When my passion for movies began…
December 25th is a very special day for me. It is my birthday, and from my early childhood I have fond memories of my sister Martha taking me on the 241st Street/White Plains Road subway line at the tip of the north Bronx from Mount Vernon to Broadway where she would treat me to a grilled cheese sandwich and ice cream soda at the Horn and Hardart restaurant. We would then walk over to the Paramount Theatre or Radio City Music Hall where we would watch a new film that had just opened along with a stage show that included such luminaries as Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, the Count Basie Orchestra, and Johnny Ray. It was there that I became enamored of the movies. I still remember with what awe I watched the curtains part at Radio City Music hall when it unveiled its first wide screen, and there I saw Shane, a landmark western that made me an Alan Ladd fan for years.
Movies were a staple of my growing up in the small town of Mt. Vernon, New York. My idea of the perfect day was to go to the synagogue in the morning where I participated in youth services followed by scrumptious cakes with black and white icing, and then it was off to the movies to watch a double feature which transported me to far away places and to adventures that stimulated my young imagination.
As I got older, I became an observant Jew, knowledgeable about Jewish law and tradition and my attendance at movies became suspect, especially as the nature of movies changed over the decades. Still my infatuation with film remained and I continued to watch them, but my tastes gradually changed. I began to look for meaning in film. I wanted them to be not only enjoyable to view, but I wanted to leave the theatre enriched with some kind of message.
An early favorite was The Defiant Ones, a story of race relations starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis and directed by Stanley Kramer. It was the kind of movie I could watch again and again because its message resonated within me as a high school student at A. B. Davis High in Mt. Vernon, an academic high school that was about to merge with Edison High, the city’s technical high school, into one large Mount Vernon High School where whites and blacks would be more integrated.
In recent years in religious circles, both Jewish and non-Jewish, there has been a reaction against contemporary film as destructive of core family values and vacuous of meaning. I take a different view. I assume that that there are movies worth watching, that have something valuable to say about the human condition, and that we can take advantage of the good that films offer if we become discriminating consumers. Just as Matthew Arnold in Victorian England suggested that an appreciation of the touchstones of great literature of the past can help us determine who are the great writers of the present, so too an appreciation of meaningful movies of the past can help us separate the wheat from the chaff in cinema and so enable us to appreciate what movies can teach all of us. I am convinced that films can be a tool for self-discovery, as we navigate the many challenges of life together with movie protagonists.
As a rabbi, I have been asked what I think of Raiders of the Lost Ark. What do romantic comedies really say about love? What can a Will Ferrell comedy teach us about life? What important perspective on the father-son dynamic can we learn from 3:10 to Yuma? What can Inception teach us about the value of time? What life lessons on parenting can we learn from Big Fish? These questions and more will be addressed in my column, which aims to marry ancient tradition with the modern cineplex. I am eager to take this journey with the reader and invite you to interact with me on my blog at www.koshermovies.com.