A week doesn’t get much better than attending both the first game at TCF Bank Stadium and a local sneak preview of the Coen Brothers new movie, A Serious Man.
Of course, this is a swell five days because it tracks my life from about age 9-13: go to Saturday school at Beth El Synagogue (the voice of our beloved Cantor Newman is heard throughout the movie and he is seen in the bar-mitzvah scene) and then dash to Memorial Stadium with brother, father, and grandfather to watch Cal Stoll’s Gophers wearing mustard gold uniforms playing on Tartan Turf with Tony Dungy at quarterback (1973-1976).
Now the Gophers have a new on-campus home and brothers Ethan and Joel have treated us with a film which is a combination of Fargo; Bye Bye Braverman; GoodBye, Columbus; Radio (transistor) Days; and in general a warty, satirical ode to 1960s Jewish St. Louis Park (although the tract homes are Richfield’s with the trees having grown too large in the Park)—just in time for Rosh Hashanah, 5770, the year of the Jewish calendar.
Getting a fix on the movie was not made easier by the presence of people I know in the movie—or at least working to look for them onscreen—or the surprise of people I know or knew appearing as characters or references in the movie. My Godmother and cousins are Samskys and the neighboring temptress is “Mrs. Samsky”. Attorney Ron Meshbesher, whose stationary makes a cameo in the movie, is my cousin and he’s also the attorney for the brother and alleged gambler played by Richard Kind. That’s not to mention the Big Lebowski who was a lurking presence in our Minnehaha Creek, St. Louis Park neighborhood growing up. Of course, under these circumstances I want the movie to succeed, I have a vested interest in perpetuating mythology even if we had no gentile neighbors on Minnehaha Circle bringing home a large buck strapped to the top of a station wagon. In fact, we had almost no gentile neighbors on all of Minnehaha Circle. Although, my elementary schools Park Knoll and Aquila had only a small number of Jewish students.
Any movie featuring a quote from Rashi (a towering figure in Torah interpretation from 11th century France) and a scene in Red Owl is endearing by definition (Where did they find the Red Owl sign?). As is a ten minute scene set in the Pale of Settlement spoken entirely in Yiddish (with subtitles) which must be the first American movie made in three generations with such a distinction—we’ll need to ask local Yiddish maven and author, Neal Karlen.
This is not the St. Louis Park incubating Tom Friedman or Senator Al Franken (see the September Mpls St. Paul Magazine with its list of St. Louis Park greats—Jewish and non-Jewish), but an over-the-top, uber-stereotypical, black-edged, cantankerous, mean-spirited (at times), unsettlingly funny, entertaining and puzzling movie. In short a typical Coen brothers exercise in mordant humor which I love, although this one hits close to home. A local prominent musician, who attended the sneak preview, told me in relation to his unease about the movie: “There is nothing remotely sentimental about a Coen brothers movie.”
The Coen Brothers indulge the piñata whacking of the largest and easiest American Jewish target: after-school, supplemental Jewish education which was a bit of Jewish-Kids-Gone-Wild (I can completely identify listening to a radio with an ear piece hidden in a desk. Ask me about the 1979 NCAA hockey semi-final between Minnesota and New Hampshire which fortuitously coincided with our class watching one of the Entebbe rescue movies. The “good guys” were the winners in both venues). There was drudgery and disconnected teachers. There were also soulful, humorous, wise and engaged teachers spanning all ages who against all odds imparted a little Yiddishkeit and whose best students often won the national bible competition in New York. There were your fellow third graders in 1971 from Golden Valley, New Hope, and Minneapolis who became your friends for life.
The most barbed of Jewish humor is satire directed toward the establishment, and particularly the Jewish establishment – individuals, institutions, the clergy, and event G-d. The Coen brothers are not using Lenny Bruce humor as a running rift with social commentary. It’s not contemporary Shalom Aleichem spinning a yarn around a point of Torah learning. It’s not the 20th century rapid fire, sharp witted, deeply blue monologue of comedians who grew up in the Borscht Belt, Las Vegas, or Hollywood.
A Serious Man is a movie with all sorts of Jewish features, but not necessarily a “Jewish” movie. Or perhaps, it is the quintessentially “Jewish” movie because it invokes the absurd, which is a “traditional” Jewish response to worlds in which Jews are hated because they are Jews. What can be more absurd?