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The Physics of Being Jewish, or On Cats and Jews

  • Shai Ginsburg (a1)

The opening scene of Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man has baffled many. What does an unsettling tale of an encounter with what may or may not be a dybbuk, set in the mid-nineteenth century in a Polish shtetl, and played out entirely in Yiddish, have to do with the story of a Jewish professor of physics and his family in suburban Minnesota in the summer of 1967, related in English? Is the scene to be viewed as a warm-up of sorts before the main attraction, akin, if you will, to the short-subject films—newsreels, animated cartoons, and live-action comedies and documentaries—that movie houses of old used to play before the main feature? If so, what is the significance of presenting an odd Yiddish scene to an American audience notorious for turning a cold shoulder to non-English-speaking cinema? Or is the scene to be viewed as a prologue to the movie? If so, in what sense could it be said to impart to the audience either the “state of suspense of the plot produced by the previous history” or, alternatively, the argument of the drama?

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1. See, e.g., Denby, David, “Gods and Victims,” The New Yorker, October 5, 2009; Duvdevani, Shmulik, “Nefesh yehudi bokhiya,” Ynet, December 11, 2009,,7340,L-3818268,00.html; Puig, Claudia, “A Serious Man Is a Seriously Good Departure for Coens,” USA Today, October 4, 2009; Scott, A. O., “Calls to God: Always a Busy Signal,” New York Times, October 2, 2009.

2. Lausberg, Heinrich, Handbook of Literary Rhetoric: A Foundation for Literary Study (Leiden: Brill, 1998), secs. 1194, 1244.

3. Focus Features LLC, A Serious Man, 2009 (

4. Coen, Ethan and Coen, Joel, A Serious Man (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 17.

5. Ibid., 93.

6. Scott, “Calls to God.”

7. Roger Ebert, review of A Serious Man, Chicago Sun-Times, October 7, 2009.

8. See, e.g., Denby, “Gods and Victims”; Duvdevani, “Nefesh”; Ebert, “Review”; Todd McCarthy, review of A Serious Man, Variety, October 1, 2009; Ra'aya Morag, “Le-mi ikhpat ma kara le-goy,” Ha-arets, December 3, 2009; Elya Leibowitz, “Kri'a nosefet be-sirtam shel ha-ahim kohen yehudi tov,” Ha-arets, March 7, 2010; Joe Morgenstern, review of A Serious Man, The Wall Street Journal, October 2, 2009; Persall, Steve, “Coen brothers’ A Serious Man Has Troubles of Job without Uplift,” St. Petersburg Times, November 1, 2009; Puig, “Good Departure”; Scott, “Calls to God,” 2009. Richard Corliss is among only a handful of American reviewers who pay greater attention to the role of quantum physics in the film, but even he touches on it only briefly; see Corliss, Richard, “A Serious Man: The Coen Brothers’ Jewish Question,” Time, September 12, 2009. The critical discussion of the film in Israel, conversely, has put into relief to a much greater extent the role of quantum mechanics in the film. See, e.g., Yair Rave, review of A Serious Man, Pnay plus, December 9, 2009; Schnitzer, Meir, “Yehudi lo maghikh yehudi,” Ma'ariv, December 11, 2009. See also the Wikipedia sites of the movie in English ( and in Hebrew (

9. For an account of the debate that focuses on the rhetoric of the different versions of quantum theory in its emergence, see Beller, Mara, Quantum Dialogue: The Making of a Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). For a popular and concise account of the debate, see Greene, Brian, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 77123; 177–216.

10. Schrödinger, Erwin, “Die gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik,” Naturwissenschaften 23 (1935): 807812, 812–28, 844–49. English translation appeared as “The Present Situation in Quantum Mechanics,” in Quantum Theory and Measurement, ed. Wheeler, J. A. and Zurek, W. H. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 152–67. See also Einstein, Albert, Podolsky, Boris, and Rosen, Nathan, “Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete,” Physical Review 47 (1935): 777–80.

11. Heisenberg, Werner, “Über den anschaulichen Inhalt der quantentheoretischen Kinematik und Mechanik,” Zeitschrift für Physik 43 (1927):172–98. English translation appeared as “The Physical Content of Quantum Kinematics and Mechanics,” in Wheeler and Zurek, Quantum Theory, 62–86.

12. For the concise discussion of the ambiguity of Heisenberg's title, see Hilgevoord, Jan and Uffink, Jos, “The Uncertainty Principle,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011), ed. Zalta, Edward N.,

13. Heisenberg, “anschaulichen Inhalt,” 172. Beller translates the opening sentence differently: “We believe that we intuitively understand physical theory when we can think qualitatively about individual experimental consequences and at the same time we know that the application of the theory never contains internal contradictions” (Beller, Quantum Dialogue, 69).

14. Beller, Quantum Dialogue, 114.

15. Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen, “Quantum-Mechanical Description,” 777.

16. For a discussion of the EPR article and an analysis of the logic of the thought experiment it proposes, see Fine, Arthur, “The Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Argument in Quantum Theory,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009), ed. Zalta, Edward N.,

17. See Fine, Arthur, The Shaky Game: Einstein, Realism and the Quantum Theory, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), chap. 5.

18. Psi-function: the mathematical expression of the possible states of a given system.

19. Schrödinger, “Present Situation,” 157.

20. Quoted in Fine, The Shaky Game, 78.

21. See, e.g., Corliss, “Jewish Question.”

22. I cannot help here but think of Monty Python's famous skit: “This is a dead parrot.”

23. On this point, my reading is akin to Rave's reading of the film (Rave, “Review”).

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