Kevin MacDonald: The Coen brothers' "A Serious Man"

Kevin MacDonald: I happened to see A Serious Man, the Coen brothers’ meditation on Jewishness, at the same time that Peter Beinart’s now  famous article is making us think about the future American Jewish community as more nationalist and ethnocentric. A Serious Man is really about the consequences of the breakdown of the traditional Jewish community in the  Diaspora.

The movie opens with a scene from a traditional Polish shtetl community in which the wife stabs a man that she thinks is a dybbuk — the point being that  these people had strong unquestioned beliefs and were willing to act on them.

But fast forward to 1960s, and things are falling apart. The main character, Larry Gopnik, is undergoing all sorts of crises–his wife’s affair and her desire for a religious divorce so she can marry another Jew; his troubles at his job; his brother’s health and psychiatric problems; financial problems, his own health.

But the three rabbis he goes to for help are completely useless: The young one mixes platitudes with irrelevancies about the parking lot at the synagogue. The middle-aged rabbi tells him a weird, pointless story about a non-Jew with Hebrew lettering on his teeth; the letters don’t make any sense but he translates them into a phone number — of a grocery store. The old rabbi won’t talk to him because he’s “thinking.”

Meanwhile his son and  the rest of the students are completely bored with Hebrew school–blank faces and vacant stares.  The teacher is old and decrepit, as is the school secretary. The son listens to pop music during class on on a 1960s version of an Ipod and smokes pot with his friends. His older sister has no interest in Judaism, hangs out with non-Jews, and seems to be saving money for a nose job (so she won’t look so Jewish). She’ll probably marry a goy.

The movie ends with a tornado bearing down on the school, the rabbi fumbling with the door lock and unable to protect the children, just as he and the other rabbis were unable to help the father. The message seems to be that it’s no use to look to the rabbis for help with life’s problems. The safety and security provided by the powerful traditional communal ties and strong, unquestioning belief (of the kind that motivated killing the dybbuk) are gone.

The ties within the community are fractured: The son thinks about repaying the money he owes to the school bully, but he doesn’t. Why pay him back when he won’t be part of the community in the future? The father learns that his wife’s lover was writing malicious letters to his tenure committee at the university. The Jewish lawyer he hired to deal with a property issue with his (viciously stereotyped non-Jewish) neighbor drops dead, and the Jewish lawyer he hired to defend his brother charges him $3000, prompting him to accept a bribe from a student to raise his grade.

He will have to find some other way out of his difficulties than rely on communal ties. The only help he gets from being Jewish (and this seems odd given the rest of the story) is that the Jewish department head assures him he will get tenure (even though he hasn’t published anything). But right after hearing the news, he receives an ominous phone call from his (Jewish) doctor about his x-rays. Getting tenure isn’t really going to help.

So what, if anything, does this say about the American Jewish community? Probably not a lot. Despite the main thrust of the movie, there’s still a huge benefit to Jews from ethnic networking with other Jews–the story of Elena Kagan shows that Larry Gopnik wasn’t the last Jew to benefit greatly from Jewish ties in the academic world, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

On the other  hand, Beinart’s concerns about young Jews with less commitment to Israel are doubtless reflected in the young people represented in A Serious Man — smoking pot, bored with Hebrew school, getting nose jobs, and dating non-Jews. But these reasons for this lack of Jewish commitment fit more with Steven M. Cohen‘s theory than Beinart’s: It’s not because of the behavior of Israel, but rather assimilation and intermarriage that draw Jews away from Israel. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about the movie was the complete lack of the ADL-type bunker mentality: No obsession with anti-Semitism, no mention of Israel, no gung-ho liberal politics, no mention of what an evil, racist, anti-Semitic place America is. No mention of politics at all.

If all Jews were like Larry Gupnik, the ADL would be out of business and the Israel lobby would grind to a halt. Not a bad outcome at all. But, as Beinart notes,  in the real world, the more conservative branches of Judaism are thriving and are projected to be a large and increasingly dominant segment of the American Jewish community. Quite a few Jewish children are not bored with Hebrew school, and they are the ones who are having the  children.

These are the people who staff the Jewish activist community now and in the future, so it’s very doubtful that there will be any change from its posture of strong and effective support for the dispossession of Whites at home and equally strong and  effective support for ethnonationalist Israel abroad.

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