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A Serious Man

Larry Gopnik

2,515 words

I don’t have much use for light comedies, but I love dark ones. Thus I have been a fan of the Coen brothers ever since their first movie Blood Simple, which I regard as a masterpiece.

But not all of their movies succeed. The Coens are at their best when they are working with tight and ingenious plots. Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy, and No Country for Old Men (no comedy that) come immediately to mind. However, when they stray from tight plotting, their movies tend to fail. But one still has to grant that films like Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are at least interesting failures.

At first viewing, I thought A Serious Man was just another interesting failure. But my mind kept coming back to it, like a tongue seeking a sore tooth, until I broke down and watched it again. This time, I think I got it. And I like it. I am going to summarize pretty much the whole story, so if you have not watched it, bail out here.

A Serious Man consists of two apparently unrelated stories. The first is only a few minutes long. It is set in a 19th century Polish shtetl. The dialogue is entirely in Yiddish. One snowy night, Velvel (Allen Lewis Rickman) returns home from selling some geese and tells his wife Dora (Yelena Shmuelenson) that on his way home, he met the Reb Groshkover. Dora says that this is impossible, for Groshkover is dead. Velvel must have met a dybbuk, a demon that possessed the body of the dead rabbi. Just then, there is a knock at the door. Dora is horrified. Velvel has invited Reb Groshkover in.

Rabbi Groshkover

Dora does not waste time with pleasantries. She accuses Groshkover (Fyvush Finkel) of being a dybbuk. He denies it with good-natured irony, and they begin arguing the point back and forth. Dora ends the argument by plunging an ice pick into Groshkover’s chest. He just stares wide-eyed, then continues his ironic spiel. But there is no blood. Dora takes this as proof that he really is a dybbuk. Then blood appears around the wound. But there is no anger, no sign of pain. Groshkover just says he is not feeling well, gets up, and totters off into the snowy night kvetching to himself. Velvel cries out that they are ruined. Dora just praises God and slams the door. The end.

It is bizarre and enigmatic. But one thing is clear: Reb Groshkover really is a dybbuk. Or he is something far more terrifying: a man so alienated from reality and from his own life that he can be stabbed with an ice pick and apparently feel no pain, a man whose life is ebbing away yet shows no anger or fear, a man whose relationship with reality is so mediated by words that he never stops talking long enough to confront concrete existence (like the ice pick in his chest), a man whose relationship to values is so distanced by irony that he cannot even take his own death seriously. In short, he is not a serious man. And as a rabbi, he is the embodiment of Jewish tradition.

As I see it, A Serious Man is a movie written and directed by two secular Jews in which they explore their own awakening to the fundamental inadequacy of Judaism to deal with the serious questions of serious men. And the most serious question is the problem of evil: if God is good, all-powerful, and all-knowing, then why is there evil in the world? God wants good, he can foresee evil, he can quash evil. So why is there evil? Why do bad things happen to good people? The second part of A Serious Man is a retelling of the biblical book of Job, which raises the problem of evil but gives no serious answer to it.

This movie portrays Judaism as offering no meat, no marrow, no spiritual sustenance. It is just a dry bone that gets stuck in the throat, a bone that one can neither swallow nor spit out. (See also Kevin MacDonald’s review.)

The main story of A Serious Man takes place in 1967 somewhere in the upper Midwest, pretty much the time and place that Joel and Ethan Coen came of age. Their equivalent in the movie is Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff), a 14 year old about to have his Bar Mitzvah. Danny is introduced in Hebrew school, bored out of his mind, listening to The Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” on a radio with an earpiece.  (Or is it a cassette player? The fact that somebody else later in the film listens to the same song on it leads one to think it is a tape player. But did they even exist in 1967? Is this an anachronism?).

Danny is caught by his teacher, and his device is confiscated. Unfortunately, he has hidden $20 in it to pay a fellow classmate, the bully Flagel, for marijuana. So he is in for a tense bus ride home. At home, he will listen to a Hebrew cantor on LP to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah and suffer through yet another fuzzy broadcast of F Troop because dad needs to climb up on the roof and adjust the aerial.

These petty concerns are introduced to contrast to the bigger problems faced by Danny’s father Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is the Job character.

Where to begin?

Larry is a physics professor at a university. He is going up for tenure. He is informed by his department chair that somebody has been writing anonymous letters to the committee accusing him of moral turpitude. But not to worry, they won’t affect the decision. When a Korean student, Clive Park, fails his midterm, he comes to Larry demanding a passing grade. He leaves behind an envelope of cash. Later in the movie, Park’s father confronts Larry and threatens to sue him for taking bribes if he does not raise his son’s grade. And he threatens to sue him for defamation if Larry tries to return the bribe. (Did we even have Koreans in 1967?) Oh, and Dick Dutton from the Columbia Record Club keeps calling Larry’s office demanding payment for his selection of the month (Santana Abraxas—not released until 1970, by the way).

After just such a typical day at work, Larry returns home to his harpy wife Judith (Sari Lennick), who tells him that she is leaving him. She wants a divorce and a gett, a Jewish ritual divorce so she can marry Sy Abelman. (The incredulous question “Sy Abelman? Sy Abelman?” is a constant refrain in this movie. The unspoken thought is: “Why would any woman want Sy Abelman?”) Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed) is a hugger and a toucher, a lumbering, soft-spoken, “sensitive” guy who uses his New Age persona as a passive-aggressive wedge to invade people’s space. Oh, and we later find out that he is the creep writing letters to Larry’s tenure committee.

Sy and Judith think it is reasonable for Larry to move out of his house into a hotel before the divorce. It is, of course, out of the question that Judith move in with Sy. Judith later empties the couple’s bank account to hire an aggressive divorce attorney. The divorce seems to be called off, however, when Sy is killed in a car accident. Judith, however, thinks it is reasonable for Larry to pay for Sy’s funeral.

Then there is Larry’s brother Arthur (Richard Kind), a brilliant but troubled loser who is staying with the family. Arthur is in constant rows with Larry’s homely daughter Sara over the use of the bathroom. (Remember when houses had just one bathroom?) Sara needs the bathroom to wash her hair. Arthur needs the bathroom to drain his facial cyst. Arthur spends his time scribbling in a notebook. He is working on “the mentaculus,” a mathematical theory to tie together all of reality and help him make money at cards. When Larry sneaks a peek, the pages are filled with gibberish. Arthur is just insane. He is picked up by the police for gambling. Later, he is arrested for soliciting sodomy, adding to Larry’s mounting legal bills.

And finally there are the goys next door: buzz cut, blonde, blue-eyed goys, tossing baseballs around and shooting deer. The goys are encroaching on the Gopniks’ property, mowing over onto their lawn and building a boat shed (but of course) too close to the line. Larry has to shell out money to yet another lawyer to look into it. He is told that his money has been well-spent, that the lawyer stumbled across something that everybody else would have overlooked. But before he can tell Larry, he drops dead of a heart attack right in front of him. Later Larry has a nightmare that he and Arthur are being hunted by the goys like deer. Always innocent. Always persecuted. Such is the burden of being a Jew.

It is all too much. Larry needs help. A woman he knows tells him that he doesn’t have to go through it alone. He’s a Jew. Jews have this great well of tradition to draw upon. He should talk to the rabbi. The fact that she is a cripple in leg braces gives her suggestion some credibility. Surely she has suffered and found solace.

The first rabbi he sees, Scott Ginzler, is a freshly minted junior rabbi who goes by rabbi Scott. What he lacks in life experience he makes up for with enthusiastic blather. How should Larry deal with his problems? By trying to look at them in a new perspective. He should try to see the hand of God in his troubles. God is everywhere, says rabbi Scott, even in the parking lot. Of course Larry’s problem is not that he doesn’t see God’s hand. He wonders why God is giving him the finger.

Rabbi Scott

Rabbi Scott was no help, so Larry goes up the hierarchy to rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner), who fobs Larry off with God’s answer to Job: “I’m the boss around here. Who are you to complain? Where were you when I created the world? I have no obligations to you. No, you can’t know why.” Nothing that a serious man can take seriously.

Then rabbi Nachtner launches into a well-rehearsed spiel about another congregant, a dentist, who finds Hebrew letters on a goy’s teeth. The letters spell out “Help me.” He is thunderstruck. Is it a message from God? He begins looking in other mouths, but nothing. He translates the letters into numbers. It looks like a phone number. He calls it. It is a grocery store. No answer there. Eventually, he comes to the rabbi Nachtner to ask him what it means. Does it mean he should help people? The rabbi has no answer for the dentist either. But helping people? Can’t hurt. Eventually, the dentist just stops thinking about the issue. Rabbi Nachtner suggests that Larry will eventually stop thinking about his problems too.

The rabbi Nachtner working a suicide hotline? Probably not a good idea.

Larry, stunned by the unhelpfulness of it all, at least wants to know “What happened to the goy?”

“Who cares?” says the rabbi.

Rabbi Nachtner

Rabbi Nachtner’s message at Sy Abelman’s funeral is similarly unhelpful. He speaks of “olam ha ba”—the promised world to come, surely a topic of interest at a funeral. What is olam ha ba? It is not a place, like Canada, says the rabbi. It is not the land of milk and honey. It is not the heaven of the gentiles. It is the bosom of Abraham. Yes, well, but what does that mean? Does it mean the Jewish community? Well Sy has died and left that.

Nachtner’s handling of Danny Gopnik’s bar Mitzvah is similarly inept. He reels off his speech as if he has a cab waiting.

Larry does not get to see the senior rabbi, rabbi Marshak, who is reputed to be a very learned man. But he rabbi won’t see him. He is busy. He’s thinking.

Young Danny Gopnik does, however, get to see rabbi Marshak. The old tzadik always speaks a few words of wisdom to the Bar Mitzvah boy. Danny enters the rabbi’s vast office, passing from room to room past paintings, books, and artifacts that exhale an air of wisdom, arcane knowledge, and secret traditions. As the old bearded face comes into view, I was half-expecting to see the dybbuk Groshkover. But no.

Rabbi Marshak

Rabbi Marshak pulls out Danny’s confiscated music device and intones: “When the truth is found to be lies. And all the hope within you dies . . .” It is the Jefferson Airplane song Danny was listening to when the device was confiscated, although the rabbi has changed the word “joy” to “hope.” The words, and the fact that rabbi Marshak chooses to utter them, perfectly sums up the disillusionment with Judaism that is the theme of the whole movie.

The rabbi then reels off the names of four members of Jefferson Airplane: Marty Balin, Grace Slick, Paul Kanther, and Jorma Kaukonen. (Aside from Slick, who is descended from the Mayflower settlers, they are all Jews.)

Finally, to underscore the emptiness of it all, the rabbi returns Danny’s device and says “Be a good boy.” That’s it.

Jews cannot swallow their tradition or spit it out, so they enact it in “scare quotes,” with irony. But why does any serious man remain a Jew? Well, many Jews who are serious about intellectual or spiritual matters don’t.

And as for the ones who do, their motives are hinted at in A Serious Man. As the movie rolls on, it becomes clear that virtually everyone Larry Gopnik knows is a fellow Jew, even the people one does not initially think are Jews, for example, the first lawyer he sees, who has an office full of fishing trophies and who seems never to have heard of a gett; Larry’s department chair, who gives him tenure despite the fact he has never published (as Kevin MacDonald points out, Elena Kagan is not at all unusual); even the painted, pot-smoking, two-timing Jezebel next door.

When it comes to the spiritual problems of serious men, there are better religions than Judaism. (Not that much better, really, since some questions just can’t be answered.) But when it comes to delivering the goods of community, no religion can compare. And it is the Jewish disdain for the goys so evident in this movie, as well as the Jewish dual ethical code—one standard for the Jews, another standard for the rest of us—that has sustained their community down through the millennia. That’s why the Jews are still with us and the Hittites aren’t.

There are lessons here for serious men: white men serious about our own people’s survival.

Source: http://www.theoccidentalobserver.net/2011/02/a-serious-man-revisited/

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5 Comments

  1. Posted February 19, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Both Gilad Atzmon and E Michael Jones offer interesting perspectives on this film:

    Gilad Atzmon reviews the Coen Brothers ‘A Serious Man’

    E Michael Jones, editor of Culture Wars reviews ‘A Serious Man’

    This film doesn’t appear to have been made for a large audience. It was made for a primarily Jews, and it offers a scathing indictment of the Jewish religion, if not of the Jewish people. The rabbis are meant to be seen as ridiculous with each new rabbi introduced in the film appearing successively more ridiculous than the last.

    Also the skit in the beginning of the film may be seen as a parable. When the question is asked “if we kill a rabbi will we be cursed” the answer appears to be a resounding “yes”. Jews see themselves as victims. They are taught that they were a persecuted and hated people. The senseless killing of the rabbi in the opening skit is followed by what we see as the plight of a people who in some odd and disconnected ways appear to be accursed many generations later. The question that is being vaguely suggested is “are Jews cursed, for many generations, for having killed Christ” whom many Jews see as a dissident rabbi. The answer appears to be yes, but not because of antisemitism.

    Of course, there is nothing unique about the suffering of Gopnik or the other Jews in the film. But the film offers a harsh assessment of the Jewish religion. Judaism comes off as tribal, and ceremonial, but is vacuous and spiritually empty.

    Also the Coen brothers explore issues of ethno-racial identity in No Country for Old Men. Virtually all the good-guy Texans in the film “No Country for Old Men” are very white and very gentile. They are being displaced by an evil they cannot fully grasp or respond to effectively. The best they can do is choose to while away what little time they have left on earth and die peacefully. The villain is rather semitic and speaks with what at times seems like a vaguely Yiddish inflected accent. Although many of the other drug dealers are mestizos and Mexicans, the arch villain of the film does not appear or sound Hispanic at all. The directors notes on the DVD are somewhat useful in deciphering the Coen brothers intentions. They describe the drug trade as an evil malevolent force that would transform the region, but this force is also accompanied by a demographic transformation in which the old law enforcement officers epitomize the dying remnant of the white european gentiles in the southwest.

    As with ‘A Serious Man’ we see that none of the major conflicts put forth in ‘No Country for Old Men’ are resolved. That seems to be a recurring them in Coen Brothers films.

  2. Posted February 19, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    An excellent review of a good film. Though I cannot agree with the author that “Barton Fink” is any kind of cinematic failure. Please see my analysis at Occidental Observer, “Jewish Racialism and Jewish Capitalism, An Analysis of the Coen Brothers’ ‘Barton Fink’” (www.theoccidentalobserver.net/2010/11/jewish-racialism-and-jewish-capitalism-an-analysis-of-the-coen-brothers-barton-fink)

  3. Given No Quarter
    Posted February 20, 2011 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    Intresting, not the movie of course but the fact that it was written about in a long drawn out detailed manner. If I ever want to watch a movie with jews in it, I will pop in the Eternal Jew Directed by Fritz Holpper. We need not another movie to show us what the jew thinks, we have over 75 years of cinama for that. What our people need to do, is turn off their brasinwashing boxes and never go to the movies to watch these Bolshevik lies and filth.

    We can learn a thing or two from the jew and the jews greatest weapon is the power of a boycott. We still do have some numbers at this time and could really make a difference. Just imagine a a ballgame weather it be baseball,football or the like if no one game to a game. 99% of the attendence are still Whites, in fact their are more non whites on the field or working the snack bars then in the stands. The power of boycott on just a few months of ballsports would be a shock wave sent around the world..

    The movies although many non whites attend will see their figures drop as well. This is what needs to be down, not watch another jew production movie to try to learn if the jews are pyscopaths or not. We have 5,000 years of history to see that they are in reality nuts and hell bent on our destruction.

    Say no more to Bolshevik lies and propeganda. Turn off your Tv and never go to a movie!

    • Michael Bell
      Posted February 20, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      So many commentators on this site and others say “We need to do this!” and “We need to do that!” instead of agreeing with anything the author of the article in question has to say. Please, tell me, how do you intend to initiate this grand boycott of “Bolshevik cinema?” By commenting that we need to do it? That will really jam a wedge in the enemy’s plans! Even if the entire WN community boycotted Hollywood totally, that might cost the enemy all of a few thousand dollars out of the billions they make. Down with the System!

  4. Jeff
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Good review. I watched the movie yesterday and I brought away differing insights. As Mr. Lynch noted, the movie consists of two stories, two antipodes.

    The first story explicates that Judaism taken too-the-extreme, cultivates insanity and irrationality in a primitive setting, thus the rabbi is stabbed in the chest with an icepick by Dora.

    The second story explicates that Judaism taken casually, cultivates a sense of incredulity and unhappiness, thus its inability to provide answers and comfort for the travail and tragedies of the modern world.

    The first story explicates that Judaism is effective only in a primitive, closed environment (the Jewish town), whereas the followers are simple-minded and poorly educated.

    The second story explicates that Judaism is ineffective in a modern environment, (a diffused Jewish neighborhood), whereas the followers are well-educated and sophisticated.

    The first story delineates a closed-environment, wherein the rabbis exercise total control over the flock. The second story delineates an open-environment, wherein the rabbi’s influence is diffused, because of conflicting influence, i.e., drugs, television, radio, newspapers, etc.

    In the first story, God is behind every event, great or small. It happens because God wants it too happen and that is explanation enough for the flock. The interpreters of God’s actions devolves onto the rabbis, which ironically leads to Rabbi Groshkover’s death, because he and his ilk have convinced a simple-minded and poorly educated people that demons are behind some evil and tragic events. I say ‘some’ events, because in the Bible, God inflicts a lot of suffering onto his followers.

    In the second story, God is an enigma and requires a suspension of common sense and critical thinking skills. The flock is incapable of understanding why a just God, who supposedly loves them, allows bad-things to happen to people. Modern-day physics provides competition to God and as Larry tells the Korean student, ‘you have to be able to understand the math to be a physicist,’ the math makes sense, with the math one can define and understand the unseen forces in the universe. Larry admits to the Korean student that even he did not understand Schroeder’s cat, but he did understand the math and that was the important part. Schroeder’s cat is a simile for God, it requires a conceptual leap to grasp (I think the hypotheses of Schroeder’s cat is silly, no object’s existence is dependant upon our perceptions, if the cat is dead in the box, a few days will inform your nose that the cat is dead, you will not have to see it).

    In the first story, every event is a ‘certain’ expression of God’s will. In the second story, events are open to interpretation, which is the reason that Larry explicates the ‘Uncertainty Principle’ to his class, wherein Larry explains why humanity cannot be certain of one interpretation of events.

    In the first story, the rabbis are revered as wise. In the second story, the rabbis are depicted as bumbling, inept, and imbecilic, who are uncertain as to the veracity of their faith. That is why Rabbi Marshak makes the following query to Danny, “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies. What do you do then?”

    In the second story, the three rabbis are an allusion to the three wise men. The first rabbi informs Larry that he must make a leap-of-faith that God exists. The second rabbi informs Larry that he will find God in little things, that he must look for hidden messages from God, e.g., the writing on the inside of the Goy’s teeth. The third rabbi refuses to see Larry, because he himself has lost faith. Notice the age of the rabbis, the first is young and naive, he believes that signs of God are everywhere; the second rabbi is middle-aged and believes that God will reveal himself to one at unexpected times, in unexpected ways; the third ancient rabbi has lived long enough to realize that his faith is a bunch of lies.

    Some final observations. In the first story, Dora is certain that her neighbors will not take exception to her murdering Rabbi Groshkover, she feels secure in her Jewish village, her last words were, “Praise be to God and good riddance to evil.” In the second story, Larry feels insecure in his multi-cultural neighborhood, thus he sees a threat in his Goy neighbors. Larry is certain that his fellow Jewish academics will not understand that it was a stratagem of the Korean student to leave a moneyed envelope on his desk. In the first story, Dora does not compromise her beliefs (she is serious) and feels secure in her actions and as far-as-we know suffered no repercussions for the murder of Rabbi Groshkover. In the second story, Larry changes the Korean student’s grade to a C-, compromising his integrity and beliefs (he is not serious). Larry immediately receives a phone call implying that the x-ray results portend his doom and destruction. Should Larry attribute the impending bad news to the ‘Uncertainty Principle’ (random chance) or should he view it as punishment from God for committing a sin. Should Danny view his impending destruction by the incoming tornado to the ‘Uncertainty Principle’ (random chance) or should he view it as punishment by God, because of his sin of smoking pot on his bar mitzvah? The unstated question of the film is, ‘Has modernity made Judaism as a faith obsolete?’

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