The short film “Minyan Duty” tackles the subject of race… without saying anything – J.
There is an ongoing debate about who can portray Jewish characters on stage and on screen. Non-Jewish actors such as Helen Mirren, John Douglas Thompson and Bradley Cooper are allowed to don “Jewface” to play Golda Meir, Shylock and Leonard Bernstein respectively?
A new short film, “Anne,” wafts into this debate, with two young actors – one white and Jewish and one black and non-Jewish – auditioning for the role of Anne Frank.
Another new short, “Minyan Duty,” raises questions, albeit unintentionally, about who should be cast non-jewish roles in explicitly Jewish films. (This review for the latter film, which premieres July 28 as part of a short narrative program at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, contains spoilers. “Anne” premieres July 26.)
When “Minyan Duty” opens, sisters Leah (Sarah Baskin) and Ariel (Michelle Uranowitz) sit in a suburban synagogue on a Tuesday night, waiting for a 10th person to arrive to do a minyan so they can recite Kaddish for their recently deceased mother. No one materializes, so an impatient Ariel comes out and tries to recruit someone off the street. She is in a hurry to get back to “the city” and doesn’t care if this person is actually Jewish. (According halacha, Jewish law, only Jewish adults count as a minyan.)
After two bystanders sweep her up, Ariel offers a food delivery guy $50 and a positive review to come inside and pretend to be Jewish. He accepts. There’s a lot of comedic potential in this storyline. We imagine Larry David’s character on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” orchestrating such a stunt so he could make his tee time — and then get the whole thing blown up in his face. (Remember his carpool lane?) But the filmmakers located the comedy not only in Ray the delivery boy’s ignorance of Jewish culture — he greets the prayer leader with “mazel tov” and holds the prayer book upside down — but also, to a certain extent, in the fact that he is the only person of color in the synagogue.
The decision to cast a black actor (Damien Lemon) as the non-Jewish intruder plays on harmful assumptions about who does and does not belong in Jewish spaces. Although no one in the synagogue questions Ray’s right to be there, the audience knows he can’t help but perform a minyan and is therefore out of place. If the only person of color in a Jewish film is not Jewish, it reinforces the stereotype that people of color are not Jewish.
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Would the situation have been so laughable if Ariel had recruited a white non-Jew to join the minyan? Would the casting be appropriate if one of the worshipers seated in the pews was also black? It’s hard to know for sure, but what’s clear is that the filmmakers have tackled a hot topic — how race works in Jewish spaces in the United States — without having anything meaningful to say about it.
Casting isn’t the only issue here; Ray is quintessential “Magic Negro”, as the stock character who primarily exists to serve white characters is known. (The term was popularized by director Spike Lee.)
After the service, Leah confides in him about her complicated relationship with her younger sister. He listens sympathetically and then hands her the sandwich he was trying to deliver earlier that night. After helping nurture the sisters spiritually and physically, he disappears into the night.
Some viewers won’t find anything wrong with the character. They might rightly point out that unlike the sisters, who bicker and dagger at each other throughout the service, Ray behaves admirably in an unfamiliar environment. He trades his bonnet for a yarmulke and stands with the sisters for Kaddish, even though Ariel tells him he doesn’t need it. He replies, “I know,” implying that he, too, is in mourning. (I half expected him to reveal at this point that he is, in fact, Jewish – kidding on you! – but he doesn’t.)
These viewers might also argue that “Minyan Duty” is a film about obligations – to family, community – and not about race. Plus, it only lasts 14 minutes. My response: It’s 2022, and it’s more than reasonable to expect Jewish filmmakers (and all artists) to exhibit a basic level of sensitivity around race in their work, even if the work does not explicitly address race.
So while I can’t exactly recommend “Minyan Duty,” I encourage moviegoers to check out the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s fun but sometimes overlooked short film schedules, which will screen July 26-28 and the 1st of August. sfjff.org for more details.