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Dreyfus … the restaurant?

Cashiering of Alfred Dreyfus by Henri Mayer

A few months ago, I passed a restaurant on Harbord Street in Toronto with a curious name: Dreyfus. Could it be that Dreyfus?

A glance inside revealed a framed front page of Le Petit Journal with the iconic 1895 image of Jewish-French army officer Alfred Dreyfus’ military degradation, after being falsely accused of treason. And the restaurant’s bio on Instagram says “J’accuse…!”

It turns out that it was, in fact, named after the notorious Dreyfus Affair, the one that split French public opinion in two at the end of the 19th century; the one rumoured to have inspired Theodor Herzl to make the transition from a journalist, to the founder of modern Zionism.

As a rule, French restaurants are, along with French clothing stores and effortless-French-girl Instagram accounts, destinations for unapologetic Francophilia, not for contemplating the more grim aspects of French history. But Zach Kolomeir, Dreyfus’ chef and owner, makes a surprisingly persuasive case for this unexpected – and by all accounts unprecedented – form of fusion. I spoke with Kolomeir over the phone, to find out how Toronto wound up with a bistro named after the Dreyfus Affair.

On one level, Kolomeir simply wanted a restaurant name that pointed to France and Judaism. “I wanted something that bridged the history of France and French cooking and the romanticism of France and Paris and all these great little towns with my Jewish background,” he explained.

He attended Jewish day school in Montreal and now identifies as “a very cultural Jew,” while his great-grandfather was, he tells me, a cantor and founder of Congregation Beth-El in Mount Royal, Que. In that sense, the restaurant’s name is itself a cultural fusion, just like the food. “We’re doing a pea soup, but instead of using bacon, we use kosher salami,” he said.

But the name Dreyfus is hardly a neutral way to evoke the intersection of France and Jewishness. The affair was, as Kolomeir called it, “the first documented and propagandized version of anti-Semitism.” He believes there’s a connection between the affair and the Second World War, noting that the affair “kick-started the destruction of the Jewish population.”

While the Dreyfus Affair pales in comparison to the Holocaust, it was a time of anti-Semitic riots and overtly anti-Semitic political activity. (When a group calls itself the Ligue antisémite de France, you know whom you’re dealing with.)

Yet Kolomeir finds positivity in how the Jewish people survived the affair and other setbacks. As such, he said that the affair “shows the perseverance of Judaism through Europe in that decade, in that era.”

In his research, he found numerous anti-Semitic caricatures, such as a “little mouse in the copper pot with Alfred Dreyfus’ head on it,” and other “references to these low-level animals,” such as snakes and rats. “And part of me was kind of like, these are horrible images to portray a Jew as, but we were able to bounce back from this countless times,” he said.

The restaurant itself draws from French culinary tradition, including an emphasis on eating seasonal foods (a summer menu item was “lobster la Dreyfus.”)

Yet is it not over-the-top Dreyfus-themed in its decor. “It’s also a restaurant at the end of the day, it’s not a museum,” he said.

There are, however, “countless Jewish objects floating around the restaurant,” such as “four seder plates” and “the original menu from Goldenbergs in the Marais,” a Jewish restaurant in Paris that was attacked in the 1980s.

Subversively, the restaurant made T-shirts for staff and business cards riffing on Dreyfus propaganda, such as “the snake with the cravat,” and “the octopus with the moustache.” And why not? “As much as it’s a serious moment in history,” Kolomeir said, “we wanted there to be a little bit of playfulness with it, in 2019.”

I asked Kolomeir whether the name has caused any controversy and he told me that an Alsatian Jewish woman who’s living in Toronto objected to the absence of Alsatian food. Kolomeir defended his choice, clarifying that this complaint arrived in “the middle of July,” while “the food in Alsace is very heavy,” and thus not suited for a Toronto summer.

Perhaps a Dreyfus-themed French restaurant is too obscure to have inspired outrage. As Kolomeir noted, “not many people are familiar with the overall story.” Or perhaps it’s the fact that while  Kolomeir’s restaurant treats the affair with irreverence, it shows a profound respect for both French and Jewish cultures.

I personally love the idea of reclaiming the Dreyfus Affair in this way, and I take pride in the fact that it’s a Montreal Jew who’s behind it.

The relationship between French Jews and French history, and between English-speaking Quebec Jews and the francophone world, has not always been entirely smooth, but it’s hard to grow up in the sphere of French cultural influence and not also fall for its charms.

This restaurant asks: What if you didn’t have to pick? Why not eat a delicious French meal and learn about the origins of modern French anti-Semitism at the same time? It shows us that there’s no need to cancel France, or treat it with oblivious reverence.

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