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A Serious Man

A Serious Man is Joel and Ethan Coen’s quirky memoir of growing up Jewish in a Minneapolis suburb in the 1960s.  It is the story of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish physics professor, a passive, Barton Fink type of guy, whose wife wants to leave him, who barely communicates with his children, who is not sure whether he will receive tenure, whose brother, the permanent house guest, is disintegrating mentally, and who is being harassed by a disgruntled student.

We get to know his Jewish world, a world that, for whatever reason, still centers around the synagogue and looks to rabbis for guidance and for solutions to one’s problems.  Jewish women and girls in that world are rather unattractive and whiny, except, of course, for the promiscuous neighbor, and Jewish men are not that much better.  Jewish profes­sionals charge exorbitant fees for advice and even for friendship, and want to sweep spiritual and moral questions under the rug.  The rabbis are either totally aloof, distracted in their listening and in their counseling, or so practical-minded as to dismiss the quest for, and even the possibility of, spiritual answers.

Everyone in the professor’s immediately family—his wife, brother, children—is incapable of answering a direct question honestly.  The wife/mother has been cheating on her husband for several months, and the brother/uncle is engaging in illegal and lewd activities.  The truth comes out only when the family members need attorneys who seem bent on bankrupting the family.  The son has been buying marijuana from a vicious Hebrew school classmate, but he gets away with it.  The suggestion is that it helps him through his bar mitzvah ceremony, or at least heightens his awareness of the funny faces and rather superficial and off-putting expectations that characterize synagogue life in particular and Jewish life in general.

Hebrew School here is, by the way, all verb declensions and no discussion of ethics.  The film is particularly effective at showing how teenage obsession with four-letter words results in the drowning out of sacred words, not only in Hebrew School days and while practicing one’s bar mitzvah Torah reading, but in society as a whole.

The Jews in this film are not nice or “serious” people.  The most responsive and seemingly sensitive Jewish fellow is trying to steal Gopnik’s wife and is falsely accusing Gopnik of moral turpitude in anonymous letters to the university tenure board.  Yet despite, or maybe because of, their own faults, this film’s Jews are unable to relate to Gentiles as people.  Gentiles are little more than “the goy” next door or “the goy” who is the paying customer (or patient).  The “goy” next door is always playing catch with his son and keeps the boy out of school for hunting trips.  Larry has nightmares about him shooting at Jews.  Gopnik is incapable of recognizing when his neighbor tries to reach out to him by mowing part of his lawn or attempting to protect him from an unpleasant intruder.  Given his sense of superiority to the Gentiles around him, one wonders whether he is capable of envying the closeness between “goy” father and son.

One recognizes enough truths about American Jewish life—Hebrew School, self-indulgence, concern with financial and social status—to realize that some of this rings true.  But how true are these depictions of the rank-and-file Jewish community of the Sixties?

Is A Serious Man intended a critique of Jewish life? It is nostalgic.  Even the uniform suburban homes here look rather neat and inviting.  The film is in keeping with the current fascination with the Sixties in productions like television’s Mad Men.  It certainly shares the preference in that genre for a 1960s in which the parent generation lapsed enough in morality to lower the standard for their even more self-indulgent children.  Indeed, Gopnik’s son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), regards his father as little more than the repair man for the TV antenna, especially when reception is bad for Danny’s favorite show, “F Troop.”

A Serious Man has three elements that lead me to believe that it is more paean than critique, and that its nostalgia is less for Jewish life and community in the Sixties than for the genre introduced by Woody Allen.  These elements are:

  1. A lead character who is a homage incarnate to the Woody Allen nebbish.  Actor Stuhlbarg almost makes his character likable even as the rest of the talented cast is all too good at making just about everyone in this Jewish community unlikable and maybe even insufferable.
  2. A prologue featuring some ancestral scene from the shtetl, the Jewish community of yesteryear.  The opening scene solemnizes Woody Allen’s use of old-world Jews for easy laughs.  It adds Yiddish dialogue and subtitles in order to identify the Yiddish language with earthly and innocuous off-color remarks and with quaint superstition.  This may well be the way that many who grew up in the 60s were raised to view Yiddish.  The tragedy is that the classic recordings by Yiddish singer Sidor Belarsky, which give comfort to the lead character and actually give voice to his blues, are not transliterated or explained.  Only the narishkeit (foolishness) merits transliteration as if to say:  What can you expect from the Jewish community of the 1960s when their forebears in Europe were so crazy?
  3. Visits to rabbis reminiscent of Woody Allen’s rewriting of Hasidic tales.  These visits are even highlighted with captions, as in silent movies or anthologies of ancient wisdom:  “First Rabbi,” “Second Rabbi,” “Marshak” (the third rabbi). 
    The depictions of the rabbis are of interest.  The first rabbi, the inexperienced, self-conscious assistant, greets the professor’s pained questions with a brief lecture which puts undue importance on the parking lot as a focus for gaining the perspective to see all one’s woes as “expression of God’s will.”

The senior rabbi has a pat but interesting story about a dentist in the congregation who found, after taking impressions of “a goy’s teeth,” that there were letters behind some teeth spelling out the Hebrew word, Hoshieni, which the Coen brothers translate as “Help me.”  The dentist searches every denture mold he ever made for Jew and Gentile alike, and finds no such message anywhere.  He cannot sleep, thinking of his obligation to understand the message, and is surprised that a “goy” was chosen for such revelation.  He takes the gematria of the letters, tallying up their numerical significance, and comes up with a telephone number which belongs to a grocery store at which he receives no revelations.  The senior rabbi puts the dentist’s mind at ease by telling him that Hashem (God) does not owe us answers and that searching for answers is like a toothache that will go away, allowing one to return to normal life on the golf course.  The rabbi is quick to point out that what happens to a “goy” is not significant, anyway.

The professor never gets to visit the rabbi emeritus, who is too busy “thinking” to see him.  Only the bar mitzvah boys receive an audience with the Great Marshak, who is a bit like the Wizard of Oz.  Apparently, this rabbi, who is revered because of his old world look, is a lot like Woody Allen’s Zelig.  He “connects” with the bar mitzvah boys by parroting their favorites pop lyrics, thus making Judaism a reflection of whatever they are into.  Young actor Wolff communicates well Danny’s sense of affirmation by Marshak, but we all know in our hearts that this will not change his life, and will probably make him more self-indulgent and insensitive as the years roll on.

If this film is an ode to Woody Allen as sacred commentary on American Jewish life, then it comes to Allen by way of Fiddler on the Roof, perhaps the quintessential expression of Jewish nostalgia of the 1960s, replete with ambivalence toward old-world ways and Jewish traditions, not to mention members of the Jewish community from rabbis to matchmakers.  The bar mitzvah scene in A Serious Man gushes with wish fulfillments that would have Jewish rites and rituals magically reconcile families and make colleagues and neighbors more sympathetic to one another, even as the scene mocks Torah reading with “druggie humor.”

As for religion, I get the impression that the Brothers Coen prefer the senior rabbi (“Second Rabbi”), though they are ambivalent about him.  He is smooth.  But he does say that while it does not pay to ask the questions, “Helping others couldn’t hurt.”  He’s nothing if not practical.  At a funeral which has significance to the plot, he declares that olam ha-ba, the “World to Come,” is not Heaven or what the Gentiles consider the afterlife (no use of the word, “goy,” in public), but it is being in the “bosom of Abraham”—borrowed from an African American spiritual.

Do the Cohen Brothers suggest that the rabbi gets his theology from the civil rights movement?  Or are they making the point that even he can’t help speculating about the big questions?  Or are they saying that he is right despite his being the perfect one to lead such a self-indulgent community because in the end (as the plot goes), tornadoes and illness make all such questions seem small, anyway, and helping others always sounds good and may be the best form of self-indulgence, anyway?

Some things about this film make me wonder whether the Coen Brothers did their research.  That word on the affable Gentile’s teeth (and this Gentile may be the most affable soul in the film), Hoshieni, means more than just “Help me.”  (The Hebrew word, ezra, means “help.”) It actually means, “Save me,” “Give me salvation.”  Are the Coen Brothers telling us that the rabbi rejects any notion of salvation, whether Jewish, Christian or other?  Or did they simply choose a far less nuanced translation out of ignorance, indifference, or convenience?

Also, why didn’t they seek out a responsive, helpful, decent Jew?  If they wanted to wax Kabbalistic, why dabble in gematria alone and not engage in a pursuit of one of the thirty-six righteous Jews who, according to a legend that began in the Talmud, sustain the world?  Was there no figure in the Jewish community of their youth who could provide ethical guidance beyond the common instinct of this movie’s Jewish father and Jewish son that if one uses cash for one’s own needs or for the family’s needs then it does not matter how one acquires said cash?

It is telling that the Brothers Coen could not find in their past one larger-than-life Jew, like their character Walter in The Big Lebowski, a shell-shocked but faithful convert to Judaism who defended Sabbath observance, or one Jewish man or woman who, like Marge, the pregnant detective in Fargo, pursues evil in a thoughtful and persistent way, mindful of danger but never daunted by it.  How could the Coen Brothers have created such characters without some early inspiration?

The name of one personality in their childhood makes its way into this film, albeit in a somewhat resentful way.  We are told that Professor Gopnik cannot visit “Second Rabbi” on the first try because the rabbi has been called to visit the ailing mother of a prominent synagogue member, Ruth Brin.  As it happens, Jewish newspapers across the country just announced the death of Ruth Brin, who was indeed a prominent member of a Minneapolis synagogue and was a fine poet who responded to biblical and other spiritual themes in Judaism.  Why did that name stick in our filmmakers’ minds?  As a commentary on Judaism and on what Jewish life can be, Brin’s writings are more worthwhile than this movie.

—Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel, published in The National Jewish Post and Opinion, November 4, 2009

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