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Film: Minyan

25 February 2022

Stephen Brown reviews a film set in a tradition

Samuel H. Levine as David in Minyan

Samuel H. Levine as David in Minyan

ERIC STEEL’s Minyan (Cert. 15) derives its title from the Jewish practice of requiring a quorum of ten adults present for religious occasions. The film, almost tableau-like, opens with one: funeral prayers for the grandmother of David (Samuel H. Levine). The setting is 1980s New York.

The widower, Josef (Ron Rifkin), moves with David to a smaller apartment in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, aka Little Odessa, owing to a high proportion of Russian Jewish immigrants there. They strive to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. Any feelings of marginalisation are compounded (for David, but not only him) by being gay.

Trying to figure out his true self is a painful business. Orthodox Judaism, for various reasons, has struggled to find scriptural endorsement of homosexuality. In the very process of contesting the older generation’s ancient beliefs and customs, David is, paradoxically, enchanted by and finds solace in them. He attends a yeshiva, the place where Jews gather to study the Torah and other rabbinical material. This only adds to David’s confusion until Josef tells him that he believes that the Torah is the word of God, but to bear in mind that it has been written by fallible men.

Added to this is David’s growing fondness for a gay couple next door, Holocaust survivors who demonstrate the power of divine love and the importance of community in affirming as well as shaping our spiritual identity. This is all grist to the mill for a young man yearning with the hope of love as he wends his way between the demands of duty and joy in a religion that is equally about both. He wants, too, to value the vibrancy of the new world in which he finds himself, besides heeding the wisdom of his elders, who have seen so much.

A strong sense of belonging informs this film. Pretty much all the Jews — political and religious refugees — originated somewhere else. David, an ardent student, is enthralled in class by the writings of James Baldwin, who himself was raised by a Baptist preacher. There is an extensive quotation from Baldwin’s book Go Tell It on the Mountain on the importance of our spiritual and cultural roots: “Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself; but know whence you came.”

This is a film about coming home, bringing the insights and mistakes back with you, but realising that we truly belong in a community where core beliefs need forever re-interpreting in the light of circumstance and experience. In other words, the continuing practice of midrash. As People of the Book, they have a duty to persist in relating present-day issues — the AIDS epidemic, for instance, is in full flood during the film — to the biblical text. It is not something that we should do alone. It requires minyan, because, when it comes to understanding who we are, we need one another. There is strength in numbers. Only connect.

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