I’m not a film critic, so when I write about movies I’ve seen it should not be assumed to be a formal review. There are thousands, maybe even millions, of reviews from critics and moviegoers available on the interwebs, so I hope you’ll agree with me that there’s really no point in adding another.
That said, even if I wanted to write a formal review, how do I write one when watching the film in question here, the Coen Brothers’ latest, A Serious Man, was more like watching my own childhood than a movie?
No, not every detail matched my life. My mother didn’t ask my father for a divorce. My uncle didn’t live with us. I had two sisters, not one. I didn’t have red hair, etc.
Rather, everything about the Jewish people in the film, about the suburban experience, about the percolating cultural revolution that was the late 60s and early 70s, was intimately familiar to me. From the language to the clothes to the hairstyles, oy, and I haven’t even mentioned the Bar Mitzvah.
Hebrew school was a brutal experience for me. My parents rarely went to synagogue, and the only Judaism we practiced in the home consisted of Yahrtzeit candles on the anniversary of the deaths of my grandparents, lighting the menorah, playing dreidel and eating latkes on Chanukah, and a seder on Passover. So, I felt resentful about being forced to attend Hebrew school and have a Bar Mitzvah by parents who were barely observant.
I didn’t connect with the religion, wasn’t able to learn Hebrew very well, and I had lessons about the Holocaust forced upon me – via documentaries with footage of mass graves filled with bodies, gas chambers, and ovens, and via Ellie Wiesel’s Night – when I was way too young to have any chance of absorbing it as anything other than an inherited trauma.
I needed a tutor, Shoshana, whom I met with weekly all summer long to prepare for my September Bar Mitzvah. I struggled to learn the chanting of the Torah and Haftorah portions, very difficult stuff, and on the big day, under a lot of pressure in front of a congregation of friends and family, I made a mistake during the Haftorah reading, a mistake which I did not handle gracefully (massive understatement).
When I messed up, I abruptly bowed my head down on the pulpit, hitting the microphone on the way down, and hiding my face in my folded arms over the text I’d been reading from. Once hidden, I got stuck there for a very awkward, pregnant moment, embarrassment for having messed up compounded by having bowed my head and bumped the mic, and there was a fleeting thought that I might just have to stay in that position until everyone figured out that the ceremony was over, that I’d failed, and that it was time to go.
I eventually found the courage to lift my head, face the audience, and proceed with the rest of the service.
No, I wasn’t stoned, like the boy in A Serious Man, but it was a day of serious gravity. I wish I could say that the gravity derived from my walk through a very old, traditional rite of passage. Sadly, it was more about suffering through an empty ritual out of obligation to appease my parents and the expectations of the community.
I have no doubt that some Jews will be offended by how their religion and people are depicted in A Serious Man, and in some ways I can see why. As I’ve gotten older, I no longer feel the anger and resentment that I felt at age 13, I’m at peace with my Jewish heritage even though I’m more of a Buddhist these days, and so I don’t take pleasure in how nutty the Jews in the film come across.
Yet, I did not interpret it as a mean-spirited expression from the Coen Brothers. Jews have mastered the art of self-deprecation, and since before Woody Allen, before Isaac Bashevis Singer, before Shalom Alecheim, heck probably ever since the writing of the Bible, Jews, an oppressed people for most of their existence, have mingled their tsuris and nachas, their miseries and joys, in life and in their art.
A Serious Man is a VERY Jewish movie.