David J. Rudis is a Wexner Heritage Alumnus from Chicago. David has been a banker for over 30 years (he assures us he isn’t the fat cat everyone is talking about). He has been active in a variety of Jewish leadership positions and is currently working with fellow Wexner Heritage alums Elisa Bildner and Danny Krifcher to make the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) the pre- eminent objective voice of the American Diaspora. David can be reached at djr2016@gmail.com.

When the film credits rolled at the end of the Coen brother’s A Serious Man, I was stunned. In typical Coen brothers form, the plot was subject to multiple interpretations. Over the next few days friends weighed in. “It’s the Book of Job. No, it’s the Book of Ecclesiastes. The Coens are self hating Jews. The Coens are brilliant. I loved it. Obtuse. Depressive. I hated it. It was honest. I laughed so hard. I was so mad when I heard non-Jews laughing” and so on.

But what struck me was the setting, both the physical and the emotional setting. The set was ostensibly St. Paul Minnesota. But to me, the setting was a filmstrip of my childhood growing up Jewish in Tucson, Arizona.

As a community in those days we didn’t know what a Jewish neighborhood was. They didn’t exist. Most of us connected through affiliations with the one conservative synagogue or the one reformed temple and probably more important than anything else, the JCC which at that time had one of the largest swimming pools in Tucson (very important when it is 110 outside). We brought to Tucson traditions from “back east” as we called it, which meant anything east of New Mexico. As in the movie, our Judaism was often defined by a combination of our running toward or away from our transported sense of mitzvah (mitzvah defined as, if you are Jewish, you do certain things). There in the land of near total assimilation we dutifully went to Hebrew School to memorize what was taught and then spent the majority of our time living our lives in fundamentally different ways. Most Jews I grew up with talked a lot about Israel and their identity but didn’t take things much further than that. Swapping cholent for guacamole wasn’t a tough deal. This isn’t to say we didn’t have constant reminders that our background was different. In hunting season my neighbors also draped dead deer over their truck bumpers.

So we grew up strangers in a very strange land. It all sort of fit, because we were all part of the Diaspora and our narrative on a weekly basis reminded us this has been the case for thousands of years. We tended to idealize (except in the winter time) Jewish communities back east. It was there that Jews could be Jews. To be Jewish there was not the exception and they had real bagels. To us “back east” was the land where mitzvah easily fit because the common denominator was already Jewish. They didn’t ask you to sing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing at public school Christmas pageants.

It wasn’t until I left Tucson for college and Chicago that I began to realize that our “back east” fantasy was flawed. Yes, there were some people living fully integrated Jewish lives. And of course there were New Yorkers I met who grew up surrounded by Jews. But if Jews could be Jews in New York, or Highland Park, most Jews I met from those locales were just as actively re-interpreting or abandoning traditions as those out west. I even learned that a group of wealthy Chicago German Jews in the 1960s converted to Christian Science, but continued to marry within the clan (read An Orphan In History by Paul Cowan). For those that challenge my views, the metrics of successive AJC demographic studies prove that our people were voting with their feet, as in walking out the door, but still sitting down for Seders. It was naïve to think that the Jews “back east” had it all figured out. 

The Coen Brothers throw a lot of icons at us. The meaning or lack of meaning in the movie is up to each of us to individually interpret. But we all relate to the icons. We love them, are embarrassed by them, hate them, reject them and so on. Like it or not, we do recognize them. They can be our inside joke or perhaps just our quirky side. Or they can lead us to ask a lot of good questions. Why do we do what we do? What does it mean to be different? Who am I among my neighbors? Who is my community? Do we really want to be different? Is there a higher purpose? What do we accept from the past because we value the tie and connection and what do we reject because it is no longer relevant? Or if we are to protect our identity do we even have a right to ask questions like these? And maybe most importantly, just what does mitzvah mean to us now?

I don’t know the answers and be careful of the person who says they do. Remember the craziest person in the movie is the brother who is perpetually looking for the unified theory. For my part I was lucky to fall in with a group of Wexner graduates who spend a lot of time thinking about rethinking Jewish life in Chicago and the U.S. We certainly don’t pretend to have the answers, but we ask a lot of good questions.