Remember the Titans (2000), directed by Boaz Yakin

remember the titans posterIt was in the 1950s. I was attending a public junior high public school in Mt. Vernon, New York. There were two high schools in town, Edison and Davis. Edison focused on vocational training and Davis focused on getting kids into college. Most blacks went to Edison and most whites to Davis. But it was a time of civil unrest throughout the United States, and there was a drive to create one large Mt. Vernon high school that would be more fully integrated. Nationally, there was a movement to change the stereotypical view of blacks as low achievers and encourage more blacks to attend university.

My junior high was predominantly black. My childhood neighborhood changed once low income housing for the area was built. Whites moved away in droves and I was the only white kid on my block. My parents could not afford to move even if they wanted to, so I developed friendships with the black kids in my school. Many had exotic names and I was fascinated by their distinct personalities. I remember with fondness Linwood Lee, gentle and soft spoken, Wendell Tyree, strong and boisterous, and Quentin Pair, a thoughtful and brainy young man.

It is with this background that I watched Remember the Titans, a rousing and inspirational sports film with a subtext of racial tension, a tension that influenced what happened on the football field in Alexandria, Virginia in 1971. T. C. Williams High School has just been integrated and the favorite to become the new coach of the team, Bill Yoast, is passed over to allow Herman Boone, a successful black coach, to take charge of the football program. In spite of his initial disappointment, Yoast stays on to become Boone’s assistant so that the boys he worked with for so long can fulfill their athletic and scholastic potential.

During training camp and the football season, the players work with one another, get to know one another, and, in most cases, finally accept one another for who they are, not for what they may or may not represent. What matters is performance, not race, and the boys bond during a challenging season in which they are tested both on and off the field. Ultimately they understand that welcoming the stranger, the one who looks different, into your midst brings godliness into the community, for all men are images of the Divine.

The Bible is filled with references encouraging us, and even mandating us, to be kind to the stranger, to the outsider who is different. It is connected to the Jewish experience in Egypt, about which Exodus states: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Moreover, there is a classic adage in the Talmud that “we are all responsible for one another.” This emerges from the basic notion that we all are created in God’s image and we are all part of one cosmic family. We are all brothers regardless of the color of our skin.

The Kabbalists write that the commandment ‘love your neighbor as yourself” has mystical meaning numerically. The phrase “as yourself” in Hebrew is the numerical equivalent of the word Elohim, one of the names of God. This numerical equivalency indicates that when you love your neighbor, you are in essence manifesting your love of God.

Interestingly, we see that the Biblical story of Abraham stresses the priority of being nice to the stranger over praying to God. Abraham interrupts his prayers when three strangers come to the door of his tent, for welcoming the stranger takes precedence over conversing with God.

Remember the Titans, based on a true story, reminds us that great things can happen when we approach a situation without the baggage of prejudice and old memory tapes, when we welcome the stranger in our midst to the family of man.

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Still Mine (2012), directed by Michael McGowan

still mine posterI have noticed over the years that I have less material interests. I used to buy new clothes for the holidays every year, but I have not bought a new suit for at least fifteen years. The old ones do just fine, and I no longer enjoy the shopping experience. Although I live in the present, I am nostalgic about the past. There is a scene in Still Mine, which captures this nuanced approach to aging. Craig Morrison, in his 80s, is looking at a dining room table he crafted many years ago. When he first constructed it, he would be upset whenever it was scratched. Now the scratches are things to admire, precious memories of events that occurred around that table.

I imagine this view of material things is a part of getting older. We become less focused on things and more focused on the intangibles of life, the precious conversations with family, the time we spend developing our souls and minds. It is not necessarily a time of retirement, but a time when we see life differently and treasure the moments of connection with others. This special rhythm of life is captured in Still Mine, an engrossing story of a man determined to actively care for his wife in the twilight of their lives.

Craig and Irene are senior citizens living on a small coastal farm in Canada, and Irene is beginning to lose her memory. They have a led a full life and have good children, some of whom are still working the land that their parents gave them many years before. Craig realizes the physical and mental changes that are on the horizon for Irene. He knows that his current home will be physically unsuited for her since Irene has trouble climbing the stairs. In view of this oncoming reality, Craig decides to build a one-story home on his property. The problem: he does not comply with all the building codes. He thinks that since he is building on his own land, he does not need to comply with any state or local regulations. In the midst of this bureaucratic quagmire, two of his children, observing their mother’s decline, want their father to provide more conventional care for their mom. They are uncomfortable with dad assuming all care for their mother since he is aging as well. In their judgment, he cannot adequately take care of her. Craig, however, is adamant and feels he is the best caregiver around and refuses to delegate taking care of his wife to any third party. He exclaims to his kids: “Age is an abstraction, not a straitjacket.”

As time moves on and Craig continues to build his new home for Irene, he comes up against unsympathetic bureaucrats who present him with more and more rules with which to comply, resulting in a long list of building code violations that threaten to nullify all his efforts to provide comfort and peace of mind to Irene as her dementia advances.

Based on a true story, Still Mine describes Craig’s fight to build his dream house for Irene in spite of many obstacles. The discussions between him and his children about how to care for Irene illuminate the various approaches we can take towards care of our elderly parents. There is more than one way, and Jewish law suggests we have to consider carefully all possible remedies and their ripple effects. Two Talmudic scholars of the past, Maimonides and Raavad, suggest alternate approaches. Maimonides in his Code of Jewish Law writes that a child should always care for his parents unless the situation is severe, in which case one can hire third party professional caretakers. The Raavad, a contemporary of Maimonides, rules differently and insists that the family should remain as the caregiver of the parent, no matter how severe the malady, and not delegate others to fulfill their family responsibilities. Still Mine shows the complexity of decision-making when it comes to the care of aging parents, and asserts the power of mature love to overcome even the most challenging of circumstances.

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A Few Good Men (1992), directed by Rob Reiner

a few good men posterA Few Good Men is an outstanding courtroom drama with a complex agenda. On one level, it tells the story of two Marines who assault another Marine, resulting in his death. What were their motives? Did they attack him because someone higher up in the chain of command ordered them to do so? Most important, is a Marine expected to follow an order even when it goes against his moral sensibilities? Indeed, these are heavy questions; and the answer in part lies with what kind of conduct is expected of a Marine. He is a soldier fighting to protect his country, a noble cause. But in the process, he may lose his moral rudder and begin to devalue the life of others. There are no easy answers; and the film, in general, presents a balanced view of a very complicated topic.

On another level, A Few Good Men considers the question of whether people are willing to listen to the truth when it contradicts the very way they live.

Several years ago, a good friend of mine lost his job and wanted to borrow some money from me to use as a bridge until he found another job. I gave him the loan, but inwardly felt uncomfortable. I knew that my friend was a dreamer, not rooted to reality. He had moved from job to job, always in search of the perfect position, but he never found it. Moreover, he had a reputation for being wasteful with his money and, in fact, had no savings after being employed for fifteen years. I debated in my own mind whether I was an “enabler,” indirectly encouraging my friend to continue with his irresponsible and self-destructive ways. I wanted to tell him the truth, but I was not sure he could hear what I had to say and so I remained silent.

A memorable scene in the movie – ask anyone who has seen it –addresses this very issue. In a courtroom confrontation between Tom Cruise, the defense attorney for the accused soldiers, and Jack Nicholson, the general who gave the questionable command, General Jessup describes the sacred duty of a Marine to defend his country. This depends upon following orders, orders that at times place the Marine on a slippery moral slope but which must be carried out nonetheless. This is Jessup’s truth, which guides him as a military man devoted to defending the country. When skillfully provoked by the defense attorney, however, he loses his composure and shouts to the courtroom: “You can’t handle the truth.” Handling the truth means accepting complexity, realizing that in the pursuit of a noble cause, there may be collateral damage which may be unwelcome but necessary. Tom Cruise may have won the case, but Jack Nicholson’s assessment of his military reality is not to be dismissed.

Watching A Few Good Men reminded me of the difficulty all of us have in hearing the truth. To hear the truth, we must be willing to accept discomposure, complexity, and the reality that truth can be painful even as it enables us to grow. The Torah tells us that we have an obligation to reprove people, to tell them the truth about their character inadequacies so that they can improve. But the commentators make an interesting point based on the unusual language of the Biblical imperative: “you shall surely reprove.” In Hebrew this is expressed by a doubling of the verb for “reprove.” The double term indicates that we should only give reproof if the recipient will listen. Sometimes it is wiser not to reprove if the listener is not ready to hear it.

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), directed by Ben Stiller

secret life of walter mitty posterThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a film with two essential messages, and I had to think a long time before choosing which aspect of the movie I wanted to write about. One message is to live life to the max. Make every day a masterpiece by participating in life, not just observing it. Another message is to value the work of every day because ultimately greatness comes through hard work, perseverance, and a daily dedication to perfection. I chose to amplify that message for this review.

Walter Mitty works for Life magazine and is in charge of cataloging its large storehouse of photo negatives, a seemingly boring job in which Walter takes pride, knowing that he is working with great photographers whose pictures are potentially life-transforming to the viewer. We learn that in the past Walter had an adventurous streak, but when his father died at a young age, Walter was forced to abandon his dreams and get a job to support his family. Therein lies the emotional core of the film. Walter lives a very mundane outward existence, but lives an imaginative inner life, daydreaming of scenarios in which he imagines that he is a man of decision and action. Hence, the title of the film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Mitty for many years has worked with famed photojournalist Sean O’Connell, and Sean sends him negatives of his latest works including a photo that he thinks will be fitting for Life’s final print edition before it re-emerges as a strictly online publication. But there is a problem. The negative is missing from the contact sheet he sent Walter and Sean cannot be found to clarify the whereabouts of the missing negative. Walter then embarks on a real-life adventure trying to locate Sean. His travels take him to Greenland and Iceland, with a series of hair-raising and hilarious encounters.

An air of mystery surrounds both Sean and the missing negative. It becomes clear that Sean, an idiosyncratic artist, values individualism, but he also values the contribution of the little guys in the company who work ceaselessly to see that his work is seen as he sees it: a thing of beauty and meaning that transcends the moment.

The Ethics of the Fathers reminds us that “every man has his hour.” The artist may be in the limelight but those who work laboriously behind the scenes also deserve recognition for their contributions. Both have their hour in the sun. Moreover, in Judaism there is the notion that every person has his unique mission in the world. When Jacob on his deathbed gives his blessing to each of his twelve sons, the blessing reflects the unique personality of each one. They are parts of one united family, but they fulfill their destinies in their own special ways. A classic example is the symbiotic relationship between the brothers Yisachar and Zebulon. Yisachar is charged with devoting his life to the study and teaching of Torah; Zebulon is charged with providing the financial support which underpins that holy work. Both are necessary for the ultimate destiny of the Jewish nation to be secured.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a paean to the average man who labors diligently in his job each and every day. The public accolades may never come to him, but this does not devalue the work that is being done. In his own special way, his contribution behind the scenes may be more important than the one for whom he works. Let us praise the quiet ones who abide by the unwritten rules of excellence.

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Awakenings (1990), directed by Penny Marshall

awakenings posterWhen I was a synagogue rabbi in Atlanta, I would make regular visits to hospitals and old age homes. It was part of my job and it also was a mitzvah, a good deed. The visits to the old age home were more difficult than the hospital visits. In the hospital, there was the expectation of getting well and going home; in the old age home, there was no such hope, and it generally was a depressing visit. No matter how good the care was, there was a feeling that the residents were simply being warehoused until death asserted itself. Watching Awakenings reminded me of those visits.

In 1969, Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a doctor focused on research, not people, accepts a job at a Bronx hospital caring for catatonic patients who survived an encephalitis epidemic in their youth. Soon he discovers that beneath their rigid exteriors are minds capable of communicating with others. Sayers learns about L-Dopa, a drug that has been used successfully with Parkinson’s sufferers, and wants to use it in medical trials on his patients. He wants to “awaken” them and bring them back to reality. Leonard Lowe is his first subject and, miraculously, he awakes from his catatonic state and slowly begins to function as a normal human being. This motivates Sayer to run the trials on all of his patients, for which he desperately seeks funding.

Success comes to the patients, but it is short lived as the effects of the drug wear off. Leonard, his prize example of the efficacy of the L-Dopa protocol, sinks into depression and develops obsessive tics, putting Sayer’s whole plan into limbo. But there is a redeeming outcome of the research, especially in the life of Dr. Sayer.

The clinical trial, flawed as it was, sent a message to Dr. Sayer and many others; namely, that all of us are asleep to some degree even when we are awake. Dr. Sayer begins to experience life more fully when he becomes more empathetic to his patients, when he sees them not as specimens but as people with overwhelming physical disabilities. Leonard, the catalyst for Sayer’s new understanding of life, in a moment of lucidity encourages the doctor to connect with others when he passionately exclaims: “We’ve got to tell everybody. We’ve got to remind them how good it is. People have forgotten what life is all about. They’ve forgotten what it is to be alive. They need to be reminded. They need to be reminded of what they have and what they can lose. What I feel is the joy of life, the gift of life, the freedom of life, the wonderment of life!”

Dr Sayer ultimately recognizes this truth. When he speaks to the donors who sponsored his research, he observes: “ What we do know is that, as the chemical window closed, another awakening took place; that the human spirit is more powerful than any drug – and that is what needs to be nourished: with work, play, friendship, family. These are the things that matter. This is what we’d forgotten – the simplest things.” This is a Jewish sensibility: to see the world anew each and every day of our lives and to take nothing for granted, which is what the Psalmist meant when he said that God renews the world every day.

I first saw Awakenings in 1990. Viewing it again almost 25 years later, I remember vividly the indelible performance of Robert DeNiro as Leonard Lowe. It was a masterpiece of acting, in which he conveys the human soul trapped in a sick body, yearning to communicate with the outside world of normality. His characterization was disturbing, touching, and intensely honest, capturing nuances of mind and body that are still etched upon my memory. It called to mind my visits to the old age home and reminded me that beneath the stoic exteriors I saw, there may have been dormant secret lives waiting to be discovered.

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Enough Said (2013), directed by Nicole Holofcener

enough said posterAfter my wife died suddenly of a brain aneurysm almost 25 years ago, my world fell apart. Emotionally adrift for a year, I then decided to remarry not to replace what could never be replaced but to begin a new chapter in my life. After a year of traveling from Atlanta to New York to date women, I married a divorcee. I had six kids and was busy working as a high school principal.

Marriage at that time in my life was entirely different from what I experienced in 1965 when I got married for the first time. Now I needed not only companionship, a friend and confidant, I also needed someone to help me manage my stressful professional life, and to help me with my children that were still living at home. These were complications and challenges that I did not imagine as a 22-year-old getting married. Watching Enough Said, a story of two divorced people trying to connect romantically when they are both mature and wise in the ways of the world, reminded me that love at mid-life is totally different from the star-crossed love of youth.

In Enough Said, Eva, a masseuse and a divorced mother of a teenage girl, meets Albert, also divorced and the parent of a teenage daughter. Although not initially attracted to one another, they date and a relationship develops. Concurrently, Eva takes on a new client, Marianne, a poet who has also been through an unpleasant divorce. Eva and Marianne commiserate with each other, during which Marianne unloads all the idiosyncratic shortcomings of her ex. Eva and Marianne become fast friends until Eva discovers that Albert is Marianne’s former husband.

Instead of revealing this to Marianne, she prods Marianne with questions about her ex-husband to learn more about Albert. She is worried that Marianne may be right in her assessment of Albert and she may be wrong. Having gone through divorce once, Eva does not want to set herself up for another mistake.

Things come to a head when Eva’s duplicity is revealed to Marianne and Albert, whereupon Eva’s relationship with both of them dramatically changes. Enough Said begins as a comedy but becomes a serious meditation on second marriages and honest communication between couples and friends.

Second marriages pose special challenges. Both parties come with lots of baggage from the previous relationship. Moreover, stepchildren are a wild card since they often are unwilling to accept the new spouse. In divorce, you are building upon an edifice of ruins. In a first marriage, two people often are driven by intense emotion in response to physical desire and do not fully consider compatibility of dispositions and shared values. An unsuccessful first marriage is a reminder that passion alone does not make for a happy union. The first match may be ordained from Heaven, but that does necessarily mean it will be a happy union.

The Sages say that the success of one’s second marriage is dependent upon one’s merits, and it may be a more accurate indicator of long-term stability and happiness if it is not defined by the body but by the mental and emotional components of a relationship. Albert is overweight and Eva is no longer the svelte person she once was, but both recognize at this point in their lives that marriage transcends the physical. It endures when it connects the mind as well as the flesh. Interestingly, the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself is interpreted, in the view of the Talmud, to refer to one’s spouse, who ideally should be one’s best friend, not only one’s lover.

It is not good for man to be alone, says the Bible. Solitude breeds all kinds of emotional distress. Whenever possible, say our Sages, one should remarry after divorce or the death of a spouse. Connection with other human beings enriches life, for it reminds us to focus not selfishly on oneself but on significant others in our lives. Enough Said cautions us that relationships can weather many storms when they are founded on emotional, not just physical, compatibility and on honest communication.

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Dances With Wolves (1990), directed by Kevin Costner

dances with wolves posterEvery once in a while, movies can instantly transport you to another place and another time in an instant of cinematic magic. There is a scene at the beginning of Dances With Wolves that does that for me.

The Civil War is raging and there is stalemate between the Union and the Confederate armies, positioned on opposite sides of a field. Lieutenant John J. Dunbar, whose leg is badly injured, realizes that his leg will be amputated, and so he attempts to end his life nobly by riding his horse in front of the Confederate lines where he will be an easy target. Contrary to his expectation, they shoot at him but do not hit him. It is a poetic scene of transcendent beauty as he rides his horse with his arms flying outwards facing possible death.

Dunbar’s brave act rallies the Union troops who storm the Confederate line of defense. His heroism gets the attention of a general who dispatches his personal surgeon to tend to Dunbar and save his leg. As a reward for his service, he is given Cisco, the horse that he rode in battle, and his choice of a new post. Dunbar chooses to serve on the barren frontier, and so begins his odyssey of personal discovery far away from the fields of war.

Dunbar’s new post is desolate, but he relishes the beauty and quiet of his new home. He begins to repair it and waits for reinforcements to arrive. In truth, his whereabouts are unknown, and in time he is discovered by a tribe of Sioux Indians who are camped nearby. He forms a friendship with Kicking Bird, the tribe’s medicine man, and gradually gains acceptance by the Indians who appreciate his help in finding buffalo for them to hunt for food and clothing.

As I watched the film, which is epic in visual proportion and in theme, I thought about what it takes to become part of a new society. If you want to be welcome, you have to go out of your way to meet people, to share in their pain and in their joy, and you have to learn their language. Realizing that his life of isolation is going nowhere, Dunbar decides to leave his post to get to know the Indians. He does not wait for them to come to him. Once in their environment, he accepts the Indians’ initial suspicion of him, and tries sincerely to understand their way of life. It is only when he masters their language that he becomes fully integrated with them.

Reflecting on my own experience as a new immigrant, Dunbar’s journey provides a good model of adjustment to a new world. I recall an Israeli telling me when I first arrived to introduce myself to my neighbors. Don’t be reclusive and stay home or only associate with Anglos. Such a path is insular and will not connect you with Israeli society. Rabbi Ezra Bick, quoting the great medieval sage Maimonides, observes that the person who separates himself from the community, no matter how great his personal qualities, has cut himself off from the “fullness of the image of God,” for it is only within the community that man can realize his true spiritual potential. Maimonides writes: “One who divorces himself from the ways of the community, even though he has not transgressed transgressions, but is only separated from the congregation of Israel, and does not perform good deeds together with them nor enter into their troubles nor fast on their fast-days, but goes about his way as one of the people of the earth, and as though he were not one of them – he has no portion in the World-to-Come.”

Dances With Wolves implicitly reminds us that it is only within the community that we can truly actualize our potential. John Dunbar understands this when he identifies with the Sioux tribe that has embraced him. Together with others, he finds himself.

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