Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), directed by Robert Benton

kramer vs kramer posterOn occasion, as head of a community Jewish private school, I have been asked to sit in on the school’s scholarship committee meetings. Children of divorced parents often present complicated scenarios for the committee to ponder. For example, one parent may value Jewish day school education and the other may not. Moreover, a divorced mother may want her son enrolled in a Jewish day school not because of the education offered there, but because she wants her son to have role models. A father may think that the education at the day school is too parochial, not affording his child a wide range of course offerings. Such opposite points of view are not lost on the child, who may want to please both parents but feels inwardly conflicted.

Then there is the question of day school tuition. Who is responsible? Mom or Dad? And what if the mother has custody, but limited financial resources, and what if the father has little interest in Jewish education, but has the economic wherewithal to pay tuition?

While sensitive to the financial challenges the committee faces, my rabbinic training invariably compels me to see things from the child’s perspective. What is in his best interest? Divorce creates dysfunction within the family at many levels, and the child is riding an emotional roller coaster. Most important to me is focusing on creating a stable, predictable environment so that the child can grow academically and emotionally. As I watched Kramer vs. Kramer, a thoughtful film chronicling the disintegration of the marriage of Ted and Joanna Kramer, I recognized the epiphany to which the Kramers ultimately arrive.

Ted Kramer is a high-powered advertising executive who spends little time at home with his wife and child. So neglected is she that she decides to leave him and their son Billy as well. Suddenly, Ted is a Mr. Mom with full responsibility for Billy. This puts enormous strain on Ted who is in the middle of closing a major business deal.

Billy is a little boy that requires attention and, at first, father and son do not have an easy rapport, each one resenting the other. Ted, for the first time, has to learn to think about others, and not just be concerned about his clients. Over several months, they begin to relate positively with one another and love grows as they both begin to enjoy the other’s presence.

Fifteen months later, Joanna returns to New York to claim Billy in a custody hearing. What emerges from the proceedings are character assassinations of both parents, no longer in love, but who love Billy and want to do the best for him.

There is a story about King Solomon that is instructive. Two mothers come to him. They both had given birth but only one son survived. Each mother claimed the son was hers, so Solomon commanded that the baby be cut in two and each mother would receive half. One mother said this was fair; the other said let the other mother have the child rather than kill it. Solomon awarded custody of the child to the mother who did not want the child split fifty-fifty. What trumped everything was what was in the best interests of the child. Personal desires, personal egos, have to be left at the door lest the child be emotionally chopped to pieces.

Ted and Joanna Kramer start their custody battle as adversaries, but gradually understand that Billy needs the love and presence of both parents. The love for parents for one another may be conditional, but love for their children is not.

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The Matrix (1999), directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski

MV5BMTkxNDYxOTA4M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTk0NzQxMTE@._V1_SX214_AL_When I was an undergraduate student taking an introductory Philosophy course, I had an “aha” moment when I read Plato’s myth of the cave which describes a man living in a cave, thinking it is the real world until light streams in from above, at which time he realizes that what he has been experiencing is not the real world but an illusion. The real world is, in truth, somewhere else. It is this kind of subliminal narrative that forms the emotional and intellectual core of The Matrix, a thought-provoking, action-packed thriller about a human rebellion against a world controlled by machines.

Thomas Anderson, a computer programming guru, is also known as “Neo,” a computer hacker with an unsavory clientele for which he provides all sorts of illegal substances. One evening he is contacted by Trinity, another computer whiz, who apprises him of Morpheus, a mysterious man who can tell Neo the meaning of “the Matrix,” an entity that Neo frequently encounters online. Neo is interested in meeting him, but three robot-like men are determined not to have the meeting take place.

In spite of obstacles, and there are many, Neo and Morpheus meet, after which Neo’s life is forever changed. Offered a red pill by Morpheus, Neo takes it, and the pill enables him to see the world in a totally unconventional way. He embarks on a psychic journey, which convinces him to join Morpheus in his quest to overthrow the mechanical forces of conformity and rigidity that are presently controlling the world.

Morpheus tells Neo that in the 21st century, there was a war between human beings and the intelligent machines they created. Eventually the machines won and trapped the humans in an artificial world, the Matrix, in which humans exist in a simulated environment. This keeps them compliant slaves to materiality, without the freedom to question and to think on their own. Morpheus seeks to rebel against this universe of conformity by hacking into the Matrix and recruiting enslaved humans to rebel against the machines.

The rebels’ profound understanding of the artificial reality of the Matrix allows them the bend the laws of the physical world, giving them superhuman powers that are choreographed with visceral energy on the screen. We learn that Neo is recruited specifically because Morpheus sees him as “the One” to save the world from the corrupt machines, and he is trained to do battle with their human-like representations. The movie’s dense plot almost requires a second viewing in order to comprehend the complexity of the conflict between the men and the machines.

The essential question that the film poses is what is the nature of reality. Plato’s cave metaphor suggests we are living in a world of illusion and we have to exit the cave if we are to live a full and honest life. The matrix represents this world of illusion, and the rebels want to live a real, not artificial, life.

Jewish tradition encourages us to dream, to have illusions, but we must have our feet firmly planted in the real world. The patriarch Jacob dreamt of a ladder reaching to the heavens, but the ladder was rooted in the earth. Moreover, our Sages encourage us to contemplate other planes of existence, such as the heavenly World-to Come, which gives us spiritual pleasure. Nonetheless, they remind us that it is in this world, the nitty-gritty everyday world, the world that the rebels want to revive, that we express our humanity through the crucible of real life experiences. It is here that we truly accomplish our life’s mission and fulfill our personal destinies.

Free choice makes us human and reflects the divinity within us. The Matrix suggests that for humans to fulfill their potential as human beings, they must be able to freely choose life over death, light over darkness.

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In the Name of the Father (1993), directed by Jim Sheridan

 in the name of the father posterAs I look at my children from time to time, I wonder if I did my best as a parent. How much of who they are today is a result of my parenting? It is a tough question to answer and I am not sure whether the answer has any practical ramifications since both my kids and I are much older now and they are independent people. There is no do-over at this stage of life.

This thought entered my mind as I watched In the Name of the Father, a gripping narrative of Gerry Conlon, a petty criminal who was wrongfully accused of the Guildford pub bombing in England in 1974, a terrorist action of the IRA against England. Gerry is sent to prison for a long time together with members of this family, including his father, Guiseppe.

As the story unfolds, the relationship of father and son that emerges as a key to understanding Gerry. His father is a devout Catholic, a hard-working man of faith with a gentle nature. He wants much for his kids and tries his best to mentor them and be there for them when they are in trouble. Conversations between Gerry and him reveal deep-seated misunderstandings that have spanned many years, but dire straits bring them close together. When they are both in prison together, they share memories, memories which disturb them and illuminate their present relationship. In these candid interchanges, looking one another in the eye, their souls finally merge in love for one another.

There is a Jewish tradition to bless our kids on Friday nights, which implicitly reminds parents to gaze into our children’s eyes and remind them of our abiding love. To parent effectively requires us to stop, look into their faces, utter a blessing, hug them, and plant a kiss on their cheek. By showing affection and limiting our criticism of them, kids will better appreciate our love and concern for them. Guiseppe and Gerry finally share that epiphany.

In the Name of the Father teaches another practical life lesson. One of my mentors once told me “you never have a second chance to make a first impression.” Therefore, always strive to make a good first impression because that is what people remember most. It is a wise piece of advice that has proved valuable many times in the course of my career both professionally or personally.

I was reminded of this sage advice as I observed Gerry Conlon, a man sent to prison because the first impression he made on people was as a foul-mouthed, irresponsible young man who lived only for the moment. Jewish tradition notes the importance of first impressions. In Genesis, we see that Joseph was very aware that when Pharoah summoned him for a meeting, the outcome was unclear. Would Joseph remain a prisoner for the rest of his life or would he be a well-respected figure in the history of Egypt and the Jews? Everything would be determined in the first few seconds of their interview. Rashi, the great medieval Bible commentator, notes that Joseph shaved and dressed to prepare himself for the meeting with the monarch. He knew that not only did he need to give good advice but also he had to look like a capable administrator. Therefore, he made sure that his first impression was a good one.

In the Name of the Father conveys two life lessons. Firstly, parenting is a journey that never ends. We need to balance our criticism with expressions of love even when our children become adults. Secondly, the film reminds us how critical are first impressions, how important it is that people see us as persons of worth, not as people without direction or focus.

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A Simple Life (2011), directed by Ann Hui

MV5BMTQ1NDI2OTU5N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTAyNzcwOQ@@._V1_SY317_CR2,0,214,317_AL_Almost twenty years ago, a friend of mine who had just gone through a painful divorce visited me in Atlanta. We spent the Sabbath together, during which he shared many of his intimate feelings with me. I did not speak much, but allowed him to express long-repressed emotions. After the Sabbath was over, I decided to introduce him to a widow that I knew. I thought to myself that we can never know what G-d has in store for us, so perhaps he came to Atlanta so I could introduce him to this sweet lady and that would be the beginning of his new life.

Nothing ever came of the date that I arranged; but a few weeks ago, I received a call from my friend whom I had not spoken to for many years. His son was getting married in Israel and he wanted to share with me this happy moment in his life. I visited him and his new wife, to whom he had been married for eight years and he told me how much he appreciated my giving him good advice so many years ago. He felt that I encouraged him to be strong in the face of adversity and to put his emotional life back together again. I had no recollection of what I said so long ago, but he remembered the kindness vividly. For him, it was a kindness that spanned generations and for which he was eternally grateful.

Acknowledging the good that people do for you is one of the cardinal principles of Judaism. So ingrained is it in the Jewish psyche that it evens extends to recognizing the good that inanimate objects do for you. Our oral tradition tells us that Moses did not strike the Nile during the Ten Plagues to turn it into a river of blood because he owed a debt of gratitude to the river that saved him as a child. All the more so should we be grateful to human beings who do kindnesses for us. This is the implicit lesson of A Simple Life, a story of Ah Tao, a maid living in Hong Kong that has been in the employ of the same family for over four generations. After suffering a stroke, she announces to the family that she no longer wants to work; rather she wants to move into an old age home. The film details the challenges she faces as her health declines over time, and the efforts of the family to care for her in recognition of the service she has given the family for almost 60 years.

The key family member that is charged with taking care of Ah Tao is Roger, a 30-something bachelor, who works in the movie industry. In the midst of a stressful business and conversations about money, he does not forget Ah Tao, but rather remains solicitous and concerned about her welfare. Being involved with her adjustment at the nursing home, he becomes more aware of Ah Tao’s contribution to the happiness of his family over the years. For her part, Ah Tao wants to be as independent as possible and so she makes no demands upon the family. She even refuses financial help from them.

In many ways, Ah Tao served as Roger’s surrogate mother, sharing special moments with him when he was a child. Roger remembers this and treats her with the respect due to a mother. He escorts her to a movie premiere where he introduces her as his aunt. He arranges for visits to physicians. He even tries to find her an apartment in which to reside as her end draws near. He wants her to feel that she in a home, not an institution.

A Simple Life moves at a slow pace. Its rhythm is the rhythm of life, and the film requires patience. Its portrayal of the day to day interactions of people who are getting older and the caregivers who observe them getting older gives the viewer a visceral understanding of how important it is to treasure the moments and the memories of people who have been kind to us. We should not forget them. A Simple Life reminds to be grateful to those who have assisted us on our life’s journey.

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Heaven Can Wait (1978), directed by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry

heaven can wait posterWhat kind of legacy will you leave the world? When will I complete my mission on earth? Can I explain why is it that some people die in the prime of youth and others live until old age? The Talmud tells us that these questions are unanswerable by men, but can only be answered by God from the aspect of eternity. Heaven Can Wait, a romantic fantasy, raises these questions without definitively answering them. What the movie does do is suggest some possible approaches to how we understand tragedy.

Joe Pendleton, backup quarterback for the LA Rams, is given an opportunity to start. On that fateful day, he is struck by a car as he is bicycling through a tunnel. The next scene reveals that Joe is now in some way station in the clouds about to depart for the afterlife. Escorted by two men, Joe discovers that his death is a divine mistake carried out by a first-time escort who, before Joe died, plucked him away from life. The escort tries to remedy the situation, but is too late. Joe has been cremated and there is no body in which to place him.

Mr. Jordan, one of the escorts, presents Joe with several possible choices, and Joe selects the body of millionaire Leo Farnsworth. His choice is motivated by a desire to develop a relationship with Betty Logan, a teacher who is an advocate for a small town that is about to be taken over by one of Mr. Farnsworth’s business empires.

Joe begins to live the life of Farnsworth, but is bothered by Farnsworth’s ethics and lifestyle. He expresses his feelings at a board meeting, which unnerves all the board members. They do not understand how a tough-minded CEO with ruthless financial goals can change into a liberal, sensitive executive with genuine compassion for the little man affected by board decisions taken many miles away.

Moreover, Joe still misses football. He decides to contact his old trainer Max, asking him to train him for a return to the Rams. To solidify his chances to play, he buys the team and sets up a scrimmage in which he is the quarterback. After some initial setbacks, he convinces the team that, indeed, he can play at a professional level. However, all his plans fall apart when his escort reappears to inform him that he can no longer use Farnsworth’s body.

How this dilemma is resolved is the stuff of fantasy. What sticks in my mind, however, are two ideas that are embedded in the film. Firstly, how long we live is not in our control. We have free will, but it is limited. We can influence our future but we cannot determine it. Secondly, how do we measure our life, by the years we live or by the way we live our years?

Heaven Can Wait suggests that each of us has a mission. Sometimes that mission is accomplished over the span of many years and sometimes it is completed in a very short time. We all know people who live long lives but who accomplish very little. There are others who live brief lives, but lives packed with meaning and accomplishment. In truth, we do not know why bad things happen. Such matters are left to God who sees the continuum of past, present, and future. Mere mortals can only see the present. Perhaps when we hear about or experience the premature passing of a loved one, it is useful to contemplate that, from the aspect of eternity, a life well lived, even for a brief time, is part of a larger divine plan that guarantees meaning to every life.

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Philomena (2013), directed by Stephen Frears

philomena posterI teach adults and I teach kids. When adults do not do well on an exam, they generally do not make excuses. They accept the results and resolve to do better. The kids often make excuses as to why they performed poorly on a test. They plead for an open-book test or a retest so that they can change their low grade. I witness a general unwillingness to accept responsibility for their actions, even after their errors are clearly pointed out to them. Watching Philomena, a true story about a girl who makes a mistake in her youth for which she atones for the rest of her life, reminded me of the mature response to adversity of an adult, seasoned by life experience.

A London journalist, Martin Sixsmith, is approached by the daughter of Philomena Lee. She asks him to write a human interest story about her mother who was compelled to give up her son Anthony almost fifty years before.

Through flashbacks, we learn that Philomena had the baby out of wedlock and was sent by her father to an abbey in Ireland. There, she worked in the convent laundry for four years to work off the debt incurred by her stay at the convent. One day, without any advance notice, she discovers that her son is being given to a foreign couple for adoption. The separation is traumatic, for she is unable to say farewell to him. The secret of her lost son is kept for many years, and the convent offers no help in finding him when Philomena periodically visits her former home.

Together with Martin, Philomena begins her deliberate and long-postponed search for Anthony. In the course of their investigation, they ascertain that the nuns deliberately destroyed all the adoption records, and that many of the children in their care were sold to rich Americans to subsidize the church’s work.

Serendipitously, Martin finds out that Anthony moved to the United States with his adopted parents and established a celebrated career in government, serving as a legal advisor to two presidents. Philomena and Martin travel to the United States to unravel the mystery of his present condition and whereabouts, with startling results.

Characteristic of Philomena in her quest to ferret out the truth of Anthony’s life, she encounters many obstacles, including a number of people who do not wish to share information about her son. Nevertheless, she politely persists in her drive to get information about him. It is this quiet tenacity in the face of adversity that is a hallmark of her being. She does not want to hurt anyone in her quest or reopen old wounds; she only wants to connect to her beloved son, who abruptly left her so many years ago. In her response to every impediment she encounters, Philomena demonstrates a mature sensibility. She does not give up; rather she works through the problem and then develops, together with Martin, a strategy for moving forward.

Jewish tradition extols the aged person because age brings with it wisdom. The Ethics of the Fathers writes that after age 50, one possesses the ability to give advice to others. Life is a teacher, and advanced age brings with it the gift of being able to render wise counsel. The older person evaluates things more carefully and is less prone to respond to adversity with outbursts of anger and irrational action. Philomena is an exemplary role model of an adult who accepts responsibility for the past, but who desires emotional closure for that past. She thinks things through and, when appropriate, is willing to change her mind when she is convinced that another approach makes more sense.

In one of her interchanges with Martin, who gets angry when faced with deceit, Philomena reminds him that the best path to follow is the path of forgiveness. It is not wise to remain angry when things cannot be changed. Better to accept an imperfect word and move on with one’s life than get mired in anger and negativity.

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Whiplash (2014), directed by Damien Chazelle

whiplash posterIn a recent conversation with a friend, we discussed the pros and cons of multitasking. My friend extolled the benefits of multitasking, but I maintained that while multitasking certainly has its benefits, there are times in life when you need all your attention focused on one thing only. I can recall the dedication to a single task that was required when I studied for my doctorate at Georgia State University. Without concentrated attention, I never would have completed the degree. The same holds true in Torah studies. There are many stories of great Sages like Rabbi Akiva, who achieved greatness only because Torah study became their only study.

I thought of the energy and focus needed to achieve greatness as I watched Whiplash, a profanity-laced film that makes a relevant point about the pursuit of excellence in any area of endeavor. Whiplash is the story of Andrew Neyman, a talented young drummer who enrolls as a student in a prestigious music school, where he is mentored by Terence Fletcher, an instructor who is totally committed to the pursuit of excellence as he conducts the school’s acclaimed jazz ensemble band. His pursuit of perfection brings with it both success in band competitions and psychological abuse to the talented charges under his influence.

When we first meet Terence, we quickly see how he intimidates students with unrelenting criticism, offered in the most profane terms, and with a mercurial temperament which leaves his students emotionally unhinged. Although Andrew works hard, he is almost driven to mental breakdown because of his desire to prove to Terence that he is the best drummer in the band. Whatever he does is not enough to please Terence and Andrew almost loses his life trying to be the best.

In a nuanced conversation between Terence and Andrew after a major confrontation between the two, Terence states: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” To him, excellence means going beyond the conventional understandings of what is a good performance. It means willing to take risks and go beyond one’s normal expectations. All this makes sense, but Andrew, wiser now because of his experience with Terence, questions whether the price for attaining perfection in some cases may be too high. If perfection is achieved at the expense of living a normal, healthy life, is it worth it?

The movie, in a startling finale, suggests that there is a middle ground. Both the music and the musicians matter. There must be a healthy synergy between the two. It is not an easy task to find the proper balance in life, but it is a goal worth pursuing. This pursuit for moderation is reflective of the Torah’s sensibility to live life by following the golden mean. Maimonides strongly recommends that a healthy life is a balanced life, and one needs to be wise to discover where the mid-point should be.

The Bible tells us that “Abraham and his family went to the land of Canaan and they came to the land of Canaan.” The commentators ask: if every word of the Bible is significant, why do we need to be told that “they came to the land of Canaan?” Their arrival is implied. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin suggests that the Bible is teaching us that when we begin an important task, we should stay focused and complete it. Make sure we get where we wanted to go. It is easy to get sidetracked, so we have to make a special effort to expend all our efforts to accomplishing our goal. Whiplash reminds us of the total dedication needed to accomplish a worthwhile mission, but it also cautions us to be mindful of the human cost of achieving absolute excellence.


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