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.

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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.

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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.

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Mississippi Burning (1988), directed by Alan Parker

mississippi burning posterA recent newspaper reported that a prominent publisher of maps deleted Israel from maps sold to schools in some middle-eastern countries. Indirectly, schools who use the maps teach that Israel does not exist, and that Jews are usurpers of the land with no legitimate claims. It was another reminder that children can be educated to hate. Sadly, if you want to demonize Jews, there are unlimited ways to do this; the textbooks in many Arab schools and the Arab media promote a vision of the Jew that is easy to detest. I thought of this as I watched a scene in Mississippi Burning, a powerful film about racial tensions in the South, which focuses on the killing of three civil rights workers in the 1960s. In one scene, a Ku Klux Klan leader brands Negroes, Jews, and Catholics as un-American and as minorities who are destroying the fabric of American life and its morality as well. The camera pans on faces of adults and children who are listening attentively to his speech. They are innocent faces, but they are being taught to hate.

The story opens in 1964, when three civil rights workers are killed. At first it is a missing persons case, but the FBI sends two agents, Rupert Anderson, played by Gene Hackman, and Alan Ward, played by Willem Dafoe, to Jessup County, Mississippi, to investigate the details of their disappearance. The townspeople are reluctant to talk to them and getting the truth becomes difficult. A culture of hate is ingrained in the community. Moreover, the more the FBI invests its manpower and time to solve the mystery, the more dangerous life becomes for the community’s black residents.

Finally, the agents get information that leads them to the location of the bodies, and Anderson, using unorthodox methods, is able to ferret out who murdered them. The tense dynamic between Anderson, who is willing to break the law to get necessary information, and Ward, who wants to do things by the book, reveals the difficulty of ascertaining truth in a world where tradition trumps objective truth.

Judaism teaches that all men are created in God’s image and possess infinite value. Therefore, everyone deserves respect regardless of color or creed. It is noteworthy that in the Bible Jews are instructed not to hate the Egyptians, even though it was the Egyptians who enslaved them. The commentators point out that the Egyptians initially provided a place of refuge for the Jews during a time of severe famine. Moreover, it was the daughter of Pharaoh who saved Moses. The commandment not to hate the Egyptian essentially tells us not to carry past animosity with us. To be a free man, you have to let go of hate and not allow it to dominate who you are today.

It is instructive to note that when Miriam, Moses’s sister, criticized Moses for marrying a Cushite woman, a woman with dark skin, she was punished with leprosy. Furthermore, the Song of Songs, written by King Solomon, states “ I am black but beautiful.” A different color does not connote inferiority.

Mississippi Burning on one level is a superb crime thriller, in which we follow the dogged pursuit of the law towards apprehending the murderers of three innocent young men, whose only crime was to work for the civil rights and liberties of all Americans. On another level, it is a cautionary tale about what happens when people blindly accept narratives of hate about others and make them the operative principles for managing relationships with those who are different from them.

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Roxanne (1987), directed by Fred Schepisi

roxanne posterAs a synagogue rabbi for a number of years, I have officiated at many weddings. I am sometimes surprised at the disparity of appearance between the two partners. One may be exceptionally handsome, the other unattractive in conventional terms. Over time, however, I have realized that the two partners have much in common emotionally and intellectually, and that kind of connection is enduring. What seems to count is spiritual synergy, not transient beauty.

I sense the same emphasis on spiritual compatibility when I observe people getting married in Israel. Let me elaborate. When I drive home on my way home from work every day in Beit Shemesh, I pass by a wedding hall in a charedi (ultra-religious) neighborhood of Beit Shemesh, Israel. Very often, I see a marriage canopy set up in the outdoor courtyard in front of the building, signaling a wedding that evening. I know that in most cases bride and groom have only recently met and actually seen one another very few times. The essential compatibility for marriage is determined by the possession of a common spiritual direction, not how the other looks. Appearances again count but for little. What is paramount is union of souls, not bodies. This deeply shared perspective on life lies at the core of Roxanne, a hilarious comedy in which C.D. Bales, played by comic virtuoso Steve Martin, reconciles himself to a vicarious love affair with Roxanne Kowalski, all because his huge nose, a physical anomaly, is perceived by him to be an impediment to any serious love connection.

C.D., the fire chief in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, has a very large nose. He knows that it makes him look like a freak, but he is unwilling to undergo cosmetic surgery to fix it. He has gotten used to it and he is upset when anyone makes fun of it. Into this scenario enter two people who change his life: Roxanne, a serious and beautiful astronomer temporarily living in town, and Chris, a good-looking but simple-minded fireman attracted to Roxanne.

Following the general plot outline of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano DeBergerac, the film illustrates C.D.’s growing love for Roxanne and Roxanne’s infatuation with Chris, whom she thinks is both handsome and highly intelligent. Chris, in reality, is not the brightest bulb in town, and chokes up at the thought of even speaking to Roxanne. As a result, he enlists the aid of C.D. to help him woo her. C.D. accomplishes this by writing witty and passionate love letters to Roxanne, letters that are signed by Chris. The ruse works for a while with great comic ingenuity, but eventually the truth comes out.

After the truth is revealed, Roxanne has an epiphany of her own, and confesses her feelings to C.D.: “You know, I’ve been thinking about what attracted me to Chris. It wasn’t the way he looked. Well, that’s not true, at first it was the way he looked. But it was how he made me feel. He made me feel romantic, intelligent, feminine. But it wasn’t him doing that, was it? It was you. You and your nose, Charlie. You have a big nose! You have a beautiful, great big, flesh-and-bone nose! I love your nose! I love you, Charlie.”

The Book of Proverbs, authored by the wise King Solomon, expresses the paradigmatic Jewish view of beauty. It is something that transcends the physical. In his paean to the Jewish woman, which is recited in traditional Jewish homes every Friday night, the husband clearly proclaims that “grace is deceitful and physical beauty is evanescent. Only the woman that is God-fearing is the one to be praised.” The passage expresses a constant message about what really matters in a relationship. Moreover, it is a reminder to one’s children and subsequent generations that in choosing a spouse, one should seek out beauty of character more than beauty of outward form. Roxanne reminds us to value substance over style in defining our loving relationships.

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Begin Again (2013), directed by John Carney

begin again posterAt our Friday night dinners, we enjoy having guests. I am very busy during the week, and I rarely have time to engage people in conversation other than to give a quick hello and how are you. The Sabbath, however, is a day that moves slower than the rest. I disengage from my mundane activities and can think about life, about relationships, about getting to know people better.

On one recent Friday night when we invited a number of people I did not know well, I learned that one of our guests seriously considered becoming an actress. But she realized early on that such a career would be challenging for one who wanted to observe the Sabbath. Being an actress would raise other lifestyle issues as well. So many in the entertainment industry lead lives outside of conventional morality and the whole scene would be problematic for a person of serious religious faith. Therefore, she decided to stay away from a career in which her values might be compromised.

I thought of this as I watched Begin Again, the entertaining story of Gretta, a young singer/songwriter, who has a chance at stardom, but who, through the crucible of life experience, ultimately foresees the pitfalls of fame.

The story opens as Dan, a music producer who has fallen on hard times, discovers Gretta in a Greenwich Village bar singing one of her iconic songs. Dan is taken by her music and offers to sign her with his former record label. Though at first reluctant to work with him, Gretta decides to give it shot and see what happens. At first, nothing does happen, but then Dan gets the idea of recording Gretta’s album on the streets of New York. Dan, recruiting a number of talented musicians who are between jobs, is able to produce an album that might possibly be a huge success.

The entire experience of working together to produce the album bonds Dan with Gretta artistically and emotionally. Gretta takes an interest in Dan’s personal life, encouraging him to reconstruct his own life, which is in shambles. Divorced from his wife and disrespected by his teenage daughter, Violet, Dan is emotionally fragile and his friendship with Gretta gives him a new sense of purpose in life.

Gretta’s recent breakup with her unfaithful boyfriend Dave, also a singer/songwriter, has left her emotionally scarred. Gretta appreciates the honesty of Dan, who shares her love for music that is authentic and not crafted just to be commercial. To her and Dan, making music is not just about making money; it also about stirring the soul. In contrast, Dave is animated by the business of music. He puts great stock in the opinion of others and is quick to leave his principles behind. Gretta comes to understand this when she sees Dave performing before a packed house of female admirers who Gretta knows will satisfy Dave’s desire for fame and adulation.

Gretta wisely decides to assert her autonomy and chart her own course to success. For Gretta, music is her muse. Success means being able to share your creativity with the world. She will not compromise her principles, and so she allies herself with Dan who makes no demands on her and understands her need to preserve her artistic independence.

The Talmud instructs man to stay far away from a bad neighbor, someone who potentially can influence you to do bad things. The advice relates to choice of friends both on a personal level and in the marketplace. Gretta in Begin Again chooses to stay away from negative influences, from those people who value compromise over personal integrity.

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On a Clear Day (2005), directed by Gaby Dellal

on a clear day posterAs a rabbi and as a father, the saddest funerals at which I have officiated or attended are those for a child. The loss of a child goes against expectation. Kids are supposed to survive parents and when a child dies, hope for the future dies as well. It is a profound loss and recovery is hard. I sense that when I talk to parents who have lost a child, they are still grieving inwardly. Life has gone on, but the pain lingers.

The loss of a child haunts Frank Redmond, the central character in On a Clear Day, an emotionally moving narrative of loss, acceptance, and reconciliation. When he loses his job as a veteran Glasgow shipbuilder after many years, he is adrift professionally and mentally. Freed from work that has occupied him for many years, his mind often wanders to the fateful day when his son drowned. Rob, his surviving son, does not fully grasp his father’s grief and disappointment and interprets his father’s withdrawal as an indication that his father in some way holds him accountable for his brother’s death. In truth, Frank holds himself responsible for the tragedy that took place while they all were swimming in the ocean. In spite of possessing a loving wife, a devoted son, and sweet grandchildren, dysfunction rules on the home front. His life is empty and devoid of meaning, leaving Frank depressed and inwardly angry at the world and at himself.

A casual conversation with friends gives Frank an idea that piques his curiosity and focuses his attention and energy; namely to swim across the English Channel. Already a serious recreational swimmer, he sees this swim as a goal that will give his life some purpose and boost his self-confidence, especially after being released from his shipbuilding job.

Enlisting the aid of friends, he trains arduously to prepare himself for the crossing. Without revealing his plans to his wife or son, he rents a boat and tests the waters literally and figuratively. Over the course of his secret training, he strains his relationship with his wife and falls into intense arguments with his son.

Frank, indeed, has problems: loss of job, loss of a child, loss of self-esteem. None of this is easy, but the approach of Jewish tradition to such challenges can be helpful. Lori Palatnik, a noted Jewish educator and self-help guru, wisely observes that her belief that God is in charge of the world gets her through almost anything. She writes: “It means that God is sending me this so that I can grow. It prevents me from blaming others, including myself. It frames a situation not as something overwhelming that is impossible to solve, but as a puzzle that can be worked out, and the process of working it out is where real growth takes place. Words are powerful; as soon as you reframe from ‘problem’ to ‘opportunity,’ you pull down the covers, get out of bed, pull up your boot straps and rise to the occasion. No one wants problems, but who doesn’t want opportunities?”

One of my Torah teachers once told me to see adversity in life as the back of a tapestry. The travails that we encounter are represented by the knots and clumps on the back of the tapestry. On the front, however, is a work of art, which is what is visible from the aspect of eternity. In God’s eyes, it all makes sense, but from our human perspective it is incomprehensible.

Frank, like all men, has no ultimate understanding of the tragedy in his life, but through supportive friends, he becomes more accepting of life’s twists and turns, and moves forward towards a family who has been yearning for his love and acceptance. On a Clear Day beckons us to accept the rain and focus on the clear day ahead.

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