If you were to organize a graduate seminar around a single text what would it be?

Nathan Abrams

Bangor University

The text I would choose would be Joel and Ethan Coen's film, The Big Lebowksi (1998). While many of the Coens' films—Miller's Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), and, of course, A Serious Man (2009)—are essential to understanding contemporary Jewish cinema, The Big Lebowski is the epitome of many new Jewish cinematic trends, particularly those in evidence since 1990. Its key Jewish character Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is not only a slightly deranged Vietnam veteran, he is also—atypically—a convert to Judaism. Unusually for a cinematic Jew, Walter is not identified by any decontextualized markers (indeed Walter is not even ethnically Jewish), but by his beliefs, values, and behavior. Thus Judaism rather than Jewish ethnicity defines Walter. Walter is doubly unusual in cinematic terms in that he is a convert and, for a non-haredi Jew, maintains a level of Jewish Orthodox practice. Walter appreciates, understands, and takes his adopted faith very seriously, certainly more so than many other Jews on film, haredi or otherwise. At the same time, I would argue that the Coens use Walter to mock the de-Semitizing and de-Judainizing strategies of the past. One cannot help reading him as nothing less than a deliberate parody of those Jewish directors (particularly the moguls of the studio system) who denuded their films of Jews and Judaism and/or produced crass, sentimentalized caricatures for didactic effect and Gentile consumption. Furthermore, Walter's passionate, even fanatical, adherence to the rules of bowling can be read as a critique of the increasing stringency amongst Orthodox and haredi Jews who, it has been argued, prioritize obedience over spirituality. Walter thus becomes a satiric representation of a particularly dogmatic and buffoonish rabbi. Overall, The Big Lebowski provides a wonderful text for considering contemporary Jewish cinema and how it has metamorphosed over the decades.