Conjecture about Jewishness in the cinematic oeuvre of Ethan and Joel Coen has chased them for nearly 20 years, since the 1990 release of Miller’s Crossing, reaching a memorable plateau in 1998’s The Big Lebowski, which featured John Goodman as a Vietnam vet and convert who refuses to drive on Shabbat. Religious buzz is growing much louder now, as Coen fans await Friday’s release of A Serious Man. The new movie kicks off with a quote from Rashi (“Accept with simplicity everything that happens to you”) and a seemingly unrelated scene set in a Polish shtetl and spoken entirely in Yiddish before getting to the main drama—the story of a physics professor who seeks spiritual counsel from three rabbis in Minnesota in 1967. His is life coming undone; his son is a pothead, his daughter wants a nose-job, and his wife has left him.
Years ago, the Coens told The New York Times for Sunday’s Arts & Leisure section, they wanted to make a movie about a bar mitzvah boy who studies with a very old rabbi, “a Semitic Wizard of Oz,” says Ethan Coen. “He never spoke, but he had great charisma.” (In A Serious Man, the son studies for his bar mitzvah by listening to “Rabbi Youssele Rosenblatt Chants Your Haftorah Portion, Volume 12.”) The brothers says beyond the fact that their own father was a professor and that, like the boy in the film, they too had an affinity for the sitcom F Troop and a distaste for Hebrew school, the story is not autobiographical.
As for the Yiddish beginning, Ethan Coen explained it at a preview in Minneapolis: “You look at a shtetl, and you go, ‘Right—Jews in a shtetl.’ And then you look at the prairie in Minnesota and you kind of think—or we kind of think, with some perspective on it, having moved out, ‘What are we doing there?’ It just seems odd.” Added Joel Coen: “Mel Brooks once had a song called ‘Jews in Space.’ I guess that’s sort of the idea.”