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Wednesday, 29 September 2010

A Serious Man - With a Sense of Humour

Eliezer.Ben.Yehuda A little less than 88 years since he died, I'm beginning to wonder if Eliezer Ben Yehuda - regarded as the 'father' of modern Hebrew -  would recognise the language as it is now spake and writ.


Certainly, the artificially precise and simple Ivrit with which I recently  left Ulpan Aleph (Hebrew 1st grade) is barely enough to help me at the Post Office or on the bus where native-born Hebrew speakers often don't understand me even when I'm convinced I'm using the correct idioms.

The modern language has grown as exponentially asRabbi.Reuben.Resnick.03 Israel itself, so perhaps it was not surprising that Rabbi Reuven Resnick of Kehilat HaKerem Masorti Congregation in Karmiel, Israel  devoted the opening of his first day Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) sermon to this development, commenting  on the sophisticated word-play which has developed around people becoming more - or less - religiously devout.

But Rabbi Reuven some days earlier had chosen to kick-start new year activities in an off-beat way.

He prefixed the traditional  Selichot service  - with its prayers seeking for forgiveness - with a screening

of  A Serious Man - the latest film by the American brothers,  Joel and Ethan Coen which has been read as a modern take on the Biblical story of Job.

Although the story is set in 1967, it begins with an eccentric prologue set in the shtetl (Eastern European Pale of Settlement) and tells of a family being plagued by a dybbuk - a possessing spirit.

No-one with whom I've discussed this opening - including Rav Resnick - seems absolutely certain as to what this alludes.

I have decided that the 'devilish imp' in the prologue reappears in the main part of the film to bedevil the Job-like protagonist,  Larry Gopnik and then put him through a series of trials and tribulations  which remind viewers, not only of Job, but of Franz Kafka's "Josef K" and traditional mythology's 'Hercules' or  'Heracles'.

Indeed, researching for this piece, I came across a blog entitled  whose author, Jonathan writes:

"Rosh Hashana: Our Trials:

"I used to tell my university students:

First, the bad news: There will be a test. Here’s the good news: You’re already taking it.

"One of the best ways to prepare for a test is to look over past examinations: see what might be expected of us. What knowledge or behaviours or skills are looked for.

"Today, we look once again at one of the most notorious and well-known trials in human history: The Binding of Isaac.

“It happened after these things that God tested Abraham”  Genesis: .22:1

"The Mishna (Avot 5:3) teaches us that Abraham underwent ten trials, withstanding them all and demonstrating his worthiness in the eyes of God.

"I want to talk about a few of those trials.  But first, let’s compare the trials of our father Abraham with another set of famous tests:  the Labours of Heracles. This will give us some important perspective.   In Greek mythology, the hero takes on a dozen challenges ..."

Job, in contradistinction, is tried by 'Satan' which in Jewish tradition means "adversary' or "prosecutor" not the 'devil' of Christian tradition. And of course, Job does not "take on" the challenges but has them thrust upon him.

I saw a trial-like element in another passage of Rabbi Resnick's Rosh Hashana morning sermon. He told of a Yeshiva (Talmudic academy) student who made an inordinate effort to visit a prostitute.

After his struggle to arrive at his peak and as they are about to have sex, the student's tsitsit (a four-cornered, fringed garment worn by Orthodox  Jewish men under their regular clothing) hits him in his face, reminding him who he is and where he should be. He pulls away from the prostitute, explains why and the story ends with her converting to Judaism!

Andrei.YushinskyWell, this is not quite the shocking scene in the film version of Bernard Malamud's novel, The Fixer. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book was based on the infamous case of Menahem Mendel Beilis who was accused of the ritual murder of 13-year-old Ukrainian boy  Andrei Yushchinsky.

The real "Beilis" was acquitted and during its fictional retelling of the case,  the film includes a remarkably squalid if brilliantly analogous scene where his fictional counterpart, Yakov Bok (Alan Bates), is shown visiting a prostitute only to refuse sex when he realises she is menstruating.Alan.Bates This scene highlights the massive taboo in Judaism against anything involving blood - and the reasons for the laws of kashrut (diet)  and tahara hamishpacha  ('family purity'). This is what makes blood libels all the more loathsome for the Jewish community.

A Serious Man is a difficult movie to describe and debate - and most definitely from the school of "love it or hate it". I think the audience at our pre-New Year screening was divided 50-50!

So I'll conclude  with some passages from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency's account of reactions to it when it first opened in the United States almost 12 months ago:

A.O. Scott, The New York Times:

"Emancipation in 18th- and 19th-century Europe turned out to be a mixed blessing, and in America in the 20th century assimilation was both an aspiration and a worry. Pious shopkeepers looked on with pride and dismay as some of their most brilliant and ambitious children made a great show of casting off parental strictures and the fetters of custom and claiming their individualist American birthright.

"But then, as the generations progressed, they circled back. Nathan Zuckerman, Phillip Roth’s durable and defiant alter ego, returned to the clannish precincts of his  childhood in Newark, much as the Coen brothers have found their way back to St. Louis Park. The past they imagine is also, in its way, a counter-narrative, not only because of its exaggerations, but also because of what is omitted. Neither the Holocaust nor Israel is mentioned in A Serious Man, which also limits the American 1960s to marijuana and the Jefferson Airplane, as if Vietnam, the civil rights movement and the urban riots had never happened ..."


David Denby, The New Yorker: 

"At the conclusion of their new movie, A Serious Man,” the Coen brothers pull off a neat little joke. The picture is devoted to the travails of an unhappy Midwestern Jewish family—a real menagerie—in the 60s, and, in the end titles, the Coens have inserted, after the names of hardworking laboratories, the words “No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture.”

"Very good; first rate, in fact. But I’m not sure it’s true. I know of at least two Jews who were harmed—Ethan and Joel Coen. A Serious Man, like Burn After Reading, is in their bleak, black, belittling mode, and it’s hell to sit through.

"The movie is a deadpan farce with a schlemiel Job as a hero—Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physicist at a local university, whose life, in 1967, is falling apart. Gopnik’s wife (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for a sanctimonious bastard (Fred Melamed) who covers his aggressions against Larry with limp-pawed caresses and offers of “understanding.” Larry’s kids are thieving brats, and his hapless, sick, whining brother (Richard Kind) camps on the living-room couch and refuses to look for work.

"There’s more, much more, a series of mishaps, sordid betrayals, and weird coincidences, but Larry, a sweet guy and “a serious man”—upright, a good teacher, a father—won’t hit back. Occasionally, his eyebrows fluttering like street signs in a hurricane, he stands up for himself, but he won’t take a shot at anyone, or try to control anyone, verbally or any other way. He won’t even sleep with the dragon-eyed but sexy and highly available woman next door who sunbathes naked".

Liel Leibovitch, Tablet Magazine:

"As is the case with existential conundrums of this magnitude, the very act of pondering could get tricky, for character and audience alike. If drama, as Alfred Hitchcock neatly put it, is life with the dull bits left out, metaphysical musings— the kind involving God, the universe, and our reasons for being—can too often seem like the dull bits with the rest of life left out.

"What unfurls on the screen lacks a particularly defined plot, any semblance of character development, or any of the other tropes that constitute cinema as we know it. Which, of course, has sent some critics reeling: the film, they argued, was too bleak, the protagonists too stereotypical, the narrative too lacklustre. A viewer about to see A Serious Man would do well to ignore these voices and, like Gopnik, get ready for some serious grappling.

And grappling is what the film is about. The plot, or whatever little of it matters, is is concerned less with Gopnik’s questions and more with those he entrusts with answering it. The hapless physicist seeks the advice of several rabbis. It would betray much of the film’s considerable charm and dramatic tension to disclose just what each one says, but it comes as no surprise that a definitive, convincing, elegant explanation of God’s plan for the universe fails to materialize.

Eric Herschthal,  The Jewish Week:

"The film suggests that Judaism has no better answers to life’s most vexing questions than does, say, a 1960s rock band. In one scene the second rabbi, Rabbi Nachtner, tells Larry about a Jewish dentist who came to him asking similar questions — what does it all mean? The dentist was deeply troubled by Hebrew letters he discovered inscribed on the teeth of a patient, who was Christian. “Is it a sign from Hashem?” the rabbi quotes the dentist.

But when Larry asks if they ever found out why the patient had Hebrew letters in his mouth, or what it all might mean, the rabbi says that we’ll never know the answer to these things. God’s reasons are unknowable to us. “It sounds like you don’t know anything,” Larry says back at him, exasperated.

"Ethan downplays the religious implications of the film. “We were really just looking for a good story,” he said, pacing the room while his brother sat patiently, filling in answers when necessary. The brothers said that they only recently decided to make a film inspired by their own autobiographies, though Jews, Minnesota, and God — three defining nouns in their lives — have popped up in various other works".

The Forward: .

"The point of the fable is deliberately obscure, but to the Coens, the snowy plains of the Pale are a direct link to the prairie Jewish community at the centre of A Serious Man. Ethan noted that the film depicts 'the whole incongruity of Jews in the Midwest… a subculture, and a feeling, that is different from Jewish communities in New York or Los Angeles'. Joel said: 'What seems incongruous to us about it is the nature of the landscape, with Jews on it; it’s funny.

"'The whole shtetl thing, maybe this is part of why we put the little beginning story in there, to kind of frame it. The whole shtetl thing, you go, right, Jews in a shtetl, and then you look at the prairie, in Minnesota, and… we kind of think, with some perspective, having moved out, what were we doing there? It just seems odd.'”

"The brothers were asked if those feelings of being like strangers in a strange land affected how they approach their storytelling. 'That, Joel said, is 'an interesting but very difficult question to answer. I guess everything having to do with your background has some influence on how you tell stories, but it’s hard to parse, I think, how growing up in a… Jewish community in Minnesota really affected it.

"'There were other things which were probably much more culturally influential on us than that in particular, things like television, pop culture that other kids are exposed to at the time, if you want to sort of look at things that were probably most… formative, but I really don’t know.”

"The Coens, while pointing out that they believe A Serious Man has commercial appeal beyond Jewish audiences, admit to having wondered how their community would react. 'We were probably curious about whether there would be hostility [toward it], but Jews who’ve seen it, religious Jews who’ve seen it so far, have been surprisingly open to it'.

"Ethan said: 'A lot of Jews see things through the prism. Is this good for the Jews? I must say we haven’t encountered any negative pushback [to the film]. In fact, it has been just the opposite, which is very gratifying because, obviously, the sprit in which it was made was as an affectionate representation of something we were very familiar with. We’ll see, because it hasn’t really been out there.”

And though Larry fears his redneck neighbour in the movie, the Coens insist they never personally experienced antisemitism growing up in Minnesota. Ethan said, including himself in the answer to whether this character truly related to the Coens’: “I assume all Jews are fascinated by antisemitism. I don’t know why.”


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