Neal Conan, host of NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” asked people in his “Post Oscars” show to call in to discuss how Hollywood treats their professions. I thought about calling to talk about the rabbis in A Serious Man. I thought about it a lot. I thought about it for 58 minutes and some odd seconds, and then decided to call—oh! Out of time! Too bad.
Yes, I’m a coward. I’m also an Enneagram 9 and thus avoid conflict like the plague. Well, that isn’t really true. My writing and teaching always seems to get me embroiled in some conflict, but it always surprises me. I don’t write to start arguments. I write to share what seems obvious to me. And that is what starts arguments.
Anyway, if I had had the guts to call Neil Conan, I would have said that the Coen brothers portrayal of rabbis was exactly as I experienced it growing up, and as I all too often experience it today.
I grew up with Rabbi Marshak, the aging Orthodox sage. Unfortunately even at my Bar Mitzvah I never really got to know the Rabbi, but I doubt he would have known who Jefferson Airplane was.
With the passing of our Rabbi Marshak (he didn’t die, he just got too old to fund raise and was fired), we hired a series of Rabbi Scotts, guys just out of seminary who didn’t have a clue about life, God, suffering, or anything else meaningful. “Look at the parking lot, Larry,” just about captures the depth of their spiritual insights. We hired them because they were cheap. When they got old enough and experienced enough to become a middle aged Rabbi Nachtner, we fired them. They cost too much.
Now that I am older I know lots of Rabbi Nachtners—the senior rabbis with lots of experience who hope that they can double talk you long enough to make you feel it is your fault that God is irrelevant and Judaism doesn’t speak to you, rather than theirs.
I have read several commentaries on A Serious Man claiming the Coen brothers are self-hating Jews, and that they stereotyped rabbis and Hebrew teachers. Maybe. But the Hebrew teacher in the film was taken directly from my life, as were the rabbis. These are not stereotypes for nothing.
Of course I have known brilliant sages as well— Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Arthur Waskow, Art Green, Shlomo Carlebach, Ellis Rivkin, and Eugene Mihaly, to name a few, but I suspect the Nachtners and the Scotts are the norm.
Anyway, Neal, thanks for taking my call. I’ve got to go and drain a cyst.