Annals of a Paris Neighborhood: From Yiddish-speaking Butchers to Caviar Delis

When my mother arrived in the Belleville from Tunisia almost 60 years ago, she was shooed away by the Ashkenazi Jewish butcher. In short order, the Tunisians’ fried fish took over the culinary scene, but that too has almost disappeared in favor of boutique hotels and Chinese restaurants.



1

Israelis who return from official missions abroad are frequently asked, partly in jest and partly in sorrow, “Why did you come back?” People from France who return to their homeland are asked why they left in the first place. I present the suspicious clerk with an official registration document from the French consulate in Tel Aviv, but she’s not yet convinced that I am eligible to renew my identity card. She goes through the papers again – birth certificate, population registry summary, old ID card, exemption from service in French army, confirmation of payments to Israel’s National Insurance, a valid French passport.

“Was there a special reason for your decision to leave France?” she asks in a businesslike tone tinged with astonishment. Where does one begin the explanation – with the Dreyfus trial? “I also need a confirmation from the electric company that you do in fact live within the boundaries of Paris,” she says finally, in a last attempt at resistance. I note that the last time I renewed my ID here, there was no need for all these documents.

“The procedures have changed,” she says, with empathetic slowness, like someone informing someone else about the death of his beloved dog. “Everything here has changed a great deal.”

2

We have confirmation from the electric company that we live within the boundaries of Paris. We live on Rue de Belleville, a long street that separates the 19th arrondissement from the 20th, and ascends to the hill on which Claude Chappe presented his invention, the visual telegraph system. The neighborhood, which was forged at that time from two villages, is where residents of Paris went to buy wine tax-free, before it was annexed to the city by Baron Haussmann in 1860. When he demolished the workers’ tenements around the Opera and the Champs Elysees, he expelled the indigent tenants to this hill to the east.

“Haussmann,” which means “man of houses,” is a rare case of a reverse aptronym: According to cautious estimates, Baron Haussmann is responsible for the destruction of 112,000 houses.

Valeriy Melnikov/RIA Novosti

3

After Haussmann’s population transfers, waves of immigrants hurtled into Belleville. First came refugees from Armenia, in 1920, followed by Greeks, German Jews and Polish Jews, who were supplanted by Jews from Tunisia and Algeria, who subsequently departed when Arabs from those same countries arrived, who are now themselves disappearing in favor of Chinese immigrants.

My mother arrived here in 1957, in the first wave of emigration from North Africa. She got off on the street and found a kosher butcher shop, which proudly bore an emblem of the Star of David. She asked the butcher for entrecote. As he wasn’t familiar with her or with her ilk, he treated her with suspicion and refused to sell her anything. When she explained that she was a Jew he started to interview her in Yiddish. Unable to answer, she asked him to switch to Hebrew or Ladino, whereupon he threw her out with much shouting.

Within three years, Rue de Belleville was almost bereft of Ashkenazim. During my childhood, there were 65 Tunisian restaurants here, which served brik a l’oeuf (a stuffed delicacy), couscous, grilled pepper salad and, the flagship dish, complet poisson – fried fish served with a sunny-side-up egg and French fries. From every direction the stirring of long spoons in tall lemonade glasses could be heard.

Last month La Goulette, one of the last Tunisian eateries in the area, closed its doors. According to the licensing data of the Paris Municipality, the Belleville neighborhood now boasts 168 Vietnamese restaurants, 34 Chinese restaurants, 47 Thai restaurants – in all, more than 300 restaurants that style themselves “Asian.”

“Elli fat, mat,” goes the Tunisian saying, the past is truly dead.

4

We are renting an apartment from an affable French academic with good taste, an expert on the Panama Canal, who is taking a sabbatical in Latin America to complete his research. He introduces us to the neighbors: gallerists, academics, journalists, curators, writers, even an actor from the Comedie-Francaise. On a tour of the building, he shows us where the mailbox is and pulls a bunch of flyers out of it. One of them, an advertisement for a locksmith, has a phone number and rates but also the cry, “Vive la France!” in screaming letters against the background of the Tricolor.

“I don’t understand it, but since the terrorist attacks, all the plumbers, handymen and locksmiths are advertising themselves under the French flag,” the affable professor says, nonplussed. “They are just trying to hint to you that they’re not Arabs,” I explain to him, almost taking pride in my rich experience.

5

Until half a year ago, Belleville was identified largely with the African and Arab immigrants who found a haven here. In the past few months, they have disappeared almost completely, as mysteriously as the homeless in Manhattan disappeared under the Giuliani administration. Maybe they vanished because they became Uber drivers. The great majority of employees in that revolutionary transportation service are of Arab origin – drivers who could not pass the licensing exams or meet the minimal requirements for getting a taxi permit in France. In recent weeks, taxi drivers have been shutting down main roads, particularly around Charles de Gaulle Airport, to reinforce their demand that the government ban Uber from operating in the country.

Paris’ taxi drivers are – I think there is a broad consensus on this – the worst in the West. They charge exorbitant prices, don’t take credit cards, and are often fraudulent, and in some cases they don’t even know the city. It’s not surprising that the idea of establishing Uber first struck its founders, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, when they needed a cab in Paris. But in an election year in France, will anyone risk urban chaos by making a move against the National Union of Taxis?

“If we aren’t allowed to work for Uber, what will we do in this country?” my driver of the cab asked me. We both know the answer, so we both say nothing.

6

Not surprisingly, Belleville is the site the writer Michel Houellebecq chose for his first photographic exhibition. Titled “Before Landing,” the works focus on urban alienation in general and on the deterioration of the status of French territory. The exhibition had a preview run at the Belleville municipal gallery, Carre de Baudouin, from which it will move to the Musee de l'Art Moderne here, after which it heads to New York. Immediately after the opening, last month, the local chief of police ordered the exhibition to be closed for “security reasons.” It remained closed for 10 days before Houellebecq learned what had happened and provoked a scandal as only he can.

The show was immediately reopened; the Paris Municipality stated that the reasons for the closure had been “general considerations of the public good.” The exhibition is accompanied by short texts written by Houellebecq, including: “Who can deny that soon it will be forbidden to eat Camembert here?”

7

At the end of World War II, the French government invited hundreds of Jewish boys who had survived Buchenwald to go to a residential facility in Belleville to recuperate. The “Boys of Buchenwald,” as they became known, were for the most part German and Polish Jews who were unfamiliar with France. They visited local tourist sites escorted by psychologists from the United Nations Relief and Rehabiliation Administration, who were asked to submit a report after a period of observation. One evening, Camembert was served at supper, and to the astonishment of the French staff, the boys suffered a collective psychotic attack. Screaming, they hurled the cheese at the walls. They were certain that an attempt was being made to poison them by means of rotten cheese.

Nathan Alliard / Photononstop

In her monumental book “The Lost Children” (Harvard University Press, 2011), historian Tara Zahra interviewed the French social workers in connection with the incident. All of them were Jews from Belleville or similar immigrant neighborhoods who volunteered for the mission, and all of them grasped afterward that it had been too much for them. Even in the most beautiful city in the world, how could one regain the trust of children who grew up in Buchenwald, the head of the team asked Zahra.

The UN committee of experts concluded that youngsters in this condition could only regain their health by returning to the family fold – but their families had been annihilated and they were alone in the world. Following an announcement by the British Mandatory authorities in Palestine in 1945 that the boys would not be allowed to enter the country, and the American refusal (less than a week later) to grant them visas – owing to their mental state, which was problematic in terms of U.S. immigration regulations – it became clear that these hundreds of orphans had nowhere to go. Accordingly, they stayed in Belleville.

8

Two hours after we entered our apartment, we were invited to attend out first demonstration: against the gentrification of the neighborhood. A cute young couple said they were going door to door to muster support. Last week the protesters scored two important victories: The Belleville municipality agreed not to issue a permit for construction of yet another boutique hotel there, and decided that the abandoned metals factory at the end of the street would not be sold to the highest bidder but will be turned instead into a community center. Now the couple, both artists themselves, want us to support their opposition to a change in the status of Rue Denoyez, an alley that is perhaps the most famous locus of street art in Europe. The city wants to shut down the studios and build two kindergartens there. “Who need kindergartens here at all?” the young man scoffed.

Cautiously, I asked about the terms under which the studios are made available. The couple said they pay 30 euros a month, “but that doesn’t include expenses for electricity and water.”

9

At the end of the 19th century, the influence of the working class in France soared. As part of a national home-improvement plan, the residents of Belleville received detached houses, each one with a vegetable patch. In recent years those dwellings have become hot real estate. Wealthy members of the bourgeoisie join three or four workers’ homes together, close off access paths to the gardens and establish private estates atop the hill, with a breathtaking view of the whole city. Prices are rising relentlessly. It’s no surprise, then, that right at the triangular intersection of Rue de la Liberté Street, Rue de la Egalité and Rue de la Fraternité Brotherhood Street, on the upper part of Rue de Belleville, a real estate agency has opened bearing the name Immobilier Nadlan (nadlan being the Hebrew word for real estate).

10

We can already demarcate the social topography of our new place of residence. Rue de Belleville is 2,250 meters long, and along its entire length market forces are ejecting the Arab and African refugees who are trying to cling to it. Down the hill, near the Belleville Metro station, the Chinese immigrants are consolidating their hold by opening more and more businesses, restaurants for the most part, which they protect with the aid of criminal elements that the police term, simply, “a local branch of the Chinese mafia.” In the middle, around the Pyrenees Metro station, an academic-artistic middle class is securing its status with the help of political connections and protests against gentrification.

And up on top, adjacent to the Telegraphe station, millionaires are building palaces with money both new and old. Well-known chocolatiers have recently opened outlets, alongside the caviar delis and shops carrying children’s clothing as appallingly expensive as it is charming. One store offers handmade sausages created from game killed that morning in the mountains. Another, called 101, sells that many types of Japanese sake. Philippe Starck has opened a boutique hotel here, at whose restaurant you can’t get a table even two weeks in advance. Everything here has perhaps changed a great deal, but everything also remains the same.

Sharon Heinrich

11

One sharp and clear conclusion emerges from a visit to the fancy stores at the top of the hill: The macaron has disappeared. The colorful almond cookies, until not long ago the favorite pastry of the French, are now an embarrassing memento of the past. To buy macarons is to demonstrate definitively that you are foreign tourists – or, even worse, residents of the provinces on vacation in the City of Light. To make macarons would be a waste of time, as no guest will reach for them; to bring macarons to dinner would be a mistake, incontrovertible proof that you should not have been invited in the first place.

No one has a clear explanation as to why macarons have disappeared from the Paris landscape. According to the newspapers, they fell victim to their own success and underwent an accelerated process of industrial commercialization. Even in the world “temple” of the macaron – the local branch of Laduree – the confections are not baked in-house but arrive from a gigantic factory outside Paris. Fifty thousand macarons a day. And the ones sold under that label abroad, from New York to Tokyo via Tel Aviv, are not made in France.

The conclusion is clear: Macarons are now only for Chinese tourists. The patisseries, such as Fauchon and Dalloyau, report that income from the sale of macarons has plunged by dozens of percent in favor of other products, notably madeleines. In fact, people are now going back to bringing champagne when invited to dinner: Its sales have increased by 23 percent this year alone – almost parallel to the decrease in the market share of macarons.

Last month, new manuscripts of “In Search of Lost Time” were discovered, in which researchers found that Proust’s childhood memories were not triggered by eating a madeleine but rather a biscotte, a kind of zwieback. But for true Proustians, everything one touches contains the whole world, and it makes no difference whether it’s a madeleine, a zwieback or a macaron.

12

The young people are already having coffee with us. “We must not allow the distinctive social fabric of the neighborhood to be harmed by rampant gentrification,” the young woman sums up, urging us to attend the demonstration. We say yes, enthusiastically; for as we know, gentrification is a process that begins in a particular neighborhood only after we have moved in.

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