April 14, 2024
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April 14, 2024
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Within the first five minutes, Josh Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic resonated with me. With a set split between the Paris, 1944-46 and Paris, 2016-17, it vacillates between the Salomons, a family largely decimated by the Nazis, and their descendants, who exemplify French Jewish “mixed marriages” between North African Sephardim and Ashkenazim in the late 20th century. The Benhamous and Salomans originate in Algeria and Strasbourg, respectively.

The curtain rises on Patrick Salomon (Anthony Edwards), the great grandson of Irma and Adolphe, matriarch and patriarch of the Salomon piano craftsmen. Irma and Adolphe spent WWII in Paris. Their son Lucien and grandson Pierre barely survived the camps and daughter Collette perished. Patrick muses about his elderly father Pierre (Richard Masur), who hangs onto the Salomon legacy, a failing piano business. Patrick’s monologue masks the tension and humor pervading Harmon’s play. In what follows, the Benhamou-Salomons are caught between their country’s rampant antisemitism and their love-and prayer-for the French Republic.

Daniel (Aria Shahghasemi), the son of Charles Benhamou (Nael Nacer), orthopedic surgeon, and Marcelle Salomon Benhamou (Betsy Aidem), psychiatrist, is more religious than his parents, who live comfortably in central Paris. His yarmulke particularly upsets Marcelle, who begs him not to wear it outside. Daniel’s sister Elodie (Francis Benhamou) at 28, also lives at home, but unlike him, is highly opinionated and lacks direction. Elodie enjoys confrontation, but her fights with Marcelle are more humorous than vindictive.

On Friday afternoon, Daniel returns from teaching math in Sarcelles, a northern, heavily Jewish North African immigrant suburb of Paris. His face is bloody and lacerated. A French Jew with a kipah getting slammed on the street? Really? Marcelle is beside herself and begs Daniel to call the police. Charles, after trying to contain Marcelle’s hysteria and cleaning Daniel’s wounds, moves Daniel towards the couch. Marcelle, ever the Jewish mother, wants the police involved, but does she want her living room couch bloodied? Harmon’s humor is inescapable. Daniel, still shaken, totally downplays the attack and lights Shabbat candles.

If this wasn’t enough pre-Shabbat chaos, Marcelle has just welcomed Molly (Molly Ranson), a distant American cousin, and student in Nantes, for the weekend. Molly has the barest connection to Judaism; she crashes the Benhamous’ couch and acts like a ditzy, naïve Upper West Side environmentalist diva. During the play, under Daniel’s influence, she becomes more informed about Judaism.

The lighting on the other half of the split set reveals great grandparents Irma (Nancy Robinette) and Adolphe Salomon (Daniel Oreskes), who, at WWII’s end, anxiously await news of their children. They wonder if their piano business can survive after their inventory has been cannibalized by the Nazis soldiers. Of their family who were deported, only their traumatized son Lucien (Ari Brand) and grandson, young Pierre (Ethan Haberfield) survive. Sister Collette was murdered. Pierre eventually chooses to marry a non-Jew; consequently, his daughter Marcelle must convert to Judaism before marrying Charles Benhamou.

The play skirts the Benhamous family history, but as Sephardim, they likely descend from Spanish-Portuguese-cum-Algerian Jews, who in the 1960s fled in droves to avoid persecution after the country’s independence from France.

Here’s the resonance part. During the Yom Kippur War. I lived in a Paris seminary dorm, whose Tunisian and Moroccan population surged–ironically, because parents thought France a haven. Most, like the Benhamous and many North African Jews, were largely traditional rather than strictly religious. Sephardim who lived in Paris’ periphery often resided in high rise developments; many North African Jewish families, many with 10 or more children, were absorbed into these developments. I visited Sarcelles, where my classmates’ large, traditional, and often impoverished families lived, amid crime-ridden streets.

The more assimilated, well-established Parisian Jews lived an entirely different life. Yet even for the Benhamous, life is not idyllic, as loyal French nationals but also targeted Jews. They live on the edge of a precipice, worrying about terrorism and whether Marine LePen and her extreme right party will be the next to rule.

At the outset, Daniel proposes to move to Israel and his family objects. The Jews recite the Prayer for the French Republic, where Napoleon promised equal legal rights to Jews. Yet even Marcelle, who challenges Charles’ decision to make aliyah, can’t deny blatant French antisemitism.

During the Seder, Marcelle is frightened to open the door or even a window for Elijah the Prophet; she references the window entry of Sarah Halimi’s brutal killer. Marcelle morphs from being chauvinistic about France to pushing to leave it. This may seem capricious, but it’s also predictable, given the violence and thousands of Jews who had fled France by then.

A review can’t adequately capture the nuanced character changes and especially the absurdly riotous moments in this brilliantly written and acted play. You may ask, “How can a play about historically embedded antisemitism be funny?” It may not seem rational, but director David Cromer optimizes the underlying, sometimes biting, sometimes ironic humor in Harmon’s script. Elodie’s nightclub conversation—rather it’s a near rant by her–with PC Molly is uproariously funny.

In the concluding scenes, Harmon packs a punch. Elderly Pierre advises Daniel to go with his family to Israel. “Stay together. Stay with your parents. You have to. In the end, it saved my life.”

Daniel agrees to go, but then Pierre asks him, “Daniel. You’re a thinking person: why do they hate us?” Although Daniel responds, “I don’t know, Grandpa.” There is a lingering silence, as each family member struggles to explain why the hatred of Jews endures. They all grasp to answer this perennial question, but the litany of millennia-old antisemitic myths doesn’t produce valid ones. Daniel declares, “But I won’t hate them back,” to which Marcelle adds, “We won’t… OK? …Hey–it’s gonna be great. ” The family geographically removes itself from antisemitism’s ugly head.

Harmon, though, has left some loose ends. Will Molly’s relationship with Daniel grow, as alluded? Will Charles successfully restart his career as a physician? When Marcelle leaves her elderly father behind, will Patrick be able to pick up the slack for her? Will Elodie overcome her aimlessness?”

As the family’s packing for aliyah winds down, Patrick rips and distributes croissant to the family. “This is the bread of affliction…which our ancestors ate, in the land of– France.”

Marcelle watches from afar, as does Patrick, who joins as if to cheer on the Benhamous …, the Salomon ancestors unite around their piano singing a rousing Marseillaise. Even non-believer Patrick prays for his sister, and for the future of the French Republic.

Rachel Kovacs, PhD, who teaches communication at CUNY and Judaics locally, is also a PR professional, freelance writer, and theater reviewer for offoffonline.com. She trained in performance at Brandeis and Manchester Universities, Sharon Playhouse, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She can be reached at [email protected].

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