The Resistance Banker (2018), directed by Joram Lursen

I recently had a discussion with a family member about how I am conducting my life now that I am in my mid-70s. He asked if I have made any changes in my daily routine. I told him I certainly have.

Health challenges over the past several years have made me very sensitive to the passage of time. I am driven to make sure that I use my time wisely in the service of God. Instead of learning one page of Talmud a day, I now study two. I am very careful about my interactions with other people, greeting everyone I meet with a pleasant countenance and doing my best not to get angry at anyone.

Moreover, I am very meticulous about meeting my film review writing goals on time. Inwardly, I feel the reviews are Mussar lessons, ethical instruction, not just film reviews. They are a legacy of Torah sensibilities, not an evaluation of mere entertainments.

I have a sense that any day could be my last and I want every day to count, for time cannot be retrieved.

This focus on making the most of every day is on display in The Resistance Banker, the true story of banker Walraven (Wally) van Hall, who uses every moment to work on behalf of Dutch citizens persecuted by the Nazi regime. In his eyes, his job is never completed. He feels he can always do more. What is his mission? To bankroll the Dutch resistance to the Nazi regime during World War II.

Wally did not start off as a banker. He first worked at a New York Wall Street stock brokerage, a job secured by his brother Gijs van Hall, who later became the mayor of Amsterdam. When Wally came back to the Netherlands, he worked as a banker and stockbroker. This experience proved invaluable after the Germans invaded the Netherlands.

In the beginning, Wally’s efforts were directed to helping merchant-sailors and their families manage when many husbands and breadwinners were stranded abroad. Wally secured guarantees from the Dutch government-in-exile in London that enabled him to get funds to the Dutch sailors.

When the Germans started to enact anti-Jewish measures, Wally’s abhorrence of the Germans intensified, and he began fundraising for a whole array of resistance groups. So pervasive were his efforts that he became known as the banker of the resistance.

Wally raised money for the resistance through circuitous means. He and his brother arranged for the forgery of valueless bank bonds and exchanged them for valuable bank bonds. These bonds were used for the collection of authentic paper money. They also borrowed money from wealthy Dutch people with the understanding that the lenders would get their money back at the end of the war.

Wally was obsessive in his work, knowing that every day people counted on him financially for survival. He also knew that on any day he might be caught and killed by the Germans, but he could not rest as long as the job was not finished. It is said that in today’s currency, the money he collected would be over a half billion Euros.

Wally van Hall intuitively understood two statements of the Sages in The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature. The first is that when it comes to good deeds, one should always begin the task even if the outcome is in doubt. Outcomes are in God’s hands, not ours.

Secondly, one should also consider the possibility that every day might be one’s last day, and, therefore, one should make every day a masterpiece of righteous living. Knowing that time is short should be a motivator for performing good deeds now.

Watch this movie on Netflix.

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The White Helmets (2016), directed by Orlando von Einsiedel

For the last several years, I have seen in the media a plethora of stories about the Syrian Civil War. Exactly who is fighting who and for what reasons is sometimes unclear to me. So I looked forward to viewing The White Helmets, an award-winning documentary about this cadre of volunteers, all of whom wear white helmets. Their mission: to rescue people caught in the crossfire of the conflict in Syria. I hoped the film would give me a better understanding of this ongoing conflict and it did.

The film is composed of raw footage of the bombings of populated areas, wounded adults and children, the rescue training of the volunteers, depictions of some of their actual rescue efforts, and interviews with some of its members, who are mission-driven to save lives.

The White Helmet organization began in 2014 to labor in the fields of medical evacuation, urban search and rescue, evacuation of civilians from dangerous locations, and general service delivery of life essentials. As of April 2018, the White Helmets claim to have saved 114,000 lives, and in the process 201 White Helmets have died. They claim not to be affiliated with any particular cause in the Syrian conflict. Nonetheless, they are targets of Russian and Syrian airstrikes, both of which see them as aligned with the terrorist opposition to Assad’s Syrian government.

Interestingly, in July of 2018, Israel opened the Golan Hieghts border to permit a UN rescue team to evacuate 422 people, 98 While Helmet members and their families, to Jordan because their lives were in danger. A Syrian government spokesman condemned the rescue as a “criminal operation” that supported a terrorist entity.

Observing the rescue work that the White Helmets do, it is hard to imagine the group is a terrorist entity. Interviews with three of the volunteers demonstrate their passionate desire to save lives as their sole motivation.

Similar motivations are expressed by Hatzalah, a Jewish volunteer rescue organization in America and Israel. No matter whether thay are professionals or day laborers, they drop what they are doing and travel at a moment’s notice to save a life. One Hatzaloh member observes: “We help our neighbors, friends, relatives, and complete strangers. We get their fast so that we can minimize the trauma and suffering of the patient. That is our job and that is why I love it. I get to help make the community I live in a better and safer place.”

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) states: “Whoever saves one life is considered as if he saved an entire world.” Aaron Kirschenbaum, Law Professor at Tel Aviv University, traces the origin of this Talmudic statement to Leviticus (19:16), which states: ”thou shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” The takeaway is that every human being has an obligation to help someone in distress. Maimonides in his Code of Jewish Law provides some specific guidelines. Most important, we must be able to save another. Stepping into a dangerous situation without the proper training can lead to more harm both to the victims of terror and the rescuers themselves. Moreover, a number of ancillary considerations come into play in rescue efforts, such as geographic proximity, mental awareness, creative thinking, and physical disposition.

The White Helmets reminds us not only of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, but also of the many everyday heroes who desire to alleviate the pain and suffering of innocents. Their altruistic spirit and their hope for a better future in the face of present adversity should be an inspiration to all of us.

Watch “The White Helmets” on Netflix.

Divergent (2014), directed by Neil Burger

I recently had a conversation with a friend who told me how difficult it was to be the youngest brother in a family of five boys. All his siblings were clear-eyed about the future and had a career path in mind when they were teenagers. One wanted to be doctor, another a lawyer, another a college professor of English Literature, and another a high tech entrepreneur. Amazingly, four of the brothers achieved success in their chosen fields. My friend, the fifth and youngest, however, although very talented in many areas, had trouble deciding on a major in college. His indecision remained with him for many years.

Although he graduated college with a history degree, he was unable to make any career commitment until he reached 30 years of age. For most of his formative years, he felt that he did not fit in. He was divergent from the rest of his family.

Trying to fit in was important to me as a youngster as well, and this is the dilemma faced by the teenagers in Divergent, a science-fiction story that takes place in a future dystopia where kids, at age 16, have to choose which of five groups they want to join. The five factions are described by Beatrice Prior, the heroine of Divergent: “The smart ones, the ones who value knowledge and logic, are in Erudite. Amity farm the land. They’re all about kindness and harmony, always happy. Candor value honesty and order. And then there’s Dauntless. They’re our protectors, our soldiers, our police. Brave, fearless and free. My faction is Abnegation. We lead a simple life, selfless, dedicated to helping others. Because we’re public servants, we’re trusted to run the government. It all works. Everyone knows where they belong. Except for me.”

Joining a faction means committing oneself to that group for the rest of one’s life, assuming their social identity, and meeting society’s expectations for that cohort.

In order to determine what faction you are suited for, teenagers are required to take an aptitude test to see where one’s proclivities lie. Beatrice’s test results are inconclusive, suggesting she may be a good fit for Abnegation, or Erudite, or Dauntless. In brief, she does not fit only one category. She is divergent.

At the Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice opts for Dauntless and goes through an intensive training program in combat and control of fear, all the while doubting her choice. In the course of her training, she meets Four, another secret divergent, who is part of the Dauntless leadership. In the course of their training, they discover that one faction is planning to get rid of another. Will Beatrice and Four be able to stop them from attaining their nefarious goal?

Divergent is essentially about having the courage not to conform to the expectation of others, but rather being true to oneself. Jewish history is bound up with the story of non-conformists. Abraham is the most notable example. God tells him to leave his land, his birthplace, and journey to the land that God will show him. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes: “I want you, says God to Abraham, to be different. Not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of starting something new: a religion that will not worship power and the symbols of power—for that is what idols really were and are. To be a Jew is to be willing to challenge the prevailing consensus when, as so often happens, nations slip into worshipping the old gods.” Abraham was called ha-ivri, which in Hebrew means the side, because he was philosophically on one side and the entire world was on the other.

There is a folk saying that “dead fish go with the flow, but live fish swim against the current.” As it was with Abraham, so it is with Beatrice and Four, who challenge the status quo by asserting their individuality in the midst of powers that desire conformity. Their fight represents an actualization of the famous lines of poet Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled on/ And that has made all the difference.”

Purchase this movie on Amazon.com.

Hostiles (2017), directed by Scott Cooper

In my early years in the rabbinate, fresh out of rabbinical school, I tended to view Reform and Conservative Jews as the enemy of my pristine Orthodox ideology. When I saw a newspaper article that expressed what I felt to be erroneous ideology, I wrote to the letter’s author criticizing his remarks and informing him of my correct view of things. My behavior in retrospect was childish, and fortunately was corrected after a few months of immature and insensitive venting.

What changed? I asked myself: did my letters accomplish anything? The answer: Nothing, except create more ill will between people. The ability to let go of anger and begin a relationship anew is at the core of Hostiles, a western throwback to the John Wayne classic, The Searchers.

The story takes place in 1892. After years of fighting the Apache, Cheyenne, and Comanche Indians, the United States embarks upon a strategy of relocating the Indians to their ancestral home in Montana. Joseph Blocker, a war hero and US Calvary Captain, is ordered to escort Yellow Hawk, an Indian who has taken the lives of many white men and who is now suffering from cancer, to Montana. This is no easy task because Blocker despises Yellow Hawk. It is only when Colonel Biggs, Blocker’s superior, threatens him with the possible loss of his pension that Blocker agrees to escort Yellow Hawk and his family.

Along the way, they encounter Rosalie Quaid, who has just witnessed the death of her husband and her three children at the hands of savage Indians. Without a protector, Blocker decides to take her with his group. In the evening, the Indian women in the entourage, in a gesture of compassion for her loss, offer clean garments to her since Rosalie’s clothes are stained with the blood of her children.

Yellow Hawk warns Blocker that the Comanches will attack them, white and Indian alike, and it would be wise to unchain him and his son so they can help fight them. His warning is at first unheeded and when the Comanches attack later that day, several soldiers are killed. When Yellow Hawk and his family fight off some of the attackers, Blocker’s view of Yellow Hawk begins to change. He unchains Yellow Hawk and his son so they can help ward off future attacks.

As they continue on their journey, more raids come; and with each raid the white soldiers and their Indian charges rely more and more upon one another for safety. Slowly their ingrained hate for one another lessens, and they begin to understand that past hatred will get them nowhere.

After arriving in Montana, they are confronted by white men who do not want Indians on their land. That confrontation makes Blocker and Yellow Hawk realize their common humanity.

Jewish tradition encourages us to abandon our propensity to hate those who do us wrong. When people do us wrong, it is hurtful, but we do not always have to respond in kind. We should not allow hatred to determine our future actions.

Aaron, the brother of Moses is the archetypal model of good interpersonal behavior. In The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, Aaron is described as a lover and pursuer of peace. When he saw people responding to one another with ill will, he would be proactive and speak to each of the feuding parties, telling each that the other party was remorseful over the breakdown in communication with the other. His intervention in the service of peace was successful. The people loved his peacemaking efforts, and the Bible records that the children of Israel mourned more for Aaron than they did for Moses.

Blocker and Yellow Hawk ultimately understand that hate only breeds more hate. They arrive at this epiphany late in their lives, but this wisdom remains with them for the rest of their lives.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

 

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

In the Talmud there is a discussion of intention when it comes to the recitation of blessings. In pronouncing a blessing before partaking of food, for example, one must have in mind the particular fruit or cake one is about to eat. A problem arises when a person at the first part of the blessing has in mind the wrong food that fits the blessing, but when he recites the last part of blessing, he thinks of the correct food. The general conclusion of the Talmud is to consider the last part of blessing as its defining section. Therefore, the blessing is valid based upon the speaker’s intention while reciting the second half of the blessing.

In attempting to review The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a very unconventional western, which includes six stand-alone narratives, I thought of this Talmudic dictum and realized that my review of the film has to consider the last story as a coda explaining the other five.

The stories are framed within an imaginary novel of the 1870s. Within it are a host of literary conventions of the mythical West: the singing cowboy, the bank robber, the traveling showman, the man prospecting for gold, the pioneer heading to the frontier in search of a better life, and the stagecoach passengers.

All of the segments happen in beautiful outdoor settings except the last, which takes place almost entirely within the stagecoach. The travelers include an animal trapper, a blase Frenchman, and the very parochial wife of a clergyman. They have discussions about the nature of life, and it becomes clear that they are on a trip with a final destination from which there is no return. The essential takeaway from their conversation is that life is uncertain and unpredictable, and we never really know what is in another’s heart in spite of what we think might be there. It is a mournful view of the human experience.

The notion that life is unpredictable is underscored in the story entitled “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” Alice Longabaugh discusses a perspective on life with Billy Knapp, one of the leaders of the wagon train heading West. Speaking about her deceased brother, Gilbert, she observes: “He had fixed political beliefs. All of his beliefs were quite fixed. He would upbraid me for being wishy-washy. I never had his certainties. I suppose it is a defect.” Billy responds: “I don’t think it’s a defect at all. Oh no. Uncertainty. That is appropriate for matters of this world. Only regarding the next are we vouchsafed certainty. I believe certainty regarding that which we can see and touch. It is seldom justified, if ever. Down the ages, from our remote past, what certainties survive? And yet we hurry to fashion new ones. Wanting their comfort. Certainty is the easy path.”

The Jewish approach to life also posits an element of uncertainty; for, after all, how can finite man, whose very intellectual DNA is uncertain, comprehend the ways of the infinite, all knowing God? We humans can never understand why things happen. The only thing we can do is choose how we respond to life’s uncertainties and ambiguities.

The Sages tell us to envision every day as possibly one’s last. This is not to encourage a morbid mindset, but to spur us on to productive living, to make every day count. If today is my last day, then I should think about how I spend my time today. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs does not provide easy answers to life’s insoluble contradictions and uncertainties, but it does remind us that living with uncertainty is part of being human.

Watch this movie on Netflix.

 

The Old Man and the Gun (2018), directed by David Lowery

When I moved to Israel, I realized I could no longer be a synagogue rabbi or a school principal. Why? My command of Hebrew was only fair and I was in my 60s. Even though I felt I was at the top of my game, I was viewed by others as part of the past, not the future. So what to do?

For five years, I taught Anglos who were in Israeli schools, both middle school and high school. Most of the time, I prepared students to pass the matriculation examinations that they needed to get into college. I mixed in some poetry to make it more interesting for me as well as for the students. Every year I taught, the school had to get permission for me to teach since I was over the official retirement age.

After five years, the Ministry of Education ruled that they would no longer grant me permission to teach even though the school wanted me to continue. The bottom line: I had to find other employment outside of the school system, which brought me to “Kosher Movies.” I began writing film reviews in newspapers and on the Internet about movies that had something meaningful to say about life, movies that could help us navigate life no matter what our age.

Whenever I visit the States to visit family, I set up trips to synagogues, adult study groups, and schools to speak about the potentially positive influence of cinema on adults and teenagers. Watching The Old Man and the Gun reminded me of why I am now writing and lecturing on film. I simply wanted to be relevant, especially in a world, which, generally speaking, marginalizes the elderly.

The Old Man and the Gun is based on the true story of Forrest Tucker, a career criminal who escaped from San Quentin Prison at age 70. Once back in society, he commits a number of bank robberies that both mystify the police and fascinate the public. Trying to catch him is Detective John Hunt who is enthralled by Tucker’s soft spoken and gentle way of staging a heist.

Whenever Hunt investigates the crime, all the victims mention how polite and disarming Tucker was during the robbery. In one scene in which Tucker flees the crime in a cab with a mother and child aboard, he decides to stop the taxi so the mother and child can get off rather than be frightened by his fugitive status.

Forrest has a feeling of self-esteem when he is robbing banks. He sees himself as a good person who does not want to hurt others, but he desires to steal to reaffirm his lifelong talent for crime. Old age for him is not a time of retirement.

Indeed, old age is potentially a time of great blessing if one fills it with achievements. This is what the patriarch Abraham did as he advanced in years. Scripture states: “he grew old and came along in days.” The commentators interpret this to mean that in his senior years he continued to be productive and accomplish great things.

The question is how does one measure a life? Is one’s physical strength the only measure of a man’s ability to be productive in life? In truth, we know that physical strength wanes as we get older, but wisdom can grow.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe raises the question of a person’s value as he progresses through life. Is value only seen in terms of a person’s physical prowess or is it determined by the quality of one’s wisdom and insight. The Rebbe observes that behind the notion of retirement is the idea “that life is composed of productive and non-productive periods. The first 20-30 years of life are seen as a time of little or no achievement, as a person acquires knowledge and training in preparation for the productive period of life. The next 30-40 years are the time in which his or her creative energies are realized. Finally, as he enters his twilight years, he puts his period of real achievement behind him; he has worked hard all his life, so he now ought to settle down and enjoy the fruits of his labors. If the creative urge still agitates his aging body, he is advised to find some harmless hobby with which to fill his time. Indeed, time is now something to be filled and gotten over with as he whiles away his days on life’s sidelines, his knowledge and abilities filed away in the attic of old age.”

Furthermore, the Rebbe states: “Torah, however, recognizes no such distinction between life’s phases, for it sees productivity as the very essence of life: the words a non-productive life-period are an oxymoron. Retirement and the passive enjoyment of the fruits of one’s labor also have their time and place—in the World To Come. In the words of the Talmud, Today is the time to do; tomorrow, to reap the reward. The very fact that God has granted a person a single additional day of bodily life means that he has not yet concluded his mission in life, that there is still something for him to achieve in this world. “

Forrest Tucker chooses to break the law so that he can feel relevant at a time when elders are being pushed to the sidelines of life. The Old Man and the Gun reminds us that the drive for self-esteem and relevance remains with us all our lives, and is not limited by age.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Leave No Trace (2018), directed by Debra Granik

In the summer of 2010, in preparation for our move to Israel, I made a car trip from Dallas, where my wife and I were living, to New York with my son Ezra. Attached to my Toyota Corolla was a hitch upon which was loaded many of our possessions from our Dallas home.

In Salem, Virginia, my car started making strange noises and, within moments, died. I thought: In two days it will be the Sabbath. What do we do now?

Amazingly, Mike Fultcher, the accounts manager at the motel at which we are staying, miraculously located a 1999 Toyota engine for our vehicle and a super mechanic who could install it within 24 hours. Mike truly reinforced my belief in the kindness of strangers.

The kindness of strangers is displayed in Leave No Trace, a complex drama of a father, Will, and teenage daughter, Tom, living off the grid for many years in the forests of Oregon. When they are suddenly discovered by social services, the professionals at the agency want to integrate both Will and Tom into normal society. The challenge: Will, a single father and a war veteran with PTSD, needs the tranquility of the forests to maintain his mental equilibrium. Will he adjust to a new reality living in society with other people?

Will is uncomfortable with the battery of computer-generated questions that he has to answer at the social service agency, but Tom responds positively to the social worker tasked with evaluating her. In spite of Will’s reluctance to join conventional society, social services determine that he has been and is a loving and responsible parent who has educated his daughter well while living on public wilderness land.

The kindness of the social workers is evident when they locate an empty house for Will and Tom in which to live. They also find him a job. Tom meets local teens and finds their friendship pleasant. The neighborhood kids are not exploitative or cruel to the newcomer and they invite her to participate in local agricultural competitions.

A crisis occurs when Will decides to leave the home which social services has found for him and return to the woods. On the way to obtain provisions, Will falls badly injuring himself, and he requires medical attention. Again, locals come to his rescue and nurse him back to health. Over time, it becomes clear that the demons that afflict Will do not affect Tom, who wants to remain in society, not flee from it.

There are no villains in Leave No Trace, only good people who want to help others in distress. Their kindness is manifested in their good actions and from a life philosophy that encourages helping the stranger and those less fortunate than they. Their behavior reflects an internalization of concern for the stranger, an oft-repeated theme that appears frequently, in fact, 36 times, in Scripture.

Most of the exhortations to treat the stranger kindly are coupled with a reminder that we were strangers in Egypt and we should know what it feels like to be a stranger. God commands us to be empathetic, but being empathetic also is an outgrowth of our own slavery experience in Egypt.

Leave No Trace deals with the psychological scars left on servicemen who have seen battle. Emotionally, Will cannot forget the terrible memories of his wartime experiences. They affect his present and future interactions with people, and he cannot rid himself of this memory.

The film suggests that those close to such damaged souls need to recognize the pain of their loved ones, but cannot be limited by their close relationship with them. Tom comes to this epiphany when she decides to leave her beloved father who cannot escape the haunting recollections of the past. It is the kindness of strangers that enables both he and Tom to finally separate and go their individual ways.

 

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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