The Wine of the Infidels



Marc Friedlander

The first time I can remember drinking it, I was about 4 or 5, and my sister Carol was about 9. That would make the year about 1955. After spending the night on a Castro Convertible at our Grandma and Grandpa’s apartment on Jewel Avenue in Queens, we awoke to a breakfast of rye bread and butter. The drink we were served was Turkish Coffee. Our grandma, born somewhere near Istanbul in the late 1800’s, didn’t mess around with OJ or milk.

It was my first coffee ever. That’s right - my very first life experience with coffee involved a wicked brew that even hardened coffee veterans may spurn. I mean, this stuff is so potent it could make a wino wince. I‘ve read that during the Moor’s occupation of Spain, coffee was contraband and was called "the wine of the infidels". I don’t remember where I actually read it - OK, maybe I picked it up from Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit, but anyway it sounds plausible. If it’s a fact, the coffee being referred to is not Starbucks Latte or Double Frappaccino. The banned beverage would have been what we now call Turkish coffee. Low tech and requiring no milk or filters, able to be brewed on an open fire, it is just what I imagine 8 century Berbers and Muslims were tossing back – always keeping an eye out for the coffee narcs.

By matrilineal descent, I am “Sephardic”, which basically means that 500 years ago, my ancestors were Jews in Spain. During the Spanish Inquisition, the Sephardim scattered to various Mediterranean countries - the rough idea of which was to escape being killed - or much worse. As always, there’s that morbidund motif that pervades all Jewish history. This particular period of slaughter was around Columbus’ day (not Columbus Day – that was only a few months ago) and I’ve heard Chris himself may have been Sephardic. At any rate, the Sephardim were saying “adios” to España in large numbers. My own grandparent’s ancestors fled to Turkey, many others fled to Egypt, Greece, Italy, England, and so on. These countries offered the Sephardim a relatively safe haven. As we Jews are wont, we did not assimilate into the local cultures but retained our own Jewish observances and traditions. Generations after dispersing throughout the Mediterranean basin, the scattered “Spanish Jews” were far closer culturally and linguistically to each other than they were to their indigenous gentile hosts.

The “other” kind of Jew is an Ashkenazi, who is a descendent of the Jews who settled in middle and northern Europe - Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc. The Ashkenazi is more the stereotypical Yiddish speaking Jew that is normally featured in jokes and movies. My mother and the other Sephardim did not speak Yiddish, but spoke a variant of Spanish called Ladino, a dialect that is dwindling in popularity and may not last for more than another few generations. I sure don’t speak it, nor do any of my cousins or anyone else that I can think of. My mother, although thankfully alive, is not conversing in Ladino these days.

Back in Rose and Marco Piperno’s apartment on Jewel Avenue, almost 50 years ago, Carol and I are in our pajamas in the small kitchen, Queen for a Day is on the TV in the background, and there’s a heady aroma in the air. Most to my interest, there’s buttered rye bread and also a brown frothy drink in Lilliputian sized cups on the table. These cups were tiny even by my neonatal standards. Following the lead of my worldly and sophisticated 9 year old sister, I dunked the buttered rye bread, soaking up the coffee like a sponge, and brought it to my mouth. When the resulting sludge of bread, butter, and coffee reached my tender tongue, I had the very first culinary orgasm of my brief existence. I uttered the 5 year old equivalent of: “Whoa! That’s some cup of coffee!”

Carol, who by then must have been a coffee pro, heartily agreed. For years after, all through our childhood and on, we relished our tradition of our “toast” - Turkish Coffee and rye bread with butter. The coffee truly was our wine. I remember this early incident every time someone says, “Wake up and smell the coffee.”