Somewhere in Eastern Europe, sometime in the nineteenth century, a man walks his horse through a snowy shtetl. What a marvel, he says to himself, in Yiddish. What a marvel. Upon reaching his cottage, the man, Velvel, tells his wife, Dora, that on his way back from Lublin, he encountered a fellow traveler who claimed to know her: Traitle Groshkover. Dora, who has been listening with little interest, ceases breaking up the ice in the bucket she is holding. God has cursed us, she says. Traitle Groshkover has been dead for three years. The man on the road must have been a dybbuk. There comes a knock on the door. It’s Traitle Groshkover, or at least it seems to be. Velvel invites him in, though Dora is skeptical. She accuses Reb Groshkover of being a dybbuk and stabs him with her ice pick. Groshkover laughs, apparently unharmed. Dora takes this as evidence that he is not who he claims to be. Just then, blood begins to pool at the site of the wound. Groshkover says that far from being unharmed, he actually feels quite unwell. One does a mitzvah, and this is the thanks one gets? He limps out into the cold. Dear wife, Velvel says. We are ruined. Dora shuts the door. Nonsense, she says. Blessed is the Lord. Good riddance to evil.
One would be forgiven for thinking this the synopsis of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story. It has Singer’s fingerprints all over it: the old-world setting, the porous border between the human and the spiritual realms, the preoccupation with living a moral life. In fact, it is a summary of the prologue to A Serious Man, the brilliant and underappreciated Coen Brothers film from 2009.
The rest of the film takes place in 1967 and centers on Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor in Minnesota whose life is crumbling around him. His wife is leaving him for another man, his brother is sleeping on his couch, and someone has been sending the physics department anonymous letters urging them to deny him tenure. Money is tight.
One would be forgiven for thinking this the synopsis of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story.
We have left the world of Singer and entered that of the great American Jewish writers of the postwar era. Larry, like Saul Bellow’s Herzog, is an academic suffering an existential midlife crisis brought on by a marital betrayal. The Hebrew school scenes featuring Larry’s son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), call to mind Philip Roth’s short story “The Conversion of the Jews,” in which Ozzie Friedman threatens to jump from the roof of the synagogue. There is a faint visual echo of this moment elsewhere in the film, when Larry, sent by Danny to adjust the TV antenna, climbs onto the roof of his suburban home. Up there, he is closer to God, but as befits a Roth story — or better yet, Leonard Michaels’s “Murderers” — Larry can also glimpse his neighbor, Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker), tanning topless in her backyard.
We see shades of Singer in 1967, too, when Larry seeks the counsel of his rabbis. Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg) gives an unconvincing speech about learning to see Hashem in the world around him (“Look at the parking lot, Larry!”). Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner) delivers a parable, the story of “the goy’s teeth,” whose meaning is unclear. (“What happened to the goy?,” Larry asks. “The goy?” says Nachtner. “Who cares?”) These sessions with the rabbis could be taken as a send-up of a certain type of story best embodied by Singer’s autobiographical collections, In My Father’s Court and More Stories from My Father’s Court. Before World War I, Singer’s father, a rabbi, presided over an informal tribunal in his Warsaw house. He had no legal authority and could not enforce his judgments. Still, neighbors visited No. 10 Krochmalna Street to air grievances and settle disputes. Larry’s visits to the rabbis are reminiscent of Singer’s snapshots of troubled people seeking guidance, justice — or, like Larry, a divine explanation for their suffering.
Inexplicable suffering is the great theme of A Serious Man, whose primary literary influence is not Singer, Roth, Bellow, or Michaels, but the Book of Job. Larry is a good man, a “serious” man, who hasn’t done anything wrong. (Indeed, this is his refrain, repeated often throughout the film: “But I haven’t done anything!”) Like Job, he loses everything he holds dear — his wife, his house, possibly his career — while facing temptation in the form of sexy Mrs. Samsky and a student who attempts to bribe him for a better grade. In his search for answers, Larry finds none.
In the end, Larry caves. Just as things begin to look up for him — Danny’s bar mitzvah is a success, and it appears that Larry will receive tenure after all — he accepts his student’s bribe to help cover his lawyer’s bills. The moment Larry changes the F to a C‑, his doctor calls, asking Larry to come in to discuss his X‑ray results. “We can’t discuss them over the phone?” Larry asks. The doctor replies, “I think we’d be more comfortable in person.” Across town, a deus ex machina in the form of a tornado creeps toward Danny’s Hebrew school. As soon as Larry fails the moral test of bribery, God exacts his punishment.
A Serious Man succeeds as both an autobiographical work, rich with period detail — the Coens grew up in a Midwestern milieu much like Larry’s — and as an homage to Jewish literature. The affairs and crack-ups of (male) Jewish academics in the late sixties have already been documented by some of the greatest writers America has produced, but the Coens reanimate now-tired tropes (the nebbish professor, his overbearing wife, their cryptic rabbi) by drawing on the Old Testament in addition to the literary lions who shaped the cultural landscape of their youth. In taking inspiration from both Bellow and the Book of Job, A Serious Man positions itself in a lineage of Jewish literature that may have reached an apex in the America of the 1960s and 1970s but which dates back much, much earlier.
So what of the prologue? What do we make of Reb Groshkover? One interpretation is that the couple in the shtetl are Larry’s ancestors, and that he is paying for the murder of Reb Groshkover. But Joel Coen has stated explicitly that the folktale at the beginning of the film “doesn’t have any relationship to what follows.” This is fitting for a work about the fruitless search for answers and the problems of interpretation. Just as Larry struggles to understand the course his life has taken, so too must we wrestle with the link between the prologue and the rest of the film. What does it mean, exactly? Like Larry, we’ll never know.