Monday, December 16, 2019

When the Tzaddik Is A Dybbuk: Jewish Movie Review, “A Serious Man” (2009)

This weekend I watched a movie that explores the spiritual decline of American Jewry. (Now, instead of trusting the rabbi, we trust the lawyer.)

It's called "A Serious Man" (2009), written & directed by Ethan and Joel Cohen.

I watched the movie for $3.99 at Amazon Prime.… 
The references in this movie are deeply religious, but the message is accessible to a much wide audience.

I wanted to explore the more esoteric meanings from a religious Jewish point of view.

Honestly this movie bothered me a lot and I've cried a bit thinking about it. 
The opening scene is the snowy shtetl of late 1800s Czechoslovakia. The somewhat ignorant but still religiously faithful husband and wife have encountered a dybbuk, meaning a demon in human form. (The dybbuk is the one that looks like a rabbi.) 
The husband doesn't realize that the religious-seeming man is actually a demon, but the wife knows it right away, and she drives an icepick into his heart to smite him. 
Her husband is afraid that they'll get in trouble because she's killed a man, but she knows better, and she slams the door and spits: "Good riddance to evil." 
Fast forward to America in ~1970. The Coen brothers present us with the same situation; a somewhat ignorant but religiously respectful Jewish husband and wife, and a dybbuk - so to speak. Not a real demon, just a bad person who lies, cheats, and steals pretending to be good. 
Without giving away too much, this "friend of the family" is trusted by everyone, and the rabbi calls him a "tzaddik," but he is stealing the wife of a trusting man, and actually tries to hug him and pretend it's no big deal. 
Larry Gopnik is a physics professor and he understands the world of rational thinking. (The dybbuk in the Old World also talked about rationality.) He can't comprehend what God wants, what his wife wants, his kids.

(Photo via Creative Commons at Flickr: 
Larry has lost complete control of his family. His son is getting high. In this, one of the most visually captivating scenes from the movie, his son stands in front of an approaching tornado, and the yeshiva teacher struggles to open the tornado shelter. 
Larry goes to rabbi after rabbi for help. He begs to know what God wants from him: "I haven't done anything." The most well-known rabbi tells him that his religious feelings are like a "toothache" -- eventually they will go away and he'll be happy again.

Larry has a non-Jewish neighbor, "Mr. Brandt." He's a frightening character, a hunter of deer. (The movie shows Jews using the disparaging word "goy.")

But when Larry is in trouble, Brandt comes to his aid. 

"Is this man bothering you?"

Larry is surrounded by loved ones who either cheat him (wife, brother), use him (children), or mislead him (wife's lover, rabbi). 

The only person he can trust is his lawyer, and the legal troubles start to mount nonstop, so he ends up crying at the law office. 
Larry's neighbor, Mr. Brandt, is a man. He plays ball with his son, Mitch. He has control and discipline over his son: "I said go inside." 

In contrast, Larry's son is out of control, not only doing drugs, but listening to radio in class, breaking into the rabbi's office... 
The filmmakers faithfully render a period in time where American Jews were on the cusp. They could have gone the more religious way, but the scales were tilted toward abandoning God. 

The rabbi cannot know hidden meanings. So he just tells Larry: "Help people." 
Larry is a seeker of meaning, but he will not get meaning in the American Jewish community. Nor will he get a real Jewish education.

The Jew in Czechoslovakia was similarly ignorant, and (even if virtuous in simplicity) relied on secondhand knowledge, and fear. 
The movie made me cry because we are so cut off and so far from what is real and what matters, and we so confuse the good people with the bad.

I watched it with my husband and he said: "This has to be anti-Semitic."

That's how damning and real it was.

I pray for my people.