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An Ugly Story?

  • Jonathan Boyarin (a1)

Among the many themes to which Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man speaks so richly and suggestively, I will focus here on three that seem especially pertinent to our understandings of American Jewish identity, as well as to the academic practice of Jewish studies, and that exhibit the film's blend of complexity, clarity, and opacity. All three are closely related aspects of a larger question about the possibility of communication and, hence, of relation, but it should be useful to articulate them separately here. Each may be said to present, through the characters' interactions and the things they read and hear, its own question for judgment, but in no case does A Serious Man indicate how the viewer is to rule on that question.

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1. Coen, Joel and Coen, Ethan, A Serious Man [script] (Internet Movie Script Database [IMSDb], 2007), p. 33,

2. Whether a film's published script better attests to what characters “really” say than what an audience hears is far from simple to determine—another example of the questions I posed above regarding both understanding versus misunderstanding, and literacy versus orality. If the script actually represented best what a character “really” says, we would, for example, have to make sense of a line attributed to A Serious Man's Hebrew teacher as “Hamrah oomoh meshiach oomshel zal?” Coen and Coen,, p. 11.

3. Labov, William, The Social Stratification of English in New York City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006 [1966]).

4. War Danny's passion for “F Troop” a warning that his father failed to hear? We will never know, but no one has ever heard of a television show called C Troop.

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AJS Review
  • ISSN: 0364-0094
  • EISSN: 1475-4541
  • URL: /core/journals/ajs-review
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