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With antisemitism rising, a Jewish family wonders — is it safe to be Jewish in France (or America)?

‘Prayer for the French Republic’ asks tough questions, but provides no easy answers

Three days after International Holocaust Remembrance Day, two weeks after an armed gunman held a rabbi and three congregants hostage at a Texas synagogue and less than a day after swastika-waving Neo-Nazis chanted “The Jew is the devil” outside an Orlando shopping plaza to deafening silence by the Florida governor, I saw Joshua Harmon’s “Prayer for the French Republic.” It’s about a family that narrowly survived the Shoah and their agonized debate over leaving the country they call home.

I guess you could call the play relevant and its lessons important for us – even if it’s not set in the U.S.

Harmon, the Drama Desk Award-winning writer of “Admissions,” “Significant Other” and “Bad Jews,” has penned an incisive play about five generations of a French family, splitting its runtime between the 1940s and 2010s. He set his drama in France because it’s where his own family is from, but there’s more to it than that.

France, as writers like Jeffrey Goldberg have observed, inspired by some of the same events as Harmon, is in many ways a bellwether for European Jewry. It was the first country in Europe to emancipate its Jews, affording them full citizenship and a full entrée to national contradictions. It is the country of Celine and Proust, the slander of Dreyfus and the “J’Accuse” of Zola, the Vichy puppet state and the Resistance. Three-quarters of French Jews survived the Holocaust and the country maintains the largest Jewish population on the continent, many of its Jews having found sanctuary there from persecution in North Africa.

But France is also the site of historical and very recent spates of antisemitic attacks and brutal murders that have prompted thousands of Jews to relocate to Israel.

The question at the heart of Harmon’s drama is whether the Benhamous, whose father, Charles (Jeff Seymour), is a childhood refugee from Algeria, and whose mother is descended from Holocaust survivors with a thousand-year history in France, will be one of those families. The once-unthinkable proposition comes about when 26-year-old Daniel (Yair Ben-Dor) is assaulted on the street for wearing a kippah.

Daniel’s mother, Marcelle (Betsy Aidem), pleads with her newly-religious son to wear a baseball cap, but Daniel refuses to let others’ bigotry dictate how he dresses. Daniel’s sister, Elodie (Francis Benhamou) slams Marcelle for saying he’s “asking for it” by going out in a yarmulke in a neighborhood known for anti-Jewish attacks. Yes, kippah-based victim-blaming.

Welcome to a Parisian, Sephardi-Ashkenazi Jewish family flat in the year 2016. Only this night is different from all other nights not just because Daniel has been targeted. A distant American cousin studying abroad, Molly (Molly Ranson), has come to visit – and boy does she have thoughts on religious Jews and Israel, despite knowing next to nothing about Jewish history. The good news for her is the play offers an extensive, painful primer.

Nancy Robinette, Kenneth Tigar, Ari Brand, Pierre Epstein, Peyton Lusk and Richard Topol in “Prayer for the French Republic.” Here, a family united across two centuries, sing a pained Marseilles to rival “Casablanca.” Photo by © Matthew Murphy 2021

Harmon’s crackling, colloquial dialogue and David Cromer’s understated direction humanize an existential debate, whirling between centuries on Takeshi Kata’s turntable set. Unsurprisingly for Harmon, who wrote a play with the working title “The Franco Prussian War,” the drama is steeped in history, interweaving scenes of Marcelle’s family, the Salomons, during and immediately after World War II.

Marcelle’s brother, Patrick (Richard Topol), grappling with his ambivalent Jewish identity (he and Marcelle were raised without religion and had the “gift” of a Catholic mother), serves as a narrator guiding us through both his family chronicle and the bloody details of the Valentine’s Day Massacre of the 14th century. He fills us in on that remote pogrom — in which the Christian’s of Strasbourg burned 2,000 Jews alive one Valentine’s Day — while playing some Johnny Mercer on piano. “Do I descend from survivors of this massacre?” he wonders. No one ever mentioned it, but it’s perfectly possible.

“What is history but a bunch of stuff people want you to get over already?” Patrick offers. People forget. Maybe because they want to. Maybe because they need to just to keep moving forward. The play makes a case for remembering.

What Harmon wants to convey is a context that is too deadly to ignore through characters who, like a Great Jewish Debate Team, snipe, button-press and interject with everything they’ve ever read or heard. He doesn’t offer easy answers, but he never fails to explain why epigenetic alarm bells are ringing for so many.

During a Seder, the family opens the door for Elijah and Marcelle rushes to close it. When Elodie scoffs “he came through her window,” I got chills, knowing that Marcelle, a Jewish psychiatrist, is thinking of Sarah Halimi, a Jewish doctor murdered by an intruder who shouted “I killed the Satan” after throwing her from her third-story window.

Charles’ anguish over armed guards outside synagogues and day schools, Marcelle’s suggestion that Daniel would be safe if he hid his faith “at home” and Patrick’s insistence that “an old religion” is not “worth dying for,” strike a raw nerve not only in France. The playwright’s note from December, which mentions Charlottesville, Monsey and Pittsburgh, is now outdated as more American Jews are having some variation of the Benhamous’ table talk post-Colleyville, even if we’re not all ready to make aliyah – yet.

“Prayer for the French Republic” is a funny, bitter lament that will no doubt inspire heated intergenerational crosstalk, even as it engages mostly superficially with Israel’s complexities as a lifeline. But if the play has a theme, beyond identity, legacy and doubt, it’s how to look at the past and use it to inform the present.

At a bar, Elodie lectures Molly, still reeling from Trump’s victory, about her privilege as an American Jew and the right and wrong ways to talk about Israel. Why is the Jewish State always the target for criticism, she wonders, and not Myanmar or Indonesia or – if we want to talk billions of dollars in U.S. aid as a metric for censure – Egypt?

“Everyone has become completely ahistorical,” Elodie says. In the moment, it seems like a weird, lofty word choice from a tipsy, wandering, if in many ways valid, rant of the kind Harmon’s a maestro at. But as the play goes on, we receive it as a true, and urgent, criticism.

Harmon drew from his own family history and countless interviews with French Jews to offer testimony to the horrors of the Holocaust and the dangers of today. And yet, there’s no reaching some who take the ahistorical view.

Perhaps the one wrinkle of modern antisemitism the play couldn’t touch, due to its pre-pandemic setting, is how readily the Holocaust is now compared to public health measures. The Benhamous left well before they could witness critics of lockdowns liken Macron to their family’s persecutors or watch antivaxxers march with yellow stars. New Yorkers are sadly not immune from such false equivalencies.

As the audience gathered their coats after a tearful standing ovation at New York City Center, an older man could be heard shouting “Nazi!” Someone had evidently told him to adjust his mask. I looked to a person in my row, who was as gobsmacked as I was. “Read the room,” she said.

“Prayer for the French Republic” opened Feb. 1 at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage I at New York City Center.

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