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How a 3-hour play about antisemitism in France became Broadway’s must-see show

(New York Jewish Week) — I’ll be honest: At the outset, a three-hour play about antisemitism did not sound like my idea of a good time. After all, as the editor of a Jewish publication, I spend much of my workdays writing about and thinking about the world’s hatred of Jews.

But my trepidation evaporated within minutes of the first scene of “Prayer for the French Republic,” Josh Harmon’s Broadway play about generations of a French Jewish family grappling with their Jewish identity, their French identity and the ways in which these identities invariably clash and overlap with one another. 

From the opening scenes — in which we are introduced to the Benhamou family, including a somewhat brittle but loving matriarch, Marcelle Salomon Benhamou (Betsy Aidem); a brilliant but sarcastic daughter Elodie (Francis Benhamou); father Charles (Nael Nacer) and a religiously curious son Daniel (Aria Shahghasemi) — “Prayer for the French Republic” felt like I was looking in a mirror. Or, perhaps a more accurate description would be watching a home movie — a term that has fallen out of favor but uniquely describes that experience of observing a family’s everyday interactions as seen through the lens of someone who is apart of, rather than separate from, the family depicted on screen. 

The play opens in Paris in 2016, with the family in turmoil after Daniel, who wears a kippah, gets attacked on the street just before sundown on Shabbat. It’s a time of heightened antisemitism in France, most notably with the 2015 attack by an Islamist on a kosher supermarket, which killed four and terrified Paris’ Jewish community to the core. Amid fears for their safety, over the course of three hour-long acts (punctuated by two 10-minute intermissions), the Benhamous debate joining the record number of French Jews who are moving to Israel.

The nearly present-day family’s story is punctuated by flashbacks to 1944-1946, spotlighting Marcelle’s great-grandparents, Irma and Adolphe Salomon, who miraculously survived World War II by secreting themselves in their Paris apartment — unlike their other family members who had fled to the U.S. or Cuba, or endured or succumbed to the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps.

“Prayer for the French Republic” was first mounted off-Broadway in 2022, garnering awards and rave reviews. And when it moved to Broadway earlier this month, many of its key players, including director David Cromer and stars Aidem and Francis Benahmou, came along for the ride.

I had the chance to speak with Aidem, who most recently played Grandma Emilia in another recent Broadway play about antisemitism, Tom Stoppard’s Tony Award-winning “Leopoldstadt.” The 66-year-old Upper West Sider shared with me her thoughts on the play’s relevance in 2024, her personal experiences with Judaism and why live theater is an “alchemical” experience.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited. 

Molly (Molly Ranson) and Elodie (Francis Benhamou) debate Israel in a scene from “Prayer for the French Republic.” (Jeremy Daniel)

Watching “Prayer for the French Republic,” I felt like I actually knew the Benhamou family, and that I knew your character personally. Did you feel this way when you first “met” Marcelle? What was your reaction when you read the script the first time?

I got the script at the very beginning of 2020. I was set to go to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to direct a bunch of actors for the Arts in the Armed Forces at the army base and the army prison there. I read the script before I left. They wanted to do a startup workshop — I was like, I’ve got to get out of Kansas. I literally flew back a day early to do the workshop. That’s because when I read the play, and I read the part of Marcelle, I was blown away by how I understood who she was, and I couldn’t believe the breadth of what the writer Josh Harmon was able to give to one character in a story as beautiful as this. 

The world is a very different place now than it was when the play premiered off-Broadway in January 2022. After the massacre in Israel on Oct. 7 and the turmoil over the war in Gaza, how do you think the play hits differently with audiences today? 

I think the play, because it is a closeup, people see themselves in this circumstance. It becomes incredibly relatable, it’s personal. It’s not a sweeping epic. I think being able to recognize people going through something that you feel you’re going through privately — when you watch it in public it expands your sense of belonging to a greater community.

How does that happen? Because I agree — watching the play was somehow uplifting, despite the difficult subject matter. The audience was laughing and engaged. Is that the magic of theater? What is it about this play that makes it feel comforting in a really fraught time?

I think there’s something that alchemically happens in live performance. [Plus, director] David Cromer is incredibly insistent on true behavior — not doing what he calls “theatrical behavior” but really letting things get uncomfortable, showing their smudges, showing where people lose their footing. When audiences see that, they instantly enter into the center of the character’s anguish, because they’re not perfect. They’re imperfect. I think it helps them relax and go, “Oh, I do that too. I know what that feels like.” I think that’s a tribute to Josh’s writing and tribute to David’s directing, and the actors he’s assembled, who are willing to be foolish and willing to be lost. And I think that’s what makes the experience universal. 

You’ve had a couple of heavy years, coming off “Leopoldstadt,” where you play Emilia, another Jewish matriarch, this time in a family epic set before and during the Holocaust. What similarities do you see between these two characters?

Emilia supposedly walked from Kyiv to Lviv on foot, which is something like over 500 miles, during one of the pogroms — she’s a survivor. She was very tough. I mean, the line that I said at the end of the 1899 [scene] was, “They used to hate us for killing Christ, now they hate us for being Jews. God, give my grandchildren the desert.” So Theodor Herzl was, at that moment, coming up with this plan [for a Jewish state in Palestine] that a lot of the Viennese thought, “Oh, who wants to give up high society and the culture that we live in, which is the best of Europe, and go live in some terrible desert?” That has a very similar theme to a family in Paris [in “Prayer for the French Republic”] thinking they live in the best, most cultured city in the world, and thinking the only safe place to go is Israel. That similarity is interesting to me.

The Benhamou family of Paris conducts a Passover seder in a scene from Broadway’s “Prayer for the French Republic.” (Jeremy Daniel)

How would you describe your own Jewish identity? 

I was raised in Phoenix, Arizona, which didn’t have a large Jewish community. But I noticed in like fifth or sixth grade that all the boys were going to this thing called Hebrew school. So I asked my mom if I could also go to Hebrew school. I was a year younger than my brother and she’s like, “I’m not doing two carpools a week. You can go to your brother’s class.” So I was the only girl in my Hebrew school class, and I was the first girl at my temple to be bat mitzvahed. This was the ’60s. The only reason I kept at it was because I figured out, early on, I had a good ear and photographic memory. So they [the teachers] thought I was extremely proficient, but it was just that I figured out I had a gift.

Was this the start of your acting career? 

It was a skill I didn’t know I had; it just came out at that time. Also my father, who had been raised more religiously than I, I could feel his pride that I would take an interest in this. And then I raised my son — he went to Hebrew school, he was also bar mitzvahed, even though I was a single mom and his father was Catholic. I just was like, “Yeah, we’re gonna carry this on.”

“Prayer for the French Republic” is such a deeply Jewish play. How would you describe its audience? Do you think it resonates with non-Jews?

Oh, absolutely. I have a lot of friends that aren’t Jewish, who said, “I really, really loved the play. I learned a lot.” I think Elodie’s monologue is very helpful, in a certain way, for people to say, “Gee, I didn’t think about the size of Indonesia and Pakistan and Nigeria and India being so vastly larger [than Israel]. But why is our news cycle so fixated on that?” I think people learn a lot; I think they say, “It doesn’t matter that this family is Jewish — the interaction between the siblings and the parents and the children is universal.” The actual crisis of the play has to do with something else, but their internal family dynamic is universal.

“Prayer for the French Republic,” a production of the Manhattan Theatre Club, is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater (261 West 47th St.) through March 3. Click here for tickets and information.  


The post How a 3-hour play about antisemitism in France became Broadway’s must-see show appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Alleged Neo-Nazi Indicted for Plot to Carry Out New Year’s Eve Mass Casualty Attack Against Jews, Other Minorities

An American flag waves outside the US Department of Justice Building in Washington, US, Dec. 2, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Tom Brenner

US federal authorities have charged, and a grand jury has indicted, a foreign national with planning a mass casualty attack against Jews and other minorities in New York on New Year’s Eve.

The United States Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of New York reported that a grand jury indicted Georgian national Michail Chkhikvishvili with soliciting hate crimes and acts of mass violence.

Chkhikvishvili is reportedly the leader of a group called the “Maniac Murder Cult,” a white supremacist, neo-Nazi group.

Specifically, he was recruiting people to carry out arson and bombing attacks — as well as attacks aimed at Jewish and other minority children, according to US officials.

The US Attorney’s Office explained that the “planned New Year’s Eve attack involved Santa Claus handing out poisoned candy to racial minorities as well as distributing poisoned candy to Jewish children in Brooklyn.”

There were more than 450,000 Jews who lived in Brooklyn as of May 2024. Many neighborhoods are known to be predominantly Hasidic.

Authorities found out about the plot when Chkhikvishvili solicited an undercover law enforcement official to be involved in the attack.

He “sought to recruit others to commit violent attacks and killings in furtherance of his Neo-Nazi ideologies,” US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Breon Peace said in a statement. “We will not hesitate to find and prosecute those who threaten the safety and freedoms of all members of our community, including members of minority communities, no matter where in the world these criminals might be hiding.”

FBI New York Acting Assistant Director Christie Curtis lauded law enforcement for stopping the attack before it could ever take place.

“The swift disruption of this individual, accused of allegedly plotting violent attacks in New York, sends a clear message: we will use every resource in our power to ensure the safety of the American people,” she said. “The men and women who work on this task force day in and day out exemplify true service to our community, demonstrating unwavering commitment in thwarting those who seek to harm our citizens and our way of life.”

The plot comes amid a wave of antisemitic attacks that ramped up in America and around the world after Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel, amid the ensuing war in Gaza.

Earlier this month, an observant Jew was sucker punched and beaten in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, DC. The alleged attacker subsequently expressed his motive, saying “They’re [the Jews] the cause of all our wars,” and “We know who you are! We know the lies that you’ve told, that you have stolen the place of the true children of Israel.”

He was charged with assault and a hate crime.

In December, the FBI said there had been a 60 percent spike in antisemitic hate crime investigations since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war. Then, in April, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the probes into antisemitic crimes tripled in the months following Oct. 7.

“Between Oct. 7 and Jan. 30 of this year, we opened over three times more anti-Jewish hate crime investigations than in the four months before Oct. 7,” he explained.

Last year, the FBI found that 63 percent of all religiously motivated hate crimes in the US were directed against Jews.

The post Alleged Neo-Nazi Indicted for Plot to Carry Out New Year’s Eve Mass Casualty Attack Against Jews, Other Minorities first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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RNC Spotlights Campus Antisemitism as Elise Stefanik Teases ‘Bombshell’ Findings From US Congressional Probe

US Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) speaks during a House Education and The Workforce Committee hearing titled ‘Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism’ on Capitol Hill in Washington, US, Dec. 5, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Ken Cedeno

US lawmakers are preparing to release later this year a trove of new “bombshell” information revealing the extent to which antisemitism has been allowed to flourish on university campuses across the country, according to a high-ranking Republican.

US Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) spoke with political pundit and podcast host Megyn Kelly about the efforts of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce to investigate surging antisemitism, including anti-Jewish bias, on college campuses. While reminiscing over last December’s congressional hearing with the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — in which each campus leader proclaimed that calls for a genocide of Jews may not violate school rules depending on “the context” — Stefanik revealed that the committee has obtained new documents shedding light on anti-Jewish hate at elite universities.

“This is pervasive in higher-ed. We have worked on this investigation, and if you think the hearing was bad, Megyn, we’re going to have to talk about all the documents that have been turned over because of our subpoena,” Stefanik said. “We’ll put out a report later this year. That’s even more bombshell material in there. It’s a disgrace what’s happening at these universities.”

Antisemitism has exploded at universities since the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel, amid the ensuing Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. Over the past several months, the committee has rigorously investigated antisemitism at America’s most prestigious universities. The panel recently unearthed and exposed text message exchanges between Columbia University deans which revealed the campus leaders mocking Jewish students as “privileged.” The lawmakers also alleged, based on their investigation, that Harvard University has engaged in a “pattern of inaction” in response to campus antisemitism.

Stefanik spoke to Kelly at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Republicans are gathering this week to nominate their 2024 presidential candidate. The issue of campus antisemitism has been a key issue highlighted at the RNC.

On Wednesday night, Shabbos Kestenbaum, a recent Harvard graduate suing his alma mater over its alleged failure to protect Jewish students, took the RNC main stage and delivered an impassioned speech on campus antisemitism. Kestenbaum said that the surge of unchecked antisemitism on Harvard’s campus in the months following Oct. 7 left him disillusioned with progressives, prompting his move to the political right. 

“After Oct. 7, the world finally saw what I and so many Jewish students across this country experienced almost every day,” he told the RNC crowd. 

“My problem with Harvard is not its liberalism, but its illiberalism. Too often, students at Harvard are taught not how to think, but what to think. I found myself immersed in a culture that is anti-Western, that is anti American, and that is antisemitic,” Kestenbaum said. 

Kestenbaum implored the crowd to support the presidential campaign of Republican nominee Donald Trump. 

“Sadly the far-left wing tide of antisemitism is rising,” Kestenbaum said. “But tonight, tonight we fight back. I am proud to support President Trump’s policies to expel foreign students who violate our laws, harass our Jewish classmates, and desecrate our freedoms … let’s elect a president who recognizes that although Harvard and the Ivy Leagues have long abandoned the United States of America, the Jewish people never will.”

Anti-Israel protests have ravaged college campuses across the United States in the months following Oct. 7. Students at prominent universities such as Harvard, Columbia, and MIT have participated in demonstrations chanting slogans such as “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” and “Burn Tel Aviv to the ground!” Progressive student organizations have also openly banned “Zionists,” forcing Jewish students to choose between supporting Israel and maintaining their social network. Campus demonstrators have also openly cheered Hamas and in some cases threatened or committed violence against Jewish students.

Jewish donors and alumni have condemned university administrators over their unwillingness to shut down demonstrations. As a result, many of them have pulled funding and vowed not to allow their children to enroll at their alma maters.

Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots NFL team, has ceased donating to Columbia University, citing “virulent hate” against Jews on campus.  Ross Stevens, founder and CEO of Stone Ridge Asset Management, pulled a $100 million donation from the University of Pennsylvania. The MIT Jewish Alumni Alliance urged Jewish graduates and allies to protest campus antisemitism by lowering their annual donation amount to $1.

The post RNC Spotlights Campus Antisemitism as Elise Stefanik Teases ‘Bombshell’ Findings From US Congressional Probe first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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Pro-Israel Group Calls on US Justice Department to Apply ‘KKK Laws’ to Pro-Hamas Demonstrations

Pro-Hamas demonstrators at Columbia University in New York City, US, April 29, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

StandWithUs (SWU), a Jewish civil rights group based in California, is imploring the US Justice Department to crack down on masked protests at Columbia University by enforcing legal statues which are widely referred to as the “KKK Laws,” citing a hostile environment at the school in which pro-Hamas demonstrators who have harassed and assaulted Jewish students continuously evade justice by concealing their identities.

Dating back to the administration of former US President Ulysses S. Grant, the so-called “KKK Laws” empower the federal government to prosecute those who engage in activities which violate the civil rights of protected groups, as the Ku Klux Klan did across the US South during Reconstruction to prevent African Americans from voting and living as free citizens. StandWithUs alleges that five anti-Zionist groups — most notably Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) — currently operating on Columbia University’s campus have perpetrated similar abuses in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which guarantees all students, regardless of race or ethnic background, has the right to a safe learning environment.

The most obvious parallel between their conduct and the KKK’s, StandWithUs noted, is an inveterate shrouding of their members’ faces with masks and keffiyehs, the traditional headscarf worn by Palestinians that has become known as a symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel. Images and footage of the practice have been widely circulated online, and it has rendered identifying the protesters — many of whom have chanted antisemitic slogans, vandalized school property, and threatened to harm Jewish students and faculty during a weeks-long demonstration between April and May — virtually impossible.

Additionally, the groups — which also include Within Our Lifetime (WOL), Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), Columbia University Apartheid, Columbia School of Social Work 4 Palestine (CSSW4P), and Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine (FJP) — have proclaimed their intention to purge Columbia’s campus of Zionists, a category which includes an overwhelming majority of Jews in the US and around the world. Their rhetoric, StandWithUs added, is unlike any uttered in the US since demonstrations against school integration in the 1950s.

“We hope the Department of Justice (DOJ) will take this opportunity to restore justice on Columbia University’s campuses and hold bad actors responsible for violating federal laws,” Yael Lerman, director of the SWU Saidoff Legal Department, said on Wednesday. “Columbia President Shafik’s concession that Columbia is a hostile environment for Jewish students in violation of Title VI reflects a critical need for the current administration to take decisive action at Columbia.”

Lerman added, “We urge the DOJ to investigate the school’s failure to prevent groups and individuals on its campus from joining forces and depriving Jewish students of their civil rights, a failure that runs afoul of the KKK laws.”

SWU’s letter — sent to US Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department on Wednesday — comes amid an ongoing lawsuit the organization’s Legal Center for Justice (SCLJ) filed against Columbia University in February over its alleged failure to prevent and respond to an explosion of anti-Jewish hate incidents which have occurred on the campus since Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel, an event the protesters cheered and defended as an act of decolonization inspired by the ideas of far-left political philosophers such as Frantz Fanon.

SWU amended its complaint against Columbia in June, adding 45 students as plaintiffs and over “230 pages of allegations.” Meanwhile, the accusations which surfaced following the group’s first filing have already stained Columbia’s reputation.

“F— the Jews,” “Death to Jews,” “Jews will not defeat us,” and “From water to water, Palestine will be Arab,” Columbia protesters chanted on campus grounds after Oct. 7, violating the school’s code of conduct but never facing consequences for doing so, the complaint alleges. Faculty engaged in similar behavior. On Oct. 8, professor Joseph Massad published in Electronic Intifada an essay cheering Hamas’ atrocities, which included slaughtering children and raping women, as “awesome” and describing men who paraglided into a music festival to kill young people as “the air force of the Palestinian resistance.”

The protesters later reinforced their rhetoric with violence, the complaint adds. They beat up five Jewish students in Columbia’s Butler Library. Another allegedly attacked a Jewish students with a stick, lacerating his head and breaking his finger, after being asked to return missing persons posters she had stolen. Following the incidents, pleas for help went unanswered and administrators told Jewish students they could not guarantee their safety while Students for Justice in Palestine held its demonstrations.

The school’s powerlessness to prevent anti-Jewish violence was cited as the reason why Students Supporting Israel (SSI), a recognized school club, was denied permission to hold an event on self-defense. Events with “buzzwords” such as “Israel” and “Palestine” were purportedly forbidden, administrators allegedly said, but SJP continued to host events while no one explained the inconsistency.

Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, who took office in July 2023, recently attempted to assuage concerns that Columbia has become a sanctuary for antisemites after it was revealed that five high-level administrators participated in a group-chat in which ideas that “disturbingly touched on ancient antisemitic tropes” were exchanged. She fired none of the administrators, however, which has led to calls for her to resign from office.

“We will launch a vigorous program of antisemitism and antidiscrimination [sic] training for faculty and staff this fall, with related training for students under the auspices of university life,” Shafik said in statement. “Columbia’s leadership team recognizes this as an important moment to implement changes that will build a stronger institution as a result. I know that you all share this commitment.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

The post Pro-Israel Group Calls on US Justice Department to Apply ‘KKK Laws’ to Pro-Hamas Demonstrations first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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