For his first Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival as the Minnesota JCC Director of Arts, Culture & Enrichment, Ben Cohen had an idea that was so Minnesotan, it could only take place here, and should only take place in 2022.
To wrap up the TCJFF, the JCC and MSP Film Society will be screening A Serious Man, which was released 13 years ago, and following the film the J will celebrate the anniversary with a bar mitzvah party featuring DJ Mike 2600.
“Normally you don’t think of a 13th anniversary as a milestone for a movie, but the film centers around a story of a bar mitzvah boy and who else than the JCC could host a Bar Mitzvah party for a film,” Cohen said. “So it’s really a dream for me to pull this off.”
Oscar-award-winning filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen grew up in St. Louis Park, and their film was shot in and around Minneapolis.
“Our hope is that we will bring together sort of three unique audiences that don’t always cross over,” Cohen said. “The Jewish community that certainly embraced the filming of this movie at the time; the film community in terms of providing a reunion for cast and crew who worked on a film; and lastly, independent film lovers.”
Cohen said many locals were in the film as extras, including Beth El Synagogue Cantor Emeritus Neil Newman. Newman played the role of the cantor in the movie and was the Hebrew and ritual consultant on the set.
“It was my understanding that they wanted to model their own experience,” Newman said. The Coen brothers grew up at Adath Jeshurun, which had in the 1960s an “old-style, traditional cantor,” and were looking for someone whose voice and style were similar.
Newman said he was asked to do several things for the film, including playing the cantor on the bima in the bar mitzvah scene that ends the movie, which was filmed at B’nei Emet, the synagogue that would be absorbed by Adath and was sold to become the Minneapolis Yeshiva.
“I had to make sure he was well-trained and could read his portion, and that he was going to read it correctly,” Newman said of actor Aaron Wolff, who plays the role of Danny in the film. “They hired an actor to be the Talmud Torah instructor but didn’t know Hebrew. Nor the rabbi, so I worked with them to get that stuff in order. They were pretty responsive.”
Working on the film came towards the end of Newman’s distinguished career on the bima. But it also came right before he and his wife were leading a Beth El congregational trip to Israel, which meant he had a limited amount of time he could be on set.
“We were leaving the after the second day of shooting, so it was a little pressured,” Newman said. “Fortunately we got it done in two days.”
Newman said the process was great, but it gave him a look behind the curtain at how movies are made.
“I couldn’t believe how long it took to film one scene,” he said. “It was a two-day project from 7 a.m. to dinner. It was a very comprehensive experience but I really appreciated it.”
Newman was one of a host of locals who worked on the film, either on-screen as an extra or behind the scenes.
“[The Coen Brothers] tapped into so much local production talent,” said Cohen, who came to the JCC after working in filmmaking. “It’s not just what you see on the screen, but the whole film was really a locally made film.”
Cohen didn’t pursue a role working on the film, but he watched the film with the intense interest of someone who grew up Jewish in St. Louis Park.
“I imagine this is a similar experience for a lot of people that watch it who grew up here,” he said. “When the character Danny is studying for his bar mitzvah. He puts on a tape and presses play, and you hear the cantor’s voice come out of the tape player and it’s Cantor Newman. That was the tape I used to study for my own Bar Mitzvah in 1997. I watch this film and I can kind of smell and hear the experience of someone who grew up Jewish in St. Louis Park, no matter what era they grew up in.”
Tickets are available on the Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival website.