I'm reading "The Schlemiel as Metaphor" by Sanford Pinsker right now. After seeing the Coen brother movie, "A Serious Man", a few weeks ago, I recognized the main character as a the classic "schlemiel" of Yiddish and contemporary Jewish literature. I'm reading Pinsker to find out the significance of this.
I do think that this helps explain the Coen brothers' inclusion of the Yiddish tale at the start of the film. I haven't seen any critics analyze the film in this way.
I think that beginning story, like the entire film, is a study on the "schlemiel" as well as an attempt to bring life back to the shtetl, which today's audience is unfamiliar with.
Pinsker writes that this schlemiel chracter came out of the Yiddish literature of the East European ghettos in the late nineteenth century. The "goals of the schlemiel, like those of the ghetto Jew, were primarily socioeconomic ones and his continual defeats forced him to view life from a bittersweet perspective. Thus his humor reflected the 'laughter through tears' philosophy of life..." And Pinsker writes about how the schlemiel reappears in contemporary American literature.
I see that husband in the fake-old Yiddish tale as a schlemiel--who takes the dybbuk's words at face value just as Gopnik does with the rabbis' advice---in both stories, it's the wife that rules that roost and has all the power. And Gopnik is the Cohen's take on the modern-day schlemiel.
Pinsker writes, "the schlemiel in contemporary literature is often the one who sees his problem, but no possible solution (Gopnik!). If the traditional schlemiel adapted an ironic posture to face a world he could neither beat nor quit, . . the modern schlemiel "liv[es] on the bare edge of things, embracing thoughts of failure at the same time he is committed to systems of success." The bare edge is that midwestern prairie on which "The Serious Man" is set.