Ask Joel and Ethan Coen whether their excruciatingly dull experiences growing up Jewish in the Midwest spawned their new film, “A Serious Man,” and Ethan Coen says, “They made us go to Hebrew school and now they’re going to pay.” He’s joking—sort of. But perhaps it was just a matter of time that the brothers, creators of such outrageous Jewish characters as con artist Bernie the shmatta boy from “Miller’s Crossing,” would set one of their merciless satires closer to home. In fact, the landscape of “A Serious Man,” which opens Oct. 2, is about as autobiographical as the notoriously private brothers are likely to get, having been filmed in their own Jewish childhood community in St. Louis Park, Minn. — a Minneapolis suburb known as “St. Jewish Park” — in 1967, when Ethan was 10 and Joel became a bar mitzvah.
The film opens with an eerie parable, spoken in subtitled Yiddish, in the Polish-Russian milieu of the Coens’ forbears. A shtetl couple entertains a Zohar scholar who may or may not be a malevolent spirit (played by Yiddish theater veteran Fyvush Finkel, whose credit is listed as “Dybbuk?”).
The action then cuts to a flat Midwestern suburb in the summer of 1967, when Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is about to have his bland life shattered by a series of Job-like calamities. Two weeks before his son’s bar mitzvah, his wife leaves him for a pompous family friend, whereupon he is banished to a seedy motel with his sad-sack, gambling-addicted brother Arthur (Richard Kind). Larry’s tenure is threatened by anonymous letters alleging that he is a pervert; his son, Danny, smokes pot and listens to Jefferson Airplane at his mind-numbing Talmud Torah classes; Larry’s moose-hunting “goy” neighbor is probably anti-Semitic; and the three rabbis he visits for counsel offer platitudes rather than wisdom.
The movie features the low-slung tract homes, decorated with tacky Judaica, that were common in the Coens’ 1960s neighborhood; the young brothers’ own obsession with pot smoking and with kitschy television shows, such as “F Troop,” which eventually influenced their filmmaking; as well as the obligation they felt to become a bar mitzvah.
“We did it because we didn’t have a choice, which was pretty universal in our community,” Ethan Coen said in his broad Midwestern accent during a recent phone interview.
“We would’ve very happily foregone the gifts in order not to have to do the bar mitzvah,” Joel Coen piped up. But their maternal grandparents were Orthodox, “and our mother was a very observant Jew who sent us to synagogue every week,” Joel Coen said. “It was important for her that we be not only bar mitzvahed, but Jewishly educated as well.”
Their father, an economics professor at the University of Minnesota, surreptitiously ate treif outside the home, and the brothers sampled ham on the sly.
“A Serious Man” attempts to capture what Ethan Coen calls “the whole incongruity of Jews in the Midwest…. The notion of this landscape with Jews in it is just odd. That’s one reason we began with the Yiddish parable; we see there are Jews in the shtetl, which we’re used to, and where Jews ‘should’ be, and — whoa — suddenly we jump to Jews on the prairie. What’s the deal?”
“It’s like the famous ‘2001’ sequence with the apes, which then jumps to the space station,” Joel Coen said. “It was our way of throwing that bone up in the air.”
The Coens chose not to subtitle the Hebrew lesson scenes in “A Serious Man” to help enhance the fictional classroom’s droning sense of ennui. The tedium of their own suburban Jewish life, as well as the long Midwestern winters, perhaps led to the odd, distanced, outsider’s view prevalent in their films — from 1984’s “Blood Simple” to the Oscar-winning “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men.”
The brothers were in the process of writing two other films at the same time as “A Serious Man,” although the Jewish project had been percolating for years. At one point, the brothers considered making a short film inspired by the sphinx-like rabbi that bar mitzvah boys used to visit in their community, as if making a pilgrimage to the Wizard of Oz. Jewish characters began appearing in their films, including Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), the crazed Vietnam veteran bowling partner in “The Big Lebowski,” who proclaims he doesn’t “roll on Shabbos.” “We wanted to explore the idea of someone in modern society who clung to all those rules,” Joel Coen told The Journal in 2000. “The whole idea of this loose-cannon, gas-bag Vietnam vet proclaiming himself religious was rather ironic and funny,” Ethan Coen said.
Ethan Coen’s 1998 book of short stories, “Gates of Eden,” visits and revisits the Talmud Torah milieu as well as a tortuous Zionist camp whose motto — Theodore Herzl’s aphorism, “If you will it, it is no dream” — is echoed by Sobchak in “The Big Lebowski.”
“The fact that we wrote ‘A Serious Man’ now, rather than when we were in our 20s or 30s, has to do with the fact that things from our childhood get a bit more interesting the older we get,” Joel Coen explained. “A certain amount of distance also makes these events seem more exotic by virtue of how they recede into a period you’re not living in at the moment.”
Over time, the tale of Gopnik emerged, like the Yiddish prequel, as a folk tale, albeit one from a very different Jewish community. The brothers immersed themselves in writings by the Yiddish literature giant Isaac Bashevis Singer to write the prologue; they consulted rabbis about Hebrew accents and translations; and hired an almost exclusively Jewish cast, with local congregants cast as extras.
Rabbi Dan Sklar of Scarsdale, N.Y., who served as a consultant to the film, describes the acidic comedy-drama as “a Jewish ‘American Beauty’ with a neo-Chasidic edge. The Coens are modern-day prophets in their own way; they create these unbelieveable meditations on human foibles and tragedy.”
How would the Coens respond to charges that the characters — who include demanding wives and unhelpful rabbis — purvey negative Jewish stereotypes?
“‘Too bad, you big crybaby’ — that’s what David Mamet usually says,” Ethan Coen replied. “We don’t really care what people think, because all our movies get specific about ethnicity or geography or region, and when you do that it’s inevitable somebody’s going to get offended,” Joel Coen said. “It’s going to happen no matter what you do, unless the story is so nonspecific and vanilla as to be ridiculously uninteresting.”