Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

Imminent Disaster

By Thomas Kochman - 01.08.2010

Some friends of mine asked me about the significance of a scene near the end of the latest Coen brother’s movie, “A Serious Man” in which a decrepit old geezer—most all of the Jewish characters in this movie fit the stereotypical portrait of “how Jews are supposed to look”– is fumbling with a set of keys to open a door to the basement of the building that offers safety against a rapidly approaching tornado that threatens to destroy everything in its path, including, and maybe especially –Jews aren’t “The Chosen People” for nothing– the infuriatingly anxious Yeshiva students waiting outside for the door to open.

I told them, that for me, that scene perfectly captured the survival mindset of many, if not most, Jewish people –the notion that disaster is imminent— and, no matter what you do, there’s very little that can be done to stop it.

Of course, Jews are not the only group who think that.

But what’s different for Jews, and is perhaps decidedly Jewish, is the collective difficulty –some would say inability – to put the notion of imminent disaster aside in getting on with life.

It’s definitely not Carpe Diem or “Eat, Drink and Be Merry, for Tomorrow We Die.”

I remember a scene from the French 1995 movie: Les Miserables, with Jean Paul Belmondo, playing a French resistance fighter in WW II, patterning his life after Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo’s novel. After uniting a French Jewish family that had been separated by the war –Belmondo had been instrumental in finding them places of refuge – he notes the Jewish man’s sense of gloom. Belmondo says, “Be happy! This is a time to enjoy.” The Jewish man responds, “Jews are always two sorrows ahead.”

So what might be different ways of responding?

A Zen Buddhist parable speaks of a man clinging to a vine on the edge of a cliff. There is disaster above and below. Two mice are gnawing away at the vine. As he feels the vine being uprooted he spies a luscious strawberry nearby. He let go of the vine with one hand and held on tight with the other hand “as he plucked the strawberry and brought it to its mouth.”

That’s very hard for Jews to do: reaching for the strawberry, maybe. Wholeheartedly enjoying it — I  think not.

Rather, I remember a cartoon in the New Yorker in which a couple is standing on a balcony looking at an idyllic sunset with the husband saying, “Now let’s not spoil this evening by enjoying it.”

I remember saying to myself, “That’s more like it. And it\’s so Jewish”.

Oy Vey!

One Response so far

Another example I saw where Jewish men become heroes of sort was in the 1996 science fiction film “Independence Day”.

Alex Goldblum plays a scientist who discovers the communications from an alien mothership about to attack Earth. He then attempts to notify the President through his estranged wife, who is an aide to the President. His father (played by Judd Hirsch) also plays an assertive role. I’ll spare the spoilers.

The movie is all about imminent disaster. Though it was reflective to watch these two characters through the film and determine whether I was observing an archetype rather than a stereotype.

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