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A Serious Man
Rabbi Benjamin Blech

A Serious Man

If only the Coen brothers were serious.


Stay until the very end of all the credits at the conclusion of the Coen brothers new movie, A Serious Man, and you'll see something I'm certain has never been done before in the history of Hollywood cinema. Viewers are reassured that, "No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture."

Unfortunately the statement is a blatant lie.

The harmed victims run the gamut from rabbis to God -- all of whom are mercilessly mocked in what is purported to be a modern day retelling of the biblical book of Job.

"No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture." Unfortunately the statement is a blatant lie.

Let's state at the outset that the Coen brothers are master craftsman. And that's precisely what makes the failures of this film so troublesome. Because they've won Oscars before, this movie is assured keen interest and attention. But David Denby, cinema critic of the New Yorker magazine, got it exactly right when in his review he wrote, "As a piece of moviemaking craft, A Serious Man is fascinating; in every other way, it's intolerable."

The film's emphasis on Jewish themes is probably more pervasive than any other film in recent memory. Would you believe an opening quote, without any elaboration, from the greatest of all Jewish biblical commentators, Rashi, followed by an eight-minute segment of an Eastern European shtetl story including a dybbuk, acted entirely in Yiddish with English subtitles!

What follows, seemingly unconnected to the prologue, is the harrowing tale of the endless misfortunes besetting Larry Gopnick, the 1967 Minneapolis suburban Jewish stand-in for the ancient Job. They are the contemporary equivalents of biblical curses: the imminent breakup of his marriage -- his wife wants to leave him for an obnoxious, smarmy character reverentially admired by his rabbi as "a serious man;" a career-threatening attempt to bribe him to change one of his students grades that leaves him threatened with a lawsuit for defamation; a son about to be bar mitzvahed addicted to pot and rock 'n roll and a daughter desperate to get a nose job as the American-Jewish rite of passage, joined by the moocher brother who moves in with no intention of ever leaving or getting a job.

As the world around him progressively falls apart, Larry wants to know why. Even though in his role as a junior professor of physics he teaches his classes the Uncertainty Principle, he still wants to believe that life makes some sense. He has been a devoted family man, a quiet neighbor, a hard-working professor -- an almost too-good-to-be-true man who turns down the advances of his seductress neighbor. If he cannot turn directly to God for an answer he contents himself with seeking a response from His rabbinic messengers. Surely those who carry the modern mantle of spiritual leadership must have some wisdom to impart to him.

So Larry meets with three spokesmen for the Almighty. And this is where the Coen brothers, who themselves grew up in a suburban area outside Minneapolis "detesting Hebrew school and their boring rabbis" at long last exact their revenge.

Each one of these encounters is more than black humor; it's defamation. Of course there will be those who will immediately counter my criticism with the putdown, "What's the matter, can't you take a joke?" But I somehow can't think it's funny when a film that sets out to explore a contemporary response to the why of human tragedy only finds it possible to offer us three eccentric fools as representatives of the wisdom of Judaism as it confronts the problem of human suffering.

Every meeting between Larry and a rabbi is a comedy "shtick." The first modern "prophet" is the young assistant standing in for his senior rabbi. The inanities coming out of his mouth, asking Larry to consider the beauty and profundity of the outdoor parking lot as a theological statement, elicited loud guffaws of laughter from the audience where I watched it. "What an idiot!" one man actually yelled out in the theater.

So Larry pleaded and actually got to meet an older rabbi. Here surely, I hoped, some semblance of wisdom would substitute for immature ramblings. But this meeting turned out to be even more preposterous than the first. To a man groping for guidance, the rabbi only had a meaningless story -- a story we later learn was a pat response to almost every questioner -- about mystical encrypted Hebrew messages in the teeth of "a goy" that begged God for help. Please don't ask what the story means. Although it's played out with flashbacks and is fully developed, it's obviously only meant to serve as a replay of the theme that rabbis masquerade as scholars, using nonsensical stories as substitutes for valid insights.

Larry desperately seeks a meeting with the third rabbi, the man commonly spoken of with awe as "the best and the brightest." He pleads with the rabbi's secretary for just a few moments time with the person whose profession obligates him above all to be available to the needy, the troubled, the seekers of spiritual solace. After venturing into the office in which we see the rabbi alone, the secretary returns to tell Larry that the rabbi is too busy to see him. When Larry, who noticed there was nobody with the rabbi, asked what he was busy with, he's told, "He is busy thinking."

The film offers no theological explanations for God's silence in the face of evil, only cheap gimmicks at the expense of the Creator.

Take that, all you rabbis who dared to mess with the Coen brothers when they were kids! Nobody will ever take you seriously any more.

And wait till you see what they did to the Hebrew school teacher in the movie. "No Jews were harmed in the making of this movie" indeed -- merely lampooned, satirized and stereotyped to anti-Semitic perfection.

But the one who suffers even more as victim of Coen mockery than rabbis and teachers is none other than God himself. With no defender of His ways other than the incompetent fools posing as spiritual leaders, the Almighty's mismanagement of the world deserves only scorn and laughter. Since the Coen brothers can claim no familiarity with theological explanations for God's silence in the face of evil -- a subject of monumental concern and discussion by some of the greatest rabbinic minds of the centuries -- they are left only with cheap gimmicks and snide jokes at the expense of the Creator.

The only answer they indirectly imply as a Jewish response to human suffering is remarkably enough a Christian approach thoroughly rejected by Judaism. The prologue, with its shtetl fantasy ghost tale, leaves us with a shrieking Jewess convinced that her family will now be cursed for generations -- shades of original sin and children being punished for the sins of their parents. So suburban Milwaukee Jews must end up suffering hundreds of years later to validate a religious concept embraced by others and considered untenable by Jewish faith that is guided by the biblical pronouncement that "children shall not be put to death for the sins of their fathers nor fathers put to death for the sins of their children"!

Remarkably enough, the time period covered by the film is 1967. No Jew sensitive to momentous moments of history can fail to recall that it was this very year that allowed us to witness a miraculous divine response to the suffering of the Jewish people. In 1967, in all of six days, Israel achieved a military victory that stills strains credulity and was viewed by millions as a supreme example of the hand of God in history. Indeed, many mark it as the true beginning of the Ba'al Tshuvah movement, the emergence of a powerful resurgence of returnees to Judaism, to God, and to religious commitment.

Nowhere in A Serious Man is there any hint of these historic events taking place contemporaneously with personal questioning of God's presence in human affairs, events that might allow for far greater perspective and understanding. Nowhere, in fact, in the movie is there anything serious to be found about the most serious question of our lives. The problem that Job immortalized, the Coens have trivialized. And to turn Job into a joke leaves us wishing that a truly "serious man," rather than two disgruntled Jews, would have taken up the noble challenge of a modern-day biblical sequel.

October 11, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 73

(71) Gordon, December 15, 2013 12:32 PM

Its a critique of American Jews missing their destiny in Israel

We can date this film accurately. Parashat Behar is read Shavuot time. So this is around June 1967. The film starts with the wheels literally coming off the wagon for Jews in Poland. Then the Goldene Medina was not so great for many. They are blind to the fact that God is helping Jews in mortal peril in Israel at the time of the miraculous war in the background, and Israel is where they should be.
The clues are in the words of the parasha " God spoke... tell the Children of Israel, when you come to the Land". The 1st Hebrew lesson is about the phrase " I/we/you/they are going home (the Jewish Homeland)" but the students sleep through it or play, The next Hebrew lesson is about planting trees in Israel - a typically chalutz image. That is interrupted by a tornado, for which the Hebrew teacher holds the key to safety. But the students prefer to watch the oncoming storm than take shelter. American Jews can't see the oncoming threat and move to Israel, where God is looking after them.
We have other clues to the context like the boundary (legitimate border?) dispute with the gentile neighbour, the young Rabbi who suggests that the solution to Larry's problem is not in this room, but outside in the desolate parking lot. He, but not the older Rabbi, has a map of Israel on the wall and a JNF box.
People have missed this perspective because they don't understand the Hebrew. The bribery scene and the confrontation with the South Korean father both stem from cultural and communication differences. Larry asks if the accusatory notes are in proper English. The prologue is in Yiddish to make us uncomfortable that we are missing something and there are some (deliberate?) mistranslations in the sub-titles. That scene is about uncertainty; is he dead or alive (cf Schroedingers cat). Finally, maths is the language of physics.The student says that he understands the cats, but Larry says he can understand the language, but not the pictures.

(70) Reverend Richard de Meath, October 17, 2013 3:06 PM

Searching for understanding.

I await the DVD of this film, as something I need to experience. Using the comments by those who have actually seen the movie is a good starting point, for they will assist me in my interpretation of what the storyline has to tell.
The Coen brothers make excellent films, and whenever I see their name advertised, I instinctively know the fare offered will make me think - rather like the rabbi described in this article.
As a writer of books, I know the value of artistic creation, which includes that of artistic licence. For this reason, I do not seek offence and feel confident I will not find any.
Some responders to this article found their belief challenged, their faith insulted, or perhaps understood the underlying message the Coen brothers intended.

(69) Anonymous, July 31, 2012 9:07 AM

Gopnik and Golyadkin

I think that you really missed the Coen's point. I grew up in St.Louis Park, MN in the 1950's and 1960's. When I stepped out of the house on the right I could see Mike Zoss Drug and Pharmacy and on the left the Talmud Torah School. The story takes place in the 1970's even though they use music from the 1960's. The marijuana came into the schools in the 1970's. I think that the Coen's use irony to very good effect in all of their films but, especially in this one and the Big Libowski. That film is not about L.A. but, St. Louis Park. There was a large bowling alley there. The Coen's satirize Goys as well as Jews. I knew a man with a number tatooed on his forearm. I also knew many young reformed Jews who struggled to make sense of their religion and their culture. I was brought up Catholic in St. Louis Park and we struggled with the same issues as Coens. My family came from Germany and Austria-Hungery.The state of Burgenland,Austria had the largest concentration of Jews in all of Europe. They were all ethnically cleansed , mostly murdered during the The Third Reich. I was hararssed at the High School because I looked Jewish . No wonder, despite my grand parents anti-semetic views, we were part Jewish in our ancestory.If I were to make a film film about Catholics during this time, it would make these Rabbis look noble. Is it not your challange as a spiritual leader to help your members struggle with these issues and not to pretend as if you do not understand this film?

(68) Rob, March 3, 2012 3:47 AM

Its a great film. quite slow but a movie worth watching!

I'm 19, I'm an avid cinema lover and a big fan of the Coen brothers. It's a slow film and the opening scene with subtitles inclusion, wasn't entirely needed in my opinion, However, the Opening Rashi quote "receive with simplicity everything that happens to you" is really what ties the film together. If you miss that quote at the beginning of the movie then the conclusion of the film I imagine would feel quite empty. As for the writer of this article, I dont think the Coen brothers were trying "harm" the jews as you have put it no more than they are sticking it to religion in general. The Jewish references in this film could have been rewrote with any other religious culture. The main character does fail in finding any explanation in his religious beliefs, and if that is what "harms" Jews than I guess your right. P.S. to the writer, you must be jewish because only someone who belives the things that this film film made light of would find it "harmful" to his/her religion. "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you". We do not go to heaven, nor hell, we do not get 50 virgins, we rot in the ground and i imagine it would be quite similar to what it was like before you were born, SIMPLE. Religion complicates things further, and i think the Coen Brothers were getting at that more than anything in this film which you obviously missed because you were COMPLICATING things with your RELIGIOUS BELIEFS. That is all

Carl, December 8, 2015 10:58 PM

You got it

How about that, Rabbi? This young man gets it. Yes, this film is a hate letter and a slam of the door to the pseudo-spiritual charlatans that promoted the ghettoized passed-down culture the Coens experienced as children in Minnesota. But this film could easily have been about any religious subculture. The Coens were intent on ripping what they knew, what they experienced, which in their case happens to be Judaism and Jewish culture

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