While the Coen Brothers’ comedy A Serious Man touches on such universal issues as death, fate, and smoking pot, its specifically Jewish characters have touched off fierce debate in the Jewish community about the drama and its relation to Jewish theology. Below we have mapped out various responses to give a road map of what A Serious Man has meant to certain Jewish pundits and writers.
The American Jewish World
It would be a stretch to call A Serious Man a family picture, but I entertain the perverse notion that in time it will attain the status in Jewish households that A Christmas Story has among non-Jews. The Coens depict a kind of shared experience and—unlikely as this may sound—provide a rare opportunity for Jewish kin to bond around the DVD player.
But it will have to wait until the children are college age, and home for Hanuka. In other words, when they’re old enough to recognize both the fatalistic chuckles in A Serious Man, and the whiff of impending disaster that hovers over Larry Gopnik, as distinctly Jewish.
This intellectual ferocity makes A Serious Man a very rare film. More than the tale of Gopnik and his petty woes, it tells another, far more universal story. In short, here it is: once upon a time, there was a people, the Jews, whose faithful sons and daughters lived in small shtetls and spoke Yiddish and realized that certain phenomena lay past the realms of their understanding and accepted that God moved about in the world in ways they couldn’t possibly know. When members of this nation immigrated to the New World, however, and shaved off their beards and shook off their mamaloshen, their mother tongue, they quickly became besotted with the promises of modernity. They were urged to replace the yearnings for Olam Ha-ba, the messianic and redemptive world to come, with lust for the trappings of Olam Ha-ze, the earthly realm in which we live. They exchanged the Talmud for the law book, the medical text, the tax code. Even when they pursued theological studies, they did so with deference to the principles of the Enlightenment that had emancipated them. And, like other sons and daughters of the Enlightenment, they embarked on the pursuit of the precise, devoting their lives to erecting strict systems of thought that sought to explain life in all of its infinitesimal detail. This transformation came with its rich rewards, but it also exacted a devastating price, chief among which was the loss of the ability—to paraphrase a quote by Rashi the Coens use as an epigraph—to receive with simplicity everything that happens.
The Coen brothers may have grown up as typical Midwestern Jews, but they always had something a bit darker on their minds than a fear of getting the stink eye from the goyim next door. A Serious Man belongs in its own genre category – a uniquely Jewish film noir.
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. …The vital question, the filmmakers seem to be suggesting, is vat to do when life falls apart, not vhy it's fallen apart.
The Coens may not have had the most enriching experience of Judaism—or religion—growing up as they did in a largely Jewish Minneapolis suburb in the 1960s, but the impact of their Jewish upbringing is evident. Secular, cultural Judaism is the lens through which they view the world, with all its bizarre and humorous idiosyncrasies, but alas, it is ultimately, a mostly empty enterprise. Are the Coens using the film to make a case for atheism? Scott wonders, “Are the Coens mocking God, playing God or taking his side in a rigged cosmic game?” Well, they’re certainly working out some serious Jewish angst - Hollywood style.
In a scene with the most wonderful depiction of a rabbi in cinematic history, Danny gets his confiscated transistor radio back, along with a lesson from the most wise and learned man known to Minnesotan Jews: ‘When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies, don’t you want somebody to love?’ …It could be as simple as that. But, in any case, it is a great fortune that humanity’s historical unwillingness to accept a state of not knowing, the itching curiosity which characterizes the human species, leads to such wonderful explorations into the mystery of being as the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man.
Rabbie Goldberg's Blog
I am in the midst of teaching a class on the subject of explaining why bad things happen to supposedly good people. In the class we have studied many Jewish responses to this question, including the book of Job. The Coen brothers base their movie in part on Job, and one familiar with the book will appreciate the resonances in the movie, such as a tornado (evoking the divine whirlwind of the book) and the suggestion that an seemingly innocent person must somehow be guilty if he is suffering.
Over the years, they have expressed their Jewish identification through a preponderance of unusual Jewish characters: the Clifford Odets-like playwright battling writer’s block in “Barton Fink,” for one, and Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), the crazed Vietnam veteran turned security expert who says he is “Shomer Shabbos” in “The Big Lebowski.”
But, eventually, the Coens said, they hoped to make a film that would directly hearken back to the Jewish community of their childhood, where they learned Hebrew at the Talmud Torah school in St. Louis Park in the late 1960s. It took the brothers nine more years to make that movie, “A Serious Man.”
Yiddish literature, which is often branded as comedy, is not for the faint of heart. The laughs are contextual and communal, as in you might not get it if you weren’t born on a shtetl. In a coup for the lost art of Yiddishkeite, the Coens manage to transplant ideas from sages of yore into a more modern setting. Fear not, there is plenty for the Jewish nood to enjoy. After all, this is an American story, and the Coens are master storytellers when it comes to the peoples that populate this strange land. Focusing on their inner Jew (finally, tottelehs!), the effect is only amplified.
The New York Times
It’s the most Jewish movie I’ve ever seen…You leave the theater with a host of questions, no easy answers and, frankly, arguing about what it all means.