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“Serious” Talk

  • Jeffrey Shandler (a1)

Starting with its opening scene, A Serious Man offers a complex, provocative engagement with the role of storytelling in Jewish life, past and present. Many viewers have wondered how the film's “shtetl” prologue relates to its main story, set in Minneapolis in 1967. They have often speculated that there is some plot-driven relationship that they somehow missed. But the connection, by the filmmakers' own assertion, is not diegetic; rather, it is thematic, and storytelling figures strategically in articulating this link.

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1. Rickman reports that some of the earlier translation, which was prepared by Wendy Zierler, remained in the final version, especially lines spoken by Fyvush Finkel, who also added some idioms of his own. Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson, in discussion with author, February 7, 2011.

2. Ibid.

3. Rickman raised this issue, among other details that came up in the process of translating the script, with the Coens. Allen Lewis Rickman e-mail message to Jeffrey Shandler, February 23, 2011.

4. These and several other Jewish terms are glossed—and spelled as given here—on a bonus feature included on the DVD of A Serious Man (DVD no. 62106191, Universal Pictures, 2010), titled “Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys.”

5. In addition, some claim that a portrait of Treitle Groshkover can be glimpsed in the office of the reclusive Rabbi Marshak. In fact, this is not the case; rather, this claim projects the desire for some direct sign of a connection between the prologue and the rest of the film.

6. Manohla Dargis, review of True Grit, “Wearing Braids, Seeking Revenge,” New York Times, December 21, 2010,

7. Dik, Aizik-Meyer, “The Gilgul, or the Wandering Soul,” in The Dybbuk and the Yiddish Imagination: A Haunted Reade, ed. and trans. Neugroschel, Joachim (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000), 154.

8. Strictly speaking, the disease that Larry is being summoned to his doctor's office to discuss at the end of A Serious Man was already in effect at the film's opening, when Larry underwent the tests on which his diagnosis is based. Therefore, could Larry's illness be an act of divine punishment for accepting the bribe? Or is all this foreordained by some supernal power—that is, a power other than the film's creators?

9. Rabbi Benjamin Blech, “If Only the Coen Brothers Were Serious,”

10. Taylor, Ella, “For A Serious Man, Coen Brothers Aim Trademark Contempt at Themselves,Village Voice, September 29, 2009,

11. Henry Makow, “ ‘A Serious Man’: Scathing Portrayal of Judaism,”

12. Jordan Hiller, “25 Essential Jewish Films: A Serious Man,” posted September 27, 2009.

13. Diane, “Should We Take ‘A Serious Man’ Seriously?” posted January 6, 2010,

14. “Warner Bros. Supreme Triumph: The Jazz Singer” (facsimile of souvenir program, supplement to “three-disc deluxe edition” of The Jazz Singer) (DVD no. 79889, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc., 2007), [18].

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