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Pre-Oscar Reading: Meaning Between the Lines of ‘A Serious Man’

Like a lot of people I know, I was blown away by the Coen Brothers’ Oscar nominee, “A Serious Man.” Behind the absurdist comedy, it captured a penetrating insight about the Job theme in Jewish tradition and the vapidity so pervasive in contemporary American Jewish life. But I’ve been struggling in the months since I saw it to find words that could capture the depth of insight. I know I’m not the only one.

Well, this week’s Los Angeles Jewish Journal has a brilliant review-essay on the film and what it says about suburban Judaism in the mid-1960s, on the eve of the Six-Day War. (I confess I hadn’t even noticed the clues in the film that gave away the date the events were supposed to be taking place.) The author, Rabbi Anne Brener, a psychotherapist according to her bio in the Journal, got that (a calendar on the rabbi’s wall!) and a whole lot more.

Her essay is titled“When The Truth Is Found to Be Lies: The Coen Brothers’ Rorschach for Serious People.” Sharp readers will recognize those words as the beginning of a classic 1967 track by the Jefferson Airplane. Brener nails the role that the song plays in the film’s soundtrack. She also gets the Yiddish folk stuff that confused so many viewers.

If you have a moment before tonight’s Best Picture announcement, click the link and check it out.

Here’s a taste:

This masterful film, a Rorschach test delivered in deadpan comedy, paints a precise moment in time and place: the suburban Midwest in which the Coen brothers were raised. It is also a picture of the American Jewish world bracketed by the Holocaust and the Six-Day War, a world filled with uncertainty about The Name — Hashem — God’s moniker throughout the film.

The clues to this specificity are subtle, but critical to understanding the film. Those that spoke to me are on the walls and in the music. Two Jewish-themed paintings decorate the home of Larry Gopnick, the physics professor whose pursuit of clarity in an uncertain world is the film’s central concern. One is a series of prints that suggest an illustration of daily life in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during World War II. The other depicts Jews praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. These two images reveal the losses that shadowed the American Jewish unconscious during that time of angst and questioning.

But this is not the Western Wall we know, the one where Israeli soldiers are sworn in, with the paved plaza and Israeli security guards checking our bags and making sure that women don’t wear tallit or carry Sifrei Torah. It is the iconic Wailing Wall as it was remembered at a time when the Wall and the Temple Mount were forbidden to Jews, a wall that hadn’t seen an independent Jewish state in 2,000 years. It is the Wall portrayed in a song first presented to the world at the Israel Film Festival, the very week in which much of “A Serious Man” is set: “Yerushalyim shel zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold”). Songwriter Naomi Shemer drashim on a line from the biblical Book of Lamentations, “The city that sits solitary.” The line reflects on Jerusalem’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar.

There’s a lot more, but here’s one of the kickers. After reminding us how the world changed during that summer of 1967, the Summer of Love and of the Six-Day War — just three weeks away from the week in May when the movie is set — she writes:

The new freedoms are just a few weeks away. The Six-Day War will transform the self-image of Jews throughout the world. Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” will be released as a mass-market paperback. The artistic and political expressions of the American counterculture will trigger a paradigm shift that will usher in a spirituality that will open the doors of perception. A Time magazine cover will soon proclaim that God is coming back to life.

But in late May 1967, the paradigm shift had not yet happened.

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