Jewish Journal


March 1, 2010

When The Truth Is Found to Be Lies: The Coen Brothers’ Rorschach for Serious People


Michael Stuhlbarg as professor Larry Gopnik in “A Serious Man.”  Photo by Wilson Webb

Michael Stuhlbarg as professor Larry Gopnik in “A Serious Man.” Photo by Wilson Webb

I learned about Jewish spirituality in a yoga class in 1971. I lay prone on the carpeted floor, relaxing after achieving the challenging bridge posture for the first time. I had thought that the pose’s name came from its shape: Lying on my back, I pushed my feet and hands into the floor until the trunk of my body rose in an arc that resembled a bridge. But as I regained equilibrium after the posture, I became uncertain about the name. As I lay there, I had the sense that the pose had enabled me to bridge the breach between the living and the dead, the holy and the profane, the body and the soul. Everything felt profoundly connected. I began to weep, and from my unconscious rose the words of the Shema. I chanted and lingered on the word echad (one). I lay there, my cells tingling, sensing the holy connection between all things. Like Job, I knew God in my flesh.

I felt immense gratitude. But then I became angry. Why hadn’t I known this before? Why wasn’t this embodied, alive and connected understanding of God taught to me as a child? Why had I needed to turn to another spiritual path to find the spirituality that was my own inheritance?

The Coen brothers’ film, “A Serious Man,” which is in consideration for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Picture and Best Directing, depicts the world from which my questions rose. This masterful film, a Rorschach test delivered in deadpan comedy, paints a precise moment in time and place: the suburban Midwest in which the Coen brothers were raised. It is also a picture of the American Jewish world bracketed by the Holocaust and the Six-Day War, a world filled with uncertainty about The Name — Hashem — God’s moniker throughout the film.

The clues to this specificity are subtle, but critical to understanding the film. Those that spoke to me are on the walls and in the music. Two Jewish-themed paintings decorate the home of Larry Gopnick, the physics professor whose pursuit of clarity in an uncertain world is the film’s central concern. One is a series of prints that suggest an illustration of daily life in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during World War II. The other depicts Jews praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. These two images reveal the losses that shadowed the American Jewish unconscious during that time of angst and questioning.

But this is not the Western Wall we know, the one where Israeli soldiers are sworn in, with the paved plaza and Israeli security guards checking our bags and making sure that women don’t wear tallit or carry Sifrei Torah. It is the iconic Wailing Wall as it was remembered at a time when the Wall and the Temple Mount were forbidden to Jews, a wall that hadn’t seen an independent Jewish state in 2,000 years. It is the Wall portrayed in a song first presented to the world at the Israel Film Festival, the very week in which much of “A Serious Man” is set: “Yerushalyim shel zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold”). Songwriter Naomi Shemer drashim on a line from the biblical Book of Lamentations, “The city that sits solitary.” The line reflects on Jerusalem’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar. Shemer continues,

“And in its midst is a wall. ...
The marketplace is empty
And no one frequents the Temple Mount
In the Old City.”

Lamentation is the baseline of the film and of Larry Gopnick’s life, more than 6,000 miles away in a Jewish community in Minnesota. To find comfort in a world of disillusionment and discontent, Larry lies on his couch (perhaps a reference to the analytical couch that so often replaced the rabbi’s study as a place for counseling during those years) and listens to a Yiddish recording. Small comfort for Larry, as the song is “Dem Milner’s Trern” (“The Miller’s Tears”). It recounts the plight of a hardworking, lonely and unhappy Jew, who, like Larry, gets “no reply” and knows no comfort as “the wheels turn and the years pass.”

Three weeks after Naomi Shemer first sang her song, the Six-Day War transformed Jewish life with its astounding Israeli victory. But it is telling that the Coen brothers placed their snapshot of Jewish America in exactly the moment before that momentous change. We know the precise date of the film’s action because of a calendar hanging in young Rabbi Scott’s study as he pontificates to a despairing Larry. Larry is seeking pastoral help as the shelter and certainty of his life dissolves into a Job-like quandary.

Larry’s wife, Judith, is leaving him for a buffoon, Sy Abelman. Clive, one of Larry’s students, claims not to need the precision of mathematics because he can grasp the uncertainty principle described by physics without it, and is trying to bribe Larry into giving him a passing grade. Larry’s son, Danny, in the weeks before his bar mitzvah (which also dates the movie precisely: his parashah, Behar, was read on May 20, 1967), is lost in smoking pot and watching the farcical ’60s television show “F Troop” (in which, by the way, actors from the Yiddish theatre portrayed a lost tribe of Native Americans, perhaps emblematic of the lost American Jews of the movie).

Larry’s daughter is focused on the quintessential concerns of Jewish females of her age and time — her hair and her nose. Larry’s troubled brother, Arthur, has colonized the family’s home and bathroom. Not since Philip Roth’s depiction of Portnoy’s constipated father (another emblematic Diaspora Jew, unable to move) has a bathroom been so occupied. Larry’s neighbor, an archetypal deer-hunting goy, has violated the boundaries of Larry’s property.

Larry’s tsuris is unending as he spirals into Job’s uncertainty, anguish and outrage at injustice. Like Job, he wonders what God wants of him. Like Job, Larry has been a good man. But unlike Job, Larry’s job is to teach physics and search for a proof for the uncertainty principle. Paradoxical and impossible, just like trying to understand why (if?) Larry is being tested.

Larry brings these quandaries to the young rabbi, who patronizingly diagnoses Larry’s problem as an inability to connect with Hashem. He suggests that Larry look out over the parking lot and see past its commonplace unsightliness in order to access the mystery and holiness that is present in every moment, if only we open the doors of perception.

If this rabbi showed up in one of my pastoral counseling classes, I would flunk him. His pompous platitudes provide no comfort. However, he is not far wrong. Larry is desperately trying to connect with Hashem. He climbs a ladder to his roof in order to adjust the antenna of his television set. He is trying to tune in a voice of clarity. But reminiscent of biblical Jacob, who stated after a dream of another ladder, if “God was in this place,” Larry “knew it not.”

Larry is not alone.

The film portrays a world in which post-Holocaust Jewish elders were frequently unable to transmit a connection with God to those they taught and counseled. How could they? So many of those who had survived had lost their faith. How could God have allowed such brutality, they wondered? Much of this God-wrestling was still unconscious. As my colleague, Tamar Frankiel, dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, told me: “The Holocaust was in the American Jewish mind in 1967, but no one knew how to talk about it. Holocaust conferences had not yet started. My husband, a survivor himself, didn’t really become ‘conscious’ of how it had affected him till 1983.”

Like Danny, his classmates and the non-Hebrew speaking members of the film’s audience, who are assaulted by un-subtitled Hebrew phrases, many of us learned from teachers who had likely not yet come to terms (literally) with what was rumbling in their shocked and tormented psyches. They foisted upon us a rote Judaism, whose essence we could not understand. God bless them, z’l. They couldn’t help it. They were stunned and grieving. They were wrestling with their faith. For many of them, the words of the Jefferson Airplane song, which frame the film, might ring true. “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies.”

Those words certainly rang true to Rabbi Emeritus Marshak. Marshak is the third rabbi to whom Larry turns, after the middle-aged and apparently American-born senior Rabbi Nachner responds to Larry’s dilemmas with a strange story about a dentist who finds the Hebrew words for “save me” engraved on a goy’s teeth. No comfort there.

Despite being told that Marshak no longer counsels, Larry tries to see this man, who resembles the Ancient of Days. When the disdainful woman who is the rabbi’s gatekeeper tells Larry the rabbi no longer does pastoral work, Larry implores. He lays out his endless tale of woe. She approaches Marshak and enters his cave-like study, where he sits silently, surrounded by books, jars and artifacts that seem to hold the answer to life’s mysteries. She returns to Larry and superciliously reports, “The rabbi is busy.” A desperate Larry pleads, “He doesn’t look busy.” Her rejoinder: “The rabbi is thinking.”

Indeed. The only words we will hear from the alter rabbi come toward the end of the film, when Danny is sent to him following his bar mitzvah. It is the words of Jefferson Airplane, which Marshak has adapted to describe his own plight. “When the truth is found to be lies and all the hope within you dies.” (Isn’t the loss of “hope” even more tragic than the loss of “joy,” about which Jefferson Airplane originally lamented?) Of course Marshak can’t provide pastoral care. How can one do pastoral counseling when in the midst of such a spiritual crisis?

What was the rabbi thinking about? So many of the faithful hadn’t gone to Palestine for political expression or to the United States for its economic promise. They had stayed in place and worshiped God. And they were slaughtered. Many who survived were confused, angry, perhaps feeling guilty. This was true beyond the Jewish world. Theology was in turmoil. Science and mathematics, which had promised to make sense of everything and deliver humankind from darkness, had instead given us Hiroshima and Auschwitz. In 1966 — a year before the Six-Day War — Rabbi Richard Rubenstein had published “After Auschwitz,” earning himself a place in the Time magazine issue that blazed on its cover, “Is God Dead?”

Judaism had become an exoteric concern. The normative Jewish mysticism fell by the wayside. We built buildings. We built Israel. We showed the world (but mostly ourselves) that we were still here. Israel became the surrogate for Jewish spirituality. The film is replete with examples: Rabbi Scott had a map of Israel on his wall and a pushke (tzedakah box) on his desk, Rabbi Marshak had a photo of Golda Meir on his mantle, and Larry had coffee-table books about Abba Eban and Masada. But this was a time before the image of Jewish machismo typified by the Israeli soldier had replaced the haunting images of Jews who were said to have gone “like lambs to the slaughter.” The archetypes of virile kibbutzniks and soldiers had not yet trumped the haunting images of Jewish impotency. Like the elderly Jewish Hebrew teacher, who in the last scene of the film cannot find the keys to the underground shelter as a tornado approaches, many Jewish elders could not open the doors to the tradition’s depth of wisdom and comfort. They could not share the treasures of

Judaism, treasures that might shelter us from the whirlwinds that inevitably come into the lives of serious people.

It is a world when the words of Jefferson Airplane seem right. These are the words we hear as the film opens, and our eyes follow the cord of the earphone to Danny’s ear. He listens to the song on his transistor radio, while his Hebrew teacher conjugates Hebrew phrases to a bored and inattentive class. Like his father (and like me before that yoga class), Danny is tuning in for words of truth that were not being transmitted to him in the Shema. Like his father, Danny turns to music. He also turns to pot. And pot will soothe his father, too, as Larry seeks more comfort in the company of his sexy neighbor, Mrs. Samsky.

Upon hearing that Larry has been banished by his wife to the Jolly Roger Motel, Mrs. Samsky asks if he is enjoying “the new freedoms.” She lights up a joint and passes it to Larry. Although attractive and seemingly adventurous, Mrs. Samsky, the wife of a traveling businessman, appears not unlike the less attractive women in the film. Portrayed as joyless, unapproachable, angry and harsh, they are trapped in their roles as housewives and secretaries. The writing on the wall of the kitchen in Larry’s home, the room in which Judith announces her intention to divorce, says it all: “The kitchen is my domain. If you don’t like it, starve.”

The new freedoms are just a few weeks away. The Six-Day War will transform the self-image of Jews throughout the world. Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” will be released as a mass-market paperback. The artistic and political expressions of the American counterculture will trigger a paradigm shift that will usher in a spirituality that will open the doors of perception. A Time magazine cover will soon proclaim that God is coming back to life.

But in late May 1967, the paradigm shift had not yet happened.

There is so much more to say. Scarsdale Rabbi Dan Sklar, who consulted on the film, was quoted in The New York Times, “It’s the most Jewish movie I’ve ever seen. ... You leave the theater with a host of questions, no easy answers and, frankly, arguing about what it all means.” As Tamar Frankiel says, “If, indeed, this is basically a period piece, of Judaism as it used to be in ’60’s America, why does [the film] arouse such passion?

“The answer is that the Judaism of that period has not been replaced entirely by the more spiritual and positive Judaism. It is provocative precisely because our reaction to the film tells us where we are in that picture, between then and now — as well as how we relate to the universal uncertainties of being human.”

“A Serious Man” will continue to generate many more words of reflection. It is an intricate work of art in which every detail is redolent with associations. The Coen brothers’ tour de force serves as a Rorschach for
Jews and others who seek to come to terms with the uncertainties human flesh is heir to. But the existential enigmas Larry faces will be with us until we bridge the mysteries of our embodiment, our suffering and our uncertainties regarding Hashem.

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist and spiritual counselor. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001). She teaches at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. Rabbi Brener is a member of Temple Israel of Hollywood and can be reached at mekamot@aol.com.

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