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The Final Days of a Landmark Cafe


JERUSALEM — In a city where history is measured in millenniums, and rituals are drawn from God, the Atara Cafe is no ancient temple. But for 58 years the European-style cafe has been a centerpiece of life in downtown Jerusalem and an altar at which Israelis indulged in one of their favorite rituals--Friday morning cake, coffee and conversation.

Since the days of British rule in Palestine, the tables at Atara have served as an observation deck where Jews sat down to feel the political winds and monitor social change. Today, Atara's is closing, a symbol of change in the Jewish state: The landmark cafe on the bustling Ben Yehuda pedestrian walk is to be replaced with a Burger King.

"It is a pity, but this is the spirit of the times," said Atara owner Uri Greenspan. "In Paris, too, chains are taking over the beautiful coffee shops."

Not all Jerusalemites accept the switch with the equanimity of Greenspan, who is selling his "key money," or tenant's rights to the building, for an undisclosed sum that the rumor mill puts at $3 million.

"You've made a terrible mistake, this is what makes Jerusalem unique!" Sarah Sallon, an angry Atara patron, shouted at Greenspan after hearing of the impending sale.

The soft-spoken Greenspan responds that he is looking for a new location downtown and plans to reopen. But the old cafe may find it difficult to lure customers to a new spot.

Longtime patrons say the beauty of Atara was not in its coffee so much as its soul. And its history, which cannot be replicated. Atara was founded in 1938 by Greenspan's father, Heinz, a German immigrant who brought Old World manners and classical music to his cafe in the center of what was then a small and rough-cut town.

In the early days, members of the underground Hagana force met for coffee and brainstorming at Atara. They organized to protect themselves against Arab attack and, during World War II, to smuggle in thousands of European Jews who could not get British permission to immigrate legally.

Orphans hiding in the skirts of the Jewish motherland, these immigrants found a safe place to rebuild themselves at Atara. They had grown up with books, music and discussions of Kant and Hegel back home in Europe. After losing their parents in Nazi camps, they found a new home in the smoky conversations at the coffeehouse.

"We all came as persecuted from somewhere," said Ahron Rabinowicz, 81, who arrived at Atara with a shaved head in the early 1940s. "We all had our own views, but Zionism united us."

Except for the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, Atara remained open through thick and thin. A truck bomb that destroyed much of Ben Yehuda in 1948 failed to shut Atara down. So did the siege of Jerusalem that year. There was no coffee, but Atara served chicory and tea brewed on a wood-burning stove out back. And with their drinks, Jerusalemites always received the latest news.

"We didn't have television back then, and little Atara became the center of information. You wanted to hear something, every day you spent an hour or two at Atara," Rabinowicz recalled.

The Czech immigrant wrote poetry and read some of it aloud to friends at Atara. He met a kindergarten teacher there who would become his wife and a Hagana soldier who would one day be prime minister of Israel--Menachem Begin.

A long line of Israeli poets and politicians made Atara their second home. The writers, in turn, gave Atara a place in Hebrew literature. Amos Oz sat his protagonists at Atara in his early Jerusalem novel "My Michael." And the Nobel Prize-winning S.Y. Agnon described the Jerusalem coffeehouse in his novel "Shira."


But even an immortalized coffeehouse makes changes. In the early 1980s, Ben Yehuda was closed to automobile traffic, and Atara put tables out on the pedestrian walk so its customers could take their espresso in the sun.

As Jerusalem grew and prospered, Atara added to its menu of strudel and cheesecake. Israelis suddenly had more money to spend and less time to go home for lunch. They ate out, dressed more fashionably and carried cellular telephones. New cafes opened to bid for their business.

The genteel Atara stuck to its classical music over modern, but introduced decaf. The coffeehouse continued to draw a mixture of old and young, religious and secular, immigrant and Israeli-born. Its patrons read newspapers in Hebrew, English, French, Spanish and Russian, and their talk was heavily political, ranging from elections to the gun battles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian police that have raged during Atara's final days.

On Fridays, Atara was one with downtown Jerusalem. The tables filled early with regulars who reveled in watching the swirl of pedestrians: Shoppers buying fresh flowers and twisted challah breads for the Sabbath; young men and women soldiers on leave for the weekend; ultra-Orthodox elders offering prayer boxes to nonbelievers; students with orange hair, snakeskin pants and pierced bellybuttons.

"There's no better place for seeing how the Jerusalem human landscape changes," patron Pini Yossef sighed on one of the cafe's last days. He shuddered at the thought of a Burger King in Atara's place.

Other customers were less romantic. Mordechai Zizah, a member of the self-styled "Atara parliament" of regulars, said, "Let me ask you this: After 25 years of marriage, is there any love left or is it just a comfortable habit? . . . We're just used to this place, that's all."

Yet, he and his fellow "parliamentarians" seemed unable to agree on another cafe in which to meet next week. The others, they complained, were filled with young rogues and rotten apples.

"When I sit at another cafe, I simply don't find my place," said Yehuda Amir. "In another cafe, it just doesn't feel right."

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