Randy's Corner Deli Library

25 December 2009

A Serious Marriage

This was my favorite film of 2009, too. RS

A haftorah of contradictions and reconciliation

By Liel Leibovitz | 7:00 AM Dec 25, 2009 | Print | Email / Share

Michael Stuhlbarg and Sari Lennick as Larry and Judith Gopnik in 'A Serious Man'

CREDIT: Focus Features

This week, with the year winding down and the snow piling up, I had a chance to revisit my favorite film of 2009, the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man. I’ve sung the praises of this masterpiece before, but watching it for the second time raised a fresh batch of questions about the film’s rich and strange universe of moral and theological complications.

I was particularly drawn to the relationship between the film’s protagonist, Larry Gopnik, and his wife, Judith. He is a pale physics professor, with eyes by Bambi and hair by Schiele; she is his rapacious ringmaster, a venomous creature who can deliver more derision with a flick of an eyebrow than most humans can with carefully considered words. It’s giving away little of the film’s plot to reveal that it begins with Judith leaving Larry for the delightfully awful Sy Ableman—a baritone-voiced phony—and ends with the two reconciling, holding hands and swapping smiles at their son’s bar mitzvah. The soulful, sultry, and weed-addled neighbor, Mrs. Samsky, offers a brief spell of seduction, but it’s Judith, clearly, that Larry truly wants and, more devastatingly, needs.

There are, of course, many ways to read this bit of narrative, and more than one critic has accused the Coens of perpetuating negative stereotypes of meek Jewish men and grating Jewish women. But an altogether different explanation is possible, and it comes to us courtesy of this week’s haftorah.

As the reading begins, the prophet Ezekiel conjures a strange image:

“The word of the Lord came again unto me, saying, Moreover, thou son of man, take thee one stick, and write upon it, For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions: then take another stick, and write upon it, For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim and for all the house of Israel his companions: And join them one to another into one stick; and they shall become one in thine hand. And when the children of thy people shall speak unto thee, saying, Wilt thou not shew us what thou meanest by these? Say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel his fellows, and will put them with him, even with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they shall be one in mine hand.”

Likewise, the rest of the chapter speaks of the reunification of the divergent kingdoms, that of Israel in the north and that of Judah in the south, which have split into two separate entities after a brief and bloody internecine battle in 920 BCE. According to most available accounts, the northern kingdom was the one most likely to succeed, surpassing its neighbor to the south in everything from urban planning to sophisticated warfare methods and blessed by far greater rainfall and therefore more robust agriculture. Judeans, on the other hand, focused mainly around Jerusalem, and spent a considerable amount of time fretting about ritual and tradition.

One kingdom, therefore, looked to the future, another to the past. And it’s a tribute to Judaism’s magical sense of time—or, perhaps, sense of magical time—that it was the Judeans who far outlived the crumbling kingdom of Israel. Judah took Judaism seriously, while Israel concerned itself with becoming a player in the complex geopolitical struggles of the region. Judah was provincial, Israel worldly. Israel lasted exactly 200 years before being overpowered by the Assyrians; Judah fared considerably better.

Why, then, would the prophet seek to reunite them? Why not bid adieu to the sinful Israel, with its penchant for Baal worship, and cultivate instead the mostly pure Judah? Such a spiritual equivalent of natural selection might eventually make for a more just, more righteous people. It would also, however, be utterly unrealistic: for a people to survive, the Bible knows well, it needs priests and politicians, prophets and soldiers, urban planners and religious scholars alike.

The same could be said of the Gopniks. Judith spends the duration of the film in search of earthly bliss: she philanders and conspires and is eager to get rid of her poor, hunched husband so that she and the able Ableman may have the house all to themselves. Larry, on the other hand, seeks the advice of rabbi after rabbi, eager to unearth some secret, divine meaning to the trials and errors of modern life.

They need each other, those two. There may be more alluring partners out there, more illustrious and more tempting neighbors and friends. But if the Gopniks are to survive, they need both the seeker and the scammer, the greedy and the godly, the serious man and the sensual woman. The same is true of us Jews. It always has been.

23 December 2009

11 December 2009

Happy Hannukah

10 December 2009

The Hanukkah Story

December 11, 2009
Op-Ed Columnist

Tonight Jewish kids will light the menorah, spin their dreidels and get their presents, but Hanukkah is the most adult of holidays. It commemorates an event in which the good guys did horrible things, the bad guys did good things and in which everybody is flummoxed by insoluble conflicts that remain with us today. It’s a holiday that accurately reflects how politics is, how history is, how life is.

It begins with the spread of Greek culture. Alexander’s Empire, and the smaller empires that succeeded it, brought modernizing ideas and institutions to the Middle East. At its best, Hellenistic culture emphasized the power of reason and the importance of individual conscience. It brought theaters, gymnasiums and debating societies to the cities. It raised living standards, especially in places like Jerusalem.

Many Jewish reformers embraced these improvements. The Greeks had one central idea: their aspirations to create an advanced universal culture. And the Jews had their own central idea: the idea of one true God. The reformers wanted to merge these two ideas.

Urbane Jews assimilated parts of Greek culture into their own, taking Greek names like Jason, exercising in the gymnasium and prospering within Greek institutions. Not all Jews assimilated. Some resisted quietly. Others fled to the hills. But Jerusalem did well. The Seleucid dynasty, which had political control over the area, was not merely tolerant; it used imperial money to help promote the diverse religions within its sphere.

In 167 B.C., however, the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, issued a series of decrees defiling the temple, confiscating wealth and banning Jewish practice, under penalty of death. It’s unclear why he did this. Some historians believe that extremist Jewish reformers were in control and were hoping to wipe out what they saw as the primitive remnants of their faith. Others believe Antiochus thought the Jews were disloyal fifth columnists in his struggle against the Egyptians and, hence, was hoping to assimilate them into his nation.

Regardless, those who refused to eat pork were killed in an early case of pure religious martyrdom.

As Jeffrey Goldberg, who is writing a book on this period, points out, the Jews were slow to revolt. The cultural pressure on Jewish practice had been mounting; it was only when it hit an insane political level that Jewish traditionalists took up arms. When they did, the first person they killed was a fellow Jew.

In the town of Modin, a Jew who was attempting to perform a sacrifice on a new Greek altar was slaughtered by Mattathias, the old head of a priestly family. Mattathias’s five sons, led by Judah Maccabee, then led an insurgent revolt against the regime.

The Jewish civil war raised questions: Who is a Jew? Who gets to define the right level of observance? It also created a spiritual crisis. This was not a battle between tribes. It was a battle between theologies and threw up all sorts of issues about why bad things happen to faithful believers and what happens in the afterlife — issues that would reverberate in the region for centuries, to epic effect.

The Maccabees are best understood as moderate fanatics. They were not in total revolt against Greek culture. They used Greek constitutional language to explain themselves. They created a festival to commemorate their triumph (which is part of Greek, not Jewish, culture). Before long, they were electing their priests.

On the other hand, they were fighting heroically for their traditions and the survival of their faith. If they found uncircumcised Jews, they performed forced circumcisions. They had no interest in religious liberty within the Jewish community and believed religion was a collective regimen, not an individual choice.

They were not the last bunch of angry, bearded religious guys to win an insurgency campaign against a great power in the Middle East, but they may have been among the first. They retook Jerusalem in 164 B.C. and rededicated the temple. Their regime quickly became corrupt, brutal and reactionary. The concept of reform had been discredited by the Hellenizing extremists. Practice stagnated. Scholarship withered. The Maccabees became religious oppressors themselves, fatefully inviting the Romans into Jerusalem.

Generations of Sunday school teachers have turned Hanukkah into the story of unified Jewish bravery against an anti-Semitic Hellenic empire. Settlers in the West Bank tell it as a story of how the Jewish hard-core defeated the corrupt, assimilated Jewish masses. Rabbis later added the lamp miracle to give God at least a bit part in the proceedings.

But there is no erasing the complex ironies of the events, the way progress, heroism and brutality weave through all sides. The Maccabees heroically preserved the Jewish faith. But there is no honest way to tell their story as a self-congratulatory morality tale. The lesson of Hanukkah is that even the struggles that saved a people are dappled with tragic irony, complexity and unattractive choices.

08 December 2009


Humans have a funny way of calculating time. When we're born, we start out at zero. A month goes by and people stop you in the street to ask "how old is your gorgeous baby?" and the reply that usually comes out, until plenty more than a year passes, is "one month". So it is that when I celebrated my 49th birthday on the 16th, I entered into my 50th year on earth. When I do hit 50 in 2010, it will be beyond the calculation I made as a sophomore in Sheldon Bryer's American history class as a sophomore at Sullivan High School in Chicago in 1976, the last time I had a snow day.

I remember sitting in class behind a Greek girl named Zoe who hung with the Howard Street Greasers, the local street gang and who liked to suck on LSD-coated sugar cubes with her friend whose name has faded into the shadows of memory but who did in fact sit across the aisle from her, kitty corner from me, just, I guess, to pass the time while being bored by the writing of Thomas Jefferson and the thought of taking yet another exam on some arcane feature of American government like the Constitution, a document whose fifth amendment undoubtedly came in handy for those LSD-suckers at some point later in their lives.

As opposed to dropping acid in class, I got lost in history and my future, as I actually enjoyed Mr. Breyer's class, though I have to admit that I could and still do daydream with the best of them, only back then it was a particular one that I remember so vividly now, the one where I actually calculated my age as the years went by.

In particular, I remember wondering aloud in my mind "how old will I be in the year 2000"? and coming up with the answer: 40. That, for a 15 year old, was a very long way off; in 2009, it seems, as we come to the end of the first decade of (deep voice) the twENTy First century, the name of a television program hosted by the late Walter Cronkite, like it was a long time ago. And it was. Life has changed so much since the innocent days of a kid from Rogers Park into a thing that I could hardly imagine sitting there in the musty rooms of that old brownish-red brick building at 6632 N. Bosworth Avenue, an edifice which contained the dreams and fantasies of so many teens like me, the hopes for the future and fears for what it might mean. I had no idea then what I'd be like now, or what life could be like, what the world might be like.

There was no internet. If you wanted to make a telephone call, you went to a black pay phone and dialed, rotary-style, for a dime. If you wanted to talk to someone, you either called them or just stopped over. As a senior in 1978, computers were in their infancy. Could you have imagined the role silicon would play in our lives? I knew that computers were neat and big deals, but the extent to which they have come into our lives was, believe me, not on my radar screen. As a kid whose mathematics lessons stopped after my freshman year in college, who took no science classes in college beyond "Weather for Political Science Majors", it was all sort of irrelevant.

Life for me was lived and still is lived by connecting with people. Computers and technology have come into our lives, at least from my vantage point, to attempt to connect people to people. That is the ultimate purpose, isn't it? Whether it's stores, blogs, or information, it's still all about people, the common denominator for all that we do and all that we are.

Who would have imagined the advent of love in an online parallel universe? Whether it's online or offline, it's about people. Information, please? Why? So we can be more productive, more effective, better people. The only lesson now is to reconnect with the time we used to have when silence at some times dominated, when quiet was not something to be feared but treasured, when all the electronics in the house, which mainly meant the radio and the television, which contained the three major networks, ABC, NBC and CBS, and in Chicago, WGN and WFLD, Channel 32, and the Spanish station, Channel 26. Off.

So is it the case that instant information has made our lives better? Are we better people for all the new data? In some ways, most ways, the answer is of course yes. In other ways, it has made us more cynical; people find channels of information that fit and reinforce already held beliefs and it's the task of the truly enlightened to get information from places and people who hold views that are dissimilar to our own, outside our comfort zones and to keep open minds about what it is that other people are saying and why. I am sure that both Zoe and her LSD-sucking friend as well as Mr. Breyer would agree.

But the task these days is knowing when to return to silence and simplicity and more importantly perhaps, why. To regain some measure of perspective I think has been lost in the constant red click-clack of everyday living, bombarded as we are by so much, thinking we always have to be in motion, productive, functioning at doing something, anything, to make something. For me, the most important feature of the new decade will be for those of us who can analyze the data efficiently in order to reassert some measure of control over our lives despite the ubiquity of Google and Microsoft, to regain the simplicity in our lives that, I think, we all long for and for many of us, me included, lost somewhere between Windows 95 and Vista. Let us hope that 2010 will bring us a renewed sense of optimism, simplicity and love that transcends mere data and which allows us to truly become who we really are.

Little Life Enhancements

I've never been moved to write about little stuff. But in this instance, the little stuff has added some enjoyment to my life and I thought I would share it with my loyal readers.

First, I've been itching to see what Blu-Ray discs look like in my home, in my living room. Now I don't have a lot of money to spend, and indeed a really outstanding argument could be made that I have no money to spend on seeming frivolities like a Blu-Ray player. But I have to tell you that I have been an audiophile since I have been 15 years old when I got my first Pioneer SX525 receiver with quadrophonic stereo speakers in, oh, about 1976 and perhaps before that, and I've never let up. Music and its delivery has been an integral part of my life since I can remember, so when the opportunity came to enhance my video and audiophilic experience, I am usually among the first to jump on board. I did it with Super Audio CDs (SACD), DVD-Audio (a popular bomb, but still quite the auditory experience) and I did it with HD-DVD, the loser in the format wars of 2006-2007.

So it was that I came to finally decide that, for the right price, I would ante up and see what Blu-Ray had to offer. But money is such that it couldn't only be Blu-Ray. No. As a loyal and long-time Netflix subscriber, I became aware of networked Blu-Ray players that could also pull down my choices in instant movies from my Netflix queue. So it was that I went looking for a networked Blu-Ray player about a month or so ago. After quite a bit of research, I was going to get the LG model as people had complained that the Sony model didn't do Netflix very well if at all, or so I was led to believe. I went shopping at Best Buy (a misnomer) to see what they had, and sure enough, in their "best" Blu-Ray players was this item:

So I got home and checked on Amazon.com for the as-usual better price and soon enough, I was the proud owner of my first (and probably last -- depending on how long it'll hold up under normal use) Blu-Ray player as more recent comments and ratings from others convinced me that Sony had fixed its software issue with this player.

It isn't so much the quality of the video that is so striking, but the audio mixes that accompany the discs. For example, The Who at the Isle of Wight in 1970 is a magnificent video, but for me, the major and best feature of the disc is the sound quality of the concert. You can hear Entwistle, Moon and Townsend chatting it up between songs so clearly it's like having a front row seat, without the problems that one might encounter in time travel. When I tell you it's an experience, believe me.

For those of you who don't have Blu-Ray players, but have Netflix accounts and a computer network in your home, the prices on these things have come down even since I bought this one -- the price I paid was $213.95, no tax and no shipping charges. (I have requested a refund.) It's now well under $200 and is just not an option for those of you who want to complete your home theater experience. I spend a lot of time at home as going out is a major expense these days and going to the movies is too often a quality gamble; I am not into paying $12 for a ticket to a movie that I am not really sure is going to be worth the effort and bother of sitting with strangers watching a film. The last one I went to was "A Serious Man", the Coen Brothers' newest film, and one that I will undoubtedly buy used in Blu-Ray when it comes out because the sound designer did such a superlative job on it and I can't wait to get it home when it does finally hit stores. I cannot recommend this player more highly for any amount of money. It's little things like this that make life worth living.

The other little thing that has enhanced life a lot has been the purchase from Sprint of its new "Hero" phone which runs on the Google Android OS. This thing has been absolutely amazing and with the Blu-Ray player has brought me, at last, technologically into 2009 and beyond. The Google OS is very good, and the people at HTC in Taiwan who created the user interface for it have done a magnificent job. There is no doubt that Google and its own App Store will, by sheer force of numbers, eventually come to dominate the market for touchscreen phones. The Android OS is on phones from T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint. There may be more carriers of which I am not aware, but those three account for a whole lot of people. More people than AT&T where the i-Phone is trapped.

The thing is just amazing. However, I know as well as the next idiot how to break something and when I tell you that little things mean a lot, I mean exactly that. I needed to find a case for my new phone to protect it from breaking. As it happens, I have hard tile floors on the first floor, and I knew that one day, despite herculean efforts to be careful, I would drop the thing and my Hero would be dead, and I'd be out another $180 for a new phone.

So it was that I went shopping for cases, thinking that a rubberized one would do the trick. However, I found this little product on Amazon.com:

I didn't know it at the time I ordered it, but it was hard and "rubberized" plastic and came in two pieces. I was tempted to return it to get the $10, one piece silicone-rubber-whatever case, but the cost of the return shipping made that impractical so I bit the bullet, so to speak, and snapped it onto my phone and shut my mouth and just dealt with it.

Let me tell you that the two piece case saved my phone over the weekend because when I dropped it, and it was only a question of when, not if, that I would do so, that little $5 Chinese chatchke saved my phone as when it hit the tile in the kitchen, the energy from the drop from my white fleece pullover where it could and did slide out to the floor caused the case to split in two pieces saving my Hero. I just had to write about it, and what's more I couldn't recommend a case more highly for your mobile phone. If you have a chance to get a hard, two piece case for yours, by all means, get it. It'll save you more aggravation than you care to think about, not to mention hard-to-come-by money.

Little life enhancements. Good things.

**Update: 1800 PST: Amazon refused to refund my money, as it's not their policy to do so after the item ships, even if the price subsequently drops and the item can still be returned. What bullshit. So they want me to return the thing and THEN get it cheaper from THEM? So I argued a bit with the "leadership team director" who was, by his accent, in India, and got him to send me a promotional gift certificate on a "one time only" basis. This is a ridiculous policy, especially when the item can still be returned. Amazon, are you listening? Probably not. But your man in India made me a wee bit happier in giving me a gift certificate for the difference. Thank you for that, "Eric".