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A Serious Man delivers a Serious Punch in your Jewish Face. (Don’t you think?)

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A Serious Man photo

In a scene from “A Serious Man,” Larry takes an urgent call in his lawyer's office. Photo Credit: Wilson Webb courtesy of Focus Features.

Have you seen the new Coen brother’s movie A Serious Man yet?  (If yes, PLEASE comment below and let me know what you think!)

For me, watching A Serious Man was like reading Portnoy’s Complaint for the first time.  I found it wickedly funny at times and just plain wicked at others.  Though I mostly liked it, I kept thinking how mortified I would be if anyone besides me were to learn of this story, given that it is so bleak and so unfavorable to the Jewish community and Judaism in general.  And at the risk of sounding hypersensitive here (which I admittedly am), I think the movie was a big old punch in our Jewish faces.

While the Coen brothers have in interviews tried to reassure the Jewish community that they are not “making fun of the Jews” and that their latest movie “is a very affectionate look at the Jewish community” and while they have noted (perhaps rightly) that “some Jews will take anything that isn’t flattering as an indication to think the whole community or ethnicity is flawed,” (myself included), it seems that the Coen brother’s view of what constitutes affection and mockery is different than my own.

Let me explain…

If there is one clear message to this movie, it is that if you are Jewish and you are experiencing tzuris, or troubles of any kind in your life, and if you hope to find help and answers within a Jewish context, then….FORGET ABOUT IT!   You will get no help whatsoever.  Nada, nill, zippo.  The Judaism of A Serious Man is devoid of serious answers to our questions and it suggests that looking for comfort in a Jewish context is absolutely futile.
Of course, the movie writers could have placed and plagued their protagonist, Larry Gopnik, within the context of any religious community and then set him up to fail, but as luck would have it, the Coen brothers, out of nostalgia and a claimed “affection” for the Jewish community of their hometown, placed the Job-like character in Midwestern 1967 Bagel-land.

And because the Coen brothers grew up Jewish, they happened to know the things to which we Jews might look toward to help us try to comprehend, avert, escape or cope with disasters and uncertainty.  They know our weaknesses and they seem to delight in poking holes in the infrastructure.

When Larry looks for help to his problems and seeks answers to his questions within a Jewish framework, everything that might have been Larry’s godsend only serves to further torment him.    In the movie, the Jewish family, our longtime stronghold of values and stability, is dysfunctional.  Jewish learning, our hope for answers, is boring as hell and irrelevant—as portrayed in Danny’s Hebrew class.  The Jewish heroes of the community, people like Sy Ableman, turn out to be shams whom the community nevertheless values for all the wrong reasons.  Larry’s Jewish friends who are accomplished professionals in their respective fields are not helpful.  The modern Jewish hope in science to solve our problems solves nothing, which is emphasized by the fact that Larry, who is a Physics professor, who teaches entire classrooms about scientific investigations of uncertainty, also provides no answers or relief.  Also in the Coen’s world, God is absent, unaware, unconcerned and most likely malicious.  The list of Jewish failures in this film is endless.  Even the notion of being a good person and that good will follow comes back to haunt Larry  as his kindness to his brother,  and his attempt to stand up to a student who is bribing him, only serve to further his troubles.  Well, at least Larry has his health, right?  Well…don’t ask…

As a rabbi, I think the biggest tragedy of the entire movie is the treatment the Coen brothers give to the rabbis.  Finding himself utterly alone, bewildered, and on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Larry recognizes that he needs help and he wants to know why all this is happening to him.  In his sheer desperation and at the urging of various members of the Jewish community, Larry decides to visit a rabbi to get some help.  The trailer pretty much sums up what happens next...


(I guess I should have expected that a movie which opens with a kind and elderly rabbi getting stabbed in the chest after being called a “dybuk” and is then left to die in the cold, wasn’t going to be “rabbi friendly.”)

Larry ends up going to three rabbis.  The first rabbi Larry sees is a young assistant rabbi who tells Larry to radically change his perspective of things.  While this rabbi is right in one sense, he comes off looking more like a deranged Seinfeld character than a rabbi and Larry is neither impressed nor helped.  The second rabbi, “the Senior Rabbi” tells Larry a tale of “The Goy’s Teeth” which is meant to say that there are some things for which we can never find the answer, and we can drive ourselves crazy trying to know that which is ultimately unknowable.  While he is also right in a sense, Larry leaves his office feeling even more bewildered and alone.  Finally the third rabbi, the one who is supposed to possess the greatest wisdom of all, refuses to see Larry because he is too busy “thinking.”

What a shame that these rabbis are portrayed as oblivious, aloof, and unconcerned!  This is such a different picture from the experience I have had with rabbis.  Most of us rabbis go into this work with a sincere desire to help people in their darkest times—to be an extended hand when the floor falls from under people’s feet-not to be a door slammed in people’s faces.  Personally I can’t even begin to offer thanks for the countless times when my life seemed to fall apart, and I was lifted up and rescued by rabbis and the Jewish community as a whole.  Of course I am not the only one who has experienced the healing difference rabbis, other Jewish professionals and members of the Jewish community can make troubled times.  And I can't even begin to say how much prayer, an ongoing connection with God, study and acts of loving kindness can help as well.  It is a shame that this reality of who we are (and can be) as a community is not even hinted at in A Serious Man.

Actually, when people in crisis come to a rabbi with the question “Why is this happening to me—why do the innocent suffer?” an intelligent rabbi knows not to try to answer the question at that time, not because Judaism doesn’t have thoughts on the matter, but because in the midst of a personal crisis to start an academic discussion on the topic is the last thing the person often needs.  What a person often needs in the midst of trauma, is what Larry asks for:  “help.”

Help is not to try to solve the mysteries of God and universe in a moment of crisis, but rather, more often than not, to simply “be present.”  As God instructs the prophet Ezekiel, sometimes the best comfort we can offer a person in great distress is to “sigh in silence.”

Darby Slick, of Jefferson’s Airplane was in fact on to something when he wrote the lyrics to “Don’t You Want Somebody to Love.”

“When the truth is found to be lies…And all the joy within you dies…Don't you want somebody to love?”

What most people need in the midst of a crisis is to know that they are loved and cared for.  People need to know that they are being heard and taken seriously.  They are looking for a compassion, comfort, consolation and hope.  I really don’t think most people in crisis are really looking for the unknowable answers to the universe.  Yes, an experienced counselor may be able to gently introduce a measure of guidance and might be able to teach important skills needed to cope and to manage the crisis, but a seasoned counselor knows at the same time, that sometimes all one needs to know is that someone else cares, and we are not alone and that our lives truly matter.  There is hope.  There is always hope.

While I acknowledge that not everyone has had the same good experiences in the Jewish community and from rabbis that I have; (and I, among others, am trying to change that) I wish that this unfortunately reality wasn’t broadcast to the world as it was in A Serious Man.  There is another side of the picture; one where people in crisis are offered kindness and support, rather than punches and slammed doors.

Again, PLEASE comment below, it would be great to get other opinions on the subject.  What did you like?  What did you dislike?  Would you recommend it to others?  Any interesting theories you want to share?

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