Torah takes a back seat to my love of A Serious Man

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My apologies to the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s Torah scribe. I was going to write about you in this column, and thanks for the candid interview. Next time, I promise. But I can’t get my brain to focus on any topic right now besides the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man.” I finally saw it for the first time three days ago, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

It’s the most Jewish film I’ve ever seen, but it doesn’t go out of its way to be Jewish. It just is. Like you and me. It’s a masterpiece about being Jewish in America, about growing up Jewish in America and about trying to figure out what it all means — “it” being Judaism and morality and especially life itself.

The film never provides any answers, and it isn’t easy to wrap your mind around — thus turning off many viewers. Others say it’s simply a dark comedy (very dark) about one thing after another (after another) going wrong for a well-meaning math professor.

But it’s so much more than that, especially from a Jewish perspective. Nearly every second of the story, nearly every subtlety of character and of dialogue (of which there are an abundance), is worth rolling over in your mind again and again. Ethan and Joel Coen do an amazing job of leaving many things in this film vague, subtle and open to interpretation — just like the Torah and Talmud.

Someone told me that they used to have college classes that analyzed “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Did the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton characters really have a deceased son? Or was he a demented concoction? What does it all mean? This is that kind of film.

For example, why does the main character suddenly seek out the guidance of rabbis — even holding an aged, wizard-resembling rabbi in oracle-like regard? Does he simply have nowhere else to turn? Or is it a vehicle to show us that anything besides math has no logic? That the rabbis’ “illuminating” parables actually illuminate nothing at all?

Truth is, the whole film is a parable, and you best be Jewish to appreciate it. The Coen brothers tell us as much by opening the film with a seemingly murky vignette, entirely in Yiddish and set in the Old Country. Resembling an I.B. Singer or Sholem Aleichem tale, the story is about a bearded man telling his wife of an old acquaintance he just saw; but that man is dead, the wife insists, so her husband must have seen a ghost.

Some say that this short, sepia-toned opening is unrelated to the rest of the film. Not at all. First, we are being shown that this simple tale about the dybbuk is a story that a Jewish viewer will appreciate and relate to much better than a non-Jew. And so it will be with “A Serious Man.”

It is also murky and open to debate: Did the old man really see a dybbuk? Is his wife trying to make him crazy? Is their ensuing visitor an apparition? Really, we have no way of knowing — just as we’ll have no concrete answers in “A Serious Man.”

Who, for example, is the serious man? Allegedly it’s a side character named Sy Ableman (get it: an able man). But isn’t the main character, whose wife is leaving him for Sy, just as serious, just as able?

One more thing about the opening scene. It lets us know that the film we’re about to see is a Jewish fable, a modern Jewish fable. Like a Singer or Sholem Aleichem story, it takes an everyday Jewish story of time (1967) and place (an unnamed Minnesota town) and stretches it into a parable. The poetic liberties not only further the story, but also provide the kind of twists in which lessons (and questions) are buried.

This film shot right into my all-time Top 10. It’s a great movie for a synagogue to show; I can only imagine the dialogue that would ensue. I’d suggest that families should view it together at Passover.

Pop in the DVD and watch the Gopnick family slurp their soup at the dinner table. Oh, Dad’s now living at a local motel? The kids don’t ask any questions. Mom says nothing. Just don’t talk about it and everything’s OK. Like so many families.

Andy Altman-Ohr lives in Oakland. Reach him at [email protected].

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.