Starting Out in the Evening (2007), directed by Andrew Wagner

startng out in the evening posterIn the late 1960s, I was a graduate student in English at Hunter College, a division of the City University of New York. I read literary critics like Irving Howe and Lionel Trilling, and breathed in the air of the New York intellectual scene.

After graduating Yeshiva University, Torah studies were my main interest; but I wanted to get credentials in another field in case my plans to be a rabbi did not work out. I remember having a conversation with my Medieval Literature professor in which she told me how critical her English studies were in terms of giving her direction in life.

Religion gave me direction in life, and it was unusual for me to hear that English literature was that important to someone. Indeed, it did give her life meaning just as faith gave my life meaning.

I was reintroduced to that cerebral world in Starting Out in the Evening, the story of New Yorker Leonard Schiller, an aging professor and novelist who is writing his last novel after not writing for a long time. His first four novels were extraordinary successes, but he has not been able to replicate that achievement for many years.

Heather Wolfe, a young and attractive graduate student, approaches Leonard, hoping to interview him for her master’s thesis focusing on his early novels. After initially rejecting her offer, which he claims will take valuable time away from his current writing, Leonard relents and consents to her overtures.

Over the course of her interviews, he becomes at ease with her, prompting Heather to ask Leonard about his marriage and personal life, about which he is very uncomfortable speaking. Tension between them rises and falls as they navigate intellectual terrain together. It is a jousting match that is not without its moments of emotional pain and discovery.

Simultaneously as we watch the relationship between Heather and Leonard wax and wane, there is another drama transpiring. Leonard has a 40-year-old daughter, Ariel, whom he wants to see married and with child. Ariel wants the same, but Casey, the person she loves, does not want children. Her father urges her to break the relationship, but it is complicated in view of her strong passion for Casey.

Tension between Leonard with both Heather and Ariel creates pressure on him, eventually taking a toll on Leonard’s health. What transpires between Leonard and Ariel, on the one hand, and Heather and Leonard, on the other, makes for a complex and powerful denouement in which family and professional issues are not resolved but reach the kind of tentative ending that is true to real life.

Starting Out in the Evening is, indeed, two stories. It is the story of a writer who has written his magnum opus and cannot summon the intellectual energy and creativity to begin anew. It is also the story of a father who wants to leave a legacy, a written legacy of great books, and, more important, a human legacy of children. He desperately wants his daughter to have a child and not be stuck in a relationship without even the possibility of having children. When illness strikes, it is his daughter who stands beside him. His written work is only a memory, without the power to sustain him during a time of crisis.

Jewish tradition is very clear on what constitutes a legacy not just for Jews, but for all mankind. The first commandment in the Bible is to be fruitful and multiply, and it is addressed to all men. Children are our physical and spiritual heirs. When we have children, in a sense we overcome mortality by producing children who continue our lives beyond the time in which we live. No intellectual achievement matches that. Once Leonard Schiller understands that, he frees himself to write again in the evening of this life.

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Belle (2013), directed by Amma Asante

belle_xlgGrowing up in the 50s and 60s, dating for marriage was a very straightforward process. You met, dated for several months, and then came the moment of truth. Do you propose marriage or move on to dating someone else?

Nowadays, the dating landscape is different, especially in very religious Orthodox Jewish circles. I have granddaughters who live in Orthodox communities in America; they tell me that they have to prepare resumes that are submitted to matchmakers, who then work on their behalf to find suitable matches. I do not know if the system works, but it is very different from my own experience many years ago.

Although good character is still the key factor in determining the suitability of a match, finances also play a role. Will the prospective parents of the groom and bride be able to support the couple for a few years while the boy continues his Torah studies before entering the work force and will the parents help with buying a home as the couple morphs into a family with children?

Arranged marriage figures prominently in Belle, the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, born in 1761, who was the natural daughter of Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman in the West Indies, and Captain John Lindsay, a British Royal Navy officer. When Belle’s mother dies, Captain Lindsay takes her to England in 1765 to live with his uncle William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice of England. Lord and Lady Mansfield raise Belle as a free gentlewoman.

As a mixed-race child in a white household, her marriage prospects are dim. That changes when Belle’s father dies and leaves her an inheritance of 2000 pounds a year. Suitors do not run to her door, but marriage now becomes possible. In truth, Belle is no fool and is not interested in marriage for its own sake. She understands that she has the money to remain independent. But a vicar’s son and apprentice to the profession of law, John Davinier, captures her attention with his sincerity and devotion to worthy causes.

Tension arises between Lord Mansfield and Davinier when Davinier pressures him to make a controversial ruling that would make moral sense but would put the nation at great economic risk. Belle becomes aware of the rift and works behind the scenes to help Davinier. She does this is spite of being torn between affection for Davinier and loyalty to her guardian Lord Mansfield. The story, a gripping footnote to black history in England, is the background for Belle’s efforts to marry for love rather than for financial convenience.

Judaism has much to say about arranged marriages. To be a matchmaker is a good thing, and parents were the primary matchmakers throughout much of Jewish history. To find the right marriage partner is God’s work, but parents were God’s surrogates in the quest for a suitable marriage mate.

The patriarchs of the Jewish people took a major role in finding the appropriate wife for their child. The Bible recounts in detail how Abraham appointed his trusted servant Eliezer with finding a spouse for Isaac. The focus was on the potential mate’s spiritual qualities and good character. Being wealthy was not one of the criteria they sought.

Belle provides a fascinating look at the marriage market in the eighteenth century. Considerations of wealth and political position were uppermost in the minds of parents looking to move up socially through the marriage of a daughter to a person of rank. However, sensitive parents were not immune to the entreaties of children who wanted to marry people of good character rather than people of prestige and economic power. Belle and Lord Murray ultimately see eye to eye on this most important of matters.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Sicario (2015), directed by Denis Villeneuve

sicario posterI live in Israel where I often read about the moral dilemmas faced by the Israel Defense Forces as they fight terror that threatens the fabric of daily life. There are no simple answers to these complex questions. I reflected on this reality as I watched Sicario, a tense and unsettling look on law enforcement in America as it tries to control illegal drug trafficking in Mexico, a drug trade that infiltrates the southern border of the United States.

The story begins with an FBI SWAT raid of a home used by Mexican drug cartel kidnappers. Agent Kate Macer and her partner Reggie Wayne discover dozens of dead bodies, presumably executed by drug dealers. Kate’s boss thinks highly of her and recommends that she participate in a special task force put together by the Defense Department and the CIA to ferret out the people who caused these horrific murders.

The leaders of the team are CIA agent Matt Graver and his partner Alejandro Gillick, who are joined by U.S. Marshals and an elite cohort of Delta Force soldiers. Their target is Manuel Diaz, one of the major players in the drug cartel operation. As the mission progresses, Kate wonders what the true purpose of the mission is. Gradually she learns that Diaz is only important for his connection to the drug lord Fausto Alarcon.

In order to reach him, many may die. CIA agent Graver believes that collateral damage is worth it if they achieve the goal of disrupting the flow of drugs into America. Kate sees it as using immoral means to attain worthy goals. She is uncomfortable with the mission, which expects her to compromise truth in order to attain the desired results.

Jewish tradition asks us to consider the moral calculus before embarking on a mission that involves compromising one’s integrity. The litmus test is whether the action fits within the parameters of the Torah and Jewish Talmudic law, which offers general guidelines as to how to deal with these very thorny moral questions.

In an article on battlefield ethics based on sources in the Talmud and Codes of Jewish Law, Rabbi Michael Broyde outlines the conditions that allow for a theoretical “license to kill.” One may not kill an innocent third party to save someone’s life. One may not compel a person to risk his life to save another. One may not kill a person after he has already committed an evil act, and one may not use more force than is minimally needed. Moreover, before waging battle, one must first try to establish peace. Of utmost importance is killing only combatants, not innocent people. They must be given a chance to leave the battle theater. Once these conditions are met, then one has a theoretical “license to kill.”

When one considers these givens of Jewish tradition as guidelines for proper conduct, we see that the good guys in Sicario operate in morally ambiguous terrain. It is not easy to live in this environment, which continually tests our sense of right and wrong.

Understanding this reality, Alejandro advises the morally sensitive Kate to leave: “You should move to a small town, someplace where the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now.”

Sicario is not a typical action flick, although it has its share of tense and visceral action scenes. The film also makes us think about the complexity of law enforcement in an environment where there is no respect for the law. There are no easy answers for someone with a conscience. Kate Macer is thrown into chaotic universe with no moral center, and it unnerves her. Watching Sicario unnerves us as well.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Goal! The Dream Begins (2005), directed by Danny Cannon

goal the dream begins posterI once heard a quotation that was reputed to be first said by Eddie Cantor, a celebrated comedian in the late 40s and 50s, which was “It takes twenty years to become an overnight sensation.” It was a piece of wisdom that caught my attention many years ago and that remains with me today. It is advice that I share with young people trying to make a mark in the world and who encounter setbacks, but I also tell myself and other seniors the same piece of advice. Let me explain why recently I have this adage on my mind.

For the past several years, I have taught in two schools in Israel. I enjoy teaching. I enjoy the fact that I am not totally anonymous as a senior citizen. I even enjoy parent-teacher meetings, which allow me to forge friendships with adults who are in the midst of defining themselves and shaping the lives of their children.

But there is one challenge. Frontal teaching is tiring, and I felt I needed to find other work that was less physically taxing. The question is what to do. After much thought, I concluded that since I enjoy writing and have had some success over the years in writing, I would try to develop an income stream around that skill. So it was with that in mind that I started to write film reviews, first in a blog, then in newspapers, and finally in a book entitled Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema.

 Speaking about the book in various communities both in US, in Europe, and in Capetown, SA, has led me to another goal: creating a cable TV program on “Kosher Movies’ patterned after the successful “Siskel and Ebert” show which ran for many years on public television in America. This vocational journey is still in progress and has taken almost five years so far, a journey that has reinforced my belief that success comes gradually and only after much hard work and effort.

This was a lesson I learned when I was a much younger man. However, it is lesson that still is with me today; and it is the crux of the inspiring movie Goal! The Dream Begins. Goal is the story of a soccer player who begins his path to success as a small child in Mexico who loves playing soccer, and whose story ends many years later in the soccer stadiums of England where he plays for the Newcastle professional team.

Santiago Muñez plays soccer in Los Angeles for a local Hispanic team. He has little hope to play professionally because he does not play in a college league and he comes from a very poor family. However, one day, he is spotted by Glen Foy, a former soccer player and scout, who encourages him to come to England to try out for a professional team.

Working in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant and in his father’s gardening business, Santiago gradually saves up money to make the trip to England. But a problem arises. His father, feeling his son’s soccer aspirations are unrealistic, surreptitiously takes his son’s hard-earned money and uses it to buy a truck which will allow him to build up his own gardening business and to provide a livelihood for his son. Santiago’s dream is shattered, but then his grandmother comes to his rescue and gives him the money for the trip.

Arriving in Newcastle, he tries out for the team, but does not perform well. Again, he is rescued by a friend, who pleads with the team management to give him another chance. As a result, Santiago is given a month’s trial. Santiago has more setbacks during this trial period, but he has many stellar moments as well. Over time the coach recognizes his extraordinary talent, paving the way for Santiago’s success as a professional player.

Judaism values perseverance, staying on task and showing commitment in the face of obstacles. The patriarchs of the Jewish people–Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–all exemplified this trait. Maimonides mentions Abraham specifically because of the ten tests he endured during his lifetime. Those tests included, among others, the experience of being exiled, the abduction of Sarah, his wife, the binding of his son, Isaac, and his battle with the four kings.

One of the commentators observes that he was able to overcome these challenges because his perseverance was rooted in hope, in a positive outcome after many years of struggle. Abraham believed that things would get better, and, therefore, he was able to withstand the obstacles.

Santiago Munez in Goal! The Dream Begins almost loses hope, but his innate sense of optimism and hope for the future enables him ultimately to triumph. For him, the impossible dream becomes possible.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Spotlight (2015), directed by Tom McCarthy

spotlight posterDuring the course of many years of serving as a school principal, there have been occasions when I had to publicize bad stuff within the school community. It was something I never liked to do; but when it came to matters of health and safety, I felt I had to go public if that is what it took to protect other students.

I recall one incident involving a student caught for drug usage in high school. It was grounds for expulsion, a grave infraction that might prevent the student from attending another Jewish school and thus not have the opportunity to learn more about his faith. It was a stressful time of decision-making, but I expelled the student to protect the rest of the students from potential harm and to reassure parents that the school’s “no tolerance” for drugs policy was taken seriously.

Discovering and publicizing someone for inappropriate behavior is at the core of Spotlight, a visceral narrative about a four-person cadre of Boston Globe reporters who decide to investigate charges of abuse by Catholic priests in Boston. The year is 2001, and the Boston Globe has a new editor, Marty Baron. At an early meeting between Baron and the staff, Baron brings up the case of a Catholic priest who molested many children over a period of 30 years. A lawyer for the victims, Mitch Garabedian, argues that Cardinal Law, the senior cleric in the city, knew about the molestations but did nothing about it. He even cites the existence of sealed documents that prove the Church’s negligence. Baron suggests taking the Church to court to compel the unsealing of the documents.

As the Spotlight team does more research, they discover that there is a three-year statute of limitations in molestation cases, which does not allow for a thorough investigation of abuse claims. Moreover, the children feel shame and guilt and do not want their peers to know of the abuse. Furthermore, the settlements for damage are capped at $20,000, a miniscule sum in light of the emotional and psychological damage done.

The Spotlight team is persistent and eventually they get access to victims, whom they interview. More investigation reveals that the problem is systemic and not limited to Boston clergy. Clergy who molested children did not lose their jobs. Instead, they were sent to other parishes where the same abusive behavior re-emerged. In the church employment directories, priests who moved from parish to parish were simply designated as on “sick leave” or “absent on leave.” There was no mention of the egregious, corrupt conduct, which prompted their relocation.

At the end of the day, many suffered because of this conspiracy of silence. Few people wanted to tarnish the image of the church, and so there were many victims. As Mitch Garabedian, one of the victim’s lawyers said, “if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

Jewish law has a clear approach to determining whether one can reveal confidential information. It is based on the passage “do not stand by while your brother’s blood is being shed (Leviticus 19:16).” This commandment obligates one to shield another person from harm. If revealing private information protects other people by securing their health and safety, then it is permitted.

Interestingly, this commandment comes directly after the prohibition against talebearing. The commentators explain that telling tales about other people is tantamount to shedding their blood since serious damage can be done by disclosing private information. Therefore, the spreading of confidential information is, for the most part, only permitted when the goal is to prevent harm to others.

Spotlight, a film that shines a light on abuses in the clergy, has a larger message; namely, that we have a responsibility to publicize wrongdoing that affects our community in order to protect its citizens from harm.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Brooklyn (2015), directed by John Crowley

brooklyn posterI was born in Mt. Vernon, New York, a small bedroom community bordering the Bronx and only 25 minutes by train to Grand Central Station. To me Mt. Vernon was home. My family lived there as did many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins.

The next major move in my life came when I was married. My wife and I moved to New York City where we lived in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan near Yeshiva University. New York City was now my home. A number of years later we moved to Atlanta where I had accepted a job as a synagogue rabbi and later as a school principal. I stayed there for 27 years and felt that Atlanta was now my home.

How does one define a home? Is it simply a specific location or is home a place where your loved ones are? Brooklyn, the emotional odyssey of Ellis Lacey, a young woman who travels to America from Ireland in the 1950s to chart a new direction in her life, considers this question.

The film opens as Ellis prepares for her journey. The family is on the brink of poverty and Rose, Ellis’s sister, has contacted a priest in the United States who will sponsor Ellis as a new immigrant. As she leaves on a ship, her sister and mother tearfully bid her farewell.

On arriving to America after an arduous sea voyage, she takes up residence in a girls’ boarding house in Brooklyn and finds a job in a department store. These early days of her American experience are filled with homesickness and anxiety, but she eventually finds her stride and even enrolls in a bookkeeping class in night school at Brooklyn College.

At a dance in the neighborhood, Ellis meets Tony, an Italian-American, who is infatuated with Irish girls. Their relationship blossoms over time as they share their dreams with one another. She wants to become a bookkeeper and eventually an accountant; he is a plumber who wants to develop a thriving business.

Tony asks Ellis to marry him. Then tragedy strikes when she receives the news that her sister Rose has died, leaving no one to care for their mother. Ellis feels she must go home to be with her mother even for a short time. It is here that a dilemma develops. Does Ellis remain in Ireland, her family home, and build a life there or does she return to America and forge her destiny there with Tony?

Real estate agents utter the mantra of “location, location, location.” They refer to being in the right neighborhood, but in a metaphysical sense the phrase resonates in Judaism. The Ethics of the Fathers states that a person should live in place that is a place of Torah, a place where a person can grow spiritually. That is the key determinant of where one should live. If being in one’s parental hometown does not allow one to grow spiritually, then one should relocate. A home is not just where you live; it is a place where you grow.

Judaism has many recommendations about where to live and all of them relate to intellectual and spiritual growth, not to material surroundings or comfort alone. It is important to live with good neighbors in a moral environment, to place a mezuzah on the door to protect those who live there, to bring books of Jewish learning into the home, and to place a charity box in a prominent location in the home. All the above testifies to living in a home where one can grow emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually.

In Brooklyn Ellis is compelled to decide whether a familiar, comforting environment trumps the new opportunity for love, connection, and growth. Her decision makes us evaluate our own ideal of what home should be.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Becoming Bulletproof (2014), directed by Michael Barnett

becoming bulletproofMy sister Carol, of blessed memory, was six years older than me. She had Down’s syndrome, and as a kid I vividly remember going with Carol and my mother to Teen Town, a Thursday night social get-together where developmentally disabled teenagers could mingle socially, form friendships, and plan outings together. It was there that Carol met Sam Berniger, who also had Down’s syndrome.

Carol and Sam were an item in those days, often flirting with one another. At first it was strange to observe because I viewed my own sister as disabled in some way and not capable of romantic relationships. However, after witnessing Carol and Sam’s obvious affection for one another, I realized they were no different from other teens I knew. They wanted human connection. They wanted to feel love and affection, and that desire is common to all people, not just the developmentally disabled.

I thought of their romance as I watched Becoming Bulletproof, an arresting documentary about a cohort of disabled people from all over the United States, who come together once a year to make a movie.

Some background information is in order. Zeno Mountain Farms has an annual project of making a film using people with disabilities of all kinds as actors. Although their disabilities are wide-ranging, the young men and women come together in the service of art, making a movie that somehow transcends the limitations of their disabilities.

The project takes place in their summer camp program, and this year the project is to produce a short western movie by the camp’s residents. Period costumes are used, some paid for and some donated. The key scene is the confrontation between the hero and the villain in a shootout on a deserted street. The entire cast serves as bystanders to the imminent bloodshed. The camera pans over the worried faces of people in the crowd and then focuses on the guns in the holsters of the antagonists, who are about to draw their weapons against one another. It is a scene reminiscent of many classic western movies.

Working with the campers are people without disabilities who relate to the disabled as normal human beings. They see the disabled as significant others; and by doing so, they discover their common humanity, and forget about the disabled label. Watching the residents learn their lines and act their respective parts is both very heart wrenching and inspiring. What is especially noteworthy is how the staff relates to the residents as regular friends and family, even though the disabilities that distinguish them are glaringly evident.

Although there is an implicit message embedded in the movie, the movie is not preachy. The message: the disabled want to be recognized as people of value, who have an independent identity, who want to be taken seriously. This harks back to the Biblical notion that we are all created in God’s image; therefore, we all have infinite value regardless of our physical disabilities.

Jewish law recommends treating the disabled as regular members of the community as much as is humanly possible considering the idiosyncratic nature of each disability. As a synagogue rabbi, I recall vividly a father who painstakingly taught his developmentally disabled son how to recite the Torah portion for his Bar Mitzvah. In the father’s eyes, it was very important that his child experience the same rite of passage as other young men.

Becoming Bulletproof is testimony to the fact that the disabled are part of the human family, and want to be treated as such. Stigmatizing someone as disabled may be a necessity in the world of therapeutics, but labels should not define a person in the world of human discourse.

 

 

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