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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The Artist (2011), directed by Michel Hazanavicius

artist posterWhen I was a principal of a day school in Denver, I decided to stage a Shakespeare Festival in which students in the 7th and 8th grades would read and enact excerpts from the bard’s great oeuvre. I gave speaking parts to the students, and I had a particular interest in giving Dimitry, a student who had emigrated from Russia, a chance to perform. When the performance day arrived and Dimitry spoke his lines, I was astonished. Not only did he pronounce the words properly, but he read them like a professional thespian, with understanding and feeling. It was a wonderful performance that forever changed our perception of Dimitry, who until then had not participated in oral presentations in any class. He finally found his groove, and his teachers were overjoyed. His sound made us forget about his silence.

The Artist is an anachronism. It is a silent movie made in 2011, which makes us reflect on the power of words and the power of sight to create art as a representation of life. George Valentin, a silent movie star, is at the top of his game in 1927 as his movies enthrall the audience. Serendipitously, he meets Peppy Miller, a young actress, outside the premiere of his latest movie, and he promotes her for a part in his next film. With guidance from Valentin, her show business savvy and talent grows until she becomes a major star in her own right.

Crisis comes two years later when talking films take over. Valentin dismisses them as a passing fad, but he is dead wrong. His efforts to produce a financially successful silent film when people want sound prove to be disastrous. Moreover, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 further destroys his wealth. George’s inability to respond to changing times leads to depression, which Peppy tries to dispel. Their relationship flourishes and flounders as George tries to navigate the new world in front of him, where everything hinges on the spoken and audible word.

Generally, Jewish tradition encourages silence as a fence to wisdom. More words often bring more gossip, more slander, and more criticism of others. However, sometimes it is important to talk, to protest, to engage, to share feelings with others.

A classic case of where it was important to speak and the absence of speech led to tragedy is the story of Bar Kamtza and Kamtza in the Talmud tractate of Gittin (55b-56a). Here the lack of speech led to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. The Talmud records that a man invited his friend Kamtza to a party and, inadvertently, his enemy Bar Kamtza was invited instead. When Bar Kamtza arrived at the feast, the host was angry and insisted that Bar Kamtza leave in spite of the fact that Bar Kamtza would be greatly embarrassed and in spite of the fact the Bar Kamtza even offered to pay for the entire party. After being unceremoniously thrown out, Bar Kamtza vowed revenge because the rabbis at the party who witnessed this behavior said nothing; and saying nothing implied approval of what transpired. Bar Kamtza then decided to inform against the Jews to the Romans, which eventually led to the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. Speech was required and the rabbis were silent.

The Artist, an innovative retrospective look at another time in the history of cinema, is many things. It is a story of a September-May romance. It is also a meditation on how people deal with change in their lives. Do they adjust to new realities or do they remain paralyzed in the present? It is, moreover, a thoughtful reflection on the power of silence and the power of words to change our lives.

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Paths of Glory (1957), directed by Stanley Kubrick

paths of glory posterAs a school principal for many years, I have often tried to mediate between the needs of teachers in the classroom with the needs of regional educational administrators. There is a clear difference between the perspectives of teachers who want the freedom to teach what they want and administrators who promote adherence to a specific literary curriculum. The latter group is often preoccupied with students attaining high scores on examinations, which implicitly give their districts better reputations in the family of academic institutions.

This difference in perspectives between those on the ground and those in the strategic planning rooms is evident in Paths of Glory, a classic war film that depicts that different ways soldiers and commanders view the same situation.

It is World War I and the French and Germans are engaged in fierce battle. General Broulard informs General Mireau, his subordinate, that a major offensive is planned and that Mireau’s division is to seize a very well-defended German position known as the “anthill.” The likelihood of success is very small, but Mireau agrees to the assault when Broulard hints at a possible promotion for him if he accepts the mission. It is clear that Mireau values his own future more than that of his troops.

Insensitive to the genuine emotions of the soldiers in the theatre of war, Mireau inspects his troops and scolds them whenever they reveal any hesitation about combat. Instead of inspiring and encouraging them, he verbally abuses them when they show any fear at all.

In contrast to Mireau is Colonel Dax, the commander of the 701st Regiment, who will lead the men into battle. When informed about the planned attack on the anthill, Dax is unenthusiastic, knowing it is a fool’s errand. When Mireau threatens to relieve him of his command, Dax reluctantly agrees to go forward with the mission, not wanting to abandon his soldiers at a critical time.

Predictably, the attack is a disaster and many French soldiers fall. When Mireau learns that some of the soldiers are still in the trenches, he orders his own artillery to fire upon them to get them to move from protected spaces.

The next day, Mireau accuses his own men of cowardice and, together with other officers, recommends executing three random men before a firing squad as an example. Dax vociferously objects and, because of his civilian expertise as a lawyer, offers to serve as the attorney for the accused men, whose lives hang in the balance.

In stark contrast to Mireau is the Biblical image of military leadership. In the Bible, the general, the one in charge, is seen as role model for all, who both protects and inspires his men. Abraham does not delegate the battle to others; he wages war himself when necessary. So too does King David. The general does not place his soldiers at unnecessary risk, certainly not to advance his own reputation at the expense of endangering his own men.

As I write this review, Israel is engaged in a war in Gaza. A neighbor of mine recently traveled south to visit the troops and to give them moral support. He told me that while there he saw a general giving encouragement to his soldiers, relating to them as a father to a son, full of compassion and concern for his children. I thought of this symbiotic relationship between commander and soldier as I watched Paths of Glory. It is a model of good relationships between officers and soldiers, of leaders who do not promote themselves to the detriment of those they lead.

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Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), directed by Chris Columbus

mrs doubtfire posterAs a former school principal, I have often met kids whose parents are divorced. When speaking to the parent, I frequently learn that the dysfunction at home is related to possible dysfunction at school. In truth, I am unfamiliar with divorce but I am familiar with the fallout from divorce and its detrimental effect on children. I recall very vividly two parents who articulated clearly their different approaches to their child’s education at the day school of which I was principal. The mother loved the school and chose it in part because of the rabbis who taught there. To her, they were alternate male role models for her son. The husband felt that a Jewish day school was too parochial in its academic program and claustrophobic socially.

Mrs. Doubtfire, at once a hilarious and serious film, deals with the messy fallout of divorce on a family. Daniel Hillard, played by the singular comedian Robin Williams, is a talented voice actor who cannot hold on to a steady job. Moreover, his unpredictable and spontaneous behavior at home creates ongoing chaos in the lives of his wife, Miranda, and their children, Lydia, Chris, and Natalie. The constant tension between husband and wife causes Miranda to ask for a divorce, but Daniel cannot accept the thought of being separated from his children. Furthermore, he unrealistically thinks that the loving relationship he once had with his wife can be restored. Daniel’s hopes are shattered at the first custody hearing when his wife is given full custody of the children with only periodic visits from him.

At this point, the plot thickens. When Miranda seeks to hire a housekeeper, Daniel, in disguise, shows up as Mrs. Doubtfire, an elderly British woman with a sterling resume. In this way, he can see his children regularly and hopefully gain a rapprochement with Miranda. Because of his supreme voiceover talent, he is able to maintain this ruse for a long time, until the schedules of Daniel and Mrs. Doubtfire directly conflict.

While working in the stockroom of a TV station, CEO Robert Lundy observes Daniel playing around with toy dinosaurs, props on a low-rated children’s program. He then invites Daniel to dinner for a job interview. But complications ensue when Mrs. Doubtfire is invited to dinner at the same time and same restaurant by Stuart, Miranda’s handsome suitor, who regards her as one of the family. The challenge Daniel faces is immense: how can he go to both events which require two different identities? A comic scene of epic proportions depicts Daniel’s attempts at changing in and out of the Mrs. Doubtfire costume as he navigates both social and work meetings with his family and with Lundy.

Daniel finally obtains a good job on a children’s TV program using Mrs. Doubtfire as his alter ego. In a coda to Daniel’s own life, Mrs. Doubtfire reads a letter from a child lamenting her parents’ divorce. Now understanding his own situation, he can give advice to others: “Oh, my dear Katie. You know, some parents, when they’re angry, they get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time, and they can become better people. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t, dear. Just because they don’t love each other anymore, doesn’t mean that they don’t love you. But if there’s love, dear, those are the ties that bind, and you’ll have a family in your heart, forever. You’re going to be all right.”

This realistic and sobering view of marriage and divorce is echoed by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a contemporary giant of Talmudic learning, who observes that the romantic vision of marriage is a Hollywood invention and vastly overrated. In truth, he suggests, when God makes a match with our destined soulmate, that does not necessarily mean that we will always be happy with the match. It could be that our destined one is supposed to be the one with whom we will produce something worthwhile, such as a child, not that happiness is guaranteed between us and our spouses.

Divorce in Jewish tradition is certainly a tragedy, but with compassion and sensitivity, life can move onward and upward. Mrs. Doubtfire affirms this truth.

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42 (2013), directed by Brian Helgeland

forty twoAnger is a terrible trait. I was blessed to be raised by parents who seldom if ever argued. Tension was not a part of our household ambiance. But I did know people who argued constantly. There were the tenants who lived above us in our three-story house in Mt. Vernon, New York. Every day I could hear the hollering between husband and wife, parent and child. As I kid, I didn’t know what to make of it except that it was not pleasant to listen to.

When I was courting my wife in the 1960’s, we occasionally double-dated with another couple, who were constantly arguing with one another. They eventually married. At the time, I was shocked since the arguing never seemed to stop. Someone always had to be right and the other wrong. Divorce came several years later and it did not surprise me at all.

The stirring 42, the story of black baseball player Jackie Robinson is a classic illustration of successful anger management, controlling one’s emotions in the face of extreme provocation. Branch Rickey, President and General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, wanted to bring African-American players into major league baseball. To accomplish this, he offered a contract to Jackie Robinson, who would become the first black to break the baseball color barrier. The film describes Robinson’s year with the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn farm team, in 1946 and his rookie year, 1947, with the Brooklyn Dodgers, as they fought for the National League Pennant.

Racism at that time was very much part of the country’s landscape. Subjected to taunts from adults and children, who followed the bigoted example of their elders, Robinson endured much abuse. He knew it would happen. Rickey, before employing him, informed him of the controversy that his hiring would generate. Moreover, Rickey told him that to be a success, he would have to control his temper. Robinson realized the historic nature of his employment and agreed to Rickey’s terms.

Not only did some of the fans express racist rants to Jackie, but some of the players and managers did as well. In one particular game, the manager of an opposing team used racist epithets to unsettle him, but Jackie responded by hitting successfully, stealing a base, and scoring the winning run.

Although some of Jackie’s own teammates were unenthusiastic about his joining the team, most supported him and championed his participation in the game. In one very touching moment, Pee Wee Reese, the team’s shortstop, demonstrates his support of Robinson in a public way before a hostile crowd in Cincinnati, earning the kudos of Branch Rickey, the one responsible for bringing Robinson into the organization.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a seminal work on Jewish ethics, defines the hero, the truly strong person, as one who can control his impulses. Strength in the Jewish view is not manifested in physical terms by muscle size or possessing a large body. Rather it is defined by character, an inward quality.

Because we are all tested every day by irksome comments from business associates, acquaintances, friends and family, Jewish tradition encourages us to control our anger in order to reach our own potential as a holy people. Every day in my private prayers, I pray to God to help me control my reactions to provocations. As a teacher, I am tested in the classroom. I know that an inappropriate response to a child’s problematic behavior can hurt me and the child for a long time afterward. Words are like arrows and cannot be retrieved once released. Therefore, I have to think deeply before responding. 42, in its depiction of the remarkable strength of character of Jackie Robinson, serves as an object lesson in restraint that demonstrates true strength.

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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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