Like most yidden I know, I am a big fan of the Coen Brothers. And like most fans of the Coen Brothers, I was very
disappointed with True Grit excited with A Serious Man. But unlike most people who enjoyed that film, I keep coming back to various discrepancies between the fantasy that they concocted and the fantasy that undergirds its invention. For to riff on Jewish mysticism is one thing, but to get that mysticism wrong is another thing entirely. And when it’s as wrong as the Coen Brothers got it – well, I have to feel that their mistakes might have been deliberate.
Not everybody that I have spoken with enjoyed A Serious Man at all. A film so Jewish that it’s practically balding, you truly need to be familiar with the cultural iconography in which it is steeped in order to fully appreciate it. Like Blood Simple, Fargo, No Country For Old Men, and maybe even Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski, this movie seems intent on staying just beyond the confines of any traditional genre. That alone makes it interesting and worthy of analysis, although the question always remains as to how far beneath the surface one is supposed to pick. Most people – most normal people – watch films a couple of times, enjoy them, speak about them, maybe even have an argument about them, and then walk away and live for another sixty years or so without them. I just can’t leave this one alone. Call me psychotic, but I have become convinced that there is something funny going on here, just below the surface…
Now I’m not about to tell you that I think the Coen Brothers are attempting to communicate with me personally, but I do suspect that they are trying to say something to Jews in their audience who, while not being Rabbi Marshak, “know… a thing or two about the Kabbalah.” And while this might be going a bit too far for the average cinema-goer, I’ve compiled a few examples of this phenomenon at play.
Witness the opening scene. While it’s still up on YouTube, you can observe it here. (Embedding was disabled by request: my apologies.)
While the Coen Brothers famously (and stupidly) declared this scene to have nothing to do with the rest of the film, it certainly sets the mood. An eeriness, familiar to viewers of their many movies, producing a lingering doubt as to which of the characters was wise and which was deceived. What is more, the opening quote (“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you”) applies to the entire movie as a whole, and might even be seen as underscoring every one of the major characters’ personalities, each of whom suffers in some way for not being able to follow its advice. Is the quote really from something that Rashi wrote? It does not sound in any way familiar, and I would not put it past them to have made it up completely¹.
The opening scene is in Yiddish, and there are two lines in it that perplex me. They can be heard between 1:33 and 1:38 on the video’s timer, and I have included the screenshots below:
The problem is, if you listen to the video, this is not what he’s actually saying. While the subtitles state that Traitle Groshkover studied Zohar with the Krakow rebbe, the audio clearly says that what he studied was Talmud. And while the subtitles assert that he can recite any passage from the Mishna, it is of the Gemara that he is said to have photographic memory. Why the switch? Is it presumed that their audience may recognise the words “Zohar” and “Mishna”, but not “Talmud” and “Gemara”? In my experience, “Talmud” is the only word in that list that almost everybody I speak to, Jew and gentile alike, recognises as a text. Or are they trying to say two things at the same time? Trying to present something to a non-Jewish audience, while at the same time winking at Jews in the crowd and intimating that there is something else going on here?
Okay, okay, you say. Don’t put down to sly ingenuity what can easily be explained by a case of poor editing. Consider then the following scene. This is the best scene in the entire film, but as embedding here was also disabled by request, you are unfortunately going to have to view this one on YouTube too, for as long as it’s there.
The famous “Goy’s Teeth” scene, this segment of the film involves a story told by Rabbi Nachtner about a hapless dentist named Leon Sussman. Having discovered a Hebrew message inscribed into the teeth of one of his non-Jewish patients, Dr Sussman loses his ability to think about anything else. The message is הושיעני: “Help me. Save me,” as Rabbi Nachtner translates it. You can see it clearly in the following image:
So what does Dr Sussman do? Can Dr Sussman sleep? Dr Sussman cannot sleep. Can Dr Sussman eat? Dr Sussman doesn’t eat. Does Dr Sussman think of actually asking his patient? God forbid. Instead, he consults a mystical treatise and proceeds to write down the numerical value of each of the letters. The treatise that he removes from the shelf, as can clearly be seen in the following image, is the third volume of a five volume Zohar al-haTorah:
Now, the Zohar al-haTorah is traditionally printed in three volumes and not five, but that this is a five-volume set can be seen from the fact that the volume immediately after the one that he is taking has a ד on the bottom:
I can deal with this. As can be seen subsequently, the volumes that he owns feature commentary in the margin. This is sufficient to make of three volumes five, but he arranges them from left to right, and while that’s hardly the equivalent of hearing my neighbour’s dog telling me to kill people, I cannot help but feel that this is yet another clue.
What about the gematria that he employs? Aside from the fact that he is not going to learn gematria from any of the volumes of the Zohar at all, the numbers that he produces are absolute nonsense:
3744548? That would be the “gematria” (and I use the term loosely, given that he is only writing out the values of the individual letters and not adding them) of גזדדהדח – not הושיעני.
So, I am perplexed. I approached this film in good faith. I have tried to be a serious man, but I don’t understand what the Coen Brothers are trying to say to me. Are they trying to indicate that nothing within this film is real? That it is a metaphor for something else? The Book of Job, as some wry pundits have it, or a contemporary midrash about life in American exile?
The walking stereotypes that are the gun-toting neighbour, the Korean student, the Korean student’s father and the hapless patient of Dr Leon Sussman all nicely counterbalance the walking stereotypes that are every Jew within the movie. Whether it is the quick grimace on the face of the man doing hagbah, the bizarre paraphernalia in the study of Rabbi Marshak, or the sappy obsequiousness of the synagogue’s junior rabbi, the Coen Brothers have struck chords that will resonate with anybody familiar with Judaism in the 20th century. And yet the presence of such glaring incongruities must make us pause. Is the Orthodox Rabbi Marshak somehow affiliated with the Reform temple and its rabbis? Was the decision to bar-mitzvah their son in a non-Orthodox shul made by Prof. Larry Gopnik, whose wife demanded a gett before moving in with the bare-headed Sy Abelman? Does the Mentaculus work??
I must retire from this one defeated. The Coen Brothers work in mysterious ways. How do they communicate with us, indeed? That is a good question.
¹ Addendum: It turns out that the quote is from Rashi’s gloss on Deuteronomy 18:13: “תמים תהיה עם יהוה אלהיך”. With thanks to David Bassin for having pointed this out to me.