The science-fiction genre has long been inflected by Jewish influences, whether audiences realize it or not. Take this past month’s blockbuster Dune, adapted from the famed Frank Herbert novel. The film’s main character, Paul Atreides, is a messianic figure who goes by many mystical names, including one that undoubtedly confused many moviegoers: “Kwisatz Haderach.” The reason this term sounds like nonsense in English is that it’s not English. It’s Herbert’s rough transliteration of the traditional Jewish term kefitzat haderech (קפיצת הדרך), which means the “shortening of the way” or “leaping of the path.” The messiah, in other words, is the one who propels humanity forward to its ultimate destination.
Dune is just one example of Semitic sci-fi. In Star Trek, actor Leonard Nimoy adapted the hand gesture of the Jewish priestly blessing for Spock’s “Live long and prosper” greeting. One character in the seminal serial Babylon 5 even sat shiva on the show’s space station with her rabbi, played by Fiddler on the Roof’s Theodore Bikel. In Hulu’s comedy Future Man, an entire episode revolves around the characters infiltrating the James Cameron Compound, or JCC, a play on the acronym for a Jewish Community Center. As the hero winkingly remarks, “I just let two terrorists into the JCC.”
But for my money, with apologies to Mel Brooks, the most remarkable and utterly unexpected space Jew is this guy from the cult classic Firefly:
Created by Joss Whedon, Firefly lasted only one season, but it sold so many DVDs after it was canceled that the studio revived it for a full theatrical film. The yarmulke-clad figure is Amnon, the space mailman who runs a post office frequented by the show’s heroes. He appears in only one episode, and his Jewishness is so fascinating because it goes entirely unremarked. The show’s characters never discuss it, and it plays no role in the plot. It’s just there.
So how did this happen—and in one of the most celebrated single seasons of television ever created, no less? And what explains the incredible attention to detail? Observant viewers will note that Amnon is even wearing tzitzit, the ritual fringes typically but not exclusively donned by Orthodox Jewish men, an impressively deft touch. Why so much effort for something so seemingly incidental?
It took me eight years to find out.
The logical place to start was with the man who played Amnon himself, longtime character actor Al Pugliese, who’d had guest roles on everything from Law & Order to Glee. In 2013, I got in touch and asked him: Did the show deliberately attempt to cast a Jew for this role, or did he bring Jewishness to the part? The answer turned out to be even more incredible than I’d imagined.
At the time, Pugliese explained, he was represented by an agency run by two men, one Jewish and one Italian American. When the casting call went out for Firefly—“they were looking for basically a Hasidic Jew in the future who’s essentially the postmaster general”—the non-Jewish partner bet his Jewish counterpart $100 that Pugliese, an Italian who was raised Catholic, could nab the role.
“So I went to the audition,” Pugliese recalled, “and the funny story is this: When I got there, I was the only gentile at the audition.” You might think this put him at a disadvantage, but Pugliese was no ordinary gentile, and he came prepared. “I’d been studying the Hebraic roots of the Christian faith,” he explained. “The Bible is a Jewish book, and so I thought, if I’m going to have any real understanding of, say, Paul, who was a Pharisee writing to the Hebrews in the diaspora … how can I really get a handle on this unless I put it all back into its context, culturally, historically, and linguistically?”
And so Pugliese began to study the Torah. “I started to go and attach myself to rabbis to begin to learn more about the Jewish faith,” he said. “I think the first holiday I celebrated was Hanukkah. I went down to the Jewish area here in Los Angeles and got a menorah, bought a tallit, and started to study Hebrew prayers.” That’s when he got the Firefly audition.
The timing could not have been better. “I was in the middle of doing this study,” he said, “and I was so immersed in it that when I went into this audition, I had those materials to audition with—tzitzit and stuff like that.” Naturally, Pugliese got the role. Not only that, but he looked the part so much that he was constantly confused for an actual religious Jew. “When I was on the set, they were asking me, almost like a technical adviser, questions about ‘Well, would you do this? Would an Orthodox Jew do that?’ They’re coming to me as if I was some kind of expert, which I wasn’t, and I’m still not, obviously,” he chuckled. Even some of the Jews on set—actors and crew members—mistook him for a religious authority. “I’d say, ‘Wait a minute guys, I’m not a rabbi, I’m an actor.’”
I now understood why Amnon’s portrayal was so spot-on. But I still didn’t understand why the showrunners had decided to make him Jewish in the first place. And because I didn’t usually report on Hollywood, I had no idea how to go about finding out. Getting in touch with a character actor was one thing; getting ahold of television bigwigs was another matter. After a few half-hearted inquiries, I let the story drop.
Eight years later, this newsletter launched and I decided to pick it up again. But I still had no idea how to get the answers I wanted. I tried multiple official avenues to reach Tim Minear, the director and co-writer of the Firefly episode and current showrunner of 9-1-1 and 9-1-1: Lone Star. None of them panned out. So last week, I broke out my investigative tool kit normally used to excavate the misbehavior of political candidates ...
Basically, I dug up Minear’s personal cell number and cold-called him. Fortunately, instead of hanging up, he graciously took the time to field my questions.
So, why was the mailman Jewish? “We were trying to make the character more real,” he explained. “When you have someone who’s only there for a couple scenes, you want to find ways to make them seem more substantial.” By giving the galactic postal clerk a clear Jewish identity, the show gestured to a wider world beyond what was explicitly seen on screen. “We wanted it to feel like he had an existence outside of the frame.”
This answer sounds simple, but it’s actually quite unusual for mainstream television. Typically, whenever a show introduces a visibly Jewish character, it’s to make some point about their faith in service of the story. Too often, religious Jews are oddities whose strange practices serve as convenient plot devices. What makes Amnon remarkable, however, is that he is not remarkable. None of the characters in Firefly comment on his faith, because it is entirely unexceptional to them. In this universe, 500 years into the distant future, Jews are not a curiosity or a plot point or an endangered species, but simply a normal everyday presence.
And that might be the most daringly hopeful message of all.
I always assumed I’d end this story here.
But the thing about reporting a narrative over eight years is that time doesn’t stop for the story. While Googling further to tie up some loose ends, I found an obituary. Al Pugliese died on July 24, 2021. He was 74.
Jews are inherently suspicious of Christians who lay claim to our religion, and for good reason. We’ve had too much hard experience with others who try to usurp our faith—and then turn on us when we fail to accede to their claim. Many Jews for Jesus overtly or covertly attempt to convert Jews to their brand of Christianity, something that is particularly painful for a Jewish community that is already so small in numbers. So it is not surprising that one of the few things most Jews agree upon, according to Pew, is that a Jew cannot believe in Jesus.
But Pugliese did not proselytize to me, and he expressed no desire to missionize Jewish people. It was clear that he simply admired Jews, and felt that he had come to a better understanding of his own faith through theirs. He’d learned Hebrew, studied Jewish history, and ultimately, in his searching and striving, had even come to be confused for one of us during that unlikely stint on the Firefly set.
Pugliese’s obituary says that he died “due to complications from Covid-19.” Scrolling through his social-media feeds, I soon realized that he likely was not vaccinated. Between many citations from scripture, he’d shared conspiratorial content highly critical of vaccination and lockdowns, along with many other views foreign to my own, like his support for Donald Trump.
The angry and unforgiving world we live in today would tell me to push this person away and cast him aside as part of the problem. But I found myself just wishing that I could talk to him again, and thank him for helping my teenage Orthodox Jewish self discover my experience reflected in a place I never expected. And for reminding me, years later, that despite all the lines we draw, we can see ourselves in each other after all.
May his memory be a blessing.