In Sunday school, I often pondered synagogue paraphernalia: Who made the slender tallits, yellowed with age, or the nylon yarmulkes that stuck like cones on men’s heads?
For all the details of Jewish tradition designed to engage children — menoras, shofars, sukkas and seders — so much of modern American Judaism is incomprehensible to its youngest members. As a first-grader, I created this mental explanation of our religious denominations: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox = not strict, kinda strict, really strict.
But why, I wanted to know, did some Jews do this and other Jews do that? And what did the nylon yarmulkes (and the yahrzeit candles and the old siddurs) have to do with it all?
This was 1992. The strangeness I sensed then is an echo from 1960s Minnesota, or the strange version Joel and Ethan Coen created in their newest film, “A Serious Man.”
While the protagonist of the movie is a middle aged physics professor in 1967 Minneapolis named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), the outlook comes from a secondary character: his 13-year-old son Danny (Aaron Wolff), a bar mitzva boy growing up in the same time, place and community as the Coen Brothers did.
“A Serious Man” tells a familiar story. Larry is a man who, as he repeatedly notes, has “done nothing,” and yet suddenly suffering fills his life: a wife who wants a divorce, a mooching brother, a blackmailing student, uncertain tenure and ungrateful children.
What does it all mean? What does God want from him?
So Larry begins the search for meaning, bouncing up the chain of rabbis at his congregation and around his group of friends and colleagues. As meaningful but unexplainable coincidences pile up, though, their answers become unsatisfactory.
This is not the Coens’ first trip home. In Ethan Coen’s short story “The Old Country,” small childhood anxieties inspired more dread than the mistreatment of a classmate or the outbreak of the Six-Day War. “We saw no tragedy,” Coen wrote. “We ourselves were acquainted with a terror deeper even than that which Michael’s parents had visited upon him through beating or some other form of what we would now call abuse.”
Although Israel is referenced only through maps on the wall, “A Serious Man” takes place at a pivotal moment in Jewish history, when the Holocaust generation gives way to the Six-Day War generation. Danny Gopnik is trapped in a world where traditions are enforced out of fear of losing them, not handed down out of love of having them.
The Jews in the movie agree on the importance of a ritual divorce, but the word “get” yields only blank stares: no one knows what it means. Adults sit shiva because their parents sat shiva. Danny is welcomed into the tradition of manhood with the gift of a silver Kiddush cup. How will that Kiddush cup help him navigate the questions his father can’t answer? The assimilation in “A Serious Man” breeds emptiness because rituals pile up devoid of meaning, and can’t explain a universe we desperately want explained.
The movie begins with an extended parable, an old world shtetl couple debating whether the guest sitting in their humble home is a Torah scholar or a dybbuk. But the Coens don’t suggest a wholesale return to the shtetl, where the husband becomes burdened by his rationality, while the wife, who believes in spirits and tradition, remains unperplexed.
I have a friend, a religious Jew and a student of film, who described this as “a fork in the road.” Faced with the same strange religion offered to Danny, my friend turned to Torah and Chasidic teachings. He noted, wisely, that while several people advise Larry to look to the Torah, he never actually does. He goes to rabbis. “None of the rabbis teach Larry any Torah,” my friend said, “and it’s the Torah that’s got the answers, not rabbis!”
Seeing the Judaism of “A Serious Man,” it’s easy to understand why so many Jews of Danny’s generation found meaning in Chabad, which aims to make Judaism approachable, and why the Reform movement is most successful when it forces members to connect modern choices about how to eat, pray, marry and live to the ancient string of tradition.
The Coens sense this, but bury it.
The greatest source of wisdom in the movie is Rabbi Marshak, an elderly phlegmatic scholar who makes two brief appearances, but hands down perfect advice in both cases.
It would be unfair to spoil his words to Danny Gopnik, which are the movie’s punch line.
But this much can be offered without giving away the ending: Marshak’s genius is his ability to recognize where people are, not where they ought to be.
Larry can’t get a meeting with Marshak. “He’s busy,” Marshak’s secretary tells Larry.
“He doesn’t look busy,” Larry says.
“He’s thinking,” the secretary explains.
Larry misses the unspoken lesson: “You should be thinking, too.”
For the Coen Brothers, the search for meaning is hopeless, but it isn’t meaningless. It’s steeped in tradition, but not in Torah.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 412-687-1006.)