A Serious Man: A Glossary

Nick Dawson dives into the language of the Coen brothers' latest movie, A Serious Man, and comes up with a cheat sheet to help you understand exactly what's being said.

The Coen brothers love language. Their films all feel rooted in a particular place or time, and that sense of specificity is often primarily generated by their very carefully observed adherence to the dialect of the movie’s locale or the parlance of the era in which it is set. In their 1990 gangster noir Miller’s Crossing, for example, they famously immersed themselves in the lingo of the 1920s Tommy gun totin’ mobster and got so in-depth that it inspired a number of fans to create special dictionaries to help people understand exactly what the movie’s characters were saying.

In their latest film, A Serious Man, the Coens once again are steeping themselves in language. In this case, that language is Yiddish, as our hapless protagonist Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) looks to Judaism and the world of the synagogue in order to try and make sense of his rapidly unraveling life. To help viewers navigate this universe more easily, below we present a brief glossary of terms and phrases used in the movie, with contextual examples from the script to further help your understanding.

Agunah (pronounced “ahgoonah”) – a divorced person who has not been religiously sanctioned to remarry. As in when Judy says, “Without a Gett I’m an Agunah.”

Bar mitzvah – Jewish religion’s important ceremony, held in a synagogue for a young man who has come of age (at 13) and will now be responsible for practicing and upholding Jewish values, morals, and traditions; female equivalent (at 12 or 13) is a bat mitzvah. As in when Larry says, “But I’m so strapped for cash right now—carrying the mortgage and paying for the Jolly Roger, and I wrecked the car and Danny’s bar mitzvah coming up…”

Bupkes (also spelled bupkis) – nothing; applied with great emphasis. As in when Arthur says, “You’ve got a family. You’ve got a job. Hashem hasn’t given me bupkes.”

Chacham (also spelled chakham, hakham or haham) – a wise or learned man, usually a great Torah scholar. As in when the Man says, “You know, Reb Groshkover! Pesel Bunim’s uncle! The chacham from Lodz, who studied under the Zohar reb in Krakow!”

Dybbuk (pronounced “dibbuck”) – The soul of a dead person, often looking to possess a live person and as such inspiring fear among the living. As in when Reb Groshkover says, “I shaved hastily this morning and missed a bit—by you this makes me a dybbuk?”

Gett – ref., agunah (above); a religiously sanctioned divorce, tandemed with the sanction to remarry. As in when Judy says, “Esther is dead three years. And it was a loveless marriage. Sy wants a Gett.”

Goy – colloquial term for a person not of the Jewish faith (i.e., a Gentile) As in when Rabbi Nachtner says, “Do you know a goy named Kraus? Russel Kraus?”

Haftorah – Portions of the Hebrew Bible read aloud in synagogue services, including by a bar mitzvah boy. As in when Larry says, “How’s the haftorah coming? Can you maybe use the hi-fi?”

Hashem – means The Name, and is basic Hebrew term/name used for God. As in when Rabbi Scott says, “I too have had the feeling of losing track of Hashem, which is the problem here. I too have forgotten how to see Him in the world.”

Kabballah (also spelled caballah or cabala) – an interpretation of the Scriptures based on an oral tradition that supposedly began with Abraham. As in when Rabbi Nachtner says, “But Sussman is an educated man. Not the world’s greatest sage, maybe, no Rabbi Marshak, but he knows a thing or two from the Zohar and the Caballah.”

Macher (pronounced “mohhcc-er”) – an achiever, a person of importance/influence.

Mazel tov! (pronounced “mozzle-tov!”) – Congratulations! As in when the Doctor says, “Well, mazel tov. They grow up fast, don’t they?”

Mensch (pronounced “mensh”) – someone with strength of character/an applied sense of purpose.

Mitzvahgood deedor blessing, though mostly used in an everyday and non-religious context. As in when Reb Groshkover says, “One does a mitzvah and this is the thanks one gets?”

Nu?– What’s up? What’s the story here? As in when the Principal says, “Hmm… eh… nu?”

Rabbi (pronounced “rab-eye”) – Ordained Jewish religious scholar/teacher, often relied upon as community leader. As in when Judy says, “I have begged you to see the Rabbi.”

Reb – Formal-address equivalent of Mister. As in when the Man says, “I assure you, Reb Groshkover, it’s nothing personal; she heard a story you had died, three years ago, at Pesel Bunim’s house.”

Shabbas (or, shabbos, from Shabbat) – Judaism’s Sabbath, from Friday evening through Saturday evening As in when Rabbi Nachtner says, “Danny Gopnik, the Sisterhood makes a gift to you of this kiddush cup so that you will remember this blessed day on the next shabbas and the next, and on every shabbas of a long and fruitful life…”   Shtetl (pronounced “shtet-el”) – a small Jewish village, in bygone times, in Eastern Europe.

Shiva – means seven, and also refers to the participatory seven-day mourning period for the recently deceased. As in when the Wife says, “Traitle Groshkover died of typhus in Pesel Bunim’s house. Pesel told me—she sat shiva for him.”

Shul – a synagogue and its congregation. As in when Rabbi Scott says, “Because with the right perspective you can see the Hashem, you know, reaching into the world. He is in the world, not just in shul.”

Synagogue (pronounced “sinagog”) – a Jewish house of worship.

Torah – the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, transcribed onto a scroll for use in synagogue services including a bar mitzvah. As in when Rabbi Nachtner says, “Is the answer in Caballah? In Torah? Or is there even a question?”

Zohar – the main text of Kabbalah, the Zohar is a mystical interpretation of the Torah. As in when Rabbi Nachtner says, “He knows a thing or two from the Zohar and the Caballah.”