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Rabbis, Bribes and Bar Mitzvahs: A Look at the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man

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A Serious Man

Imaginatively exploring questions of faith, familial responsibility, delinquent behavior, dental phenomena, academia, mortality, and Judaism – and intersections thereof – A Serious Man is the new film from Academy Award-winning writer/directors Joel & Ethan Coen.Picture+#3

A Serious Man is the story of an ordinary man’s search for clarity in a universe where Jefferson Airplane is on the radio and F-Troop is on TV. It is 1967, and Larry Gopnik (Tony Award nominee Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a quiet Midwestern university, has just been informed by his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) that she is leaving him. She has fallen in love with one of his more pompous acquaintances, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who seems to her a more substantial person than the feckless Larry. Larry’s unemployable brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is sleeping on the couch, his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is a discipline problem and a shirker at Hebrew school, and his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is filching money from his wallet in order to save up for a nose job.

While his wife and Sy Ableman blithely make new domestic arrangements, and his brother becomes more and more of a burden, an anonymous hostile letter-writer is trying to sabotage Larry’s chances for tenure at the university. Also, a graduate student seems to be trying to bribe him for a passing grade while at the same time threatening to sue him for defamation. Plus, the beautiful woman next door torments him by sunbathing nude. Struggling for equilibrium, Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis. Can anyone help him cope with his afflictions and become a righteous person – a mensch – a serious man?

For more information, check out the movie’s official site for reviews, articles, photos, glossary, summary of Jewish communities in the U.S. and more! You can also become a fan of A Serious Man on Facebook or follow Focus Features on Twitter.

How do JDaters feel about the Coen Brothers’ new film, A Serious Man?

We asked a JDate Success Story – Lesley and Jonathan from Toronto, Canada – to see A Serious Man and share their opinions with JMag. Here are some of their thoughts on the film:

JMag: How would you compare the Bar Mitzvah experience of Danny in A Serious Man to your own Bar/Bat Mitzvah?

Lesley: Unfortunately, I did not have a Bat Mitzvah. I have attended a few but do not think I can completely relate to his experience in the movie.

Jonathan: Danny’s experience and my own were vastly different. For starters, I prepared for my portion of the Haftorah reading with my rabbi. We met weekly, face to face and we worked on both the memorization and cantillation.  I seem to recall practicing at home with a tape recording of the correct cantillation and, unlike Danny, I am certain I did not own a phonograph.

As for the day of my Bar Mitzvah, I recall how nervous I was when I looked up to see my family and the rest of the congregation waiting for me to begin; however, I am certain I did not partake in any “recreational” activities prior to the reading of the Haftorah. Like Danny, I did receive a Kiddush cup from my rabbi although I did not receive the same pearls of wisdom Danny received following his becoming a Bar Mitzvah.

JMag: What does the tradition of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah mean to you?

Lesley: I would like our child to go to Hebrew school and grow up in a more traditional home than I did. I think it is important to keep traditions that provide similar life experiences to Jews throughout the world going from generation to generation.

Jonathan: Becoming a Bar Mitzvah was the first time I really felt connected to Judaism. Prior to this occasion, I always knew I was Jewish; however, I never attended Hebrew School so my knowledge of Judaism included only the customs I was exposed to during the High Holy Days.  In preparation for becoming a Bar Mitzvah, I learned how to read Hebrew (obviously a requirement for reading from the Torah) and was exposed to an in-depth history of Judaism.  Becoming a Bar Mitzvah meant I was not only becoming a man and was of age to follow the commandments, but I was now truly becoming a Jew.

JMag: How would you compare the life learning experiences of Larry in A Serious Man, to your own?

Lesley: I have learned that you have to take each day as it comes and savor the little things in life. Sometimes we lose sight of the small things that make us happy. We also need to appreciate the people in our life and make an effort to focus on and cultivate our relationships.

Jonathan: Larry endured several significant life learning experiences over the course of the movie. I felt on some occasions, Larry accepted his fate and sought answers for his experiences through Judaism. While I do believe everything happens for a reason and may or may not be the work of a higher power, I often try to look for answers in areas outside of Judaism.

JMag: Do you feel that going to see a rabbi like Larry did can solve your everyday problems?

Lesley: I do not belong to a shul and do not have a connection with a rabbi, but would like to join a congregation at some point soon. I think that one of the most important parts of any congregation is having a rabbi who can relate to its members. If we join a congregation and I find a rabbi I could talk to, I would definitely discuss everyday problems with him or her. I had a female rabbi at my wedding. She was great. If I lived in Brooklyn, and not Toronto, I would go to her shul!

Jonathan: I do not believe seeing a rabbi can solve your everyday problems; instead, I believe seeing a rabbi can help put everyday problems in perspective. For instance, Larry’s potential legal problems with both his student as well as his wife may not be best solved with the help of a rabbi; however, a rabbi can help Larry understand his place in life as well as the bigger picture which will ultimately allow Larry to make better, sound decisions.

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