Through tension and tea, Jerusalem cafes still thrive

Canadian-born painter Azriel Yair Cohen captures the charm and normalcy of the city's cafe culture, despite an underlying threat of terrorism.

The woman eyes the table toward which her friend motioned. "Not that one," she shakes her head. "Too close to the door."

The door, that is, through which a suicide bomber could come at any moment. Instead, they settle into a sunny spot two tables away - and order breakfast as if they hadn't a care in the world.

It is this mix of fear and familiarity, the desire to let life go on as usual despite the backdrop of bloodshed, that breathes a realistic and sometimes eerie air into the paintings of Azriel Yair Cohen.

The Canadian-born artist's series of paintings called "Jerusalem Cafes," itself on exhibit in one of the city's favorite and somewhat furtive cafes, captures something rarely noticeable to the world at large: images of what is charming, and almost normal, about life in Jerusalem.

Of course, it is hard for some here to say what "normal" is anymore: Israelis went into the Passover holiday with headlines warning that the country's security services had more than 60 credible reports of imminent terror attacks. And many people try to avoid crowded places, public transportation, and anything that is likely to become the target of a suicide bombing - cafes foremost among them.

Yet it is precisely the people who continue to frequent the city's cafes, despite the threat of terrorism, who inspired Mr. Cohen's series. The resulting watercolors are intriguing slices of life, which seem to defy the typical picture of a Middle East that lives on fear and loathing alone.

Cafe culture

In many Western countries, the social glue of business and pleasure often involves an invitation to go out "for a drink." In Israel, where alcohol consumption is comparatively low, social life tends to revolve around coffee or tea, often had in an airy or outdoor cafe.

But the country's cafe culture has been damaged by what Israelis roundly refer to as the matsav, or situation, a catch-all for the violence that has defined Israeli-Palestinian relations since the peace process collapsed 3-1/2-years ago. Now the ebb and flow of the matsav often determines whether people go out at all.

"It's completely about the matsav," Cohen says of his paintings, over a glass of milky almond tea at Tmol Shilshom, the cafe hosting the exhibit.

A tall, lanky man in his late 30s, Cohen wears a stretched-out beret pulled over his longish curly hair. A smudge of black coal from his last drawing session stretches across the bridge of his nose. "The paintings are an affirmation that even in for what some people is a war zone, we find some sanity amid the insanity," he says. "I wanted to look at the normal things that still go on."

For Cohen, who spent much of his adult life working in art and spiritual education in the US, Israel, and India, looking for the more mundane aspects of life here was a way of figuring out whether he could live here again.

He left during a seemingly ceaseless cycle of violence in 2002, and then came back a year later, in the summer of 2003.

"When I left here, there were bombings every day. This time, I had some inkling that I had a choice of how to be. I could either be a victim of the situation, or I could take my mind and shift it - so I took it upon myself to paint everything aesthetically," he explains. "I'm looking for the beauty here."

Renoir, too, once said that he didn't see the point of painting something if it didn't bring pretty things into the world; He thought of ripe fruit when painting women's faces. But then, Renoir's subjects were probably not living under the more or less constant threat of violence. The fact that Cohen's subjects often are shows, sometimes in their faces - in the demeanor of a tense couple with one eye on the door, or in the lack of faces in Cohen's many half-empty cafes.

While some paintings have two or three friends engrossed in conversation, others evince a certain loneliness, relaying the atmosphere of a slow, sad night for the cafe staff. Sometimes, there is even a palpable defiance, an insistence on staying open even when there are hardly enough customers to break even.

"The bottom line for me is that I've found surviving in the cafe business is much more than the business side. It's an act of resilience," says David Erlich, the owner of Tmol Shilshom, a combination cafe and bookstore, which hosts regular literary readings.

'The way things used to be'

The cafe's name, literally "yesterday or two days ago" but effectively meaning "the way things used to be," is also the title of a book by S.Y. Agnon, considered the granddaddy of modern Hebrew literature.

"We've been in a war, a fight obviously, but you also need to fight for the survival of certain values," Mr. Erlich says. "I, as a Jerusalemite, wouldn't want to live in a city that doesn't have cultural establishments worth living for."

While Tmol Shilshom is tucked away behind a quiet courtyard, other cafes seat far more people, create much more of a buzz - and become soft targets for suicide bombers. Two of the cafes Cohen painted have been struck by deadly explosions, most recently Cafe Hillel, where seven people were killed last September. It was immediately rebuilt, and two weeks after it re-opened - looking identical to the old version, save an added layer of security - Cohen decided he should paint it, too.

At first he hesitated. "I was, like, but it's a graveyard now," he says. "But I said to myself, 'This is a very important thing for me.'"

When concerned about his own safety while creating the series, he would sometimes go during off-hours to paint, following his instincts. "I was listening to where to be and where not to be with all of these paintings. I said, 'I'm going to trust God and let something in me decide.'"

Cohen tries to be a fly-on-the-wall painter: Many subjects don't notice they're being painted because he generally works with a miniature set that allows him to paint on small paper, some of it the size of an index card, and at other times, in a space about the size of a driver's license. The technique, he says, allows him to paint without feeling invasive. The paintings are later screenprinted on larger canvasses for exhibit.

Other side of Jerusalem

The relative success of Cohen's cafe series gave him the urge to start painting a Jerusalem he knew little about - the Arab East, which has a distinctly different vibe than the Jewish West. His paintings of one colorful taverna-style restaurant there, Askadinya, were so well-liked by the Palestinian owner that he has decided to remake his menus with Cohen's paintings.

In one of Cohen's just-finished paintings of Askadinya sits a famous, old Art Deco poster reading "Visit Palestine," popular with some Palestinians and foreigners, in part for the irony that it was issued as a tourism advertisement by the pre-1948 Zionist movement.

Painting an image of "Palestine" is hardly typical fare for someone who grew up in a strictly Orthodox Jewish home in Toronto. "I'm not taking a stand," Cohen says. "I can't say why I feel compelled to paint Arab culture also. I feel that I'm telling the story of Jerusalem," he says.

"I'm raising an awareness of what's normal here. Is what's normal here healthy? I'm not saying. I'm trying to depict what I see," says Cohen, who left town last week to go to Amman, Jordan, to try depicting cafe life there.

"I'm really interested now in knowing what a coffee shop is for Jews in Jerusalem or for Arabs in East Jerusalem - or for Egyptians in Cairo," he says. "I'm not interested in turning it into a statement about politics."

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