In an episode of the short-lived science-fiction series Firefly, viewers are introduced to a character named Amnon, clad in the yarmulke and ritual fringes of an observant Jew. Amnon is a benevolent minor character who works at an interplanetary post office; no mention is made of his religion or ethnicity, and he never appears in subsequent episodes. As Yair Rosenberg has uncovered, the actor who played him—Al Pugliese, who died this summer at the age of seventy-four—was at the time deeply engaged in studying Judaism, so as to better understand the roots of Christianity. The subject remained a lifelong passion for Pugliese.
Rosenberg also asked the episode’s co-writer and director, Tim Minear, why he chose to insert a Jewish character, and found something far more unusual:
“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 [him] 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 his 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 comments 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.