Our Ahistorical Antisemitism

actors in Prayer for the French Republic acting out a scene on stage

The violence happens offstage. This is usually where it happens, both in our conversations about antisemitism and in Joshua Harmon’s new play Prayer for the French Republic, which draws us into the life of a French Jewish family struggling to decide whether it is safe to remain in the country they have called home for generations. The play is just finishing an extended eight-week debut off Broadway, where it has garnered largely positive reviews. Timely and tenacious, Prayer raises some big questions about the way we understand antisemitism, challenging us as twenty-first century Americans to absorb the fullness of its terrible history and to imagine that our own lives may yet be held in its crosshairs.

The entirety of the play, which spans an intimidating three hours, takes place in the Paris living room of the Salomon-Benhamou family. When the curtain goes up the year is 2016, and Molly (Molly Ranson) a fresh-faced American college girl and distant cousin, has arrived to spend the weekend. It is through Molly that we enter the story and come to know the family. The father, Charles Benhamou (Jeff Seymour), immigrated to France from Algeria as a child and is now a physician in a successful private practice. The mother, Marcelle Salomon-Benhamou (Betsy Aidem), is an accomplished psychiatrist descended from Holocaust survivors. Their two adult children, Elodie (Francis Benhamou), 28, and Daniel (Yair Ben-Dor), 26, still live at home, a fact Marcelle relates with an appropriate expression of chagrin. Well-educated, hard-working, middle class, and idiosyncratic in just the right ways–it is a family that could be our own. 

Though set in Paris, with fresh croissants continuously appearing at the table, the comfortably furnished living room feels familiar and near. At the start, Marcelle and Molly are in the middle of discussing what it means to be a “traditional” Jew, when suddenly the front door bursts open and Daniel stumbles in wearing a yarmulke and covered in blood. What ensues is a whirlwind of panicked voices and movement as the family rushes to his aid. We learn that the attackers were young men, that they called out “Hey, Jew” before catching and beating Daniel. And we learn that Daniel, who has become more observant than his family, has been attacked in the same way before. “This never happened until you started dressing like this,” Marcelle sobs. She has been asking him to cover his yarmulke with a baseball cap outside. He has refused. 

We in the audience do not witness any violence, nor, for that matter, do we witness Daniel’s account of it. His recollection of the assault, punctuated by the frantic questions and exclamations of his family, is delivered from the wings, conceived as a bathroom where Charles is applying bandages. Only Molly, the American cousin, remains onstage, overhearing the story alongside us. It is a crucial moment – the antisemitic assault on Daniel will drive the entire plot of the play – but the stage directions ensure that we have little visual access to it. In making this choice, the play delineates an important dichotomy, between the French Jews who experience antisemitic violence and the American Jews who simply overhear it at a remove from the immediacy of the panic and bloodshed. As the play progresses, we discover that it is also a dichotomy between those who actively identify as Jewish, and those who, like Molly, haltingly describe themselves as being “of Jewish extraction.” 

Prayer for the French Republic (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

 

Such articulations of Jewish and national identities animates the narrative that takes shape as the Salomon-Benhamou family struggles to decide whether they can safely remain at home, or whether it is finally time to leave. Antisemitic attacks have spiked in recent years, and the characters recount these real-life events in detail: the 2015 attack on a Parisian kosher supermarket by a French Muslim terrorist in which nineteen Jews were taken hostage, four of them killed; the murder  two years later of Sarah Halimi, a French Jewish woman murdered in her own home by a French-Muslim man while he sang verses from the Koran. The detailed recollection of such events in the history of antisemitism – the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the post-1948 expulsion of Jews from Arab counties – can sometimes make the play feel a bit didactic. But such details are ultimately central to the characters’ decision-making as well as to Harmon’s overall message about contemporary understandings of antisemitism: history matters. 

In some ways, this play is a tour through the history of antisemitism, the history we never learned or only vaguely recall as distant events that were similar-to-but-not-as-bad-as the Holocaust. The script provides a surfeit of historical information concealed, more or less successfully, in entertaining banter and sophisticated dialogue. If we’re going to grapple intelligently with the problem of antisemitism today, Harmon seems to be telling us, we need to know how we got here. Do we really need to hear about how the People’s Crusade of 1096 killed one third of French Jewry? Yes, the narrator says, “If we didn’t keep track of it, you think they would keep track of it for us?” 

The value of history – not just facts and figures, but the lived experiences of our ancestors— is a trope that reverberates throughout the play. In addition to the current generations of the Salomon-Benhamous, Harmon introduces us to three previous generations in flashbacks that bring us back to Paris in 1944. We meet Marcelle’s great-grandparents, Irma and Adolphe Salomon, an elderly couple somehow still alive in Nazi-occupied Paris. Their children and grandchildren were taken by the Nazis years before, and they have had no news of them since. Ultimately, only one child and grandchild survive. Irma laments that they all should have left France together before it was too late. They chose to stay, we learn, because the family’s wealth was entirely invested in retail pianos, which could not be moved or easily sold. One such piano—an heirloom baby grand branded with the name “Salomon” —remains anchored at center stage for the duration of the show. 

The decision to remain in Nazi-occupied France continues to haunt present-day generations as they confront antisemitic violence in a new incarnation. How will they know if it is really time to leave? Harmon’s characters may be fictional, but the question they are facing is not, which is part of what makes this play so timely. Between 2010 and 2019 alone, more than fifty thousand Jews left France for Israel. A survey published in January 2020 in the newspaper Le Parisien indicated that, of Jews remaining in France, thirty-four percent had been the victim of antisemitic slurs or incidents. Seventy percent said they lived with fear. Harmon’s characters animate this landscape for an American audience that likely has never imagined the world from the perspective of twenty-first-century Jews who still fear for their lives 

Each of Harmon’s characters voices a unique perspective. Charles, whose ancestors were expelled from Spain in 1492 and whose parents fled Algeria in the 1960s, thinks it is time to leave. “We are Jews,” he says. “The only reason we are still on this planet is because we learned to get out of dangerous situations.” To flee France for Israel is merely to take another step in an endless Jewish quest for survival. “It’s the suitcase or the coffin,” he surmises. Marcelle’s brother Patrick, who by contrast has chosen to largely discard his Jewish identity, is aghast at the notion that his sister’s family would leave. “You’re scared of France so you want to go to the most contentious strip of land in the most volatile region in the world?” he bellows. The audience laughs at this, of course, but it is gallows humor, as we are forced to confront the fact that even in Israel there is no promise of reprieve from antisemitic violence. 

One of the more remarkable things about this play is that it does not shy away from dramatizing the tensions that emerge around the connection between antisemitism and Zionism. In a fiery exchange the evening of Daniel’s attack, Molly suggests that maybe antisemitism is driven not by religious extremism or political resentments, but rather by “people like you who take territory that isn’t yours.” The audience gasps. She is addressing Daniel, who she knows is French, not Israeli, and who has just been attacked on a street in Paris, not the West Bank. Even so, she views his embrace of Jewish identity as an endorsement of right-wing Israeli politics. This is the same ideological position that has gained increasing traction over the past few years as the anti-Zionist and BDS movements have elided distinctions between Israeli, Jew, and Zionist. Molly stands in for these progressive political voices as well as for a certain element within the American Jewish elite who (in Daniel’s sister Elodie’s estimation) render judgments about Jewish and Israeli politics a little too freely from the comfort of their Upper East Side apartments. “For you it’s a purely intellectual exercise,” Elodie says. “For us, we might need Israel.” 

This is the heart of the play – the tensions between intellectual and pragmatic understandings of antisemitism, between prayers for the French Republic and the recognition that those prayers may not be answered – these Jews “might need Israel.” Harmon, director David Cromer, and the cast succeed in dramatizing this quandary with emotion and verve. Though more comfortably ensconced in our New York diaspora than the Salomon-Benhamous can be in Paris, we still feel their plight as our own. We, too, carry the burden of answering antisemitism in a world that doesn’t appreciate its history. As Elodie practically screams at Molly, “Everyone has become completely ahistorical–No one reads, no one knows what history is. Do they think we went on a cruise for two thousand years?”

The plea to invite history back into our conversations about antisemitism, too many of which unfold today in a historical vacuum, is ultimately what drives this play, and what makes it such a rich and compelling intervention in our contemporary discourse. As the narrative weaves back and forth between the 1940s and the present day, the characters gain depth and meaning, and the centrality of history in their lives becomes more evident. We recognize it with startling clarity in the final act when Irma’s grandson, Pierre (Pierre Epstein), the only grandchild to survive the Holocaust, returns to the stage, this time in the year 2017 as an elderly man sitting down with his own grandson – Daniel. Despite everything he has been through, Pierre still loves his country. “France is one of the best countries for the Jews. Three quarters of French Jews survived [the Holocaust]… Do you know what a high percentage that is?” That he utters these words without so much as a hint of sarcasm is at once a tragic reminder of the historical reach of antisemitism, and a reproach of our failure to understand it. 

Harmon would have done well to end the play here, with the generations joined, and Pierre counseling Daniel not to be beholden to France despite his love for it. The scenes that follow this are among the weakest in the play. Despite its poor ending, however, Prayer offers much to consider—and reconsider—about antisemitism, Jewish history, and the Jewish future. 

Prayer for the French Republic by Joshua Harmon. Directed by David Cromer. Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club. Staged at New York City Center Stage I, through March 27.


Top image: Prayer for the French Republic (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

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