Warrior (2012), directed by Gavin O’Conner

warrior posterAs a parent, I sometimes wonder if I did my best in rearing my kids. Is there anything I should have done that I did not do? Thank G-d, I do feel I did my best, but parenting is not a cookie cutter activity and in hindsight I think of things that I might have done differently. The reality is that I was a different parent for each one of my children. I was growing older and some of my children had a different version of my younger self. I had more experience by the time I was parenting my younger children, but I may have had less quality time with them because my professional demands were increasing. More things were going on in my life and that may have affected my parenting style.

Parenting is the subtext of Warrior, a gritty and violent story about a mixed martial arts competition which culminates in a fight between two brothers, Tommy and Brendan, whose father was not there for them in their formative years. Both brothers are angry young men, but one has learned how to forgive and one has not.

Tommy Riordan, an ex-Marine, visits his father, Paddy Conlon, a recovering alcoholic who now has made religion a part of his life. Still angry at his father for his abusive behavior towards his mother many years ago, he has no interest in reconciliation. However, it turns out that he needs his father to train him for a mixed martial arts tournament named Sparta, which has a prize purse of $5,000,000. Tommy wants to win so he can give the money to the family of his Marine buddy who died in a friendly fire incident in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Brendan Conlon, Tommy’s older brother, is having challenges of his own. A high school physics teacher and former martial arts fighter, he can’t make ends meet after refinancing his home mortgage to pay for the open-heart surgery of his daughter. Faced with the possible loss of his home, he decides to re-enter his former profession as a mixed martial arts fighter to increase his income. When his friend, Frank, a fighting coach, loses his primary fighter for the Sparta competition, Brendan asks Frank to use him as a replacement.

When Brendan arrives at the tournament, he sees that Tommy is entered as well. As this grueling contest of skill and strength progresses, Tommy and Brendan win their respective matches bringing them to an inevitable showdown against one another. Their shared animosity for their father is the glue that binds them together, but Brendon’s forgiving nature allows him to move beyond feeling intense anger for his father. Tommy, however, is a loner with no wife and family and he stews with hatred.

In the early part of my professional career, I served as a synagogue rabbi. Part of my job was to perform funerals, and I was often witness to scenes of family reconciliation at times of emotional stress. The mortality of a parent, the aging of a parent, or the serious illness of a parent made the family more sensitive to one another, more willing to let old irritants and old arguments fall by the wayside in order to be at peace with parent and siblings. When a parent is on the verge of leaving this world, family bonds reassert themselves.

Jewish history reminds us not to let the sins or shortcomings of the past determine our future. After the sin of the Golden Calf, the close relationship between God and the Jewish people, comparable to the relationship between parent and child, was torn asunder. But the holiday of Yom Kipper teaches us that the break does not have to be permanent. There is a time for healing no matter what the mistake. Warrior reminds us that families sometimes fracture, but family ties don’t break. In moments of despair and anger, exercising both courage and humility can re-establish love and connection.

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My Sister’s Keeper (2009), directed by Nick Cassavetes

my sister's keeperCaregiving can be a full-time occupation. A friend of mine spends hours taking care of her aged mother, spending time with her, talking with her, trying to make her comfortable while she navigates the complicated bureaucratic machinery that is charged with providing for her mother’s basic needs.

My friend has not taken a vacation in years. Taking care of her mom is her priority, and to watch her is to see a child fulfilling the biblical command of honoring parents in the quintessential way. However, there is a downside to this total involvement. Her husband’s needs are neglected and her children feel abandoned. Certainly, her entire family understands the motivation of their mother, but inwardly they miss her attention.

This emotional triage that takes place in families when one member is ill is the subject of My Sister’s Keeper, a thoughtful film in which a devoted mother focuses all her attention on her cancer-stricken daughter to the detriment of her relationship with her husband and other children.

The title My Sister’s Keeper refers to Anna Fitzgerald, who was conceived in order to provide a genetic match for her critically ill sister Kate who suffers from an acute form of cancer. Parents Sara and Brian were not planning to have more children, but when a doctor suggests that providing a genetic match for Kate may be the only way for Kate to survive all the medical challenges that lie ahead, they have another child. The crux of the story concerns the renal failure of Kate at age 15 and the reality that Anna will be asked to donate her kidney, which prompts her to hire an attorney, Campbell Alexander, to sue her parents for medical emancipation. This will allow her to have control over the rights to her own body.

This legal challenge is the catalyst for a re-evaluation of the family’s attitude towards Kate, Kate’s attitude towards them, and their perceptions of each other. Each one in their own way is being tested through the crucible of painful life experience, compelled to examine their motives for caring for Kate and compelled to see things from the perspective of others, all of whom care for and love one another.

The Torah clearly states: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In simple terms, this means that you should treat your friends just as you want them to treat you. If you were sick and unable to manage things, you would want someone to tend to you. Therefore, you should be there for others who need you at times of stress or crisis.

None of us plans to be a caregiver, but sometimes it happens and we have to do our best. God’s plans for us and our own plans for our future do not always coincide. But that is the challenge. At the same time, we cannot ignore the rest of our family.

Caring for the sick is not a cookie-cutter activity. Jewish law instructs us to be very aware of the specific needs of the sick person. One size or type of service does not fit all. One great sage tells us to minister to the ill with our body, our soul, and with financial support if needed. “With our body” means that we should do physical actions to help the sick person. “With our soul” means we should pray on behalf of the sick person and inform the sick person that he is in our prayers.

My Sister’s Keeper reminds us that caring for the sick can be time-consuming, labor intensive, and emotionally draining, but it also must be emotionally nuanced. While the focus has to be on the sick person, the needs of everyone in the family still must be considered.

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The Namesake (2006), directed by Mira Nair

namesake posterA friend of mine lamented that his son never asks him for advice. He wants to be relevant in his son’s life, but throughout his teen years and into adulthood his son has never consulted him about important life choices. The present reality is that his son has made many mistakes in life. He is now unemployed, devoid of savings, and is unmarried. The father yearns to be mentor to his son, but his son is not interested. I was reminded of this as I watched The Namesake, a wise narrative about a man born in India, who journeys to the United States for his education and for a job.

Ashoke Ganguil is very much an Indian at heart, but circumstances compel him to see his destiny in America. Although he marries Ashima, an Indian girl, they move to America where they raise their children, a boy, Gogol, and a girl, Sonia.

The film chronicles Ashoke and Ashima’s adjustment to a new land, which includes a gradual emotional separation from their parents and their ethnic traditions. A sore point between the father and son is the bestowing of the name Gogol on his son. His son has heard many times that his father considered Gogol a great writer and that is why he bears his name. However, Ashoke hints at various times that there is deeper reason for giving his son that strange name.

When the adult Gogol brings his girlfriend to meet his parents, Ashoke senses that the time to engage his son in meaningful conversation is dwindling. Ashoke insists upon having some private time with him to explain why he gave him the name Gogol. Ashokke wants to talk to him heart to heart, free of any distractions. He takes Gogol for a drive and stops to share the story of the origin of his name with him.

As he was was riding in a train in India many years ago, he was reading Gogol’s famous short story “The Overcoat.“ Another passenger noticed how wrapped up he was in the book and encouraged him to travel, see the world, and learn about life first-hand. Ashoke responded that this is what books are for. They allow you to travel to faraway places and still stay where you are.

The next moment the train crashes and his fellow passenger is killed along with many others. Ashoke miraculously is saved; in the hospital recuperating, he resolves to see the world up close, not through books. The trauma of almost losing his life while reading Gogol made him want to memorialize the moment, and so he named his son Gogol to always remember his good fortune at being rescued from almost certain death.

At that moment, Gogol begins to see his fatherly differently. He is no longer the titular head of the family; he is the wise man who is sharing wisdom with his son. He wants to leave him a meaningful legacy. He wants to teach him the value of life, the supreme value of time. The name Gogol transmits this life-affirming message.

The Torah, the repository of Jewish wisdom, is to be transmitted from generation to generation, from father to son. The Sages compare Torah to a living tree that gives spiritual sustenance to all who study and practice it. The father is the agent of that transmission. Just as a mother innately wants to nourish her child with milk, so does the father want to nourish his child with wisdom, for wisdom shared grows exponentially. The reality, however, is that children are often not ready to listen.

The wisdom of Mark Twain is relevant, for it advises us to shift our paradigms when it comes to parental guidance. He observed: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

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Frozen River (2008), directed by Courtney Hunt

frozen river posterIn Joseph Telushkin’s masterful biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he cites an incident in which the Rebbe gives advice to a young woman going through a difficult time in her life when she feels no one understands her emotional pain. He counsels her with an anecdote about motherhood: “When you will grow up and marry and, God willing, have a child, the nature of things are that in the first year…a child begins to teethe and teething is a painful process and the child cries as a result. And the mother feels the pain as if it were her own.” The Rebbe then tells her that this is the way he feels her pain, and that comment enters the girl’s mind and heart.

When we speak about fully identifying with the pain of others, the mother’s love for the child is paradigmatic. This is evident in the case of three mothers who experience crises with their children in the emotionally tense drama Frozen River.

The setting is upstate New York, near the Mohawk Reservation and the Canadian border. Ray Eddy works in a discount store struggling to raise two sons after her husband, a gambling addict, has absconded with all of her savings. In her search for him, she meets Lila Littlewolf, a Mohawk indian who works in a bingo parlor. Although initially mistrustful of each other, they eventually forge an alliance because of their common need for money to provide for their children. Together they transport illegal immigrants over the border from Canada into the United States, crossing the frozen St. Lawrence River, a very dangerous trip that brings them the sizable sum of $1200 per crossing.

On one of their forays to bring illegals into the States, they transport a Pakistani couple who insist on bringing a package with them in the trunk of the car. Unbeknownst to them, Ray leaves the package behind, fearful that it might contain explosives. Once at their destination, they learn that the package contained the baby of the Pakistani woman, who is distraught at losing her child. Ray and Lila do not hesitate trying to recover the baby even though it is pitch black and cold. Ray and Lila are both mothers, and they need no convincing to retrace their route and attempt to locate the baby. Thankfully, the baby is still alive and they happily return it to its mother.

The experience unnerves Ray and Lila, but economic necessity drives them to continue making illegal runs, risking discovery and incarceration by the authorities. Their motivation: to create a better situation for their respective children. A mother’s unconditional love trumps everything.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the great Torah sages of the twentieth century, poetically describes motherhood: “The nine months of pregnancy, with all its attendant biological and psychological changes, the birth of the child with pain and suffering, the nursing of the baby and, later, the caretaking of and attending to the youngster–all form part of the motherhood experience.” For the mother “the image of the baby, the memory of an infant held in her arms, the picture of herself playing, laughing, embracing, nursing, cleaning, and so forth, never vanishes. She always looks upon her child as upon a baby who needs her help and company, and whom she has to protect and shield.” Rabbi Soloveitchik continues: “The mother can never forget the biological fact that her child was once a part of her, that she gave him her blood and that she brought him into the world with suffering and pain. When she says ‘my baby,’ she means to say: Once we were one body. I gave you life.”

In Jewish tradition, God is sometimes referred to by a feminine descriptive, Shechina, to accentuate the similarity of God’s love to a mother’s love. It is this kind of profound sensibility that animates Ray, Lila, and the Pakistani woman, the mothers in Frozen River. It is a film that reminds us of the overwhelming power of motherly love and how it inevitably asserts itself in the midst of crisis.

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Chef (2014), directed by Jon Favreau

chef posterFor the past several years, I have been trying to secure an agent to publish a book of mine. One of the critical questions that agents ask me is what is my social media platform. In other words, agents justifiably want to know the chances of your book making money. The larger the social network, the larger your presence in social media, the greater chance exists that more books can be sold. The question prompted me to join Facebook, LinkedIn, and other Internet social media sites. I even thought about Twitter, but could not wrap my head around how it worked and what its benefits were. Watching Chef made me more acutely aware of the power and pitfalls of social media in the marketplace.

Carl Casper is head chef of a posh restaurant in Los Angeles. One night, the famous restaurant blogger, Ramsey Michael, is planning to visit his restaurant. Carl intends to boggle the mind and palette of the food critic with an innovative menu, but Carl’s boss Riva insists that Carl follow the traditional menu. Carl acquiesces, but the review is cruel and insulting personally to Carl. In anger, Carl challenges Ramsey to visit the restaurant again, using Twitter to send his message. Not realizing that his remarks are public, he creates huge publicity, which mostly works negatively for him. Compounding the problem is Carl’s public meltdown, which is captured on video and goes viral, in which he openly berates Ramsey for his impersonal attitude towards all people who work hard for a living. Professionally, Carl loses all credibility and is fired from his job.

Without a new job in sight, he decides to obtain an old food truck at his ex-wife Inez’s suggestion, and journeys to Miami where he becomes enthralled with Cuban cuisine. His son, Percy, who longs for his father’s attention, asks his father if he can help him restore the truck to its previous shiny condition and Carl accepts his help. The experience unites father and son, providing a catalyst for a new and meaningful relationship between parent and child. Percy, who is savvy about social media, becomes the linchpin for driving Carl’s business to financial success because of his ability to use Twitter to generate new customers.

Proverbs tells us that death and life are in the power of the tongue. It is a statement that also can apply to expressing oneself on the Internet or through emails. Electronic messages become an extended form of your speech, and what you utter in those forms has a ripple effect many miles away.

I remember once when I forwarded a friend’s email to another person to save some time rather than transfer the information to a new email, the sender of the original email criticized me for sending it without realizing that the email contained a long series of prior emails that discussed a highly sensitive issue. It should have remained a private matter, but because of my thoughtlessness, the information was now in the public domain.

Chef is a movie with valuable lessons about the consequences of carelessly using social media. On the one hand, it is a useful tool to connect with others, especially in business. It is inexpensive, fast, direct, and personal. Carl’s food truck business soars when the word spreads quickly about how good his food tastes. On the other hand, spreading gossip or slandering another person through social media sites makes one violate the laws of evil speech in an exponential way. The damage, once done, is irreparable because so many people are involved. It is impossible to limit its negative effects. Chef reminds us to think before pressing the send key.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Antz (1998), directed by Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson

antz posterIn high school, everybody wanted to look the same. Elvis was the fashion icon, and we all grew sideburns and dressed to look cool. Many years later, I was at an Orthodox Chassidic wedding, and I realized I was the only person there with a grey hat and suit. Everyone else was dressed in a black suit and wore a black hat. They all looked the same just as my buddies from high school looked the same with their pompadours and pegged pants. The common thread: similar dress indicated similar mindset. To be different branded one as an outsider looking in. Individuality was suspicious.

Confirming to the majority is the challenge facing “Z,” the hero of Antz, a hilarious animated feature, which deals with expressing one’s individuality in a world where conformity is the ideal. The narrative begins in an ant colony in Central Park in New York where Z-4195, also known as “Z”, longs for the chance to express himself as an individual. He is depressed over living in a totalitarian society that frowns upon and, in most cases, forbids veering from the norm. Into his world enters Princess Bala who meets Z at a bar to which she has escaped from her suffocating life at the palace.

Their union is aborted when the princess suddenly has to leave. However, Z, mesmerized by her, is undaunted by their different positions in society. He gladly exchanges his worker ant status with a friendly soldier ant to seek an opportunity to see Bala again and pursue their relationship.

Crisis arrives when the soldiers are sent into battle by General Mandible, the power-hungry leader of the army of ants. Z barely escapes with his life and resolves to seek a better world where individuality is valued. Mandible and Z represent two conflicting ideologies: conformity versus individuality. The worker ants have to choose between the two, or learn to strike some kind of balance between the two.

Jewish tradition offers such a balance. Jewish law requires conformity in practices related to rituals and moral behavior. Everyone who is with the program possesses a belief in God and in the divinity of sacred text. Once those basic principles are accepted, then there is room for individual expression.

Although everyone is created in God’s image, which means that everyone is unique and possesses infinite value, it is good that not everyone is exactly the same. We should appreciate the differences once common core principles are accepted. The classic model is the Talmudic discussion that takes place between Sages who may see the same reality but use different eyeglasses to arrive at different conclusions.

Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo, in an intriguing article praising non-conformity and rebellion within Jewish education, observes that the Torah itself was the first text of rebellion to appear in world history. Abraham challenged existing beliefs and protested the status quo. The goal of the Bible was to be the catalyst for a “rebel movement of cosmic proportions.” Furthermore, Rabbi Cardozo writes that the Torah “protests against complacency, self-satisfaction, and negation of the spirit. It calls for radical thinking and drastic action without compromise, even when it means standing alone, being condemned and ridiculed.”

This is exactly what happens to Z when he foments revolution among the worker ants. The powers that be mock him, but Z does not despair. He is convinced that individuality is to be celebrated even when society operates with a totalitarian vision. The key is balance.

Antz is a wildly imaginative movie with lots of laughs, especially since Z is voiced by Woody Allen, articulating the neurotic pessimism that characterizes his humor. Beneath the surface, however, is a serious statement about preserving the integrity of the individual voice even when the majority wants to drown it out.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Splendor in the Grass (1961), directed by Elia Kazan

Splendor in the Grass posterI saw Splendor in the Grass in 1961 when I was 19 years old. I was in college taking a course in English Literature and we had just read Wordsworth’s “Ode to Intimations of Immortality” focusing on the classic lines which make up the title of the movie: “Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower, we will grieve not; rather find strength in what remains behind.” The lines penetrated my psyche, and I had one of those “aha” moments as I connected the words to my own experience. I was not in love with anybody at the time, but I still had memories of my ninth grade infatuation that ended badly when I was rejected by my then girlfriend for another boy. It was devastating and it took me a long time to recover my psychological equilibrium. I too had come to the realization that I could not recapture the past; all I could do was “to find strength in what remains behind,” and reconstruct myself emotionally.

Splendor in the Grass is a sad but very wise movie. Although it ends with a piece of senior wisdom, a lot of teenage angst is portrayed along the way in all its raw emotion. Bud Stamper, the high school jock, cannot have an honest conversation with his father who wants to make Bud in his image rather than allow Bud to discover who he is on his own. Deanie Loomis, his girlfriend whom he loves dearly, cannot have a conversation with her mother without her mother depositing a truckload of guilt behind. “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate” is the famous tagline from the popular film Cool Hand Luke, but it fittingly describes the relationship between Bud Stamper and his father and Deanie Loomis and her mother. Parents talk at their children but do not see beyond their own perspective and interests.

The story begins in 1928 in Kansas. Deanie and Bud are in love, and as a teenager in love once myself, their love seems real, not deep but definitely real. Bud’s dad does not want Bud to marry right after high school. He wants him to attend Yale and then embark upon a career. He even encourages Bud to be promiscuous, naively thinking that Bud’s desire for love can be assuaged with a coarse physical relationship. Dad, in truth, has little understanding of true love as can be seen from his loveless relationship with his own wife.

Bud and Deanie feel a strong physical attraction, but Deanie wants to remain virginal, and Bud thinks of Deanie as a “good girl;” inwardly he does not want her to be like others who might compromise their innocence. All this leaves them passionately connected to one another but under enormous emotional stress. Eventually, they break up with catastrophic consequences.

Years later they meet. Both have moved on with their lives, but they recognize the specialness of what they once had. They know that their strong affinity for one another cannot be resurrected, but that does not diminish the possibility of each one having a happy life with someone else.

In Jewish matchmaking, there is the notion of one’s bashert, one’s destined one or soul mate. I have wondered what happens when you meet your destined one, but do not recognize her or you do recognize her but lack the will to move forward. Time passes and your destined one marries another. What are you left with? Many Sages think that the notion of bashert is not part and parcel of Jewish law and should be applied only metaphorically. Rabbi Josh Yuter, in a masterful article explaining the concept, opines that bashert applies to how you view your spouse after marriage. In other words, when married couples go through rough spots, they should view their spouse as their destined mates and resolve to solve their problems rather than escape from them. Alternatively, one can say that the bottom line is that you have to seek out someone who fits with you emotionally and intellectually as well as physically.

One cannot be fatalistic in Judaism and just wait for the right one to appear. Rather we should find the missing part of ourselves that Adam lost in Eden and build our lives using the best information we can obtain at the time. Splendor in the Grass reminds us to do our best at whatever stage of life we are. Let us find glory in the flower even in the autumn of our lives.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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