Next Year in Jerusalem, written by Dana Leslie Goldstein and directed by Robert Bruce McIntosh, is a realistic portrait of the American Jewish family in the twentieth century. The play encompasses two interlocking storylines: the contemporary tale of an elderly Abraham Mendel and his interactions with his two grown daughters, and the memories of his escape from Poland in 1939, his time fighting for Israel, and his decision to immigrate to the United States. Abraham finds himself in a difficult bind: he is torn between the pull of Jewish tradition and the increasingly modern lives of his children, the reserved Rachel and the flamboyant Faustine. The power of Abraham’s Jewish history, identity, and tradition is at the heart of the drama and gives the play its real poignancy and soul. Abraham, like Tevye before him, must weigh the value of tradition against the importance of family. In so doing, he must reevaluate what he loves most – that which is right in front of him in the form of his family or that which he left behind in his promised land.
This preoccupation with the force of tradition is movingly manifested in the Seder scene. Anna, Abraham’s now-deceased wife, is seen at the back of the house as she was 50 years ago, carrying candles and singing in Hebrew. As she approaches the stage, the contemporary family is revealed and Abraham’s young granddaughter shares in the rite, reading the customary questions of the Haggadah. This simple staging evokes the complexity of this ritual. As distant as one may personally feel from these deeds, they are what tie the current generation to their ancestral past as Jews. These practices are done because their parents did them before them, and their parents before them.
Burt Edwards gives a strong performance as Abraham Mendel. He is both sympathetic and at times tyrannical, as any old-school father may seem. Jake Robards, who plays both Abraham as a young man and the Israeli lawyer that Abraham brings home as a suitor for Faustine, is exceptionally well-suited to both roles. The choice to double these roles throws into relief the similarity between Faustine and her father – a fact that is a potential cause of their constant conflicts.
The family drama has highs and lows; some of the scenes between Rachel and her husband Lee add little to the overall narrative. The central story arc – that of an old man facing his own mortality in light of an ever-changing world – is at times heartwrenching. Its easy to get lost in, to face this family’s pain and, in so doing, one’s own family heartaches. The play ends with a toast, a kind of celebration, despite some darker moments in the play’s second act. Each year at Passover there is similar joy in the remembrance that the Jewish people were delivered by G-d. And there is hope: next year in Jerusalem.