Having received numerous questions about the Coen brothers’ most recent film, a contemporary commentary on the Book of Job, called A Serious Man, I am going to respond even though I have not yet seen the movie. How can I do that? I can do so because the comments have had little to do with the actual movie. They are really about the amazing level of insecurity which Jews feel about how we are portrayed in popular culture.
Most of the comments have focused on how the rabbis come off in the film. People are concerned that the apparently poor showing they make as counselors to the suffering Jew who turns to them in his time of need. Will, those who write me ask, audiences come to think poorly of Jews because of this?
For Starters, the questions assumes that most people think that all Jews are like rabbis, and that alone is a big presumption – one which gives rabbis far more status than is either real or appropriate. But the larger issue has to do with our fears about how we are seen, even as we live with greater acceptance in America than we have in any country other than Israel, ever in Jewish history.
One woman wrote: I have to admit that I was also becoming very concerned about how non-Jews would perceive this film, and whether this would encourage Anti-Semitic stereotypes. My 88 year old Yiddish speaking mother went to see the film with her 93 year old friend, and they were completely horrified and disgusted!!
I can only comment on the specifics of the film once I have seen it, which I have not been able to find the time to do despite wanting to very much. Until then, I would only remind you that it makes perfect sense for your Yiddish speaking mom and her friend to have concerns which are appropriate to the experiences of their generation, yet may not be of such significance for those who are younger.
While anti-Semitism still exists, the difference between the time when your mom was the Coen’s age and now is that that back then it was a hatred which helped to define the country’s social elite. Now, anti-Semitism is seen as the mark of small-minded bigots. They exist and must be dealt with, but we have more room to laugh at ourselves and I think that it’s fine when we do. Not to mention that compared to priests, rabbis have great public images. Personally, I cannot wait to see the movie.