Throughout the years a Coen brothers film has brought me out on cold rainy nights to enjoy a guilty pleasure. I felt a deep pit in my stomach, though, when I heard that they had made a surreal Jewish biopic of Conservative Jewish life in the Twin Cities. There was much to admire in this film, and as a slice of what Hebrew school was like in the sixties, I can testify that except for the excessive pot smoking, it was an accurate portrayal of Hebrew school, Bar Mitzvahs, even the faces were of people I could have known.
The synagogue “Bnei Abraham” or “Bnei Abe” as friends from the frozen north used to call it, was a lot like the conservative synagogue I grew up in. It is within this backdrop of Jewish suburbia that the Brothers Coen explore the ancient question of theodicy: Why do bad things happen to decent people?
Larry Gopnik, a math professor, is a somewhat passive, but honest and decent man whose life has taken a turn for the worse. His wife is leaving. He has a freeloading brother living with him for an indefinite term. He has financial pressures and that’s only the beginning.
So, why does this serious man have such tzuris? For this question, Judaism ceases to be the reference point. Instead, it is Gracie Slick of the “Jefferson Airplane”. When the inaccessible sage of the movie– who is now retired and will not meet with Larry because he does not engage in pastoral counseling– has his brief meeting with Larry’s son after his Bar Mitzvah, the rabbi returns a confiscated transistor radio offering an ominous warning:
When the truth is found to be lies, and when all of the joy within you dies–now what? Be a good boy.
The boy has an expression of wonder at this old Jew quoting a rock song. The utter incongruity is funny, but what does it mean? Does it mean that the old man transcends his time and context to reach out to a disaffected adolescent? Certainly, a pithy aphorism from Pirkei Avot would not serve the bill–or would it? This is portrayed as the wisest moment of the movie, and it is. It’s a profound question that actually hints at an answer. “Why me?” is not going to help you, so you better figure out what you are going to do, and only you can do that. But the question is given to the wrong person–this is what his father needs, not him! He is not in despair, he’s thirteen.
The movie is broken into three parts introduced by three different rabbis. The old wise rabbi is the last one. The first rabbi is a young, idealistic buffoon. The second rabbi is a slick, empty, snake oil salesman, and of course the sage is too busy thinking to deal with a man in despair.
The Judaism portrayed is one without sense. The rabbis speak of God, but are not moored in Jewish tradition in any meaningful way. The Bar Mitzvah Torah portion is learned from a recording–the meaning of the words still a mystery–and, other than the Bar Mitzvah no Jewish ritual life is in evidence. Judaism is based on rites of passage, vague mystical references to Hebrew letters, vain rabbinic leadership. xenophobia and contempt for “the goyim”, and learning the modern Hebrew language. Hashem is invoked often, the Zohar is mentioned and gentiles are pervasively reviled. It is an ugly caricature of a tribe with cultural connections based on long forgotten values.
Unfortunately, on some days, it’s one I recognize.