Serious Yiddishisms

On The Go

By Masha Leon

Published October 14, 2009, issue of October 23, 2009.
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In retrospect, had I known in November 2002 of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Minnesota Jewish roots, oy! The questions I would have asked! Back then, we were at the French Embassy in New York, and France’s outgoing ambassador to the United States, François Bujon de l’Estaing, conferred the chevalier designation of the Order of Arts and Letters on the brothers, whose film creations include “Fargo,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “The Big Lebowski.” Telling the Coens, “You have a great following in France, like Woody Allen and Jerry Lewis,” de l’Estaing added, “In 1950, [Lewis] was declared a genius.”

What, I wonder, will the French make of the Coens’ latest film, “A Serious Man”? Prefacing his film’s Minneapolis mise-en-scène is a beautifully crafted Yiddish segment set in a 19th-century Eastern European shtetl. The movie stars real life husband and wife Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson as a couple confronted by a dybbuk, played by Fyvush Finkel, seeking shelter from a storm. The sequence itself is worth the price of admission. But I have no clue as to the interface between the shtetl zaverukhe (snowstorm) that seals the Finkel character’s fate and the Job-like afflictions that beset the film’s hero, Minnesotan Jewish nebbish Larry Gopnik, superbly portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg.

On the soundtrack of the Yiddish sequence — plus several times throughout the film itself — is Sidor Belarsky’s wonderful rendition of Mark Warshavsky’s “Dem Milners Trern,” ( “The Miller’s Tears”). Why was there no subtitled translation, since the lyrics foreshadows Gopnik’s tsores. “How many years have flitted by since I’ve been a miller here,” Belarsky sings. “The wheels keep turning, the years keep racing by, meanwhile I turn old and gray.” Gopnik does not go gray; it’s just that his life turns to ashes as it unravels. The Coens’ presentation of three rabbis — each one attempting to help solve Gopnik’s angst — had me simultaneously cringing, laughing and questioning, “Is this good for the Jews?” Do I recommend “A Serious Man”? To appropriate a phrase from “Fargo,” you betcha!

At a gala, a few days after the film’s October 2 opening, Matthew Margo, senior vice president of program practices for CBS Television Network’s East Coast Operations, told me that the film resonated with him because he had been an exchange student in Minnesota in 1976.

Margo was born in South Africa, and his father, Cecil Margo, had organized the Israel Air Force in 1948 at the request of David Ben-Gurion. “My reaction,” Margo said, “ was, ‘I didn’t know there were Jews in Minnesota.’ My host family in Duluth was surprised that there were Jews in South Africa.’”

Margo recalled being puzzled at “the quirk of fate that cast our Minnesotan mishpokhe into what seemed like a frozen bleak landscape. After all, the climate of South Africa seemed closer to our origins as a desert people… I met my host family at a fast-food restaurant called ‘The White House.’ Though Jewish, they led a very Scandinavian lifestyle, skiing, snowmobiling, camping, fishing… I’d never known… Jews who loved foraging for food!” In contrast to the Jewish presence in the film, Margo said: “In Duluth, almost the entire community was of Scandinavian origin. You could usually identify the few Jews, because they weren’t blond… I discovered it was a badge of pride to the Jews of Minnesota that Bob Dylan was Jewish and his family came from Odessa.” I meant to mention to Margo that Vilna, Kovno and surrounding Lithuanian shtetls, whence came the Litvaks to South Africa at the turn of the century, had winters no milder than those of the Minnesota “steppes.” On a personal note, I visited Minnesota once in the 1960s and again in the ’70s for local publishing conferences. During my stay, I was invited to a National Council of Jewish Women luncheon that took place in a suburban setting. The turnout was surprisingly large, and the women — including, contrary to Margo’s image of Jews, many blondes — were as “with it” as their New York counterparts.


“I get up each morning, look in the mirror and say hello to my best friend — me,” said still stunning at 70+ supermodel Carmen Dell’Orefice, honorary chair of the September 24 National Osteoporosis Foundation’s “A Gift From Mothers to Daughters” luncheon, held at The Pierre. Honored were TV host Paula Zahn, host of WNET’s “Sunday Arts,” and ABC News medical contributor Dr. Marie Savard.

“Did you know that in young girls, nearly 90% of bone mass is built by age 18?” event chair Carol Saline noted. “[That] ten million Americans have osteoporosis [and that] there are children and grandchildren who can’t be picked up or can’t hug a parent or grandparent for fear of bone breakage?” Among the mother-daughter guests were Dr. Ethel Siris, immediate past NOF president and director of Columbia University’s Toni Stabile Osteoporosis Center, and her daughter, Dr. Sara Nash, and Ethel LeFrak, and her daughter, Denise LeFrak Calicchio. A philanthropist and devoted advocate of osteoporosis research, LeFrak, who lost 6 inches from her height because of this disease, in 2005 missed giving the NOF award to HRH The Duchess of Cornwall. Instead, Joan Rivers presented the award across the miles to the duchess — Camilla Parker Bowles — who could not be present. Rivers coined an anti-osteoporosis imperative: “Stress your bones!” No doubt, Rivers also became the darling of nibblers and noshers by informing, “The fatter you are, the less likely you are to get osteoporosis!”

NOF luncheon chair Sharon Marantz Walsh introduced Zahn, who is also an accomplished cellist. Zahn declared: “One in two women will get a fracture due to osteoporosis; one in eight men… 8000 Americans turn 60 each day. My mother, a two-time breast cancer survivor, suffered bone fractures…. Prevention:

No smoking, lots of Vitamin D and exercise.”. “Women are not smaller men,” Savard said, alluding to two recent sufferers of broken bones, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Co-author (with Sondra Forsyth of “Ask Dr. Marie: Straight Talk & Reassuring Answers to Your Most Private Questions” (GPP Life), Savard informed: “My mother died a year ago. She was one of the 120,000 nurses used in [all kinds of] studies, and now their granddaughters are part of the studies…. My mother’s greatest fear was of falling!” Savard touted the NOF mantra: “Calcium! Vitamin D! Exercise!”

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