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.

Big Miracle (2012), directed by Ken Kwapis

big miracle posterWhen I moved to Israel, I had trouble understanding the political system here. Unlike the United States, there are many, not just two, political parties jockeying for power. In the recent elections, I saw first hand the implications of this multi-party system. Every party has its own agenda and pushes it strongly. However, when there is a crisis and one issue dominates everyone’s thinking, then the smaller parties promote the larger party in order to insure that the issue driven by crisis is resolved for benefit of the entire nation. Crisis brings everyone together, even if in ordinary circumstances they would not agree on anything.

The notion that crisis brings people of different viewpoints together is at the heart of Big Miracle, a family film about the extraordinary rescue of whales who, as they make their 5000 mile annual migration, are trapped because of rapidly forming ice in the Artic that blocks their route to the open sea.

Adam Carlson, a TV newsman working in Barrow, Alaska, would like warmer climes and a broader marketplace for his talents, but destiny gives him an opportunity to pursue a great human interest story just when his commitment to being in Barrow is flagging. When he reports on the local news about the plight of the trapped whales, the story is picked up and featured on the national networks. His ex-girlfriend, Rachel Kramer, an avid environmentalist working for Greenpeace, encourages Adam to enlist the aid of everyone to save the whales both because it is the right thing to do and because it is good public relations to participate in the rescue effort. Representatives from oil companies who want to drill in wilderness areas and environmentalists, normally hostile enemies, join ranks to save the whales. Moreover, journalists of competing entities descend on Barrow to witness the rescue attempt and to write about a story that is mesmerizing people around the world.

Soon a working coalition forms between the local Alaskan whale hunters, environmental advocates, and the oil drilling companies. Even the American and Russian militaries join to free the trapped whales. Each employs a different strategy to rescue the whales, but all strategies are coordinated with one another.

The Midrash tells us that when the Jews first came to Egypt, they were twelve tribes who saw themselves possessing a common destiny as articulated by their father Jacob. Once there, however, factions developed over time; and as the slavery of the Jews progressed, there was more friction between the people. Only when the punitive decrees of Pharoah intensified did they become more unified. Adversity drove them together, until finally at Sinai, the unity of Israel was restored as they accepted the Torah as one, unified nation. A common goal took disparate elements of a nation and melded then into one people.

This reality of working for a common purpose is what underpins the miracle in Big Miracle. It is a familiar case of different interest groups leaving their personal baggage at home because of a desire to fulfill a larger purpose that transcends the individual.

This is an important insight to keep in mind when building bridges between people and institutions. A focus on the big issues that connect people enables one to accomplish a lot more than one individual could. An illustrative example is the requirement in Jewish law for the presence of ten men for communal Jewish prayer to take place. There is no requirement that the ten men think alike or practice their faith in identical ways. All they have to do to reach God is to stand together as one.

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Inside Man (2006), directed by Spike Lee

inside man posterWhen I was a school principal, one of my students was involved in a heist. It was not a bank heist but the heist of Cokes from a soda machine. To find out who was pilfering soda from the machine, one day I hid in the lunchroom after lunch was over. I soon caught the offending student with his hand in the machine pulling out a soda bottle. I expected to find a student from a poor family committing the deed, but it was the child of a wealthy family. I learned that when it comes to ferreting out people who steal, I can’t make easy assumptions about who did the deed. Moreover, I can never fully know what motivates people to act dishonestly or how the criminal mind works. This perspective on criminals came to mind as I watched Inside Man, a very clever heist movie.

I have seen many heist movies over the years, but Inside Man is perhaps the best. In truth, it is a movie about a bank robbery but no money is stolen. There are other matters afoot, and the robbery is the cover for a crime of a different sort; it a fascinating game of cat and mouse that leaves the viewer constantly wondering what is the real purpose of the heist.

The film begins innovatively. Dalton Russell speaks to the audience informing them he has just committed a bank robbery. He then explains the “who, the what, the where, the when, and the why” of it in very simplistic terms, and now all that all he has to do is describe how the robbery was done.

The robbery begins when a group dressed as painters enter a bank in the Wall Street neighborhood of Manhattan. They shut the bank’s doors and disable the bank’s security cameras before anyone realizes what is happening. Donning masks, they order the customers and employees to fall to the floor, threatening death to anyone who disobeys. They then herd the hostages into one room and tell them to undress and don painter’s suits and masks, thus making them indistinguishable from the robbers.

Detective Keith Frazier is assigned to negotiate with the robbers in a tense hostage situation. As he methodically analyzes the situation and communicates with the robbers, scenes of Frazier interviewing the hostages after the robbery intrude into the narrative. The goal of the interviews is to determine if any of the perpetrators are among the hostages.

As the robbery progresses, Dalton makes many demands of Frazier. He requests a bus, a plane, and he even asks for the answers to a riddle. It eventually becomes clear to Frazier that Dalton is merely stalling for time and is in no rush to exit the bank. When the siege of the bank finally ends and the police storm the building, the hostages run out of the bank dressed as the criminals, making it impossible for the authorities to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys.

The denouement follows the actions of Frazier as he tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together, ultimately figuring out what actually was stolen and why. It is a fascinating trip, in which Spike Lee, the director, finds ample opportunity to upend traditional stereotypes of blacks, Jews, and Muslims, subtly reminding us that what is on the surface is not always what is inside a man’s heart.

In this sense, the title Inside Man suggests a double entendre, which is very much a part of Jewish tradition. The Ethics of the Fathers notes that we should never judge a man by what is he appears to be on the outside. Rather, judge by what is on the inside. The “inside man” is the one who really counts.

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A Tale of Two Cities (1935), directed by Jack Conway

tale of two cities posterI recently had dinner with a friend who shared with me his disappointment that his son at age 37 was still unmarried and was leading a life contrary to the values with which he had been raised. I told him that his son is still on a journey. It is not yet complete and his son may yet fulfill his hopes and dreams. The important thing was never to give up for the future is unknown. Past mistakes don’t always predict tomorrow’s consequences.

A Tale of Two Cities is a story of one man’s personal redemption from sinner to saint. The Talmud tractate of Avodah Zarah (10b) observes that there are people who can earn their portion in Olam Haba, the world-to-come, in one hour, suggesting that an entire life of sin can be overcome by repenting in the final moments of one’s life. This basically is the narrative arc of the life of Sidney Carton, the hero of A Tale of Two Cities.

The film opens on the eve of the French Revolution when Lucy Manette travels to France from England to rescue her aging father, who has been a prisoner in the Bastille for many years. During the trip, she meets Charles Darney, a French aristocrat, who is sympathetic to the plight of the downtrodden French citizens.

Charles, however, is the nephew of the Marquis de St. Evremonde, an aristocrat with little regard for the wellbeing of the poor. Aware of Charles’ favorable view of the poor, the Marquis frames his nephew for treason, recognizing that Charles is a potential danger to the French aristocratic establishment because of his heretical views. The case against Darney fails, however, because of the clever defense of Sydney Carton, an attorney who drinks to excess and has led a dissolute life.

When Lucie thanks Carton for his efforts, he falls in love with her; however, he inwardly understands that her love for Darney transcends any emotional attachment to him. After Darney and Lucie marry, move to England, and have a daughter, Sydney continues to remain a loyal friend of the family.

A crisis arises when Darney is tricked into returning to France during the Reign of Terror in order to defend a friend who has been unjustly accused of sympathy for the now deposed aristocracy. In a trial full of passion and anger but bereft of logic, he is sentenced to death by guillotine because of his familial connection to the Evremondes, who are symbols of tyranny.

Carton understands the danger and devises a plan to save Darnay from the guillotine. The plan hinges on Carton switching places with Darnay, who is incarcerated in prison awaiting execution. It becomes clear that Carton is willing to sacrifice himself to save those he loves.

As the image of the guillotine fills the screen, we hear Carton uttering his last thoughts: “It’s a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It’s a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.”

Carton’s final words reflect his changed worldview. For him, life is no longer a journey, but rather a destination. He has said farewell to his wasted past and enters the next world personally redeemed.

In some ways, the last moments of his life parallel the story of Samson, the judge who, although basically a good man, led a licentious life. Recognizing his faults, Samson decides at the end of his life to sacrifice himself so that others can survive. Sidney Carton’s final moments follow this example of repentance.

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