A Yiddish Restaurateur in Paris

Claude Berger May Be the Most Interesting Man in France


By Sammy Loren

Published July 21, 2010, issue of July 30, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

‘I do a lot of things,” Claude Berger said as he slipped into his restaurant’s kitchen for a glass of red wine. “I’m a writer, I play the flute and I’m a singer. I used to own another Yiddish restaurant before Le Train de Vie. But it closed.” He poured the wine, then paused. “And oh,” he suddenly remembered, “I’m also a dentist.”

These are just some of the things Berger — flutist, polemicist, Yiddish restaurateur and all-around kookster — does during his days. Now a sprightly 74 years old, he’s definitely the most interesting Jew, if not person, in Paris. Maybe in all of France. A strong statement, you say? I ask you: How many dentists do you know who’ve been tangled up in African-liberation movements and have written books calling for the abolition of salaries?

July 5–9 marked the eighth annual Klezmer Paris festival, a series of workshops on Yiddish song and dance. With klezmorim from across the world about to descend on the city, it seemed like an appropriate time to visit a local incubator of Yiddish culture, Le Train de Vie. I was, however, soon to discover that its owner had absolutely nothing to do with Klezmer Paris 2010.

Taking Care of Business: Berger tends to customers at Le Train de Vie.
Taking Care of Business: Berger tends to customers at Le Train de Vie.

“Why should I have anything to do with a klezmer festival?” Berger asked. “I own a restaurant where I play Yiddish music four times a week. I am a klezmer festival.”

Le Train de Vie is a stereotypically French, sardine-sized restaurant — the kind that Americans enter and think, “Gosh, this place is teeny!” But its petiteness fits Berger like a hand-tailored suit. He is a svelte, elegant man, taken to dressing in black and to flopping back his cloud of cotton-white hair. The menu reads like a feast from a Yiddish folktale: herring, gefilte fish, latkes, cholent, goulash, klops, or meatballs, apple strudel.

At the restaurant, Berger darts about frantically, taking orders, greeting friends, stopping to listen to the concert. He casually slaloms between musicians and tables, and up-and-down the corkscrew stairwell with armfuls of plates and glasses.

Born in 1936 in Le Marais — the Jewish quarter of Paris — Berger did not have an easy life. His mother died early on, and his father, who ran a brothel, abandoned him soon afterward. “I was raised by my grandparents,” he said.

By the age of 6, with the Nazis occupying France, Berger wore the yellow star and hid for two years in a suburban hovel to escape deportation. He witnessed the disappearance of an entire community, which he now says influenced his decision in 2007 to open Le Train de Vie.

“As I was hidden during the war and survived, I couldn’t internalize the death of our culture. So I opened the restaurant,” he told the Forward over the phone, between taking orders for gefilte fish and kreplach. “I named it Le Train de Vie [The Train of Life], contrary to ‘The Train of Death,’ which killed so many.”

After the war, Berger went into dentistry, seeking to escape the poverty of his youth. Later, his job took him to Algeria, where he became entangled in the war of independence. “Though I was a dentist, I wanted revolution and independence,” he recalled. “It was a period when I was an activist.”

Eventually, Berger returned to France, where he continued working as a dental surgeon. At the same time, he started writing down his long-brewing political reflections, and in the 1970s he published a series of essays and books denouncing everything from salaries (“Non-Profits: Towards the Abolition of Salaries”) to racist politicians (“Whitewashing Vichy”). As the titles of his books suggest, Berger’s sense of activism didn’t end in Algeria.

From hardscrabble youth to dentistry to Algerian activist to author, Berger’s next move would be as unpredictable as the rest: In 2000, he opened a restaurant.

“As a survivor, I wanted to create a space that would welcome Ashkenazi musicians to really live their culture,” he said in one of our follow-up telephone conversations. “That’s why I got into restaurants.”

After his first stab at the restaurant business failed in 2003, Berger waited another few years before opening Le Train de Vie. Located in the heart of Le Marais and not far from where Berger grew up, the restaurant is something of an anomaly in a neighborhood overflowing with pasty tourists, gay clubs and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The night I visited Le Train de Vie, a cabaret unfolded in its downstairs concert hall. The Unternationale, a band comprising Daniel Kahn and Psoy Korolenko played. Korolenko — elephantine and balding, but with long tresses cascading down his chest — pranced about, ranting in Yiddish, Russian, French and English. Kahn, of Daniel Kahn & the Painted Bird fame, sweating in a three-piece suit, accompanied Korolenko on piano. The audience downed seltzers and red wine, and sang along.

After the Unternationale, the regulars — a gaggle of younger violinists, accordionists and clarinetists — rushed the stage and resumed their monthly klezmer jam.

“These days,” Berger said, “there’s a lot of younger klezmer groups. The singers are especially good, and they sing in Yiddish.”

In my experience, the Parisian klezmer scene tilts toward the traditional. Unlike New York or Berlin, not as many dub-Gypsy-tango-punk-thrash-neo-clash-post-post-klezmer outfits stomp around town. Maybe this has something to do with French culture and its almost Puritanical reverence for tradition, what some might consider a natural aversion to change. It is rare to find much deviation from the violin-clarinet-accordion combo.

While Berger insists that Le Train de Vie specializes in Ashkenazi and Yiddish culture, he hosts acts fusing klezmer and other Eastern European music. Indeed, four times a week, Berger plays flute and sings alongside either Balkan Balagan or Les Coeurs Blues. Both groups explore Yiddish songs, as well as Balkan and Gypsy music.

“Le Train de Vie is not a closed place,” clarinetist Adrian Receanu explained. When not touring the world, playing Eastern European music, Receanu often stops by Berger’s restaurant for the monthly klezmer jam sessions. “Even though it’s a klezmer night, I usually end up playing Gypsy and Balkan music. It’s very open,” he said.

Later in the evening, I managed to grab a seat at a table with Berger. The regulars, led by violinist and Yiddishist Eleonore Biezunski, churned through a klezmer ditty. I waited for Berger to climb onstage with his flute and join in. But he didn’t. Maybe he wanted to give the younger generation a moment to shine, or maybe there were just too many orders to be taken, but Claude Berger, appearing to finally relax for a second, just sat and tapped his worn hand along with the rhythm.

Sammy Loren is a documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist currently based in Los Angeles. He blogs at http://www.nuevaorleansmovie.wordpress.com. Photos courtesy Cawa Photographie.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

You may also be interested in our English-language newsletters:

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.