“Excuse me, are you Jewish?”
Every once in a while, during some random holiday or another, I walk through my neighborhood and am approached by a pair of Hasidic men who stop me and ask that very question; Excuse me, are you Jewish? Not a very complicated question (I’m not Jewish), but still complicated by my family and my personal experience*. When I politely say “I’m sorry, no I’m not,” I think my own disappointment is far outweighed by their indifference and the desire to move on immediately and find someone who is Jewish. I always feel like I’m letting them down, that I am excluded, that maybe I'll never know why they’re asking; what secrets might they hold in their hands?
I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, itself a perfect example of how American middle-class reform Judaism has been built on the dynamic of this precise interaction; the cultural and class aspirations of many American Jews rely on a carefully articulated walk on the tightrope between preserving the tropes of the Jewish religious and cultural tradition and assimilating relatively seamlessly into the fabric of American secular culture as a whole.
There is an entire universe of art and storytelling built around this intersection, from Philip Roth to Jonathan Safran Foer to the grand master himself, Woody Allen; the anxious tension that comes with being a “member of the tribe,” the push and pull between tradition and modernity has been the comic heart of Judaism’s representation in popular culture. Traditionally, in the case of Roth and Allen in particular, the tragicomic framework of the joke is built around the moern Jewish hero being misunderstood by the goyum set against his desire to shake off the baggage of his religious identity’s tropes (maternal guilt/marital responsibility/parental anxiety/professional success/sexual insecurity) and be free to simplify things, to be both things at once— Jewish and American— without the doubt, guilt and self-consciousness. Ultimately, these works demonstrate the realization that the phrase “American Jew” means that you’re wholly neither and something else entirely, something that is essentially both.
This dilemma is the heart and soul of Joel and Ethan Coen’s amazing new film A Serious Man, and as I write this, I wonder to myself if the question “are you Jewish?” will have a profound impact on the way in which this film is received and understood. I do know one thing; it is impossible for me to write about this film without discussing these issues and ideas, so I hope you'll allow this atheist goy the benefit of the doubt and forgive whatever shortcomings may be contained herein.
A Serious Man is, essentially, a movie that perfectly articulates the specific dilemma of middle-class American Jews by rendering a knowing, note-perfect portrait of ways in which Jewish identity itself haunts the experience (and the physical world) of Larry Gopnik (a brilliant Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a Minnesota university whose marriage, sibling relationship, career and paternal responsibility all come into crisis in the summer of 1967.
The film opens with a prologue, set in an unnamed eastern European shtetl when a dybbuk (or is he?) appears at the door of a small home and sets a curse into motion, one that seems to bind Larry all those decades later as he attempts to hold the fragile threads of his suburban life together. The Gopniks live in what was once considered the ideal American community (a clichéd subdivision), but it is clear that these tidy homes, with their mid-century designs and well-manicured lawns, are an ill-fit for the community they propose to hold. Tensions abound; Larry’s wife has begun an unconsummated love affair with a touchy-feely alpha male and “they” want a divorce, his son’s Bar Mitzvah beckons, his racist goy of a neighbor doesn’t respect their shared property line, his mathematical savant of a brother is up to no good, and as Larry’s resources dwindle, he faces the prospect that he may not be granted tenure at work.
Instead of acting in the grand American fashion of “me first”, Larry instead follows the path of his experience and faith; he constantly tries to do what he feels is the good thing to do, to face down his troubles by submitting to them first and seeking the counsel of a series of rabbis, asking God “why?”. A Serious Man is essentially The Book of Job set against the liberal mores of the 1960’s; an existential shout into the void of life’s complications that is literally answered by God himself when, in the film’s final moments, that Old Testament fury comes calling, delivering the promise of greater suffering to come.
A Serious Man
A little bit of good news and a small moral compromise unleash hell for Larry and his community, and in the film’s final frames, the Coen’s comic touch, illuminated by the tradition of rabbi jokes, the anxiety of the first Torah reading (and, hilariously, lifting) and the futility of spiritual advice, gives way to a knockout blow of an ending, proving that Larry’s emotional understanding of the rules of his world are irrelevant in the face of an angry God. Which is, you know, the soul of the Torah itself and the underlying tenant of a faith that has endured centuries of suffering to temper its abundance of joy.
The film is also the spiritual cousin to Barton Fink, a film with its own hellish vision, but whereas Barton Fink’s hubris and misunderstanding of the “life of the mind” brought about his fiery downfall in the claustrophobic Hotel Earle, Larry Gopnik’s spiritual misunderstanding, his decision to finally allow his impeccable ethics (and therefore his identity) to be compromised ends up unravelling the entire fabric of meaning in his life. Despite his desperate struggle to be a serious, and thereby good, man, Larry transgresses, he crosses over from his ethical foundation and into the dirty, messy world of secular ambition. In his frustration with the (hilarious) ambiguities of his culture and faith, he essentially chooses the American way, and God is not pleased.
Despite the gravity of the stakes, A Serious Man is absolutely hilarious, hitting upon the texture of Jewish life like no other film before it. Every little note is a standout, from the slurping of chicken soup to a great visual pun on the iPod (kids will always be kids) from the amoral, foul-mouthed, drug dealing teenagers to the parade of absurdly stereotypical names of never-seen lawyers and doctors who are, of course, well known to everyone in the local community; the film’s situational, cultural and period details perfectly underscore Larry’s problem and showcase the tragicomic heart of the tribe.
The Coen Brothers have delivered what will surely become a classic, a film for all audiences that underscores its deep, philosophical questions about faith and fury with a knowing smile. Brilliant.