Israeli Arabs and Jews meet and mingle freely at Café Yafa, Jaffa’s award-winning coffee shop.To the casual observer, it’s just another player in the crowded Tel Aviv-Jaffa coffee shop scene. The place exudes a bohemian chic not unusual for this part of town: off white walls, an eclectic mix of vintage Formica topped ’60s tables and a banquette strewn with brightly colored cushions. A wall tapestry informs visitors they’ve arrived at Yafa Books and Café. On the wall opposite, a bookshelf is brimming with titles in Arabic, Hebrew and English for sale.
The establishment’s menu gives a hint of what’s behind the fuss: a metaphor for what makes this place special. Trendy Israeli café staples, like ciabatta stuffed with pan-fried chicken, rocket and pesto, sit side by side on the menu with traditional Palestinian fare: Malabi, Saj and Majadra.
This meeting of cultures isn’t limited to culinary or literary offerings. On selected evenings, tables and chairs are cleared, and the premises packed to its modest rafters with a diverse crowd from both Arab and Jewish communities, who attend book launches, musical performances, poetry evenings, critical debates and discussions on cultural subjects as well as social and political ones. Upstairs, a large ramshackle room plays host to Arabic language classes.
Recently, the New Israel Fund chose Yafa café to be the first recipient of the Yisraela Goldblum award for joint living. The prize, set up to commemorate its namesake, a peace activist and co-founder of the Peace Now movement, recognizes efforts that promote Jewish Arab co-existence.
According to Professor Menachem Ya’ary, president of the Israeli Academy for Science, and chairman of the selection committee that examined the 30 candidates for the prize, the decision was unanimous. “No other candidate so completely met the terms of reference of the prize as intended by the Goldblum family” he said. “It’s a broad and potentially expandable program with many aspects.”
Dina Lee, a Jewish woman from Jaffa, and Michel El Rahab an Arab from Ramle started Yafa in mid 2003.
For El Rahab, the business was a chance to mesh the personal with the professional. “I love to read. I have always read. I grew up with books,” he recounts. As an adult he became aware of what he terms “the lack of a reading culture amongst Arab Israelis” and so set up an Arabic language community library in his local church. Yafa seems like the next logical step.
The selection of books draws in both communities. For the Arab Israeli community, Yafa provides a general bookstore function, enabling them to purchase everything, from books on astrology to the latest novels, in their own language: the first premises in central Israel to serve this function since 1949. To Jewish Israelis, it represents the most comprehensive offering of Arabic works translated to Hebrew one can find.
“So they both come and sit on the chairs, at the same tables and conversation starts,” says El Rahab. Lee agrees: “You can hardly sit here and not have connection with other people, even if you aren’t intending to. In this way we are opening passages between the two communities, between the two cultures, in a respectful, meaningful way.”
Choosing a highlight from the last five years proves a struggle for Lee: “There are just so many stories,” he admits. However, one moment that does stand out for both owners is the chance meeting of Yossi Granovsky and Yousef Assfour over the table tops at Yafa. The encounter resulted in a book I Prefer Your Face to the Moon, Jaffa!, a slim volume of tales about old Jaffa.
The $15,000 Goldbloom award will allow the pair to invest in much needed equipment to support the cultural evenings and to perhaps extend the program. Whilst the evenings are not a money making venture, both regard them as key to the work they are doing, particularly in terms of providing a space to showcase Palestinian culture to a mixed audience.
Recently, acclaimed Palestinian singer Amal Murkus gave a small concert in the café, followed by a talk by the artist herself and an interpretation of the work by a Jewish Israeli professor.
Lee believes the award is a significant acknowledgment of all that Yafa has achieved. “It’s a kind of recognition that this sort of multicultural space can and should exist and deserves to be supported,” she says. “In a way, to me and to the people who come regularly, this place is a vision of how we would like to live after peace comes.”