‘In Every Generation’ at Victory Gardens and the Continuum of Jewish Trauma

While I knew to some degree that In Every Generation would be covering topics of Jewish oppression and trauma, I didn’t anticipate that it would poke and prod at me in such a genuinely unsettling way. In the opening scene, the youngest member of the family is made to sing the usually-sung-by-children Four Questions song despite being a full adult, an awkward moment made doubly so when she forgets the words. As a former Passover baby myself I was able to mouth along perfectly, barely restraining myself from shouting “It’s ‘Anu matbillin!’” when the character messed up — and from that point forward, I was inextricably drawn in.

In Every Generation at Victory Gardens Theatre is defined by this discomfort; that first awkward moment kicks off a harrowing fictional Passover seder where the Levi-Katz family is made to confront their myriad dysfunctions in such a way that leads both the family and the audience to consider fundamental questions about Jewish identity. While the show succeeds tremendously as a moving family drama that examines both the deeply personal and the urgently political, I found myself off-put by some of its philosophical conclusions. Perhaps that is the point.

A character-focused show like this relies entirely on the strong backbone of its cast’s chemistry, and luckily these actors are doing some truly phenomenal work. As the first act begins, we are immediately struck with this family’s profound affection for one another. Yet there is a perverse joy in watching their worldviews clash, gently at first, but then more violently as their dirty laundry boils to the surface. Director Devon de Mayo has smartly accentuated this contrast in her blocking throughout. Playwright Ali Viterbi does a masterful job of establishing a distinct philosophical viewpoint for each character, ensuring that they all have valid points, but are just as informed by their own trauma as they are by the facts.

Esther Fishbein, playing the character of Yael, is tremendously successful in making this newly vegan, leftist, pseudo-activist college student both exciting and frustrating to watch. Fishbein imbues her with an infectious, righteous fervor that makes it very easy to root for her. Yet while her political views are certainly justified, she has an annoying habit of parroting online leftist talking points without fully understanding their meaning; Yael has not yet internalized that being woke does not cure you of internal prejudices.

This makes her an excellent foil to Dev, played with a heartfelt earnesty by Sara Lo. As the family’s adopted child, she bears the burden of multiple marginalizations — being adopted, being visibly Chinese, and being Jewish. And yet she embraces the religious side of Judaism more  than any other character, quoting from and interfacing directly with the ancient texts in a way no other character does. Her deep connection to her Jewishness is a direct refutation of the idea that being Jewish is purely a matter of ethnicity. In contrast, the family’s negative reaction to the way she interfaces with organized religion, as well as their assertion of their Jewish identity despite their reluctance to observe religious traditions, is a challenge to the idea that it’s purely a matter of religion either. Is Judaism a religion or an ethnicity? The play leaves the audience room to meditate on this question without giving easy answers.

The most heartbreaking performance comes from Eli Katz as Yael and Dev’s mother, Valeria. Valeria has clearly been traumatized by organized religion and has only recently been made to face that trauma directly. Throughout the first act, she is the character we most witness struggling to keep herself together. In one particularly moving scene, Dev tells her mother a story from Isaiah, describing the detail of God making flowers bloom in the desert — a metaphor for flourishing despite adversity. Valeria, nearly crying, responds: “I don’t feel like a flower in the desert.”

The monologue that follows is not only a masterstroke from Katz, but the most I’ve related to a character onstage in years. Valeria feels drained by her trauma; it takes 110% of her energy just to wake up in the morning, to go to work every day, to put one goddamn foot in front of the other. Sometimes, after the end of a long day of working three-and-a-half jobs just to break even, I’ll have the thought. . . My people escaped the pogroms for this? Wasn’t America supposed to be an escape? A place of prosperity and freedom? Didn’t my ancestors want me to thrive, to live in a better world than they did?

The character of Paola (mother of Valeria and grandmother to Dev and Yael), played with delightful charismatic bombast by Carmen Roman, seems to be a direct response to these questions. As with many Jewish mothers, Paola seems to be most comfortable in the role of comic relief, her goofiness serving as a counterpoint to the play’s often dark subject matter. And as with a lot of Jewish humor, her jokes and quirks are often masks for deeply felt pain. Her husband Davide (played by Paul Dillon, who despite being wheelchair-bound, immobile, and unspeaking for the entire first act, still brought me to tears) is a Holocaust survivor who spent his childhood in the camps. Though she managed to stay out of the camps herself, it’s clear that she has taken on some of his trauma over many long years of otherwise happy marriage.

Paola is a character of philosophical and emotional contrasts: coming to America post-World War II was an escape, and she and Davide were able to build a happy life. However, as a character who survived fascism in her youth and must face the horrors of the Trump administration in her age, Paola, more than any other character, is keenly aware of the warning signs. The creeping knowledge that America was never as “free” as it bills itself can often come as a nasty surprise to immigrants who staked their whole lives and families on that illusion, and Paola seems to be fully grappling with this dissonance.

Here we reach the part of the show that made me the most uncomfortable, and I fully admit that, like the characters in the play, I can’t be sure whether this is a legitimate political critique, or my own trauma rearing its ugly head.

A particularly potent conversation about halfway through the first act directly addresses the topic of Jews and white privilege. Yael, ever the activist, argues that European Jews are fully white due to their white skin and thus aren’t racially profiled, and therefore have a responsibility to check our white privilege and fight for the rights of those less fortunate. Paola, in the meantime, has noted the rise of the alt-right and anti-semitic hate crames in recent years — and to someone who lived through the original Nazis, the horror of such fringe beliefs suddenly becoming mainstream and government-sanctioned does not seem nearly so distant. Paola simply cannot feel her white privilege in the same way Yael does, and whatever amount of it she does feel seems extremely tenuous and conditional.

To some degree, both characters are correct, but their positions represent the most extreme sides of each debate.

European Jews, especially secular Jews who don’t bear visual signifiers of their religion, absolutely have white privilege. I am not profiled by the police when out and about. I am more likely to be perceived as friendly by white authority figures, and I have access to generational wealth that has bailed me out of many a jam.

On the other side of the coin. . . I’d be lying if I said shit wasn’t scary for Jewish people of all races right now. I am acutely aware, like Paola, that the privilege that protects me could always be rescinded. Like Yael, my everyday experiences feel much more acutely defined by white privilege than they do by Jewishness. How much of an illusion is that? Who’s to say.

The problem with Yael’s position is not with anything she says, but the way she positions the argument within the conversation. She makes her points about white privilege in response to her family discussing Jewish suffering, which, consciously or not, makes her family feel invalidated and undermined. This leads into some masterful heightening of dialogue as our characters engage in a quintessentially Jewish activity: namely, argue loudly with people who really mostly agree with you.

The problem with Paola’s position is similarly an issue of context. In the wrong hands, sentiment that extolls Jewish oppression and consistently denies privilege can lead to some unhealthy beliefs. I have seen older relatives of mine engage in the fallacy of believing that because Jews are oppressed, we are intrinsically moral. Which is of course not true of any oppressed group! This idea often results in prejudice and anger towards other minorities, which of course helps preserve an unjust system by pitting those at the bottom against each other rather than their true enemy (who is, of course, Elon Musk).

At its very worst extreme, this moralizing can lead many American Jews to bend over backwards to justify horrific policies pushed by the Israeli government, rationalizing that such actions must be warranted if they’re done in the name of protecting Jews. Notably, we never hear Paola or any other character’s position on the Israel/Palestine conflict in the text of In Every Generation, a potentially thorny omission in a play tackling political questions of modern Judaism. For these reasons – and perhaps due to my own history of conversation on this topic –  Paola’s opinion here made me extremely uncomfortable as an audience member.

Now in a play where characters present many philosophical viewpoints, and all are biased and flawed, both right and wrong — this tension is more than acceptable: it’s essential for driving the drama. But the play begins to slightly fall apart for me in the second act, when it seems to explicitly endorse Paola’s viewpoint.

Spoilers ahead: while the first act is set entirely at a Passover seder in 2019, the second act begins to hop around in time. We first visit Paola and Davide in the 1950’s, at one of their first seders since moving to America — and then we fast forward to a prolonged sci-fi dystopian scene that takes place in 2050.

This might have felt like too wild of a tonal shift, but the cast and director handle it well. Smartly, Viterbi metes out the dystopia’s specifics very slowly. The characters mention details off-hand while talking about personal affairs. We witness their trauma via the way they react to each other and the situation, including some heartbreaking parallels to Paola’s behavior a century earlier. This is incredibly effective, almost in the same vein as a horror movie where you don’t see the monster until the end. Because you are only given a shadow, a flicker of this world, your brain is forced to fill in the blanks, conjuring up whatever image will frighten you the most as an individual.

The issue arises when the narrative itself seems to espouse Paola’s viewpoint. We are given to understand that, in the intervening years between 2019 and 2050, government-sanctioned action against Jews experienced a resurgence that is only just beginning to die down.

I don’t want to come out and say that mass persecution of Jews by the U.S. government straight-up isn’t going to happen, because what the hell do I know. But I do feel like focusing too much on the oppression that MIGHT come sometime soon can distract us from the oppression that’s happening right now. The U.S is already engaging in horrific, government-sanctioned action against oppressed minorities on many, many fronts — just not this specific one.

I tend to agree with Yael that Jews, especially Jews of privilege, have a responsibility to stand up for other oppressed peoples. But one can only do that so much while still engaging in the (understandable) trauma response of fixating on our own potential future oppression. This is the reason that the show left a bad taste in my mouth despite my enjoyment of its craft, and my connection to the material.

Paola has a line towards the end of Act 1 where, after an unpleasant outburst on everyone’s part, she says, “Arguing is good! Arguing is Jewish.” Much has been written about the art of Jewish arguing, and one could even argue that it’s a crucial part of our shared identity. The word “Israel” in the original Hebrew roughly translates to “He who wrestles with God.” Clashing with oneself and others about what Jewishness means? That’s the most Jewish thing you can do. So in a way, In Every Generation is to be congratulated for eliciting such a mixed emotional response from me. Let the argument continue; may it last a thousand years!

And indeed, it already has. The set for this show, from designers Andrew Boyce and Lauren Nichols, is deceptively simple: it consists entirely of a table in the middle of the stage, and desert sand scattered along the edges. The table nearly always remains, no matter what era we’re watching, traveling through time with the story as it’s adjusted in size by actors or stagehands between scenes. It is rare that the actors interact with the sand, but its presence throughout is powerful nonetheless. So much of Jewish tradition consists of reckoning with our past, with our origins, and connecting our suffering to the suffering of oppressed people everywhere.

There is the eternal argument, the discussion, the forum, moderated by the sturdy structure of the seder table. Then, there is the desert sand. It binds us to our roots, carried with us no matter how far away from it we travel. We are always connected backwards through time by the continuum of Jewishness, whether it be the joy of our resilience, or the pain of our collective trauma. There is something solemnly beautiful in the expression of this duality, and In Every Generation is worth seeing — and wrestling with — for that reason alone.

In Every Generation runs at Victory Gardens Theatre through this weekend.

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Eli Katz (Valeria)
Sara Lo (Dev)
Esther Fishbein (Yael)
Paul Dillon (Davide)
Carmen Roman (Paola)

Elizabeth Birnkrant (u/s Valeria)
Henry Bolson (u/s Davide)
Hannah Marie Dahl (u/s Dev)
Jean Marie Koon (u/s Paola)
Gabi Leibowitz (u/s Yael)

Casting by The Chicago Inclusion Project

Ali Viterbi (Playwright)
Devon de Mayo (Director)
Andrew Boyce and Lauren Nichols (Scenic Design)
Clare McKellaston (Costume Design)
Heather Sparling (Lighting Design)
Jeffrey Levin (Sound Design)
Yeaji Kim (Projections Design)
Caitlin McCarthy (Props Design)
Courtney Abbott (Intimacy Design)
Adam Goldstein (Language and Dialect)
Kat Zukaitis (dramaturg)
Adelina Feldman Schultz (Assistant Director)
Casie Morell (Stage Manager)
Shandee Vaughan (Production Manager)

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

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