Yom Kippur: A Serious Day for a Serious Man
by Bob Schwartz
This evening begins Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, the last of the ten Days of Awe that starts a new year. The mood is somber. It is the most serious day on the calendar, a day of fasting and reflection, a day to contemplate the actions and inactions of the year past, and to commit to a better year ahead.
Which is why it is a day to recommend a darkly comic movie.
A Serious Man (2009) from Joel and Ethan Coen has never been taken seriously enough (playlist of clips). It was nominated for two major Academy Awards, Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, but none of the cast members were invited to the festivities until the last week before the event. That is an ironic nod to the movie itself.
Scholars have spent papers—entire careers—explaining why Jews try to be funny and why so many succeed. One of the stock rationales is that Jews are an historically beleaguered people, and the humor is a natural response. Another related thought is that Jewish attempts to make sense of it all have come to nothing, and so absurdity is the only possible answer.
A Serious Man is grounded in those ideas and more. Larry Gopnick is a physics professor in the 1960s. In his academic life, he is up for tenure, a student is trying to bribe him, and even as he lectures on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, there is a sense that he really doesn’t understand uncertainty at all. Things are worse in his personal life, much worse. As his son prepares for bar mitzvah, Larry discovers that his wife is having an affair with his friend, his brother is caught in a gay bar, his dentist espouses weird mystical tooth theories, and there is a question whether Larry may have a serious health problem.
Larry looks for answers in faith, but the mysterious Rabbi Marshak, the older spiritual head of the congregation, is impossible to see. At the bar mitzvah. Larry’s son Danny, who at the start of the movie had his transistor radio taken away at Hebrew School, goes off to see this rabbi. He finds him in an inner sanctum, where Rabbi Marshak explains it all through the Jefferson Airplane and with a powerfully simple piece of advice:
Marshak is an old man staring at him from behind a bare desktop. His look, eyes magnified by thick glasses, is impossible to read.
Danny creeps to the chair facing the desk. He gingerly sits on the squeaking leather upholstery, self-conscious under Marshak’s stare.
Marshak’s slow, regular, phlegmy mouth-breathing is the only sound in the room. The two stare at each other.
Marshak smacks his lips a couple of times, wetting surfaces in preparation for speech.
When the truth is found. To be lies.
He pauses. He clears his throat.
. . . And all the hope. Within you dies.
Another beat. Danny waits. Marshak stares. He smacks his lips again. He thinks.
. . . Then what?
Danny doesn’t answer. It is unclear whether answer is expected. Quiet.
Marshak clears his throat with a loud and thorough hawking. The hawking abates. Marshak sniffs.
. . . Grace Slick. Marty Balin. Paul Kanta. Jorma. . .somethin.
These are the members of the Airplane.
He nods a couple of times.
. . . Interesting.
He reaches up and slowly opens his desk drawer. He withdraws something. He lays it on the bare desk and pushes it across.
. . . Here.
It is Danny’s radio.
. . . Be a good boy.
The movie closes with a note taken straight from the Book of Job. A tornado approaches. Will it be the voice of God out of the whirlwind? Or will it just be one more inexplicable disaster, one more serious touch of uncertainty?
Who knows? Yom Kippur and every day, listen to Rabbi Marshak: Be a good girl or boy.