NEW YORK — A famous quote attributed to James Joyce goes, “In the particular is contained the universal.” If you buy this, then “Minyan” is the most “universal” movie of the year.
“Minyan,” directed by Eric Steel and adapted from a short story written by David Bezmozgis, is an extraordinarily observed, patient, and insightful coming-of-age story set in the Russian-Jewish neighborhood of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, in the mid-1980s. Samuel H. Levine stars as a high school kid who immigrated to the United States long enough ago to lose his accent, but he can still remember the plane ride over.
The story begins with the death of David’s grandmother. His grandfather (Ron Rifkin) finds himself in need of a smaller apartment, and if he agrees to help a small congregation form a minyan, or prayer quorum, he can skip to the top of a list for subsidized housing. (“Always lists,” the grandfather mumbles, one of the many grace notes of specificity in the film.)
In the new building, David meets two older men (Herschel and Itzik) who, he puts together, are more than just roommates. At the same time, David is facing facts about his own sexuality and riding the subway from Brighton Beach to Manhattan — which may as well be another planet — to poke around gay bars.
Where the story goes I’d rather not spoil, but I’ll reiterate that the movie, which is opening October 22 at the IFC Center in New York before heading to streaming services a week later, is breathtaking in its sense of time and place. From the cheap vodka poured in fancy bottles to make an impression, to the sufganiyot (the traditional Jewish take on doughnuts), to the lighting fixtures in a makeshift lobby synagogue, it’s rare to watch a movie that feels so real. The performances are all terrific, and the “cinematic klezmer” from celebrated clarinetist/composer David Krakauer (with frequent collaborator, pianist Kathleen Tagg) is extraordinary. “Minyan” is one of the best movies — Jewish, gay, ‘80s New York, or otherwise — that’s come out this year.
This is the first narrative film from Eric Steel, but the work of a mature artist. Steel’s career in the entertainment industry began in the 1980s working for noted producers Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. He became a producer himself after time working in book editing, then transitioned to documentary films in the mid-aughts. My conversation with Steel below has been edited for clarity.
I first saw “Minyan” at a small critics screening in New York City, before the Berlin Film Festival, in late January or early February 2020. Then the whole world changed with COVID, and it may as well have been a lifetime ago. I watched again the other day, and as I was watching it was less, “Ah, yes, I remember this,” and more, “Oh, wow, I thought I dreamt this.” That’s the effect this movie has on me.
Oh, wow, I like that!
Something about the locations, the pacing, the way it cuts together — they don’t make ‘em like this anymore. I can’t imagine it was easy to find the financing for something like this.
It was a challenge, but at this point I know who I am as a storyteller. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid, but for many years I talked myself out of doing things “this way.” So I worked as an executive, I worked as a producer, I worked to let other people tell their stories. There finally came this moment where I knew I had to tell a story the way I wanted.
I was on the giving end of studio notes for years. I know all about, “You need to tighten this up in the first 30 minutes, and X needs to happen by 60 minutes,” and I got plenty of notes on this project where it was [snaps fingers to “keep it moving”] but I said I can only tell this story the way I know how. Luckily, I was privileged to do that.
It’s an unusual hybrid film. It’s an adaptation of David Bezmozgis’s short story, but also with your memories of growing up mixed in.
And Bezmozgis’s story has memoir elements; it’s definitely his life.
I haven’t read the story, but my understanding is that they are Latvian immigrants in Toronto, whereas here they are Russians in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and, more notably, he’s not gay.
If you read the short story [after watching the film] it might be like what you said at the beginning — like I dreamt some of this. There are details in there that I absolutely held on to for dear life, to mix in with details to tell my story. And that’s what David would say: “Oh, I know this story, but it’s not mine anymore, it’s yours.”
The details are really what makes it for me, particularly with the three older characters. How much of Ron Rifkin as the grandfather comes from your own memories?
I was very close to my mother’s father, even though he died when I was six years old. My whole relationship with Ron is almost as if that man just walked back into my life 50 years later. They are similar in stature, and Ron is so warm, but also slightly reserved. He didn’t have to do much to bring out the part of me that loved my grandfather.
It’s funny, the main character hates Brighton Beach and wants to get the hell out of there, but I’m watching and thinking, “Eh, kinda nice!” All the art direction, the interiors of the synagogue, the buildings, the Shabbos elevator, it just feels so right.
The elevator was not the same location as the building, that was some movie magic. But Brighton Beach in general still feels like a time capsule. You don’t have to change much to make it feel like the 1980s. When we were shooting in winter, the women are still wearing the furs they brought with them from Russia. They are not the furs an American woman would buy.
I remember my grandparents’ building, with dark, small apartments, and a lot of stairways. Maybe it was because I was little and small, but Eastern Europeans hang their pictures up so high on the wall. Almost like they are iconic, looking up at an altar. I remember how the hallways smelled: onions, strudel, and weird borscht. Not the purple borscht you think of in a Jewish deli, but green borscht, white borscht. The smell of burnt brisket. I wanted the walls in this movie to smell like that.
The specificity of the characters is so terrific, like the mother who was a dentist in the USSR and now works as a dental assistant but does undercover dentistry at night. Who could ever think of an undercover dentist?
A lot of this comes from David’s short stories. The moment where they all share laughing gas, I came up with, though.
There’s a great paradox with her because at first, she’s insistent that her son stays in Yeshiva (religious school). It seems like she’s eager for him to maintain his Jewish identity. But later she’s overjoyed that he’s dating, as she jokes, a shiksa.
I don’t think that she wants him in that school to maintain a Jewish identity so much as it is a place where he will stay safe. She’s remembering how the Jews got beat up in the Russian schools. This is more about a shelter for him, and him dating her is a faster way to get integrated.
This is exactly why the movie is great; it doesn’t spoonfeed you. You need to think about it. Another interpretation, I suppose, is that she suspects that he is gay, would prefer that he not be, so she’s gung-ho about promoting her, like, “Oh, she’s so beautiful.”
That could be part of it, too. I mean, I think most mothers are aware — certainly, my mother was aware that she had a gay son. And she was thrilled when I had girlfriends, like, “Oh, fantastic!” And my grandmother, even after I came out, she’d still say, “No, no, he’ll meet the right woman.” Because in the old country, being gay wasn’t even an option.
This is why the older, gay couple played by Mark Margolis and Christopher McCann is so touching. You never see this kind of thing. I was particularly taken with the funeral scene. It’s so reserved. I’m watching it and I’m a mess, but on screen, it’s all held in.
He gets one line. “He was my friend.” There’s so much more he wants to say. He glances over at the rabbi, but can’t say it.
This is my first narrative feature, so everything I did while watching the takes was just asking, “Do I believe this, or am I being sold something?” When you make a documentary, you can often anticipate the script they are going to read. A talking head will often sound like, “This is the point I was brought here to say to move the story along, so I will say it.” So with this, it was always pushing to get past the moment where anyone was “performing.”
It was tough to shoot because we were in an Orthodox synagogue, and that was the real rabbi. Obviously, he is fairly progressive because he knew what the story was, but just being in that space almost created a line of how far we could go.
Were there other movies you showed the cast or your cinematographer?
We watched “Ida” and looked at old photographs of Brighton Beach.
“Ida” opens with that first shot that looks like a photograph, and it’s the same here with “Minyan.” Did you know from day one that would be the opening?
It’s funny you ask. We shot that on the second day, and I had a very different image in my head. It actually is a minyan, and I wanted a tableau of all of them, like a play beginning. But as we were mapping it out, the room was too small, it was too confusing. So, almost out of anger, I just said, “Take the extras out.” But there was nowhere for them to go. So I said, “Just put them all behind me.”
And I realized this is part of the movie. You are being asked to understand what it means to belong. Either to a minyan, or a tribe, or a family. So with these people behind me, it became easy for the actor playing David [Samuel H. Levine] to determine where he was looking; he was literally looking at the other men making up the minyan.
It’s art reflecting life. The men in the minyan of your story just have to be there. Doesn’t matter who they are or what they believe, just simply be present to alter the room.
Yeah, they didn’t have to participate other than to say “uh-meyn” [amen]. And if you watch this with a good sound system you’ll actually hear them behind you.
Two authors get a lot of attention in this: James Baldwin and Isaac Babel. Is this the first connection between the two of them, you think?
I’m not enough of a scholar to know. I don’t know if Baldwin ever read Babel. But they were both writers who cared a lot about what was inside and outside of society’s lines. In his day, Babel was probably considered as provocative as Baldwin was, though maybe not as philosophical.
I read them both growing up, especially Baldwin. My family, going back to my grandparents, were very aware of the problems of race in America, so early on I read a lot of his work on that subject. When I was about the same age as David in this movie I read “Giovanni’s Room” and realized, “Oh my God, Baldwin is gay!” Because back then there were so few gay personalities I was exposed to. Paul Lynde was on “Hollywood Squares,” but people would say, “Oh, he’s just flamboyant.”
So to read it in a book, for me, changed so much. It was how I began to piece together so many possibilities. And you see this in the movie: David meets the bartender, he finds the Baldwin book he was reading. He goes to the neighbors, and they give him the Babel book. The grandfather says everything is in the Torah, just keep turning the pages and you’ll find it. People say the Jews are the People of the Book, right? Just as you can make your own minyan, in a way I feel like you can also make your own book.
Tell me a little bit about the music.
I knew I wanted clarinet music from the get-go. The woman who plays the grandfather’s girlfriend, Eleanor Raissa, is a fantastic Yiddish singer. She invited me to a concert at Carnegie Hall where David Krakauer and Kathleen Tagg were performing, and it hit me like, “Here you go, this is it.” If you just close your eyes, the music almost has an operatic structure, hinting, “Here comes the heartbreak, here comes the longing.” They were amazing in composing the score, in us all talking through it. It was almost as if they were actors.
I was thinking of referring to this movie as “Kvell Me By Your Name,” but then I remembered that the characters in “Call Me By Your Name” are Jewish, too. Timothée Chalamet’s character even has a line like, “We’re discreet Jews,” or something, right?
Well, these are not discreet Jews.
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