Chutzpah.Posted: November 4, 2009
Maybe it will take longer than 70 or 80 years for Holocaust-induced paranoia to fully disappear from the minds of American Jews; I know that one recent episode of a TV show, and one current movie, have reawakened it in me.
Both works were created by Jewish writers. The TV show stuck a thumb in the eye of the Christian majority, while the movie exposed to the world as unattractive a picture of a Jewish community as I have ever seen. (I have to say, however, that I have not seen any Nazi propaganda films.)
Both the TV show and the movie are daring. Daring in two senses. First, in the sense of brave. Second, in the more literal sense that they actually dare the Christian majority to hate us, and to do something about it.
On a recent episode of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry’s urine backsplashes from the toilet in the home of a fundamentalist Christian onto a painting of Jesus hanging on the wall, so that a droplet appears to the homeowner to be a tear falling miraculously from Jesus’s eye. The Catholic League last week complained, and I can see why. If Christian characters in a sitcom defiled a Jewish symbol in a way remotely like this, there’d be an uproar like you wouldn’t believe. Of course, the fact that Christians are a huge majority in the population and Jews a tiny minority alters the calculus of the whole thing, and makes the offense somehow more “permissible” (perhaps), but still. Can we actually get away with this stuff?
In A Serious Man, set in the Jewish community of a Minneapolis suburb in 1967, Joel and Ethan Coen display for us a gallery of grotesques. Nearly every character is ugly on some level — most of them physically. They are made-up and photographed so as to magnify the distortions in their features. The external ugliness seems meant to manifest a soul-sickness inside. Everyone is a victim or a predator. Leaders of the community are revealed as pious hypocrites. People behave unconscionably toward one another, or with unpardonable self-absorption. One poor shnook has a medical condition which involves something unspeakable draining out of his neck into a tube at all times, in a manner suggestive of some sort of space-alien fluid. Although there is a worst-nightmare quality to all of it rather than a sense of realism, it is impossible completely to dismiss as fantasy, since it has an uncomfortable truth, as nightmares do. (Otherwise they couldn’t scare us.)
We know that what’s on offer in this movie is not all there is to the real-life Jewish community. The real-life Jewish community contains a rich vein of inner and outer beauty, true (not hypocritical) morality, concern for fellow man (Jew and non-Jew alike), and gratitude for God’s blessings. OK, but all of that acknowledged — would this movie make any sense at all if it had been, instead, about life among the Swedes? I worry that the answer is no.
I felt nervous watching the film. I wished that some sort of Proof of Judaism card had been required for admission, so that we wouldn’t be embarrassed in front of others. I derived comfort from the fact that the movie isn’t a big hit, and not a lot of people may see it. But fat chance of that, now that the movie is being talked about as a serious contender for a Best Picture Oscar.
Of course, the catch 22 with my fear about how these characters are depicted (there’s always a catch 22 with us, isn’t there? — not for nothing was Catch 22 written by Joseph Heller, a Jew) is that the distortions in these characters’ personalities are a product of their fear of the society outside their (invisible) ghetto-suburban walls. The grotesqueries of the community in the film — the things that make the grotesqueries feel so Jewish, and fuel my paranoia about what the film will do to the Jewish reputation — those malformations themselves are stigmata of the characters’ completely-earned, historically-justified anxiety. Give this people a chance not to be persecuted for a century or two, and they might even become normal. I get it; and audiences who think a bit about the film may get it.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t look good.
And that may be the point for Larry David and the Coen Brothers. In being daring enough (in both senses of the word) to show something that doesn’t look good, they may, perversely, be searching for security. In their freedom, a freedom unlike any that Jews have known since Jews began, their (perhaps unconscious) agenda may be to say: “OK, Majority, we’re testing. Testing your tolerance, testing the limits of our freedom to provoke you and still survive. We’re going to give you every excuse to hate us, and if you still don’t — if we can show you this, and you still don’t round us all up and put us into cattle cars — well, then, I guess we Jews really are finally and truly safe.”
From their mouths to God’s ear.