The Butler (2013), directed by Lee Daniels

butler posterAs a youngster, I had little knowledge or understanding of the Holocaust. There was no Holocaust Remembrance Day that focused my attention on this unspeakable tragedy and I did not know any Holocaust survivors. Once I entered Yeshiva University as a freshman, however, things changed. At the college there were courses on the Holocaust, and survivors visited as guest speakers, sharing some of their experiences with the students.

I soon became sensitive to the issue of using German products, and driving around in my new Volkswagen in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan where many survivors lived was not always a comfortable experience once I became aware of how strong some people felt about Nazi Germany. For me, the Holocaust was still an academic subject, but for them it was an ever-present memory that still haunted them. I recall seeing Sidney Lumet’s film The Pawnbroker and being disturbed by its narrative about a concentration camp survivor who cannot adjust to his present reality because of his horrific memories of the past. He saw life through the prism of history. I only saw today.

This memory of the disparity between my superficial understanding of the Holocaust and the searing memory of someone who actually has endured cruelty returned as I watched The Butler, a moving drama about Cecil Gaines, an African-American butler who served in the White House for 34 years during the administration of several presidents and through some of the most tumultuous times in our nation’s history. It is an engaging historical film; but also one that describes the evolution of the relationship between father and son, who view the same events but with different eyes.

Cecil Gaines’s history begins with tragedy on a cotton plantation in 1926, where his parents work as sharecroppers. His mother is raped by the farm’s owner and his father is then shot dead by him. Out of pity, Annabeth Westfall, the caretaker of the estate, takes in Cecil and trains him as a house servant.

When he reaches his teens, Cecil embarks for a new home, away from the precarious life of a persecuted black man in the South. Serendipitously, he meets Maynard, also a house servant, who finds employment for Cecil in one of the wealthiest households in Washington, D.C. Soon he meets the love of his life, Gloria, and they have two boys, Louis and Charlie. In 1957, Cecil is hired by the White House during the administration of President Eisenhower. Louis, his oldest son, elects to go Fisk College, a school far away from home, and there he becomes involved in the non-violent protest movement promoting equal rights for blacks.

Cecil’s family story parallels the growth of the Civil Rights movement in America, and the film masterfully juxtaposes the abysmal treatment of blacks in the South with Cecil’s immaculate work in the White House. While his son is beaten and then incarcerated, Cecil is serving guests in the White House dining room with gloved hands.

The tension between Louis and his father intensifies when Louis joins the radical Black Panther organization. For Louis, this is heroic; for Cecil it is insane. After many years, there is reconciliation, but only when both recognize the disparity between each other’s life experience. Louis has led a comfortable life in a Washington suburb and has not experienced the childhood trauma of his father. Cecil, experiencing poverty and violence as a young child, feels that real change can only come about gradually and cannot be forced; hence, his antipathy for movements that promote violence, even when the cause is just. This practical approach is expressed by Maynard, Cecil’s mentor in his early years, when he offers him advice on how to succeed: “We’ve got two faces- ours, and the ones that we got to show the white folks. Now, to get up in the world, you have to make them feel non-threatened. Use them fancy words that I’ve taught you. White folks up north, they like some uppity coloreds.”

The great sage Hillel says in the Talmud: “Do not judge your fellow man until you reach his place.” It is, indeed, impossible to judge another because our life experiences are so different. Both Cecil and Louis initially err when they view the other stereotypically without understanding the different life journeys each has taken. The Butler reminds us of the essential complexity of human experience and how judging people superficially can shatter even the most precious of relationships.

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Barry Lyndon (1975), directed by Stanley Kubrick

MV5BMTczNzkyMjQ4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTQ2NjU4Mw@@._V1_SX214_AL_One of the “ah-ha” moments of my undergraduate career was reading William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair: a Novel without a Hero. I was not a big reader in high school and what I read was not of a classic nature. But at college, I was exposed to great works of literature and it was a mind-blowing experience. I was introduced to worlds I never knew about and people who captured my attention and my imagination. What excited me about Vanity Fair was that I really cared about what happened to the people described in the book. Their problems and their challenges became mine and I was engrossed in their lives, even though none of them was a conventional hero. What they all shared was a common humanity, struggling to survive in an indifferent and sometimes cruel world; and their stories fascinated me. Barry Lyndon is another of Thackeray’s great novels, and it has been transformed cinematically into an opulent and engaging story similar in tone to Vanity Fair. It could be called “a film without a hero.”

The narrative begins in the 1750s in Ireland when Barry’s father is killed in a duel. Raised by his mother, he is sheltered from the harsh realities of learning how to earn a living. Instead, he tries to move upward on the social and financial ladder by allying himself with people in positions of power and influence. After numerous years of drifting and gambling, he finally secures the hand in marriage of a rich countess, Lady Lyndon, whose aged and sick husband has recently died.

Although they have a child, Barry is unfaithful to Lady Lyndon. Lord Bullingdon, Lady Lyndon’s son by her first marriage, observes this behavior and sees Barry as an opportunist interested only in his mother’s money. He is correct and, unfortunately, Barry’s life of excess drives the family to the brink of financial ruin by spending his wife’s fortune trying to become a respected and influential member of high society. He throws lavish parties to ingratiate himself with those in power and purchases overly appraised works of art. Eventually, he regrets his selfishness and apologizes to his wife, but only after much damage has been done. The dysfunctional relationship between Barry and his stepson, Lord Bullingdon, continues, however, with tragic consequences.

Kubrick, a masterful director, captures the opulence and physical beauty of the idle life of the wealthy and privileged with rich and exquisite images. Every scene looks like a museum painting. But beneath the outward beauty is a corrupt society focused only on power and pleasure, a society which disdains work and worships those with influence.

The positive value of work is nowhere to be seen in Barry Lyndon, which portrays a life of excess and leisure. This is in stark contrast to Jewish values. The Talmud, indeed, places great value on work. It is filled with comments abhorring idleness, suggesting that it leads to mental illness and sexual immorality (Talmud Bavli 59b). Moreover, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon state that work honors the workman (Nedarim 49b), and they themselves would deliberately carry heavy loads to show that manual labor was to be respected. Furthermore, Rabbi Yehuda Ben Besayrah remarks: “If a person has no work to do, what should he do? If he has a dilapidated yard or field, he should go and occupy himself with it.” Work is therapeutic, for it keeps man mentally healthy. Further, the Sages warn us “not to be tempted by opulence and not to be jealous of those who maintain positions of authority.” To be idle, in Jewish tradition, is to lead an unproductive life. Work, in contrast, gives man stability, a sense of self-worth, and happiness. Barry Lyndon reminds us that the life of idleness prevents one from leading an emotionally rich and balanced life.

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Say Anything (1989), directed by Cameron Crowe

say anything posterA female physician, who married a number of years ago, recently introduced me to her husband. I expected to meet a college grad in some white collar job, but I did not. Instead, I met a very sweet guy who worked as an auto mechanic in a local service station. I wondered what prompted each one to connect with each other, but soon realized that just because two people have similar educational backgrounds does not mean they are compatible intellectually and emotionally. Sometimes, opposites do attract. That is at the core of Say Anything, a teen romance between a class valedictorian and an affable young man who has no idea of what he wants to do with his life.

Lloyd Dobler, an average student who envisions kickboxing as a possible career, one day decides to date the brilliant Diane Court immediately after they graduate from high school before she leaves for college. Say Anything follows their relationship as it waxes and wanes through the prism of teenage angst.

It is 1988 and Diane is practicing her valedictorian speech. Although the talk is humorless, Lloyd still wants to date her, and so he asks her to come with him to a graduation party. Surprisingly, she accepts even though she has little idea of who Lloyd is. When she attends, she has a great time and feels more integrated into the world of other teenagers, who are more socially adept than she.

Diane continues to date Lloyd and they both enjoy one another’s company. When Diane learns that she has won a prestigious scholarship in England, Lloyd wants to come with her, much to the chagrin of Diane’s father. Plot complications ensue as she and Lloyd travel their rocky road to love in spite of their disparate backgrounds.

Jewish tradition is very clear on who has the final say when it comes to compatibility between couples. They are encouraged to consult with parents and trusted friends, but the final decision is the couple’s. The Babylonian Talmud tractate of Kiddushin (41a) records that “it is forbidden for a man to marry off his daughter when she is young, until she is older and says, “He is the one I wish to marry.” Moreover, even arranged marriages were never forced.  The consent of a Jewish young man and woman was required as a pre-condition for the match. Furthermore, the Biblical story of Isaac and Rebecca indicates that their wedding was not considered a done deal until Rebecca had given her consent. As the Torah says, “Let us call the maiden and ask her (Genesis 24:57).”

This principle of mutual consent was later made part of Jewish law. The great medieval sage Maimonides in his code of Jewish law, the Mishna Torah, declares that “a woman cannot be married unless she consents to the match of her own free will.” The Talmud thoughtfully mentions the following precautions before marrying: buy land quickly but be deliberate in finding a wife, don’t betroth a woman you have not seen, find a woman close in age to you, and do not marry for money.

Lloyd Dobler is very deliberate in his quest for Diane’s affection. He is not interested in money. He likes her looks but also admires her braininess and her good character. That is what sets Diane apart from other girls. She is a thinker who both examines and experiences life. This is what brings them together in spite of their different social and educational histories. The fact that they can be honest with each other and “say anything” makes their relationship special. Both Lloyd and Diane are without pretense and that paves the way for an enduring relationship.

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I Am Sam (2001), directed by Jessie Nelson

I am Sam posterAs I write this review, I am observing the Yahrzeit, the anniversary of the death of my oldest sister, Carol, who passed away close to 30 years ago. Carol had Down’s Syndrome, a severe form of mental retardation. When she was born in the late 1930s, this condition was in the proverbial closet, and rarely discussed in public forums.

My conversations with Carol when I was a child were always straightforward, but once I was very surprised by a remark of hers. My father was trying to get her to speak slower so he could understand what she said and he told her: “Hold your horses.” Carol responded: “I have no horses to hold.” To my 10-year old mind, Carol’s answer was hilarious, and both I and my family burst out laughing. Carol laughed too, understanding that she told a good joke.

The incident reminded me that when we deal with people with disabilities, especially mental retardation, we have to leave our preconceived notions at the door. We have to realize that there are many gradations of mental retardation and they present themselves in many different ways.

I can recall Bobby Duffy, a mentally handicapped fellow I met in my childhood, who was a superb ping-pong player. Watching I Am Sam, in which several mentally challenged people reveal an encyclopedic knowledge of Beatles legend and lore, made me think of Bobby who excelled at one endeavor even though he was intellectually functioning at a very low level. I was reminded of Bobby again when my son-in-law, a special education expert, was working for a school with the acronym of SCHI, which stood for School for Children of Hidden Intelligence. The name of the school was ingenious because it implied that even handicapped kids had intelligence, albeit an intelligence of a different kind.

I Am Sam tells the story of Sam Dawson, a mentally retarded adult who has fathered a child with a homeless woman, who leaves Sam right after giving birth to their daughter. She wants nothing to do with either Sam or the new baby, and Sam is left with the awesome responsibility of caring for his child, which he does with the assistance of Annie, a kind neighbor.

In a few years, Lucy, his daughter, surpasses her father intellectually and social services challenge Sam’s ability to care for his precocious daughter. A court custody case ensues, and Sam desperately seeks legal representation.

Due to an unusual set of circumstances, Rita, a high-powered lawyer, volunteers to help Sam on a pro bono basis, and thus begins her journey on a road to understanding the world of mentally challenged people as well as a road of self-understanding. An early conversation between Sam and Rita illustrates the initiation of Rita’s learning process. She asks Sam: “I just don’t know what to call you: retarded, mentally retarded, mentally handicapped, mentally disabled, intellectually handicapped, intellectually disabled, developmentally disabled, “ to which Sam responds: “ You can call me Sam.” Rita quickly learns that labeling people does not allow you to truly recognize the uniqueness of every human being.

Jewish tradition regards every child as special and as possessing a perfect soul. From the point of view of Jewish law, mentally retarded children are not accountable for their actions. The Chazon Ish, a great sage of the twentieth century, suggested that such children have a unique purpose in the world. Unlike normal children who are charged with improving their character, the purpose of the Down’s Syndrome child is to bring out the best in others, to foster sensitivity in those whom they meet both within the family and without. For example, when Rita asks Sam to manipulate the truth for the sake of retaining custody of Lucy, Sam tells her that he can’t do this. Lying is not in his genetic code. He can only tell the truth and he cannot use subterfuge. This forthright answer silently encourages Rita to face the truth of her own family situation, married to an unfaithful husband and mother to a child that has little respect for her.

I Am Sam is an emotionally touching film that helps us understand the world of the mentally challenged. In the process, it makes us reflect on our own modalities for relating to family and friends. Sam reminds us that love is more important than wisdom in lubricating our human relationships.

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Hope Springs (2012), directed by David Frankel

hope springs posterI recall that, as a teenager, I felt ready to get married at age 14. The hormones were operating at a high level and dating in my own mind was serious. Fortunately, I did not act on impulse and I matured, realizing that marriage was a serious and sacred enterprise that required a commitment of soul, not just bodies.

Now that I have entered the ranks of senior citizens, I understand better that love within marriage grows in many ways: physical, emotional, and spiritual. Marriage counselors of all stripes advise couples to work at marriage even in the senior years to keep it fresh and alive. That essentially is the narrative arc of Hope Springs, a thoughtful film about seniors dealing with a changing relationship that needs an infusion of passion at all levels to prevent the marriage from atrophy.

Empty nesters Kay and Arnold Soames, after 31 years of marriage, have fallen into a rut. Their marriage is devoid of passion and even simple connection. They sleep in separate bedrooms and their conversation is perfunctory. On one fateful day, Kay buys a book about how to keep a marriage fresh written by Dr. Bernie Feld, who runs a marriage counseling center in a remote coastal town in Maine. Kay signs up for a week-long therapy session and Arnold reluctantly goes. So begins an engaging account of Arnold and Kay’s attempt to rekindle the love that once was and seems to be no more.

The therapy involves Dr. Feld asking many candid questions about Kay and Arnold’s views of marital intimacy and how they feel about one another now. Touching one another for extended periods of time is the first exercise by Dr. Feld, and things progress from there to greater intimacy in all manifestations.

Kay and Arnold make progress and then return to Omaha, their home. At first, things begin to unravel, but when Kay and Arnold realize how much is at stake for both of them at this time of their lives, they recommit to working at their marriage. The two gifted actors who play Kay and Arnold, Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, enable the film to achieve a depth and honesty that is extraordinary and separate this film from others that also deal with an aging husband and wife adjusting to their changing minds and bodies.

The Sages of old tell us that although the primary purpose of marriage is to have children, intimacy within marriage is considered good even after a couple has children because it fortifies the marriage bond. The human touch is critical at all stages of marriage. It is interesting to note that during the childbearing years, traditional Judaism requires husband and wife to observe a separation during the wife’s menses and for seven days afterward. Practically speaking, this means that intimacy does not occur for approximately 12 days per month. After menopause, husband and wife can be intimate with one another all the time, as if to teach us that more touching is needed as one gets older so that one continues to feel desired.

Hope Springs reminds us that love springs eternal only if we work at it. Keeping busy with the technological conveniences of modern life, with cell phones, with computers, with surfing the internet allows us the freedom to communicate with the world; but the most important communication, suggest our Sages, is on the home front where we need to prioritize our communication efforts. A perfunctory kiss in the morning and a quick “I love you” is not enough. True love takes time to nurture and grow, but it can bring great rewards. Happily, Kay and Arnold make the investment that can save their future.

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Departures (2008), directed by Yojiro Takita

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Departures posterMy first encounter with death occurred when I was a rabbi in Atlanta, Georgia. It was my first year in the field and I received a frantic phone call from Wesley Woods, a long-term care facility for the terminally ill. I rushed over and found Al in the midst of his death throes. I heard the term “death rattle” before, but now I actually witnessed it. It was a confusing moment for me. I had no experience with funerals or dying and did not know what to say to the family. When Al finally died a short time after I came, I was speechless. Happily for the family, a priest came by and offered meaningful words of comfort.

I thought of this as I watched Departures, a deeply touching film with an unusual subtext: the rituals that people experience when a loved one passes, which place death in a cosmic context that comforts the mourners.

Daigo Kobayashi, a cellist in a Tokyo orchestra, loses his job when, because of financial considerations, the orchestra has to disband. He moves back to his rural hometown to live in the house of his deceased mother, and hopes to find a job. He answers an advertisement for a person to “assist with departures” and goes to the interview thinking the work is related to a travel agency. After a cursory interview with the boss, Mr. Sasaki, he is hired and quickly discovers that “departures” refers to preparing the dead for departure into the next world.

It is neither an easy nor glamorous job, and Daigo is reluctant to reveal his occupation to his wife. However, after a number of assignments, he begins to understand the supreme value of his work. Many of his clients express the utmost of gratitude for his service, and Daigo begins to feel a great sense of personal fulfillment. His wife, Mika, however, does not share his view and wants him to give up his “disgusting profession” and obtain another job. This disagreement between husband and wife generates tension, until one fateful day when a friend’s funeral requires his services.

As we watch Daigo perform the casketing ceremony in front of relatives and friends, we understand the powerful emotional comfort he is giving to those who are left behind. It is very much akin to the purification ritual, the taharah, that is performed in Jewish tradition in which the body is washed, prayers are said, and farewells to the deceased are articulated. In both Asian and Jewish traditions, there is the given that this world is only a gateway to another, where the spirit reigns supreme. That understanding gives comfort to the mourners, who implicitly know that all men, including them, will undertake the same journey from this world to the next.

Interestingly, some of the special rituals of the casketing process are similar to the ancient taharah. The body is washed, albeit in different ways, and there is great care to insure that body parts are visible only in a minimal way out of respect for the dignity of the departed. Moreover, because the ceremony is viewed as a holy preparation for entry into the afterlife, the one who performs it is valued and appreciated by the family of the deceased. Only the boorish or untutored view ministering the dead as not a “proper job,” as one character says in the film. However, those with maturity and wide life experience cherish the sensitivity of those who labor in this sacred task.

Departures is a one-of-a-kind movie that introduces us to a topic that is removed from daily life, but which helps us understand the long-standing traditions of our faith towards the subject of death. Its sensitive portrait of casketing resonates in Jewish tradition, where preparing the dead for burial is viewed as the highest form of kindness, referred to as a “kindness of truth.” There is no payback when you do a good deed for the dead.

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The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), directed by Gabriele Muccino

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pursuit of happyness posterThere was a time in my life when I was in a very poor cash position. I went to relatives and friends and asked for help, and they all assisted me. I told all of them that I would repay their loans and in a couple of years I did. A few people forgave the loan but most did not, but I was happy to pay them back now that my financial situation had improved. It is no fun to be heavily in debt, and I identified easily with the emotional stress of Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness, an inspirational film about a man with very bad financial luck who manages to turn his life around because of sheer hard work and unswerving commitment to a goal.

The story begins in 1981 in San Francisco where salesman Chris Gardner purchases a large number of portable bone-density scanners to sell to doctors. But there is a problem. The machines are very expensive and do not reveal much more than standard x-ray machines. The result: few machines are sold and Chris goes into deep debt. The financial stress causes a rift between Chris and his wife. Eventually, as their economic situation deteriorates more and more, his wife Linda wants out of the marriage. Chris insists on keeping their 5-year old son with him in spite of his wife’s pleas. The fact that Chris’s own father walked out on him is a memory tape that haunts Chris, and he does not want to follow in his father’s footsteps when it comes to his own son.

In the course of trying to sell his scanners, he by chance meets Jay Twistle, a manager for the stock brokerage firm of Dean Witter Reynolds. Fascinated by the glamour of the job of stock broker, he applies for an internship at the company. In a serendipitous cab ride that he shares with Twistle, Chris impresses him with his facility for solving a Rubik’s Cube puzzle and Twistle accepts Chris for the internship.

As Chris tries his best to turn the internship into a real job with pay, he encounters a surfeit of impediments. Police arrest him for unpaid parking tickets. His bank account is garnished by the IRS for unpaid income tax. He is evicted from his home because of overdue rent, forcing him and his son to sleep in the subway for a short time and then to live in a facility for the homeless.

Because of these pressures, Chris is forced to utilize every available free moment to make phone contacts and set up sales calls for stock purchases. He even defies protocol by seeking out high value customers even though he is an intern. Moreover, he does not want to reveal his disadvantaged situation to anyone at the firm for fear it will jeopardize his chances for the coveted paid position at Dean Witter.

King Solomon in his classic Proverbs tells us that “seven times the righteous will fall, yet they will rise again.” It is a message of hope in the face of adversity, to stay focused even when things fall apart. We all have friends who, when faced with possible failure in reaching their professional goals, give up hope. For example, I know of many young, promising teachers who leave education because of their initial difficulties in the field. I also know some who weather the storm and leave meaningful legacies in their respective institutions.

Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness comprehends the value of perseverance in the face of adversity. His story inspires us to be steadfast even in the face of enormous obstacles.

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