Between the Temples – Sundance 2024

A still from Between The Temples by Nathan Silver, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. | Photo by Sean Price Williams.

A cantor is facing a crisis as he trains his former grade school music teacher for an adult Bat Mitzvah in Between the Temples.

It’s always amazing to hear about the genesis behind a project. In this case, real life events would inspire this moving and funny film. It’s entertaining and I love how it’s not just Jewish stereotypes coming across the screen. These are real people and for my Jewish LGBTQ friends, there’s also some LGBTQ representation here, too. Anyway, one cast member in particular is not Jewish in real life and her character converted in the film. For the most part, this cast is very heavy with Jewish representation. This is how it should be when it comes to films that have Jewish roles, especially this many roles. It’s why one of Gabby’s (Madeline Weinstein) lines in the film will resonate with so many Jewish actresses. I’ll discuss it shortly.

Before I go further, Rabbi Mikey Hess Weber and Jesse Miller, who teaches b’nai mitzvah students, are script consultants. Their consulting is one of the reasons why the Judaism in the film feels respectful. It doesn’t come off as a stereotype. There’s a scene where a restaurant serves food with both meat and dairy. While it does play for humor, it also shows how the character keeps kosher in a world where people do not know what kosher is. If I had to guess, it’s probably unlikely that the meat is kosher. There are other moments, including someone wanting to take a photo during Shabbos dinner. You can sense the discomfort at the table.

Cantor Ben Gottlieb (Jason Schwartzman) keeps trying to sing “Yedid Nefesh” at the start of Temple Sinai’s Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday night. For my non-Jewish readers, “Yedid Nefesh” is a piyyut that Jews usually sing at least twice on Shabbat. The first time is following Minchah and prior to Kabbalat Shabbat. The second time is during the third meal, Seudah Shelishit. Anyway, the cantor loses his voice, which is a serious problem because a cantor/chazzan is the person leading the shul in prayer. But in spite of whatever laughs may come at Ben’s expense, the reason for losing his voice is rather serious. His wife’s accidental death leads him to move in with his mother, Meira (Caroline Aaron), and stepmother, Judith (Dolly de Leon). Moving on does not come easy for Ben.

While Ben is unable to sing, fate throws someone from his childhood in his direction, Carla O’Connor, née Kessler (Carol Kane). It turns out that the music teacher is now retired and wants to have a Bat Mitzvah. Her communist parents would not allow it and her late atheist husband laughed it off. One certainly understands why she wants to learn more about her Jewish heritage. Still, she wants Ben as her teacher. But does Ben want the same?

Ben and Carla reunite at a time when they are both vulnerable. Ben is grieving while Carla needs a routine. Nathan Silver and C. Mason Wells’s scriptment turns to the classics for inspiration, be it Bringing Up Baby or Harold and Maude. It turns out that a screwball comedy is what moves the plot forward in motion. It takes Carla to get Ben back on his feet again, to give him meaning and a purpose in life after grieving his wife’s death. Meanwhile, external forces are pressuring Ben to date Rabbi Bruce’s (Robert Smigel) mess of a daughter, Gabby. I’ll just let you watch and see how things play out.

Gabby is an actress in smaller plays, subject to the same systemic discrimination that Jewish actresses are especially facing across the board as she comments, “I kept auditioning for Jewish parts that went to shiksa actors.” Personally, I would have avoided that word in particular just because of the negative connotations and used non-Jewish instead. Given how production leaves room for improvised takes, I wonder if Weinstein is drawing on her own experiences as an actress or if this was an actual line in the script.

Gabby’s comment in the film rings true. Maybe not for this film in particular since it is mostly cast with Jewish actors in Jewish roles. Furthermore, the industry as a whole should be doing a better job with casting Jews in Jewish roles. If you’re not going to cast Jews in a Jewish role, filmmakers would be better off rewriting a role as non-Jewish. No reason to go around hiring a non-Jewish actor and then layer them under so much prosthesis when a Jewish actor or actress may be interested in the part. This isn’t quite the case with Judith, who has her Filipino background written into the film. The film team Q&A didn’t discuss Jewish representation in casting but I’m curious to hear what director Nathan Silver thinks about it.

With the amount of Hebrew spoken in this film, I could not imagine non-Jews trying to speak the language but Dolly de Leon pulls it off! It’s not an easy language to learn although some prayers are easier than most. The fact that she sings parts of “Eishet Chayil” is truly astonishing. I’d have to rewatch to see if she was using a bencher during the dinner but that’s the one Friday night tune that I require a bencher in order to sing before Shabbos dinner.

Christopher Nolan and other cinephiles will be happy to know that they shot on film. They use Kodak’s 200T stock and it looks so beautiful, even on my 43″ Roku 4K TV. Impressively, they shot this in 18 days. Throw in improvised takes and that can be a lot of film! Look at the Shabbos dinner, which they filmed with two camera for two days. Is it too much to ask for an extended edition on the home release just to see the dinner in full along with alternative takes? They spent seven months editing the film so I’m now curious to see if any future physical media release will include material that didn’t make it in because another line was better.

During the film team Q&A available on the virtual Sundance platform, Robert Smigel comments, maybe jokingly, that he’s not a fan of his “self-centered and objectionable” character. He notes that the rabbi does not evolve unlike other characters. Smigel, who is an observant Jew, found the film’s ending to be moving. He’s not wrong–this is a very Jewish film and so far, it’s one of my festival favorites. It might be my favorite Sundance film by the end of the weekend but we’ll have to wait and see.

Between the Temples is such a moving and funny film and unapologetically Jewish.

DIRECTOR: Nathan Silver
SCREENWRITERS: C. Mason Wells & Nathan Silver
CAST: Jason Schwartzman, Carol Kane, Caroline Aaron, Robert Smigel, Madeline Weinstein, Matthew Shear, and Dolly de Leon

Between the Temples holds its world premiere during the 2024 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Grade: 5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.