After writing my A Serious Man post, I read all that I could find that has been written about the film. So far, my favorite article is this Salon interview... http://www.salon.com/ent/movies/btm/feature/2009/10/01/coens/index.html
Well, I'm definitely out of my depth with respect to Jewish culture, but the whole story -- the whole movie -- feels to me like a Talmudic parable, a moral fable about what happens to somebody who makes certain choices in his life. Then you've got these other stories nested into it, including a prologue that's in Yiddish and has the feeling of the old Yiddish theater. It uses the old tradition of the dybbuk, a kind of demonic spirit from Jewish folk tradition. I'm sure you don't want to give too much away, but what can you say about the relationship between that story and the main story?
E.C.: Well, it's interesting that you ask about it in connection with your other comment, that the main body of the movie feels like a folk tale or fable. That, I guess, is the ambition -- well, not even the ambition of putting on that beginning story, because there was no clear-cut agenda. It just felt right to us. But I think it felt right for that reason. It felt like a folk tale, so it served implicitly as an introduction, to say, "Here's another folk tale, here's another Jewish story." I guess this is imposing an explanation after the fact, because we don't really think about it in these terms while we're doing it, but, yeah, it's part of the whole Yiddishkeit, part of the whole Jew storytelling thing. Jews are big on stories, you know?
J.C.: Yeah, exactly. At a certain point we were thinking, maybe not explicitly, "What is Jewish storytelling?" This is Jewish storytelling, and this is Jewish storytelling. Are they an echo or a reflection of each other? Can they be? Would that be interesting? "What is a Jewish community?" This is a Jewish community in the shtetl, this is a community in another place. Are they reflections or echoes of each other in some way that's vaguely interesting and feels right, or at least not wrong? Will it be an interesting ambassador for the rest of the movie?
As Ethan was saying, sometimes you impose these things after the fact. But I think there was a little bit of thinking that by doing this we were saying immediately, "This is a story very specifically about Jews." Not a story about the Midwest, which you might have felt for a while if we hadn't done this. We were plunging into the deep end, and saying, "Here you are in a world of Jews, and that's what this movie is going to be about." It's a cliché, but when you see them in the long black coats and the sidelocks, that's putting your face in it. And we thought that was a good thing.