative essays, the occasional short story, as well as contributing to Volume One.