Arts and Entertainment

“Prayer for the French Republic”: A Commentary on Diasporic Judaism

A review of the play “Prayers for the French Republic.”

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Antisemitism, intergenerational trauma, family feuds, and croissants are featured in “Prayers for the French Republic,” an off-broadway show written by Joshua Harmon and directed by David Cromer. Showing at the City Center Theater, the play centers around several generations of a Jewish family struggling with their strong French identity and the ominous danger they feel as French Jews.

The first three generations of the family are shown during and after the Holocaust. The oldest generation hid in France and awaited the return of their family, but only two members made it: their son Lucien (Ari Brand) and their grandson Pierre (Peyton Lusk). The next two generations live in 2016, a year after a Kosher grocery store shooting in Paris and in the middle of an intense national election. The modern generations consist of Pierre’s children, Marcelle (Betsy Aidem) and Patrick (Richard Topol). Patrick acts as the narrator, connecting the two periods and adding his insights in monologues addressed to the audience, with only minor involvement in the plot itself. Meanwhile, Marcelle and her family represent the struggles of Jews in modern-day France.

The play draws parallels from the repeating stories of French antisemitism to the repeating history of Jews in danger in the diaspora. Marcelle’s husband Charles (Jeff Seymour) had to abandon his childhood home in Algeria because he was Jewish. Charles comes to question his family’s safety in France and ultimately decides that the family must move to Israel. In the first scene of the play, Daniel (Yair Ben-Dor), Marcelle and Charles’s son, enters, covered in blood after experiencing a physical antisemitic hate crime, and it is apparently not his first incident of victimhood. The family describes itself as “traditional” and is assimilated into French culture, but Daniel takes his religiosity to the next level, publicly wearing a kippah (skullcap), which makes him a target. In response to the attack on Daniel and France’s political climate, the family is forced to ask difficult questions, the same questions their grandparents and great-grandparents had to ask during the Holocaust. Ari Brand, the actor who plays Lucien, lists some of these questions: “What does it mean to feel safe? What is a homeland, where is your home, and how do you know? How do you know when things have gotten bad enough that it’s time to uproot your entire life?” He further explains that “[the questions have] also been asked by communities experiencing racism, queerphobia, ableism, [and] war.”

Brand also discussed the talent of the playwright, Josh Harmon, saying he “goes deep into the argument, challenges his audiences, and he doesn’t land on one side or the other.” In the first scene, Molly (Molly Ranson), the family’s distant American cousin, arrives and forces herself into the family. She offers an extremely naive outsider’s insight into Jewish struggles in Europe, and always feels the need to chime in to reinforce her privileged American experience. As the increasingly distraught family is looking for somewhere to safely live as Jews and Israel is brought up, Molly inserts herself into the family discussion with typical anti-Israel arguments. Molly represents a large swath of the American Jewish diaspora that has been so assimilated that it loses connection to both its religion and the tormented history that drove Jews to seek out America as a refuge. Elodie (Francis Benhamou), the bipolar, quick-witted daughter of the family, would typically be progressive like Molly, but has been forced to confront realities as a European Jew. Elodie goes on long, humorous rants, proving her point and attempting to undo Molly’s conceptions as an American Jew.

“Prayers for the French Republic” depicts history repeating itself through the rotating stage design, allowing scenes from two time periods to be woven together throughout the play and highlighting the trauma felt across generations. The play has had an added significance since the war in Ukraine began. After asking Ari Brand about Ukraine, he responded by saying, “The news we’re seeing of literally millions of families forced to make this impossible decision—do we stay, fight, potentially die? Or do we leave everything we know behind, taking only what we can carry?” He continued, “And the fact that it’s happening as we speak? Children dying? This very hour? It’s beyond heartbreaking. And it infuses our story with immediacy, poignancy, and truth.” The play touched on many of these themes, adding a layer of relevancy.

The realistic, comical family dynamic balances out the play’s tough topic of antisemitism. The family dynamic can be described as a crossover of “Schitt’s Creek” (2015) and “The Goldbergs” (2013), with Molly adding a sprinkle of “Emily in Paris” (2020). The screaming family arguments range in intensity, from household chores to debates about Israel and Judaism. Brand described the mesh of emotions felt by the audience: “Well, they definitely think the funny parts are funny. And apparently they cry a lot too.”

Junior Jackson Mushnick confirms Brand’s statements, saying, “I felt like I was at a family dinner, all my relatives were there.”

Social Studies teacher Robert Sandler’s Jewish History class was lucky enough to see the show, and senior Aaron Visser describes the play as “enthralling.” Visser said, “I’ve seen it twice now and each time it pulls you in as the daunting run time breezes by.” The play conquers many tough subjects through clever dialogue and allows the audience to understand the cyclical nature of antisemitism throughout generations.