On Boulevard de Belleville

By Wolf Wieviorka, translated by Sarah Biskowitz

Written by:
Wolf Wieviorka
Translated by:
Sarah Biskowitz
Summer 2022 / 5782
Part of issue number:
Translation 2022

The emotional, overbearing bobe (grandmother) is a ubiquitous secondary character—often caricature—in modern Yiddish culture. In “On Boulevard de Belleville” however, the grandmother serves as the protagonist, struggling to impart an appreciation for the Jewish tradition to her assimilated grandson. Published in Paris in 1933, this story gives grandmothers the respect they deserve as familial stewards of cultural transmission.

Despite its short length, the story portrays complex themes with sensitivity and nuance. Illustrating generational divides, it describes the elderly Jews from the Old Country, the young adult Jews who flout tradition and embrace secular Yiddish culture, and the small grandchild who barely speaks Yiddish at all. With its surprising end, the story questions the power of Yiddish storytelling itself in the face of assimilation and modernity. Indeed, today few Parisian children speak Yiddish as a native tongue.

However, spoken Yiddish in Paris persists and even thrives. I first read this author, Wolf Wieviorka, at the Paris Yiddish Center Medem Library, a burgeoning hub of Yiddish courses and cultural programs. In Paris today, one can hop from a class to a theater rehearsal to a concert, all in Yiddish; I was even able to take a Yiddish class at the Sorbonne. The impressive number of contemporary Parisian Yiddishists honor and further their city’s Yiddish legacy. In a form that previous generations could never have predicted, the story of Yiddish in Paris continues.


It was a beautiful, summery Saturday afternoon on Boulevard de Belleville. Many Jews lived along the boulevard and along the winding, narrow streets that extended from it like veins. The boulevard overflowed with older Jews strolling aimlessly, in honor of Shabbos. Their faces were wrinkled and mouths toothless. The men sported shiny black jackets and wide-rimmed, stiff hats; the women wore silk blouses and white skirts adorned with lace. They reminisced about the old times, when the world was still a world, when Jews were still Jews, and when life had a certain charm to it.

Recalling this past rekindled the light in their eyes. They wistfully recounted a far-gone Jewish world: heroic Jews who could clear a marketplace full of peasants by brandishing a cart handle, humble Jews who lived simply and piously, and—most important—the purity and sweetness of Shabbos in days long past.

While immersed in these memories, their gaze would pass over the young people gathering in cafés along the sidewalk. Having received their pay for the week, and after eating Shabbos lunch—perhaps even a cholent—they honored the Sabbath by buying deluxe cigarettes or sipping a beer on the café terraces, still dressed in their Shabbos clothes. Others strolled comfortably on the sidewalk and debated the future of Yiddish, revolution versus counterrevolution and Trotsky versus Stalin, and a hundred other subjects that concerned the Jewish worker.

The older generation looked at the sidewalk and saw these young Jewish men smoking Shabbos cigarettes and these young Jewish women made up with lipstick and powder. Heavy sighs echoed along the boulevard as the old Jews’ festive moods turned forlorn. Their hearts ached over the young people’s desecration of Shabbos and their abandonment of yidishkayt.

A grandmother strolled along the boulevard, her grandson in hand. Her son had a studio with a few employees. Saturday afternoon, however, the machines sat idle, and the son and his wife went to the theater. They left their only child with his grandmother, who cooked food in separate pots and chanted psalms all day long, begging God to spare her son and daughter-in-law from punishment for failing to serve Him as they should.

While walking with her grandson on the boulevard, she glanced to the side. Horrified at the young people who had abandoned God’s ways, she began to fear that her grandson would grow up into one of those Jews on the sidewalk instead of one of the Jews on the boulevard. She decided that she must give her grandchild at least a little yidishkayt. She tightened her grip on his hand, feeling as if the sidewalk were a magnetic force that could take him away from the boulevard—where the heavens smiled upon him, where Shabbos was still holy—at any moment. But what could she say to him? And how would he understand? Her French was as poor as his Yiddish . . .

She decided to tell the child a story, a beautiful tale of a lost Jew. After wandering for hours, he finally stumbled upon a place with food—but the food was all treyf.

Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire?” asked the child, hearing this unfamiliar word treyf.

“My child,” said the old woman, squeezing her grandson’s hand, “treyf is the type of food forbidden to Jews. Do you know how Grand-mère cooks her food in separate pots? It is kosher; all other food is treyf.”

“Then why does Papa eat it, and why does Maman eat it?”

The old woman grimaced, unsure what to say. After a moment of panic, she replied, “Your papa is not as pious as this Jew was. When your papa is told a piece of food is kosher, he simply believes it.”

“Oh, okay,” replied the child. “What happened to the hungry man next?”

The old woman began to relax and sat down on a nearby bench. “He fasted for three whole days. Even though they offered him the best of everything, he didn’t touch anything—he wanted only kosher food . . . Finally, on the fourth day, a dove flew to him, bringing kosher food.”

The child clapped his hands at the magical dove that delivered food. When his grandmother told him the true identity of the dove, he gasped—it was the incarnation of an important rabbi! “This rabbi had always acted righteously and carefully,” explained the old woman. “One time, however, he ate treyf by accident! To be let into heaven, he had to redeem this sin, so he transformed into a dove and brought kosher food to a starving Jew.”

The old woman struggled to explain this transformation to the child and patiently responded to his many questions. He nodded along with every one of his grandmother’s answers, his eyes wide and transfixed. When the story ended, he squealed, “Encore!”

The old woman delighted in her grandson’s enthusiasm and continued her narration. She shared stories from Kav Hayosher, an early modern compilation of morality tales and other holy books. The child swallowed her every word, his eyes rarely blinking.

She began another story: “Once there was a rich man. Stingy and evil, he had an endless amount of money but never wanted to give a cent to charity. When a poor and hungry man would come to him, he would throw this man out and set the dogs on him.

“However, there is a God, who listens to the cry of a hungry man. God created evil demons and spirits—they wait for his order to confront a sinner.

“The demons and spirits went to the rich man and tricked him, trapping him in empty fields and on deserted paths. He stayed there three days without food . . .”

The child cheered upon hearing God’s just punishment. “Serves him right!”

“Just as the rich man felt he would die from hunger and thirst, a poor man came to him with bread and water. The rich man recognized this poor man—it was one of the poor men he had thrown out!” As the grandmother finished the story the child gasped, and his eyes filled with tears.

He continued to listen intently as his grandmother recounted story after story, every tale she could recall. Neither one wanted to stop, and the grandmother felt she had done a great thing: she had given him a little yidishkayt.

As she began yet another story, however, the grandmother glanced at the sidewalk, at the young people with their Shabbos cigarettes. She saw the excitement and commotion on the terraces, and her face clouded over. She realized that the stories, no matter how beautiful they were, were no match for the strong current of that loud and chaotic lifestyle. Like a thunderstorm, it washed away the ruins of her dying world.


Born in Żyrardów, Poland, in 1896, Yiddish writer Wolf Wieviorka immigrated to Paris in 1924. While penning hundreds of articles for Yiddish newspapers published around the world, he served as an editor for Parizer vokhnblat (Parisian Weekly Newspaper) and Der Parizer haynt (Paris Today). Wieviorka scrambled for years to sustain a career; finally, his supporters formed a committee to help fund the publication of two volumes of his short stories: Mizrekh un mayrev (East and West; 1936), and Bodnloze mentshn (People without Land; 1937). After resisting heroically in the south of France, Wieviorka was murdered by the Nazis in 1945. His brother was the famous Soviet Yiddish playwright Avrom Wieviorka, and his four grandchildren went on to become important French academics.

Originally from Milwaukee, Sarah Biskowitz works at the Yiddish Book Center as the 2021–2022 Richard Herman fellow in bibliography and exhibitions. Previously, she studied and volunteered at the Paris Yiddish Center. A 2021 graduate of Smith College, she has written for In geveb and Hey Alma, and co-leads various digital Yiddish communities, including the bilingual reading circle Rad Yiddish. She draws from the Yiddish cultural tradition to build a more inclusive and vibrant Jewish community and a more equitable world.