Liev Schreiber as Ray Donovan in "Ray Donovan: The Movie." (Photo/Showtime)
Liev Schreiber as Ray Donovan in "Ray Donovan: The Movie." (Photo/Showtime)

Ray Donovan, the Irish fixer with a Jewish soul, gets his movie

When “Ray Donovan” premiered on Showtime in 2013, it seemed unlikely to provide any Jewish content. The violent drama, featuring Liev Schreiber as a Hollywood fixer who makes his clients’ problems disappear, centered on the brutality, corruption and violence living under the surface of Hollywood glitz, and on the deep trauma of child abuse, perpetrated by a Catholic priest against the Irish Catholic Donovans. But by 2014, Joshua Neuman, writing in Heeb Magazine, had proclaimed that the show was “the most important Jewish show on TV.” (The drama ended with Season 7 in 2020, but a 100-minute movie arrives on Showtime on Jan. 14 to finish the story.)

What qualified as “Jewish TV” was different then, four years before the marvelous Mrs. Maisel “got the rabbi” for her Yom Kippur break-fast, and one year before “Transparent” and “Orange is the New Black” wove Jewish ideas into their storylines.  And the Jewish content increased considerably after Neuman’s review. There are three episodes with surprisingly specific Jewish titles (season one’s “The Golem,” season two’s “Rodef” and season five’s “Shabbos Goy,” all co-written by series creator Ann Biderman, a self-described “Jewish girl from Miami”), and smaller Jewish identity moments or ideas are peppered throughout the seasons.

Several characters (and actors) are Jewish, most notably, wealthy lawyer and philanthropist Ezra Goodman (whose first name means “Help/Helper” in Hebrew, which is a little on the nose) and former Mossad agent and current Donovan employee Avi Rudin (Steven Bauer). While it’s problematic that these prominent Jewish characters are also criminals, they provide some interesting Jewish conversational color and display deep — and deeply different — identity connections to Judaism.

Ezra (Elliott Gould), Ray’s moral center and father figure, has Judaism as a central context. When he hallucinates a monster coming to get him, he sees a golem. He relies on philanthropy as expiation for his sins, and urges Ray to help him in doing tikkun olam. “We must fix the world,” he tells the implacable Ray.

And in “Rodef,” Ezra gets ultra-Biblical, invoking the Jewish principle of the “rodef,” the person who chases another person with the intent of killing them. “They must be warned to stop,” Ezra tells Ray. “But if the rodef fails to heed that warning, then according to Jewish law, the rodef should be killed.” He explains that a journalist who has discovered the criminal activities is the rodef. “She’s been warned. She has to be stopped.” While probably not what the Bible meant, this moment shows how woven into Ezra’s psyche Jewish ideas are, that he corrupts them to justify his illegal actions.

Avi’s background is a little different. His chai necklace is almost always front and center on his chest. He reveals that he joined the Israeli army at 16 — “Anything to escape the kibbutz” — and then joined the Mossad. But, he explains, he can’t do anything over the weekend because he’s taking care of his mother; she’s Orthodox and on Friday night and Saturday she observes Shabbat. You can be a killer during the week, but you still have to take care of your Ema.

In the intriguingly-named “Shabbos Goy” episode, Ray’s father Mickey takes Avi out to a remote location, intending to kill him for his involvement with a perceived enemy. Avi calls Mickey a “Shabbos goy,” explaining that it’s a non-Jew whom the Orthodox man pays to do something that the Orthodox man can’t do on Shabbat. “The Shabbos goy doesn’t care if the Orthodox man breaks his vows to God because he’s doing it for the money and not for God,” Avi says. He ultimately convinces Mickey not to kill him and instead they become business partners. “We’re going to get rich together,” Mickey says. “Mann tracht, un Gott lacht,” Avi replies, then translates the Yiddish phrase as, “Man, he makes plans. And God, he laughs.”

Sin, guilt, expiation and redemption are at the core of the series, and no one has had more time to think about wrongdoing and regret than Mickey. So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s got opinions on repentance. What is surprising is that the lapsed Catholic would invoke the Jewish frame of atonement in trying to counsel a despondent young family member (certain details omitted to avoid spoilers).

In one scene, Mickey notices they are near a small Chabad shul, so he launches into a speech about how you can make teshuvah. Not repentance — he actually says “teshuvah.” He says that when Catholics sin, they can go to a priest and confess “every day of the week. But Jews, they only get one chance a year at forgiveness. And they don’t f*** around with the middlemen. They go direct to God.” When the younger man speaks his sins aloud, Mickey says, “Yeah, you’re forgiven. And, uh, your name is written in the … in the Book a Life or some f***in’ thing.”

While actors don’t usually write their own dialogue (Schreiber, Biderman and the also-Jewish David Hollander are credited writers on this episode), it’s worth noting that Jon Voight, who plays Mickey, is a longtime supporter of Chabad (and dances on their annual fundraising telethon) and has said he feels it is his duty to fight anti-semitism. It’s probably not related. But it’s still interesting.

The Donovans are closed-off emotionally, traumatized and dysfunctional in their relationships to people and averse to engaging in any kind of  religious structure or belief system. While they suffered first because of their father’s sins, they have since committed their own sins, continuing the family tradition of deception and self-hatred, perpetuating pain in a cycle of ongoing multigenerational trauma.

It’s violent, bloody and cruel. It’s not an optimistic or lighthearted watch.

The film picks up where season seven left off, and dips back into the Donovan family’s origin story, 30 years before the present-day violence that follows the clan. The trailer for the movie doesn’t reveal the entire plot, but we see Ray in therapy (with therapist Alan Alda); if Ray Donovan can engage in enough self-reflection to atone, perhaps he can provide redemption for some of the more innocent people who have been caught in his family’s crossfire.

And if some new or old Jewish character turns up in the movie to share lessons about asking for forgiveness on Yom Kippur, or uses a Passover seder to make a point about freedom and redemption, that would be interesting, too.

Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz

Esther D. Kustanowitz wrote a TV column for J. She is based in Los Angeles and has been known to track #TVGoneJewy. Follow her on Twitter @EstherK.