Cafe Allenby

Adi Nemia-Cohen, Edna Assis |26/05/2021|1163
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If you were born after 1979, you may not recognize the name “Cafe Allenby”.

On King George Street, or as most Jerusalemites call it “HaMelech King George Street”, there once was a mythological coffee house that was in business for 40 years.  During the days of the British Mandate, Jews arriving from Western countries opened many European-style coffee houses which were an integral part of Jerusalem’s cultural life and entertainment scene.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s, after the establishment of the State of Israel, the city center flourished and became known as the “Jerusalem Triangle”. Along with the entertainment and commercial center, both the Knesset and the Hebrew University were also located in the center city.

Cafe Allenby, a popular coffee house, was one of the important landmarks in the city center.  In the archive of the Historical Jewish Press there are many references in advertisements to Cafe Allenby in Jerusalem.  These ads and announcements often specify events by stating that it is “next to Cafe Allenby”, “across from Cafe Allenby” or “in the basement of Cafe Allenby”.  Not only do the archives confirm this fact but in interviews with those who grew up in the city, and are of an appropriate age, we learn much from their stories that paint a picture of the places and the experiences of Jerusalem of yore.  Thus, we discover Cafe Allenby, a signpost in the geography of Jerusalem.

Photo credit: Israel Album - Moshe Ross - Photo Archive Yad Izhak Ben Zvi

Café Allenby was established by Salomon and Shifra Rosner in 1935.  Before they immigrated to Israel from Austria, the Rosner couple managed the “Ice Cream Salon” (Gefrorenes Salon), a store which sold ice cream in Prater, Vienna (a large public park where they had amusement rides and Ferris wheels and was established in 1897).

They brought their professional expertise in preparing ice cream and when they immigrated to Jerusalem they decided to open a coffee house in the center of the city.  The coffee house was initially opened in conjunction with the Marcus couple but after some time, the partners separated and the Marcus’ established Cafe Marcus (which was situated next to Cafe Allenby). The Rosners went  into partnership with a different couple - Otto and Hela Dankner.  In 1938, Cafe Allenby established premises at 6 King George Street.  During the British Mandate, the coffee house was similar to many other coffee houses near it, with regular customers who sat for hours during the day and at night.  Some of the customers came to sit and work in the cafe, using it as an office; they even used the coffee house’s telephone to manage their business conversations.  It was similar to a European coffee house serving cakes and coffee to the dining tables.  In 1949, after the War of Independence, Salomon Rosner travelled to the United States, and brought back, “in his luggage”,  a new technology to enrich the menu at the coffee house:  a machine for making American ice cream and a deep fryer for making fried American doughnuts. 

Photo credit: Israel Album - Moshe Ross - Photo Archive Yad Izhak Ben Zvi

From Traditional Coffee to the City’s First Fast-Food

During the 1950’s, the coffee house was redesigned as an American diner.  The facade of the coffee house on King George Street included 2 entrances with rolling blinds.  Food was sold from a counter, the waitresses - also called “aunts” - wore uniforms and small aprons, and fast food was at the heart of the menu:  ice cream, doughnuts, and 2 kinds of French fries (thin and thick), as well as latkes (fried potato patties), and “Romanian” knishes (dough balls fried and filled with potatoes).

During the summer holiday, the cafe was popular because of the ice cream, and it retained that position in the winter with the beginning of “doughnut season” before the holiday of Hanukkah.

 Amnon Dankner, son of Otto and Hela, the Rosner’s partners in the coffee house, told Jerusalem tour guide Israel Goldman that in the months before and after the holiday of Hanukkah, there would be a 200-person line outside of the cafe during the day and night until midnight of people waiting to buy doughnuts.  The cafe was too narrow to accommodate the masses, and therefore, his father and Salomon Rosner would roll up the blinds of only one entrance (of the two) to the coffee house, and allow entrance to groups of 20 people at a time.  Another of Dankner’s memories is connected to the smell of frying.  During peak doughnut season (and also on Independence Day), his mother would also come to work in the coffee house.  At the end of each night, the two parents would return home, tired and weary.  The strong scent of frying oil remained trapped between the walls of the house from Hanukkah until Passover, when they would open the windows, clean, and air out the house.

The revolutionary change in the coffee house was like a magic wand for Jerusalem’s young people who became the main clientele of the cafe.  The fast-food at the heart of the cafe’s menu attracted young people to delicious, new products including the milkshake, American ice cream, ice cream pops , popsicles and of course - French fries.  According to Dankner, the first pizza in Israel was sold at Cafe Allenby, although he remembers, apart from being cut into triangles, the connection between it and today’s pizza was marginal (due to the scarcity of ingredients in the time of the austerity programs).  Despite this, most young people of the time remember that the pizza was tasty and was one of the reasons they were drawn to the place.  (Among other memories of that time were two kinds of French fries - one thin, reminiscent of today’s frozen French fries; the second, thick French fries. Yachin Unna tells that he remembers an open window from which fried French fries and doughnuts were sold hot, straight from the boiling oil).

The peak moments were on Tuesday and Saturday nights, after youth group activities, when  young people would meet in Cafe Allenby and sit outside on the street curb.  In interviews, they remember that each group gathered on the sidewalk and fanned out as far as the “X-Crossing” (the King George Street - Jaffa Road intersection).  Another popular meeting time was after the first movie show at the cinema (or before the second show) when young people gathered around the cafe, as you can read in the novel, Bicycle Boy:

“The lights were turned on one by one on the facades of the movie theaters, in the showcases of the stores and the street lights.  The Primus burners of the falafel stands and the corn sellers burned with vigorous flames, and around “Allenby Ice Cream” the boys and girls stood in groups and licked ice cream or Eskimo pops.  The scents of King George were different from those of Rashid Street, the central road of Baghdad, which was filled with the scents of shishlik, kebab, pastrami and laffa bread with brown eggs [...]”

(Eli Amir, Bicycle Boy, p. 145)

The author, Eli Amir, describes the wanderings of Nuri, the hero of the book, in the streets of Jerusalem in the 1950’s.  The contrast between the main streets of Jerusalem and those of Baghdad is reflected in the smells of their food - and among the foods mentioned are the ice cream and the Eskimo pops of Cafe Allenby.

The coffee house became a “pilgrimage” site and one of the city’s landmarks, and is remembered in several other books that describe the Jerusalem experience.

 Amnon Dankner describes an aspect of the coffee house in his book Aunt Eva - His Nights and Days  (2008),  

“[...] and since his stipend was denied to him along with his good name, he had no choice but to live in great austerity and certainly could no longer sit in the cafes he loved so much; and in any case, it would not have occurred to him to sit in them once his disgrace became known to many. So he would spend most of his time in his small apartment on Tsfanya Street and only in the evenings would he leave and go to buy Cafe Allenby potato dumplings, latkes and yeast cake, and put everything in an oily bag and slip into Independence Park, where he would sit on a bench, eat slowly, drink water from a nearby tap, or from a leaking rubber hose, and talk to the gardener, Benvenisti [...]”  (p. 372)

 Cafe Allenby was an important eatery and landmark in the history of the city of Jerusalem during the years it operated until its closing in 1979.  The cafe became a well-known entity in the annals of the city, and its food and tastes are remembered fondly by generations of Jerusalemites.

 *** Thanks to the following for their help:  Israel Goldman - Jerusalem tour guide and expert in the “Jerusalem triangle”; Nurit Basel - tour guide specializing in literary tours; Sari Agayof; Yachin and Yael Unna.

(Translation: Leiah Jaffe)


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