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  • Andrew Rovinsky '25

Jewish Life in Modern America: A Serious Man and Shiva Baby

Updated: May 2

Typically, when I look back at Jewish stories in cinema, I see many movies that cover the same few themes. I see tragic, heart wrenching films like Life is Beautiful, The Pianist, or Schindler’s List about the Holocaust. I see films about Jewish otherness, backwardness, and suffering like Fiddler on the Roof or Yentl. However, what I don’t see very much of is Jewish-centered stories about Jews just being Jews. Obviously, there are some movies that portray Jews: films like Dirty Dancing, The Producers, and Once Upon a Time in America all contain Jewish representation, but do not engage much with contemporary Jewishness and cultural traditions. This representation is of course welcome, and I love seeing Jews on screen when they are not participating in Jewish life, but over the past 15 years, I have begun to see films about Jews that simply show them being Jews in the modern day. This newer trend in Jewish cinema has allowed me to relate to and understand films in a revitalized way that previously, I would not have been able to because of the distance and different cultural context of the older films.


Modern Jewish cinema has a few consistent themes. For one, most of these films are not about Jewish suffering, backwardness, or otherness. They portray Jews as assimilated individuals in American society, often placing them in the middle or upper-middle class. Jewish cultural traditions are crucial to this type of cinema such as shivas or b’nai mitzvah, but the way the characters interact with them often allows for the exploration of other themes of daily modern life. While these films sometimes mention Jewish-gentile (non-Jewish) relations, they are often not the focus; instead the films concentrate on Jewish culture internally. Through these films, I get to see scenes that are like moments of my own life, from Hebrew school to my life as a secular Jew in America. 


A Serious Man, directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen, is a wonderful introduction to this world of Jewish cinema but extremely complex. The film is about a Jewish physicist who goes through a midlife crisis professionally and at home while his son’s bar mitzvah quickly approaches. To find meaning in his situation, he visits three rabbis hoping they will give him answers—though none of them do. It is a hilarious film with a dry sense of humor and one that perfectly encapsulates modern Jewish-American cinema through its themes of the tension between Jewish culture and modernism. 


The film actually opens in a shtetl in Poland, circa 1910. It shows a husband and wife who end up killing a house guest because the wife thinks he is dybbuk (a demon). One could look at this scene as a representation of the old way; it shows complete irrationality while still exploring themes of uncertainty—the house guest leaves before dying from the wife’s stab wound, letting the viewer decide if he is truly a demon or not. However, there does not seem to be an indication that these individuals will seek logic in what happened; the wife simply says, “Blessed is the Lord. Good riddance to evil.”


The film then flashes forward to 1967, focusing on the main character, Larry, a physics professor who lives in a midwestern suburb. We quickly learn that things are going downhill for him: his wife decides to divorce him, his tenure appointment is threatened by anonymous and scandalous letters, and he struggles with finances. As a physics professor, he attempts to find logic in this crisis, asking multiple rabbis to help, but he can’t seem to find the logical stability he’s searching for. The problem is a contradiction between faith and logic. While his faith tells him everything happens for a reason, his logical brain needs to find that reason even if it is impossible to discover for certain. Whether propelled by logic or simply God’s will, the reality is that life is uncertain—just as the cat’s life is uncertain in the context of Schrodinger’s paradox, which is an idea he explains to his students early on. The ending of the film emphasizes the importance of these themes of uncertainty and the contradiction between faith and logic. The film ends with a tornado approaching Larry’s son’s school. He then receives a call from a doctor about an X-ray that he needs to go in person to discuss. It is completely uncertain what is going to happen with the tornado or the X-ray and whether there is reasoning behind either event. Are they random acts of God? Or is each event a logical response to something corrupt that Larry did, like changing a student’s grade from a fail to a pass due to bribery? The film leaves the question for the viewer: can faith and logic be reconciled at all? 


This contradiction parallels another contradiction between traditional Jewish life and modern secular life in America, something that was not present in the opening scene. The two children are far more focused on the TV, their friends, and secular American life than anything Jewish—the son going so far as to get high during his own bar mitzvah and listen to his music player during Hebrew class. At the same time, Larry’s brother gets caught gambling and attending a gay nightclub while Larry’s wife only wants to get a get (Jewish divorce) because she falls in love with another character. All of this shows how American individualism is interfering with the collective cultural traditions of Judaism. It is therefore difficult to reconcile American life with Jewish life, just as it is difficult for Larry to reconcile his logic and his faith.


In this film, I relate less to the individual scenes than to the overall themes. Scenes during Hebrew school and the bar mitzvah strike a chord with me, but I see the contradictions between my Jewish life and my American life as more significant, even as a secular Jew. When I was younger, I could barely make Hebrew school on Sundays due to hockey practice, and even as a young child, I was always confused by the logic of faith or lack thereof. Regardless of these personal connections, the film demonstrates how Jewish life has entered modern society from its traditional past. A Serious Man truly embodies modern Jewish-American cinema in this way while also using Jewish culture to explore general themes of uncertainty and faith. 


My favorite film in modern jewish cinema is the hilarious yet stressful Shiva Baby, directed by Emma Seligman. The film has a simple premise: it almost entirely takes place during a shiva (a Jewish mourning ceremony) in the New York suburbs. At this shiva, the main character, Danielle, a college senior on the brink of graduation with no real plans, runs into her sugar daddy, his wife, their child, and her ex-girlfriend. The film has a discordant score, claustrophobic cinematography, and witty dialogue full of jokes that make for an extremely stressful but laugh-out-loud experience.


Shiva Baby might be the most American Jewish film I have ever seen. From what the characters discuss to their personalities to their constant consumption of bagels: everything about the film screams Jewish. I relate to it quite a bit—some of the conversations they have, the parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, and the way that Danielle’s parents push professional networking on everyone can be taken right out of my life. 


The film focuses less on overarching themes, and more on something personal: Danielle is struggling to find her path in life. She clearly has no clue what she wants to do with her degree while everyone keeps asking her about it. As everyone approaches her, asking her questions and demanding to know if she is eating, she is stuck in a crowded set of rooms and even loses her phone containing her “sugar daddy app.” Even before losing the phone, the viewer can see how anxious she is, constantly picking up and putting back food and clearly needing to find space for herself. Clearly, Danielle not only has social anxiety, but also anxiety about her future, even asking her mom if she is “disappointed in her.” All of this culminates in a full-on panic attack after she loses her phone.


I think a lot of college students can relate to Danielle and the film at large. The awkwardness of family functions, the anxiety of not knowing what one wants to do with one’s life, the desire to not disappoint those around us, and other minute cultural intricacies are all things that many of us experience. It also explores other themes that I am less qualified to talk about such as the validity of sex work and bisexual visibility. Shiva Baby manages to explore modern themes through a Jewish cultural context in the same way as A Serious Man.

 

I absolutely love modern Jewish cinema, compared to the films that only depict suffering and backwardness or don’t deal with Jewish identity. From films like these two to Adam Sandler’s You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, I love seeing not just my people, but my culture represented in a modern context. I hope you will seek out some of these films to either relate to them tremendously or catch a glimpse into one aspect of modern Jewish American culture. 



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