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“A Serious Man” Is No Serious Threat To Jews

posted by Brad Hirschfield

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!!
My response:


Dear ____,
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.



  • Greg Graze

    R. Hirschfield,
    With all due respect, you would be wise to refrain from commenting on this movie until after you’ve seen it. My girlfriend and I saw it at a preview showing in Dallas. Unfortunately, we can’t give an authoritative opinion about it because we were so bored and repulsed by it that we walked out, probably about two-thirds of the way through. It presents a thoroughly negative picture of Jewish people and will warm the hearts of Jew-haters around the world. In fact, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal mentioned that this cartoonish disaster of a movie will be one of the featured films at the first Doha Tribeca Film Festival in Qatar. I’m sure it will fit in well with the anti-Semitic stereotypes that are all too prevalent among contemporary Arabs and Muslims.

  • ben hall,

    Must be out of touch, but who are the Coen brothers? What else have they done?

  • Your Name

    I saw Serious Man and came away with a different interpretation on the Rabbi issue. The Torah and Talmud provide insight on how to deal with issues. Granted, I am not an orthodox or even rather observant Jew, but I didnt sleep through all of sunday school or bar mitzvah lessons. I think the Coen’s did a great job of stressing the spiritual and cultural bridge a rabbi has in our religon. Early in the movie, the bar mitzvah boy has an FM radio with a $20 bill taken away from by his teacher. In the last scene, the bar mitzvah boy sees the elder rabbi, the one who rarely sees anyone. The rabbi opens a drawer, pulls out the FM radio to the boy’sd delight. Then amazingly, he utters the name of about five people. To the boy’s delight, the rabbi is uttering the names of the members of the Jefferson Airplane, then a popular band. The message I got, and passed to my son, is that as the spiritual leader, the rabbi not only complied with his religous and traditional role, but served to assure by trying to undertand the contemporary issues of the bar mitzvah boy, that the boy understood that Judism is an evolving practice, and this rabbi, if it were real life, probably assured that the turmoil faced by a young boy did not turn him off to religon.

  • Saul Cimbler

    Saul Cimbler (me) posted the previous comments re Serious Man at 10:55 am

  • Ellen

    I haven”t seen this movie yet either, but wanted to voice my concern with the portrayal of Jews in TV and movies of late. I watch all the Law and Orders, and nearly every time the criminal’s defense attorney is Jewish, with an obviously Jewish last name. The lawyers are made out to be conniving, unethical, and at times evil. I’ve been monitoring this issue for several years now, and am considering writing to the network to complain about this or to the email of the person who is responsible for the content of these dramas.
    I have noticed the same thing when it comes to the CSIs: the people who are involved in white-collar crime, such as fraudulent stock-market trading and the like, are nearly always Jewish as well. I’ve seen this on other TV shows as well, and frankly, I’m tired of the negative stereotyping of Jews I see on these and other shows.
    I don’t believe I’m being paranoid or oversensitive; perhaps we should all contact the networks and the producers of these shows directly? What do you all think?
    Thanks,
    Ellen

  • Marian

    Ellen, I’m with you. I watch the various incarnations of Law and Order pretty often, and they do seem to be over-populated with Jewish white-collar criminals, villains, and defense attorneys (in the Law and Order world, defense attorney=villain.) Admittedly,in the older incarnations, Adam Schiff, obviously Jewish, is a good guy, but he seems to stand pretty much alone in that capacity.

  • Mysstea

    Hi! I really liked this movie and most Coen Brother movies.
    Replicating the era of the 1960′s was superb. Casting was perfect.
    This movie is about entertainment and it succeeded at that.
    The rabbis were characters. They were interesting. They expressed the writer’s view.
    It is an interesting story that happens to have rabbis in the plot.
    So……

  • Shira

    Have you seen a recent episode of “In Plain Sight” on the USA Network? The main characters are Witness Protection agents, and their latest “customer” is a Jewish man. (See the episode to get all the details about why and how he’s “in the program.”) The important part of the plot is a mysterious man (a rabbi) who finds the young man and his very spiritual, almost Kabbalistic, approach to the man’s dilemma. The rabbi’s wise and patient dealings with the federal agents as well as the man and his family, I found to be very educational, sympathetic – even reverent – toward Jews, and very moving.
    I agree that Jews are often portrayed in negative, stereotyped characters, as are Blacks, Asians, East Indians, Catholics, Muslims, Arabs, etc. Sometimes they make us squirm because we are hyper-sensitive to the portrayals of our identify and our customs, but they’re often based in some truth. Are there not a large percentage of lawyers who are Jewish? Are Jews exempt from criminal activities? I think we need to step back and not be so paranoid. If we look more closely at the way Jews are perceived in film and tv, I think we’ll find there is a balance.
    (By the way I LOVED “A Serious Man”! I thought it was hysterical and felt sorry for the people in the audience who didn’t get all of the inside jokes. And I teach Hebrew school! Besides, isn’t Jewish Humor inherently the art of making fun of ourselves?)

  • Shira

    Further to my comments on portrayal of Jews on TV: Have you seen NCIS? There is a female agent named Ziva David, a former Israeli Mossad agent. She is strong, intelligent, admired for her capabilities in her work, beautiful, flawed, vulnerable, sensitive and complex. She represents many positive attributes of Jews, women, and Israelis (though her family members in Israel show some of the darker side).
    Again – balance and truth.

  • WRosencratz

    When I was a young man, my mother brought me to the beach and pointed to a sign that read, “No Pets, No Jews,”
    At that tender age, such a statement had a profound effect on me. You might say it greatly heightened my sensitivities to negative stereotyping in the media and in off-color ethnic “jokes.”
    I have not seen “A Serious Man” so therefore I cannot comment on its portrayl of Jews: whether it is the disgusting bile of self-styled anti-Semites who wish lay all the world’s problems at the feet of “the Joos” – or whether it is light-hearted social satire not meant to dismean, attack or disparage a particular religion or ethnic group.
    What can be said with certainy is that if 6,000 year of history can teach you anything, it’s that you can never be too vigilant.

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  • Kristen

    I’m not Jewish. I was fascinated by the film and thought it was a story about a man’s life collapsing all around him, which is going to involve being stabbed in the back repeatedly. Since it is set in a Jewish community, the nearest and dearest who stab him in the back are also going to be Jewish.
    As far as the rabbis, who I thought were portrayed as ridiculous and worse than useless, it did not seem to me to be an attack on Judaism but an attack on G-d. They could have been priests or pastors or imams or Buddhist monks or anything else, but this story was set in a Jewish community and so the representatives of the divine were rabbis and when they attack the divine the deity they mean is Hashem.
    Misanthropic? Very arguably. Anti-religious? Definitely. Anti-semitic? I didn’t see it that way at all.

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