Review: A Serious Man (2009 movie)

Until earlier this year I’d somehow never heard of this Coen brothers movie about a physics professor in the upper Midwest of the 1960s who suddenly has to deal with a set of personal and professional crises. From my goyishe perspective, this may be the most Jewish (or anyway, Jewish-American) film I’ve ever seen. (One of the extras on the disk is a brief glossary of Yiddish and Hebrew terms, though it’s not strictly needed to follow the film.)

The protagonist is a nice guy whose strange brother is obsessed with working on a bizarre notebook full of weird, mystical diagrams, tables, and what looks like alien mathematics, something he thinks will among other things help in his gambling. The brother lives with the hero’s family and drives his daughter in particular crazy because he’s always in the bathroom when she wants to use it. His young son is smoking grass and studying for his bar mitzvah except when watching F-Troop.

One of the hero’s students is demanding a better grade, insisting he deserves it because he understands quantum physics and all the stuff about the cat, just not the math part. (If you know any physics, this is reasonably hilarious.) His wife is threatening to leave him, a shiksa suns herself topless next door as he tries to repair the rooftop TV antenna so his son can see F-Troop, and the rabbis he goes to for wise counsel aren’t just unhelpful but strange. One recounts a lengthy, detailed story about a Jewish dentist who discovers raised Hebrew writing on the back of the lower teeth of a non-Jewish patient, but the only point of the story seems to be that we just have to accept that some mysteries are never explained. When the hero asks what happened to the goy with the mysterious teeth, the rabbi looks surprised and asks, “Who cares?”

My favorite moment is near the end of the son’s bar mitzvah, when the member of the congregation honored with the hagbah, the act of raising the Torah to show all present some of the text, struggles under the weight of the scroll and mutters to himself, “Jesus Christ!”

It’s a sometimes dark but understated comedy, full of surprises and subtle wit. I suspect it’s even more enjoyable to someone better informed on Judaism than I am, but I think the average goy would still like it.

The feature is preceded by an interesting short in Yiddish (subtitled in English) that the filmmakers say is entirely independent (though people of course attempt to find hidden connections): A man in a 19th-century eastern European shtetl has invited someone to visit for soup, and his wife insists the guest is a dybbuk (though in this case an evil spirit animating a corpse rather than a lost soul inhabiting a living person as dybbukim are more usually depicted).


Here, incidentally, is the video glossary:


(For what it’s worth, I believe “Mazel tov” specifically means “Good luck” in the sense of “What good fortune!” — an observation, not a wish. “Hashem” literally means “the name,” i.e., of God.)

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