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When the Truth Is Found To Be . . . Hilarious

Lawrence Bush
December 7, 2009

I finally saw the Coen Brothers’ interpretation of the Book of Job, “A Serious Man” — and I think the climactic scene with Rabbi Marshak, the old sage, is one of the great cinematic moments of the past decade.
The old man’s “words of wisdom” to the bar mitzvah boy consist of a quote from the Jefferson Airplane’s driving, exciting hit song, “Somebody to Love,” with just one word changed:
“When the truth is found to be lies,
and all the hope (original: joy) within you dies . . .”
Then the old rabbi names all the Jefferson Airplane’s Jewish band members (Grace Slick, Marty Bailin, Paul Kantner, Jorma Kaukonen, though he stumbles over Jorma’s goyish name), returns the boy’s confiscated radio/tape player, and says, “Be a good boy.”
It is the strongest affirmation of “Judaism as a counterculture” that I’ve ever seen on screen. We are sitting in 1967, at the edge of the countercultural explosion, and the old rabbis essentially says: Yes, that’s the direction to take, pot and rock and consciousness expansion — only remember that you’re Jewish, that it’s Jewish — and be a good boy.
The movie, like most of the Coen Brothers work, is totally cartoonish — in this case full of stereotypical embodiments of “horrid” Jews, with big lips and big noses and big bosoms and bad posture — yet I found myself loving them all rather than feeling mortified. Rather than being a film for self-hating Jews, “A Serious Man” is actually a film for Jews who are so comfortable with being Jewish that we can actually embrace and enjoy all the stereotypes. That was my experience: I thought the Coens were killing me with love, calling forth my pintele yidn (little internal Jews) onto the dance floor. It was like MAD magazine in motion and in living color.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about the film in comparison to “Precious,” which also is set in the past (the late 1980s) and EMBODIES its characters, the central one being an enormously fat and physically violated young woman. It’s interesting to me that while “A Serious Man” hoots at oppression and misfortune, and hoots at the ways in which the Jewish community traps itself, “Precious” takes that all very, very, VERY seriously.
May it only be that in a decade or two, the African-American community has advanced enough in the push against racism and internalized oppression to laugh heartily at its own suffering, its own pathologies, its own big asses! (But maybe that’s already happening; I’ve been meaning to check out the Tyler Perry movies . . .)
For another fabulous interpretation of the Book of Job, by the way, listen to Joni Mitchell’s “Sire of Sorrow” on Turbulent Indigo — one of my favorite pieces by my second favorite woman singer-songwriter of all time.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.