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Correction to This Article
This article about the Coen brothers' Minnesota neighborhood incorrectly said that Judy Bernstein died on one of the jetliners hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001. She died in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

For Jews in St. Louis Park, Minn., 'A Serious Man' Is a Homecoming

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By Neal Karlen
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fyvush Finkel, a venerable star of Yiddish theatrical melodrama, was expecting Joel and Ethan Coen to feed him nothing but juicy lines for their new film, "A Serious Man." Yet he felt they'd given him dreck. So Finkel, 86, did the heretofore unthinkable: He kibitzed the Coens on-set, and then, unbidden, rewrote 10 pages of the latest of their always-inviolable scripts.

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It was 2008, and the brothers were filming in their home town of St. Louis Park, a Minneapolis suburb that would serve as the backdrop for "A Serious Man," their latest cinematic ode to tragicomic weirdness, this time grounded in their Jewish upbringing. As Joel later explained, it's a picture "filmed in the context our own youth in St. Louis Park, but with a made-up story."

Personally, however, nothing in their brilliant oeuvre could top the weirdness of Joel Coen phoning my 83-year-old father at home for a reason also never before thought possible: The sibling auteurs wanted an outsider's opinion on one of their scripts, specifically the 10 pages Finkel found so noxious.

Joel heard through the St. Louis Park grapevine that my father, Markle, was the most vital and fluent member of the local Jewish Community Center's Yiddish club. Dad, a widower, had recently hooked up with an 84-year-old friend, Roz Baker, who'd invested $500 in "Blood Simple," the Coens' first film, and was still receiving small royalty checks. Her son, David Amdur, one of the Coens' best friends since junior high school, told Joel that the most proficient local source was my father. Roz agreed.

If you're getting the sense that it's a small world in the Coens' home town, you'd be right. And such a prolific town it is in terms of Jewish achievers: Among St. Louis Park's roughly 10,000 Jews circa 1967 (when the new film is set) were near or actual teenagers Allen Franken, who went from "Saturday Night Live" to the U.S. Senate; Tommie Friedman, who alchemized into the celebrated New York Times columnist and author; Norm Ornstein, perhaps Washington's smartest political polymath; and of course "Joe" and "Eth" Coen, who vow to spend the rest of their lives collaborating, because, as Ethan said the other day, "two heads are better than none."

Oh, and now my father, the brothers' octogenarian script adviser. When Joel Coen gave my pop a call, he politely asked if Dad would compare for accuracy, tone and narrative flow their own 10-page prologue, written in Yiddish with English subtitles, against Fyvush's scribbled rewrite. Joel and my father talked for about 10 minutes about linguistic nuance; the essence of 19th century Jewish Eastern Europe; and Fyvush vs. the Coens. Joel immediately dispatched two versions of the script for exegesis.

In "A Serious Man," Finkel plays Reb Groshkover, a mysterious sage. During the film's opening scene -- which has no linear connection to the rest of the movie -- he wanders inside a rickety, 19th-century shtetl lean-to, inhabited by a peasant couple. Some crazy stuff ensues. Turns out the Reb may or may not be a dybbuk, a mischievous Jewish specter.

Two days later, Dad dialed one of filmdom's most guarded private numbers. "Joel, the first version wasn't bad," he said, "but the second one was pure dreck." My father waved his hand in the universal language of "Feh!" (The brothers' script was the first version, though my father was unaware of which was whose.)

And the story?

"Ach," Pop said, "It's the usual shtetl shtick. A woodchopper. A poor old woman. A dybbuk. Who needs it."

Hey, what about me? The Coens were my favorite local heroes. I'd seen their films more than 100 times (granted, 36 viewings were "The Big Lebowski"), while my father had never seen a single one, and even turned down a chance to invest a few hundred bucks in "Blood Simple" back in the mid-1980s. ("Meshugas," he still says.)

I was the guy in the family who made a living sweating out narrative arcs. Before he retired from medical practice, Markle Karlen had been a people doctor, not a script doctor. But at that point, unlike virtually everyone I've ever known from St. Louis Park, I had never laid eyes on the Coen brothers in my entire 48 years. I was a few years younger (Ethan is 52; Joel 54), but we'd all gone through the same public and Hebrew school systems, had our bar mitzvahs at the same synagogue, and had recently spent time quizzing my father.


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