(From left) Michelle Uranowitz, Damien Lemon and Sarah Baskin in 'Minyan Duty.'
(From left) Michelle Uranowitz, Damien Lemon and Sarah Baskin in 'Minyan Duty.'

‘Minyan Duty’ short film broaches topic of race … with nothing to say

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

There is an ongoing debate over who can portray Jewish characters on the stage and screen. Should non-Jewish actors such as Helen Mirren, John Douglas Thompson and Bradley Cooper be allowed to don “Jewface” to play Golda Meir, Shylock and Leonard Bernstein, respectively?

A new short film, “Anne,” wades into this debate, with two young actors — one white and Jewish and one Black and not Jewish — auditioning for the role of Anne Frank.

Another new short, “Minyan Duty,” raises questions, albeit unintentionally, about who should be cast in non-Jewish roles in explicitly Jewish films. (This review of the latter film, which screens on July 28 as part of a narrative shorts program at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, contains spoilers. “Anne” screens on July 26.)

When “Minyan Duty” opens, sisters Leah (Sarah Baskin) and Ariel (Michelle Uranowitz) are sitting in a suburban synagogue on a Tuesday night, waiting for a 10th person to arrive to make a minyan so they can recite Kaddish for their recently deceased mother. No one materializes, so an impatient Ariel goes outside and tries to recruit somebody off the street. She’s in a hurry to get back to “the city” and doesn’t care if that person is actually Jewish. (According to halachah, Jewish law, only Jewish adults count toward a minyan.)

After two passersby brush her off, Ariel offers a food delivery man $50 and a positive review to come inside and pretend to be Jewish. He accepts. There is much comedic potential in this scenario. One imagines Larry David’s character on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” orchestrating such a stunt so he can make his tee time — and then having the whole thing blow up in his face. (Remember his carpool lane ploy?) But the filmmakers have located the comedy not just in Ray the delivery man’s ignorance about Jewish culture — he greets the prayer leader with “mazel tov” and holds the prayerbook upside-down — but also, to some extent, in the fact that he’s the only person of color in the synagogue.

The decision to cast a Black actor (Damien Lemon) in the role of the non-Jewish interloper plays into harmful assumptions about who does and does not belong in Jewish spaces. While no one in the synagogue questions Ray’s right to be there, the audience knows he can’t help make a minyan and therefore is out of place. If the only person of color in a Jewish film is not Jewish, that reinforces the stereotype that people of color aren’t Jewish.

J. The Jewish News of Northern California is a media sponsor of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Check out our full coverage here.

Would the situation have been just as ripe for laughs had Ariel recruited a white non-Jew to join the minyan? Would the casting feel appropriate if one of the congregants sitting in the pews was also Black? It’s hard to know for sure, but what is clear is that the filmmakers broached a fraught topic — how race functions in Jewish spaces in the U.S. — without having anything meaningful to say about it.

The casting is not the only problem here; Ray is a quintessential “Magical Negro,” as the stock character who exists primarily to provide assistance to white characters is known. (The term was popularized by director Spike Lee.)

After the service, Leah unburdens herself to him about her complicated relationship with her younger sister. He listens sympathetically and then gives her the sandwich he was attempting to deliver earlier in the night. Having helped to feed the sisters both spiritually and physically, he disappears into the night.

Some viewers will find nothing amiss with the character. They might justifiably point out that in contrast to the sisters, who bicker and shoot daggers at each other throughout the service, Ray comports himself admirably in a foreign environment. He exchanges his beanie for a kippah and stands with the sisters for Kaddish, even though Ariel tells him he doesn’t need to. He replies, “I know,” and the implication is that he, too, is in mourning. (I half expected him to reveal at this moment that he is, in fact, Jewish — joke’s on you! — but he doesn’t.)

These viewers might also argue that “Minyan Duty” is a film about obligations — to family, to community — and not about race. Plus, it’s only 14 minutes long. My response: It’s 2022, and it’s more than reasonable to expect Jewish filmmakers (and all artists) to demonstrate a baseline level of sensitivity around race in their work, even if the work isn’t explicitly about race.

So while I can’t exactly recommend “Minyan Duty,” I would encourage film lovers to check out the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s fun but sometimes overlooked shorts programs, which screen July 26-28 and Aug. 1. Visit sfjff.org for details.

“Minyan Duty” (14 minutes) screens at 3:15 p.m. Thursday, July 28 at the Albany Twin, 1115 Solano Ave., Albany. It is one of six films in “Jews in Shorts: Narrative Program II.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.