The Cosmic Jewish Joke

A Serious Man | Focus Features
Focus Features

  When the truth is found
To be lies
And all the joy
Within you dies

-Jefferson Airplane, Somebody to Love


What if God doesn’t care about you? What if the pillars of your faith, the ones that have stood for more than two millennia, are built upon a foundation of sand? What if the world you believe in, the world that has held you up and sustained you, that has given you a loving family and steadfast friends, provided you with a noble profession, even bequeathed unto you a thin veneer of laissez-faire faith—what if it’s all a lie?

Such are the travails of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), the hero of the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. Larry acts in a correct and proper manner. He supports his family, believes in God, sends his son to Hebrew school, is on the cusp of making tenure, and goes to the doctor regularly. He even lets his good-for-nothing brother stay in his house until he can find a place of his own. He does things the right way; or at least, he does not do things the wrong way. He is (or he has tried to be) a serious man.

When everything he has built his life upon begins to crumble, when Larry becomes a modern-day Job, either ensnared in a cosmic prank or caught in the worst series of coin flips, he begins to doubt. His is not, however, the doubt of the quavering theist who suddenly sees the possibility of God’s not existing. It’s that of a man who cannot understand why God would wish him to suffer. He does not doubt God, just God’s motives. As he professes throughout the film, “I haven’t done anything.” So, then, why should God happen to direct all his wrath upon him?

Joel and Ethan Coen were raised in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a suburb outside of Minneapolis that still houses a large Jewish community. They were raised Jewish, and whether that upbringing has influenced their filmmaking or not, the brothers have been circumspect. The most notable Jewish characters in their films prior to A Serious Man had been two portrayed by John Turturro (the titular Barton Fink and Bernie Bernbaum in Miller’s Crossing), and Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski, a convert who professes not to “roll on Shabbos.” For none of these characters is their Jewishness important to their overall identity. With Bernbaum, the Coens come close to a Jewish stereotype, and while I think Miller’s Crossing is one of their best films, the Coens’ use of ethnicity in it is superficial at best; the great “Danny Boy” scene is still one in which the Irish gangster listens to the most clichéd of Irish ballads.

A Serious Man is the Coens’ first foray into the dreaded world of identity as something more than just rudimentary details, like how people dress or speak. A Serious Man is not just a more personal Coen Brothers film; it is the personal Coen Brothers film, an investigation into their own heritage and what it means to be Jewish in mid-century America.

It is also a rare film for them, in that it delves into deep philosophical questions. While they have dealt with such ideas as artistic integrity (Barton Fink and Inside Llewyn Davis) and the nature of evil (No Country for Old Men), most of their films deal in concrete, here-and-now issues, primary among them being money: how to get it, how to keep it, and the repercussions therefrom. Get rich quick schemes abound, from stock manipulation (The Hudsucker Proxy) to selling state secrets (Burn After Reading), and in most of these films the schemers pay a price by the end. Many Coen Brothers films can be distilled down to one word: comeuppance. A Serious Man does not shy away from this recurring theme, but it does overlay it with a rarity for the brothers: The Big Questions.A Serious Man | Focus FeaturesLarry Gopnick is not your typical Coen character: he is a good man, rather bland, who possesses little ambition. His is a world of God and family, of familiar landscapes and the comforts of a repetitive, middle class, suburban life. It is a world of benign rules created by a benevolent but distant God. Suddenly, though, Larry discovers that these rules no longer apply to him. As his world slowly dissolves around him, and he begins to see the universe operating neither under the strict moral law of God nor even by the scientific fairness of probability, Larry experiences a sense of cognitive dissonance. This cannot be happening, and yet it is. Why would a good and just God let this happen? How could all of this suffering befall one man? Why me and why not someone else? Why do bad things happen to good people: a question asked throughout the ages by good people who believe the world, while not necessarily owing them anything, at least should play fair.

Like Fargo, A Serious Man is set in the upper Midwest and explores the disruption of the commonplace by an outside influence. In Fargo it is crime and violence, the cruel machinations of the world outside Brainerd, Minnesota, which must be exorcised by the brave, no-nonsense, and very pregnant Marge Gunderson. In A Serious Man, the disruption is far more existential. It is almost exclusively focused on Larry. Rigidly normal, morally upright, God-believing (if not necessarily fearing) Larry has seemingly left his own world and entered one that does not operate by such petty things as “rules” and “moral laws.” He has entered the Coen Brothers’ own Twilight Zone, a world that exists in that uncanny valley between the recognizable comforts of home and hearth and the absurdity of a world gone mad.

*

For Jews, of course, the world has always been a little bit mad. Our history is built on a heavy skepticism of the motives of those not like us. Two thousand years of persecution will do that to a people. One reason we Jews have found ourselves in enclaves of our own is because of the notion that what is familiar is also safe, and conversely what is unknown must be dangerous. When I visit a roadside diner or a rural honkytonk, there is always that creeping dread that everyone else sees me for some grotesque character of The Jew. The Jew who controls the banks and Hollywood, The Jew of the George Soros Cabal, The Jew of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a tract crafted by Russian secret police and disseminated in America by Henry Ford himself. Ford may be gone and the Protocols firmly debunked, but we still live with the hateful disinformation campaigns of Russian Twitter bots and the musings of poor, pirated Pepe the Frog, everyone’s favorite anti-Semitic amphibian.

(Or maybe I am merely seeing others see me this way. Am I projecting upon my fellow citizens an anti-Semitism that doesn’t even exist? Am I Alvy Singer in Annie Hall imagining the worst in Grammy Hall’s envisioning of me?)

So we find safety in the familiar. But doing so lends itself to a false sense of security. The pre-World War II German Jew also saw himself in a familiar and safe position. Many did not heed the warnings cast by the creeping shadow of Nazism, no matter their knowledge of historical European anti-Semitism. Similarly, “It can’t happen here” is not a phrase new to American Jewry. We have been building our hopes for over a century that America is the one place we should be safe. Yet, even now, when we witness a crowd of tiki torch-wavers repeat the phrase “Jews will not replace us,” how many of us think: It’s just a small group, nothing to worry about. This is America. Here we are safe. It can’t happen here?

Another problem with strict reliance on the familiar is our inability to cope when the familiar itself betrays us. In his 1906 essay “On the Psychology of the Uncanny,” psychologist Ernst Jentsch wrote that:

It is an old experience that the traditional, the usual and the hereditary is dear and familiar to most people, and that they incorporate the new and the unusual with mistrust, unease and even hostility…

That which has long been familiar appears not only as welcome, but also…as straightforwardly self-evident….It is only when one deliberately removes such a problem from the usual way of looking at it…that a particular feeling of uncertainty quite often presents itself.

The Gopnik family of A Serious Man seems to be following traditions, but only because, in Jentsch’s words, “the traditional, the usual and the hereditary is dear and familiar.” Theirs is a strictly pro forma Judaism, one to maintain their blind comfort. They go to Temple, their son Danny is getting Bar Mitzvahed, they believe in God, and they are part of the community. Larry is also a scientist, and takes comfort in the numbers on either side of the equal sign actually being equal. The disquietude he confronts is not just facing a God who seems to be punishing him for no good reason, but a world that is probabilistically out to get him.A Serious Man | Focus FeaturesIf the uncanny is the familiar made foreign, Larry’s life seems to have been mistranslated into a gobbledygook as bizarre as his brother’s probability map of the universe, the Mentaculus. His wife strolls up to him and nonchalantly says they should divorce, even though he claims to have done nothing wrong. Someone is writing disparaging letters to the tenure committee, even tthough Larry has done nothing wrong. When his wife’s lover (who also, we learn, wrote those very same letters) dies, it is Larry who has to foot the bill for the funeral, and open his own house to mourners. What did he ever do to deserve that? To top this off, he is offered a bribe by a student to change his grade. The envelope of cash hangs over Larry’s head throughout the film as the Coens’ answer to Chekhov’s gun.

The familiar is that which we consider the Truth. It is the Truth of Family. It is the Truth of Work. It is the Truth of God. When these pillars crack and crumble, as Jefferson Airplane reminds us throughout the film, the Truth is found to be Lies and all the joy within us dies. That is where Jentsch’s uncanny existential dread takes over.

*

A Serious Man has often been compared to the Book of Job. Both Job and Larry are successful. They believe in God. They are happy. In Job, God boasts to Satan: “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a perfect and upright man who fears God and eschews evil?” Satan, always the trickster, basically says: “Sure, of course Job’s going to be pious, you made him rich and happy.” So, like the Duke Brothers in Trading Places, these two old curmudgeons make a bet, and poor Job suffers at the whimsy of the powerful.

The God of the Book of Job is not the righteously vengeful God of the Torah, nor the love thy neighbor God of the New Testament. This God is more Odin, a vainglorious, omniscient and supremely bored deity who is duped by the trickster Loki into harming those who love him the most.

The Book of Job is often viewed as one of the great biblical narratives because of its focus on faith and piousness in the face of overwhelming, and unwarranted, suffering. It is the answer to the question, why do bad things happen to good people? But the answer is empty. Why do we suffer? Because we are not privy to God’s inner workings. Because he is most wise. Because God wills it. Because God says so. Because, like a parent to a child.

Because.

The question of faith—will a pious man still believe in God throughout impossible suffering?—is answered in the affirmative by both Job and Larry. But perhaps this is the wrong question. Perhaps they should be asking, “Why should I even bother with a God who would let this happen to me?” In many ways A Serious Man, like the Book of Job, is not a question of faith, but an accusation of abuse of power. It’s also an accusation against those of us who blindly accept God’s will as unquestionable. Perhaps it is time for us to stop saying “because” in order to absolve God of his petty abuses.

In the Book of Job, Job seeks comfort with three of his friends. That comfort is cold, each claiming that Job must have committed some grave evil to earn God’s wrath. Similarly, Larry seeks advice from three rabbis. The first claims that Larry needs to change his perspective, that he has lost how to see God in this world. “Just look at the parking lot,” the junior Rabbi says, as proof of the universal glory of God manifest in the banal.

The second Rabbi tells a long, intriguing story about a dentist who finds a message written on a patient’s teeth. But he never gets to the end of the story, leaving Larry hanging as if his knowing the end would somehow ruin the moral of the tale. Larry wants the answer to the riddle of the story of the Goy’s Teeth, but the Rabbi merely says, “Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.” Another non-answer that sounds an awful like Because.A Serious Man | Focus FeaturesThe third Rabbi, Marshak, refuses to even see Larry. “He’s busy,” his secretary says. “He doesn’t look busy,” Larry complains, having just glimpsed the Rabbi sitting placidly at his desk in the other room. “He’s thinking,” the secretary finishes. Later, when Danny goes to see Marshak after his Bar Mitzvah, the old man misquotes the Jefferson Airplane song. “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope inside you dies,” the Rabbi says. And finally: “Then what?”

It is one of the more perplexing moments in the film, as if the entire narrative was building towards this one small exchange, one that is both absurd in its content—an Old World Rabbi (possibly one who survived the Holocaust) quoting a rock song, and then naming the members of the band—and profound in its potential meaning. Is he just messing with poor (and profoundly stoned) Danny? Or is he asking the most serious question of A Serious Man?

I have often wondered if old Rabbi Marshak has also lost his faith. Is that why he secludes himself in his office? Why he doesn’t even come out for Temple services? Jews like Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, who survived Hitler’s concentration camps, have long struggled with understanding how God could let something like that happen. Has the wise old Rabbi simply discovered that these things he always took axiomatically and without question for Truth are actually Lies? Has the joy (or hope) inside of him disappeared like Job’s family and riches?

If there is no God, or if God is not the all-wise, benevolent deity our faith has foisted upon us, what are we to do? What happens when a part of you that is as close to your soul as possible, a belief so ingrained in your being that it’s like a vital organ, is cut out and thrown to the gutter? What do we do in an absurd world with no real rules, and with a God who does not love us?

What then?

*

I don’t have an answer for you, and neither do the Coen Brothers. A Serious Man is primarily built on a series of unanswered questions. That, perhaps, is the element of Judaism that is missing from Larry’s life: doubt. Real doubt. Like billions of other believers of every different religious stripe, Larry’s faith is presupposed. But like many of the traditions we take for granted, easily-accepted faith does not have a sturdy foundation. It is the questions, the doubts, the wonderments that give it solidity and heft. I like to think that Rabbi Marshak has not lost his faith in the end, but is merely exploring the dark edges of it. “He’s thinking,” we are told. Maybe it is the Rabbi’s contemplation of that which he fears which helps him persevere.

As Larry’s life settles back to normal, with his wife returning to him, tenure granted and his son’s Bar Mitzvah behind him, he is, if not happy, at least back to middle class contentment. The only thing left unresolved is the bribe, the money. He opens his grading book, changes an F to a C, then, in a minor moment of pique, he makes it a C-. Then his doctor calls with bad news.

Is this Larry’s comeuppance for taking the money? Has the mercurial God become the vengeful one, punishing a decent man for a solitary indiscretion? Perhaps it’s not retribution for taking the bribe and changing the grade, but for then changing it again, from a C to a C-. It is a rare moment of hubris from a man who is incapacitated by power and the choices that accompany it. In the end we, like Larry, are left with far more questions than answers. Such is the nature of existential dread and a world whose rules are kept secret from us mere mortals. And while many Coen Brothers characters suffer their downfall in a comedic manner, here the only one laughing is God.