The Theory of Everything (2014), directed by James Marsh

theory of everythingI saw The Theory of Everything shortly after I underwent an unplanned coronary bypass operation. For the first time in my life, I understood experientially what it means not to have control over one’s body. I felt completely vulnerable and the experience evoked much introspection. It, therefore, was not difficult for me to relate to the catastrophe that takes over the life of Stephen Hawking, a Cambridge Physics student who suddenly discovers he has a motor-neuron disease, which is known today as ALS. It is a progressive disease in which one loses all physical control of one’s body. Only the brain is still functional.

The narrative begins at Cambridge where Stephen meets Jane Wilde, a literature student. In addition to being physically attracted to one another, they have a strong intellectual compatibility and soon fall in love. When Stephen discovers his motor-neuron disease, Jane does not abandon him; instead she decides to marry him and be a source of love and support through his difficult medical journey.

Stephen continues at college and receives his doctorate in physics. He shows great promise in the world of academia, but as his illness progresses his relationship with his wife is strained. Amazingly, they have three children in spite of Stephen’s physical challenges and his marriage miraculously survives for a number of years.

To manage her stressful life at home, Jane joins the church choir, which for her is a natural extension of her faith. Her religious sensibility is something which Stephen does not share; being the detached scientist, he can only relate to that which is objectively verifiable.

As the disease worsens, technology comes to the rescue, enabling Stephen to talk through a computer with a built-in voice synthesizer. He becomes deeply engaged in his work and less engaged with his wife, who is finding life with Stephen difficult and stressful. Eventually, they divorce amicably as Stephen’s academic career blossoms allowing him to be productive intellectually in spite of his debilitating physical state.

Later on when they visit the Queen of England for an important personal audience with Her Majesty, Stephen asks his former wife and his children to accompany him. He smiles broadly at his children and says to Jane, “Look what we made.” Stephen understands that his greatest and most satisfying legacy is not his scientific publication but rather his children. They are the legacy that matters.

The first commandment in the Bible is to be fruitful and multiply. Having children creates a legacy. According to Jewish law, this commandment is fulfilled when one has a son and a daughter. Rabbi Mordechai Becher insightfully observes: “having children also helps the individual achieve his purpose in creation, by improving his character. Nurturing, caring for and educating children encourages the development of sympathy, mercy, and sensitivity to others.” Having kids compels one to think of others, and not be totally absorbed by one’s own needs.

Moreover, Jewish tradition mentions ways people can have “children” even if they physically cannot produce children. If one is not blessed with the ability to have kids, then a legacy of good deeds can resonate into the future. If one is a teacher, one can raise many disciples because students are viewed as one’s children. When a teacher passes along wisdom to subsequent generations, he is leaving a legacy of wisdom for his students and the children of his students.

The Theory of Everything reminds us that Hawking’s greatest gift to the world may not his scientific theory, but his children who are the living embodiment of his thoughts and his hopes for the future. The insights and wisdom he imparts to them in the crucible of daily life find expression in the words and personalities of his children who live after him.

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The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004), directed by Niels Mueller

assassinaation of richard nixonI have been teaching kids for many years and I always tell them it is okay to make mistakes. Failure can be redemptive if you fail forward. Moreover, kids are works in progress and many students who are immature sixth graders blossom into thoughtful and wise young people.

My view of adults who make mistakes is different. There is a concept in Jewish law that people are presumed to be good, ethical human beings. The Ethics of the Fathers explicitly states that we should judge every man favorably. But what happens when someone continually violates your trust and disappoints you? Can a person lose his presumption of honesty and does that permit you to behave towards him in a different way?

The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a character study of Samuel Bicke, an individual who makes many mistakes in life but who does not accept responsibility for them. He alienates all those who love him. His story raises the question of how long we should permit a person known to be dishonest or unreliable to cause us damage, either emotionally or financially.

Samuel is psychologically damaged. He often gets angry when things do not go his way. Although he wants to reconcile with his ex-wife Marie, it is clear that she is uninterested and sees him as a loser. Sam also has left the employ of his brother for whom he was working in a successful tire company, complaining that his brother forced him to lie to customers about profit margins. In his despondency, Sam tries to join the Black Panthers, which he views as a societal change agent. His argument to the Black Panther leadership that he, although white, also suffers discrimination does not impress them.

In his new job as a salesman at an office furniture store, his employer describes Richard Nixon as the ultimate salesman, able to win re-election by a wide margin in spite of lying to the American people about his promise to end the Vietnam War. His boss also gives Sam books to read to improve his salesmanship, books such as How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Power of Positive Thinking. Sam, however, is socially inept and no book can alter his tragic trajectory.

The final blow arrives when Sam in desperation implicates his brother, Julius, in a fraudulent plot to steal tires from his brother’s supplier. In a mesmerizing conversation, Julius raises the issue of Sam’s moral integrity. When Sam waffles and does not fully accept responsibility for his actions, Julius washes his hands of his brother. Alone and dejected, Sam then plans to do something which in some way will validate his existence as an individual and which will influence and change the corrupt world as he perceives it.

Observing the lamentable arc of Sam Bicke’s life, it is easy to understand why people reject him. He is needy, unreliable, and dishonest to others and to himself. The general obligation to judge everyone favorably in Jewish law applies to a person when we first meet him. But, if after several encounters, he demonstrates that he is unethical, then our obligation falls away. We are not required to judge him favorably once we have evidence to the contrary.

Indeed, Jewish tradition advises us at the outset to judge others favorably. A righteous person, even in a compromising position, should certainly be given the benefit of the doubt. An average person as well should be given the benefit of the doubt and judged favorably. Even in a case where a negative perception may indicate guilt, one should still judge a person positively and certainly not speak negatively about him. However, a person who consistently behaves unethically should not be given the benefit of the doubt and should be judged unfavorably. Sam Bicke, once a good man, loses his presumption of integrity once he crosses an ethical red line. The Assassination of Richard Nixon tells his story but, more important, it describes the honest reactions of family and friends who understandably lose their trust in him.

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More Than a Game (2008) directed by Kristopher Belman

more than a game posterOne of my fond childhood memories is going to the local JCC every week to play basketball. Sunday was game day and one day during the week we would go the “J” to practice, which ended with “dessert.” “Dessert” was lining up on the right of the basket, then on left, then in the center and the coach would feed us the ball and expect us to make the lay-up on each side of the basket. If we missed a lay-up, we would have to go down to the locker room, so we all tried to be the last man standing.

It was an enjoyable but competitive way to end the practice session, and we all looked forward to it. I still remember the sweet smell of the gym and the sweat that were part of the experience of playing b-ball with my good buddies at the time.

So it was with a great sense of familiarity and recognition that I watched More Than a Game, much of which takes place on the basketball court and in the locker room. It is the inspiring story of the high school basketball team of Lebron James that went on to win the national championships. Much of the footage is of the actual games that were played, but just as mesmerizing is the camaraderie of the players, and the coaching comments of Dru Joyce, an unlikely high school basketball coach who viewed football as his primary sport.

Dru became highly interested in basketball because of his son, Dru Jr., who, although 4’11,” was enamored with the game. His father, recognizing his son’s’ passion for basketball, decided to coach a youth league team that included many talented players including Lebron James. When the boys went to high school, they enrolled as a group in St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School in Akron, Ohio, largely because of its coach who they credit with improving their skills and their game. Disappointment, however, reigned when the coach accepted a college coaching position. It was then that Dru Joyce became their high school coach.

In one of his first speeches to his team, he reminds his boys that, in the final analysis, basketball is not the be-all and end-all of life. What is more important are the life lessons learned in the game. They learn the value of teamwork, of working together towards a common goal for the good of all. They learn about stepping up with extra effort when their star player is not with them, of not making excuses but confronting adversity head-on and triumphing over it. They learn to appreciate the value of the contribution of every individual player. In a clutch game, it is not Lebron who comes to the rescue but Dru Jr. at 4’11,” who makes seven 3-pointers in a row to drive the team to victory.

There is a notion in Jewish tradition of a rebbe, a teacher who transmits not only information, but who also functions as a mentor and life coach to his students. Students view him as a role model and learn by observing him both in class and out of class. The rebbe is the paradigm for the ideal Jewish teacher.

What emerges from viewing More Than a Game is how much Coach Joyce functions as a rebbe and father figure to the team, some of whom come from broken homes and single-parent families. He is the rock providing emotional stability and security to boys whose home life is in disarray. For them the basketball court becomes a sanctuary. It is a place where the world with all its everyday challenges and disappointments can be put in the recesses of one’s mind as one concentrates on getting the ball into the net. Like the quintessential Torah teacher, Coach Joyce not only transmits data but also gives his students an approach to successful living that transcends the basketball court.

Coach Joyce acknowledges that there are times when he gets caught up in the superficial things, in the winning and the losing. But, in a sobering moment, he realizes that his mission is not only to win games, but to enable young boys to become men. He is their rebbe, the instrument of their growth as complete and successful human beings.

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The Nutty Professor (1963), directed by Jerry Lewis

nutty professor posterIn high school, I was not a very serious student, so it was unsettling for me when I entered Yeshiva University as a freshman and found myself in a class with very bright students who masterfully controlled the ebb and flow of class discussion. Because of my low opinion of my own academic background, I rarely raised my hand when I had a question and rarely contributed to class discussion. It was a case of low self-esteem that had ripple effects. Because I thought little of my own intellect, some of my professors thought the same of me. Because of my non-participation, they thought I was not capable of adding to the discussion, and so they didn’t call on me. It took me a couple of years to overcome this feeling of intellectual inferiority; but when I did, things changed for me and in my teachers’ evaluation of me as well.

Self-esteem is what The Nutty Professor is all about. Professor Julius Kelp is a shy, socially inept teacher, whose classroom experiments often end in disaster. When a bully humiliates him, he is motivated to join a fitness club in the hopes of overcoming his lack of style and poise. It does not work. However, in the recesses of his chemistry lab, he is able to concoct a potion that transforms him, albeit for a short time, into the suave lady’s man known as Buddy Love.

As Buddy Love, he has the confidence to pursue a relationship with Stella Purdy, an attractive student of his. Stella is repelled by Buddy’s arrogance but finds him attractive in a strange sort of way, suspecting that beneath his pompous and crude persona rests a person of genuine worth.

Complications ensue when the mystery concoction wears off at inopportune times, leaving Julius conflicted and confused. Eventually Julius comes to the realization that he has to be himself in order to become a whole human being.

Accepting himself as he is, he finally declares: “ I don’t want to be something that I’m not. I didn’t like being someone else. You might as well like yourself. Just think about all the time you’re going to have to spend with you. And if you don’t think too much of yourself, how do you expect others to?” It is a simple statement, but full of wisdom as Julius embarks on a new stage of his life with Stella, who now sees him as a genuine and likeable human being.

Self-esteem is a major focus of the works of Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a psychiatrist specializing in problems of addiction. He defines self-esteem as “a true and accurate awareness of one’s skills, capabilities and limitations.” If the awareness is not rooted in reality, then one is living a delusion. Twerski believes that a great many psychological problems are due to low self-esteem in which a person devalues himself. He possesses a negative self-image, which leads him to accomplish little and feel downcast most of the time.

A positive self-image grows where a person feels he has value. The Bible tells man he is created in God’s image, which implicitly means he has value. God does not command us to succeed in everything we do; rather He simply wants us to live a life of godliness as prescribed by the commandments in the Bible.

The Jewish institution of the minyan, the required ten men needed for public prayer, drives this point home. Nine great wise men cannot enable public prayer. You need a tenth, and how much wisdom he possesses is not part of the equation. Everyone counts. No matter how low on the status scale, you are still capable of making things happen, of enabling the community to thrive. The Nutty Professor reminds us to be ourselves, to understand that everyone matters, and to continually nurture our self-esteem.

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Nebraska (2013), directed by Alexander Payne

nebraskaHow do you honor a parent? Frankly, I did not know until I was in college at Yeshiva University. My Torah learning career began late and my notion of honoring parents was vague. But once I studied the laws pertaining to honoring parents in the Bible, the Talmud, and Codes of Jewish law, honoring parents took on very specific meaning. It meant, for example, standing up when they entered a room, not openly contradicting them, serving them dinner first, taking care of them when they could not take care of themselves, providing them with food, clothing, and shelter.

Once I learned this, I began to understand how derelict I had been as a teenager, and I resolved to do better as an adult. Watching Nebraska reminded me of how inwardly comforting it is to be able to give respect and attention to a parent, especially when you know that a parent’s days are numbered. My parents have not been in this world for a long time, but I often think how nice it would be if I could speak with them, embrace them, and share with them the milestones of my life’s journey.

Nebraska begins with an image of an old man walking along a snow-covered road in Billings, Montana. He seems to be wandering aimlessly and a policeman picks him up and takes him to the police station. We learn that Woody Grant has decided to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect a million dollars he thinks he has won in a mail-order sweepstakes. His son, David, greets him at the police station and brings him home.

It becomes clear that Woody is generally perceived by both family and friends as shiftless and incapable of taking care of himself. Even his wife feels he should be placed in a nursing home. David, however, has a different take on things. He sees his dad in search of mission, something to demonstrate that his life has meaning and that he still possesses value as a human being in spite of his advanced years.

Woody leaves the house again, and David tries to point out the futility of his quest in light of the obvious scam of the bogus sweepstakes. Woody remains determined and asks his son to drive him to Nebraska so that he can claim his winnings. David surprisingly agrees.

The trip is picaresque and uneventful at the same time. Despite a stop at Mt. Rushmore, Woody and David don’t talk much, but things happen that bring them closer together. Woody falls down and has to be brought to a hospital emergency room. He loses his false teeth and father and son have to search at night near railroad tracks to find them. They pay a visit to relatives they have not seen in a decade. David tries to ask his father for his input on his recent breakup with his girlfriend, but Woody offers little advice.

When word gets out that Woody has “won” a million dollars, old friends and relatives come out of the woodwork to remind Woody of old debts and former kindnesses to him and his family that need to be repaid. The local newspaper even takes his photo for an upcoming article. Sprinkled throughout these adventures are images and voices of people whom Woody knew in his youth. They paint a picture of a kind man with a trusting nature, who never could say no when asked for a favor and who served his country in the Korean War, very much unlike the laconic and ravaged old man we see today.

Nebraska is a thoughtful film that is awash in the images of life in mid-America and the ebb and flow of growing older. It is filled with memories, those of the past and those that are presently being formed. Their trip reveals an unspoken love that exists in spite of few words spoken. David, for all his outward simplicity, is a keen observer of life. He does not want to have any regrets about doing his best to make his father’s last years meaningful. Whenever his father falls, he is there to pick him up, no matter how inconvenient or unpleasant the task. In his consistent devotion to both the physical and emotional needs of his father, he is modeling what it means to honor a parent.

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Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), directed by Hugh Hudson

greystoke poster When I was a student at Yeshiva University many years ago, there was a rabbinical student that was blind. Because of his disability, I was not at ease in his presence. I did not know how to connect to him and so I said nothing. Gradually, however, I noticed that some senior students and my teachers spoke to him easily, with warmth and genuine friendship, engaging him on a wide variety of topics. They, by example, showed me that I had to leave my preconceptions at the door, and relate to the disabled as regular people, and not treat them as social oddities.

This memory resurfaced as I watched Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, a reimagining of the classic Tarzan myth but based primarily on the original source, Edgar Rice Burrough’s novel. The narrative begins in Scotland in 1885 where the newly married John Clayton of the affluent House of Greystoke is departing for a sea voyage to Africa with his pregnant wife, Alice.

Off the coast of Africa, the ship is caught in a storm and sinks, leaving John and his wife stranded in the jungle. They set up living quarters as best they can, and Alice bears a son. Soon after, she falls ill and dies, and John dies in a confrontation with a violent gorilla. The surviving baby, reared by a clan of apes, grows up thinking that it is an ape, emulating all their behaviors.

Many years later, Phillippe D’Arnot, a member of an English hunting party discovers the boy, Tarzan, and brings him back to Greystoke, the family estate, where he is reunited with his grandfather. The young man’s adjustment to his new home is not simple as depicted in a formal dinner scene in which Tarzan, now known as Johnnie, piles large amounts of food on his plate, is reluctant to return his plate to the waiter, and drinks his soup directly from the dish.

What is instructive and illuminating is the response of Johnnie’s grandfather to this bizarre behavior. He puts aside his soup spoon and also drinks his soup directly from the bowl. He understands immediately how strange Johnnie’s behavior appears to the rest of those dining and wants to provide a different paradigm of how to deal with someone who is different. Johnnie is not the other; he is one of us. Johnnie may not have a typical disability, but it is a social disability and the guests need to accept the “otherness” of the other, and make him feel at ease.

A similar story is recounted about Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, a great teacher of Jewish ethics and character development. When a dinner guest felt embarrassed because he spilled wine on the table, Rabbi Salanter spilled his own wine glass, claiming the table was not steady; therefore, the guest should not feel uncomfortable at his own faux pas.

The Torah does provide a general approach for relating to people with disabilities. First and foremost is the Biblical notion that we are all created in God’s image. This means that everyone, even those who are mentally challenged, deaf, or blind, have to be treated with respect because they all reflect an aspect of the divine. Moreover, understanding that we are all in God’s image implies that we accept the inherent diversity amongst all men, and we should do our utmost to connect to everyone, not only those who look and think like us. For example, the Sages rule that a blind man can be called to make a blessing over the Torah in the synagogue just like a sighted person even though the blind man cannot read the text. The goal is participation and integration into the community.

Greystoke, which deals with the odyssey of one man’s journey from the wild terrain of Africa to the civilized world of Scotland, is not a story of how to relate to people with disabilities. It is essentially a gripping tale of adventure that considers specifically whether Johnnie Clayton, aka Tarzan, can transition from the jungle to civilization. Can he survive all the emotional and psychological trauma that he faces in managing the dissonance between such disparate worlds?

The film presents no easy answers; but, along the way, considers the question of how we treat those who are different from us. Do we regard them as curiosities or do we welcome them into the family of man?

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Sinatra: All or Nothing at All (2015), directed by Alex Gibney

sinatre all or nothing at all posterGrowing up in the 1950s, my musical icon was Elvis Presley. I enjoyed his songs, combed my hair the way he did, and even grew sideburns to match his. Frank Sinatra was still around and popular with my sister Martha and her friends who were five years older than me. Now in my senior years, Sinatra and his big band arrangements have re-emerged in my consciousness as musical classics that have withstood the test of time. Fifty years after they were written and performed, they still sound fresh and tuneful, which is why I found the four-hour documentary of his life, Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, fascinating to watch.

The main talking head in the film is Frank himself, who appears in archival footage being interviewed by Walter Cronkite and in a host of other unspecified settings. Sinatra’s story has been well documented over the years. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, he determined at an early age that he wanted to be an entertainer. First singing in local clubs, he eventually became a featured vocalist with the Tommy Dorsey band, and soon morphed into a solo artist selling millions of records.

When his career floundered for a short period of time, his professional life was invigorated by the movies. He won an Academy Award for his role as Maggio in From Here to Eternity, and from there he went on to star in a number of popular films. Furthermore, his appearances in Las Vegas gave new life to what was at that time a moribund city. Together with his celebrated “rat pack” of buddies, he injected new energy into the Las Vegas tourist industry.

As I heard his rendition of his classic signature songs at his “Retirement Concert” in 1971, I became more aware of what separated him from other crooners of the time. It was his impeccable pronunciation of words and phrasing. It was a mellifluous voice, one that was able to convey nuances of deep emotion by phrasing his words in idiosyncratic ways.

The documentary reveals that as a young man Sinatra took singing lessons to improve his delivery. He paid $3 a week to learn voice calisthenics to make him a better singer and it worked. His investment in learning at a tender age reaped rewards and Frank’s career blossomed.

This vignette of his early voice lessons reminded me of the Talmudic concept of girsa d’yankusah, the learning that one does as a youth. The Sages tell us that such learning stays with one for the rest of one’s life because it is given when a child’s mind is a tabula rasa, a blank page upon which indelible memories are engraved. Moreover, the Talmud tells us about a great scholar who remarked that his most important teacher was the one who taught him the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet, which was the bedrock of all his learning as a teenager and adult.

Frank Sinatra is one of the great musical icons of the twentieth century. Like all human beings, he is both talented and flawed. Sinatra: All or Nothing at All reminds us that his determination to be a musical star was not serendipitous. He worked hard to succeed and took advantage of every opportunity to move his career forward. His investment in voice lessons as a young performer indicates that Sinatra knew his weaknesses and wanted to correct them. He was not satisfied with merely being good; he wanted to be great, and he was open to receiving criticism if it helped him become a more successful entertainer.

Sinatra’s retirement concert, which is the linchpin of the narrative, demonstrates through song the many challenges that he faced and his ability to survive and prosper over many years of show business. His odyssey demonstrates how an ability to accept criticism and guidance in one’s youth can create enduring and felicitous consequences in the future.

Find out more information about this movie from HBO.


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