Voices of Jerusalem: Good coffee, good conversation

Loren Minsky speaks to David Ehrlich, 52, the founder and co-owner of rustic café-bookstore, Tmol Shilshom.

David Ehrlich (photo credit: Courtesy)
David Ehrlich
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"I love hanging out in coffee shops," says David Ehrlich, one of the owners of Tmol Shilshom in Nahalat Shiva. "It's the funny paradox of my life that the one coffee shop where I feel most comfortable in is my own, but it's important for me to spend time away from the business in order to relax and gain fresh perspective." Named after Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon's novel, Tmol Shilshom is a bookstore-café in a 130 year-old building popular for its food, cozy atmosphere, and literary events.
The concept for the place arose after David lived in America, and discovered a bookstore-café in almost every town that he visited. Although he loved the concept, David never thought he'd actually open up his own.
During his teenage years, David worked as a journalist for Maariv Lenoar, had his own column, was involved in radio and television shows and was the MC for a Student's Conference with late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. "I gained a lot of experience as a young boy and by the time I got out the army, I felt like I was already a seasoned journalist and at the peak of my career," says David.
David chose to study mathematics, mostly out of a desire to be on Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus. He grew up in Ramat Gan, but as a young teenager spent two years in Jerusalem while his father was studying on the campus. As a student, David got a job at the Davar newspaper, later worked as a reporter for Kol Yisrael and then as feature writer for Haaretz magazine.
After the first intifada, when David spent a lot of time doing reserve duty,he made the decision to go abroad for a while. "The government under [Former prime minister Yitzhak] Shamir was too right-wing and not taking the country in the right direction, and I was fed up and needed time out," says David. "I ended up having the most incredible experience and realized that I am not just stuck in one life and can re-invent myself anew and develop other hidden skills and talents."
David landed up teaching Hebrew in top American universities, and found it amazing to be the young Israeli out in the big world. "In Israel being secular doesn’t concern one very much, but abroad I had to figure out who I was and what it means to be Israeli and Jewish," explains David. "I realized how Israeli I am and felt like a fish out of water. Being Israeli is the air that I breathe. It's the culture, language and fact that all of my family, friends and memories are here."
When David returned to Israel in 1993, he was looking for a change of direction andway to make a living.Out of the blue he was struck by the idea for Tmol Shilshom. "Whilst abroad, I had lived outside my comfort zone, and noticed that you get rewarded when you try something totally different; like cosmic energy pays you back for trying," he shares. "I knew I wanted to live in Jerusalemafter my wonderful experience in the city as a teenager. I also wanted to be part of the pulse of Israel, and was drawn to the cosmopolitan mix of people that the city attracts."
Tmol Shilshom opened up shop in June 1994 with a reading by internationally acclaimed poet and David's dear friend Yehuda Amichai. "It felt like Yehuda spread his wings above us and brought the business blessing," says David. "Once he had read his works here, it became easy to attract other prominent writers and since then the cafe has featured Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman and Batya Gur among others. "
In 1996, Tmol Shilshom expanded to two separate sitting areas, which is ideal for separating general customers and those taking part in a literary or other event. A few years later, David took on business partner Dan Golderg.
David confesses that he's helpless in the kitchen, but is immensely proud that Tmol Shilshom's shakshuka dish (eggs cooked in a tomato base) was listed by Lonely Planet as one of the best breakfasts in the world. Staying in business for 19 years is something unusual and a lot of time and energy is devoted to keeping up the high standards and menu."But the real secret of the place is its spirit and heart," says David. "Tmol Shilshom is a product of love. Also, I have an eye for good people, and the staff is very special and connected."
However, David admits that the business has faced many challenges along the way, particularly the construction and introduction of the light rail. "The light rail brought life to the stores on Jaffa Street, to the exclusion of stores in the area of Nahalat Shiva," exclaims David. "There is traffic and parking problems in the city and some of our clientele have stopped coming for this reason."
"I love Jerusalem but I would not stay if it becomes too holy to breathe," says David. "A choice of good schools is important to me as well as places open on Shabbat, so if there were to be neither, I would feel kicked out of the city."
David says he enjoys sitting back and seeing people hanging out, drawing, drinking good coffee and eating good food. "I enjoy all the happiness and inspiration," he adds. "But practically, I'm so busy that I rarely sit back." Almost all of David's free time is devoted to co-parenting his biological five-year-old twins with their mother, and the help of his partner. David is a stalwart member of the Jerusalem gay scene and was one of the people who started Open House, the GLBT Center.
David is passionate about politics and concerned about the government's choices. "I feel like this country is going crazy, and it's the accumulation of many years," declares David. "I ask myself, how far can we go? Do we really want to commit suicide? Do we really want the whole world to throw us off this planet? A country like an individual has to fit in, and although I know that Jews have had objective problems fitting in (my father's a Holocaust survivor), there's no alternative world, and we can't pretend it's just about us."
David is a published author, and his new book "Who Will Die Last? Stories of Life in Israel" is about to be launched in America in English. "At 52, I feel like the author in me wants to emerge and needs more free time and more air, more water and nutrition to develop," admits David. " I've had enough and am suffocated as a business owner. Ideally, I'd like to keep up the business but not be so busy with it, but I don't know if it's possible. You only live once, so I am considering my options."ITravelJerusalem.com is a new online international travel portal offering all the latest information on things to do, places to eat and places to stay in Jerusalem.