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A Different View of Movie Jews: A Serious Man

November 18, 2009

First things first: A Serious Man is a superb movie, a clever, cerebral, darkly comic fable that contains an entire Jewish world--a world that enfolds you like a good novel. So take a minute, order tickets online--don't worry, this review will wait--and prepare to be bowled over. Seriously. Go ahead.

Michael Stuhlbarg
Michael Stuhlbarg stars as physics professor Larry Gopnik in writer/directors Joel & Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man, a Focus Features release.

Finished? All right then. At first glance, A Serious Man isn't the best advertisement for Judaism. As an experiment, I took a non-Jewish date, a former-Catholic-turned-agnostic. How would she react to a Jewish film that wasn't Annie Hall or Schindler's List? Movie Jews tend to fall into three categories: Chosen, cursed, or assimilated. Would a less-than-flattering depiction of Jewish characters leave a bad taste in her mouth?

But I shouldn't have worried. (Reader, she loved it.) And yet, the first 30 minutes had me thinking, shanda. In A Serious Man, Jews waddle and plotz, steal and take bribes, curse and commit adultery. Their bodies are ungainly; their posture sucks; and one Jewish character has a large cyst that just won't drain. (It's mentioned so often, you expect to see it in the credits.)

Taken together, it's an absurd tableaux of Jewish life, although for some Jews, it will be painfully familiar. A Serious Man is set in a Midwest shtetl in 1967, a place seemingly gerrymandered by religion. Our hero is one Larry Gopnik, whose life is AOK when we meet him. A nebbishy physics professor with a passion for chalkboard illustrations, Larry is up for tenure. Yet everything keeping Larry centered--his family, his job--is about to crumble.

It turns out, Larry's wife is unhappy and wants a Jewish divorce, a get.  His daughter is siphoning cash from his wallet. His son is stealing that cash, making Larry an unwitting enabler to both his children. (The daughter wants a nose job; the son has a burgeoning weed habit.)

Larry's career, too, is imperiled. Someone is slandering him to the tenure committee, ruining his chances one poison pen letter at a time. What did Larry--a decent man, a calm, patient man--do to deserve this? Put slightly differently, why do bad things happen to good Jews?

While Larry ponders that riddle, we ponder his pondering. Is the film trying to say that the world is too complex, unfair, and illogical for us to understand? That Larry is a fool for trying to comprehend the incomprehensible?

"Accept the mystery," one character advises Larry. But he can't. Needing answers, Larry turns to a rabbi--or rather, three rabbis.

Rabbi #1 tells him to sit back and just enjoy God's wondrous creation. Rabbi #2 unspools a pointless fable--it's one of the film's highlights--about a Jewish dentist ("The Goy's Teeth"). The third rabbi, a wizened scholar straight out of central Jewish casting, ignores Larry; he is cocooned in his study, too busy contemplating … well, who knows exactly.

Larry drifts further. His wife is still leaving him, his brother is squatting on his sofa, and soon, the two men move into a local dive motel.

But the plot doesn't really matter. It's the brick-by-brick creation of a complete Jewish world, where God is either absent or having a hearty laugh at Larry's expense. It's the characters' tics and rhythms of speech. It's the echoes you hear of another Jewish fable: Larry is like that other beleaguered Jew, the Bible's Job, if you can picture Job a plaid, short-sleeved shirt. As in the story of Job, there are heady themes bubbling around--fate, morality, faith--but no answers to the questions being posed. The pretense of examination is part of the game the film is playing.

Sometimes, the Coen brothers--the brain trust behind the movies Fargo and Barton Fink--just seem to be toying with you, much as they're toying with Larry. In fact, the movie hits the same note of comic absurdity--again and again and again--until you question whether the film itself is a joke. That holds true until a scene in the film's final third, when the aged rabbi (rabbi #3) finally speaks. Just when all traces of warmth, tenderness or hopefulness seem to have been suppressed or snuffed out, the Coens surprise you again.

The rabbi clears his throat and enunciates slowly, as if parsing his own words. You're expecting some hoary Jewish wisdom, maybe from Ecclesiastes, maybe from the Talmud.

"When the truth is found to be lies," he says, quoting the rock band Jefferson Airplane, "and all of the joy within you dies." A pause. "Zen vat!?"

It's yet another joke--but also a message, and relevant to the film's themes. The vital question, the filmmakers seem to be suggesting, is vat to do when life falls apart, not vhy it's fallen apart.

Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Yiddish for "gentile," or someone who is not Jewish. Some use this term with affection, however it's still largely understood to have a derogatory connotation.
Jesse Tisch

Jesse Tisch is a freelance writer and the assistant editor of Contemplate: the International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought.

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