The Age of Adaline (2015), directed by Lee Toland Kreiger

age-of-adalineI am 73 years old, and since coming to Israel six years ago, I am officially a vatik, a senior citizen entitled to discounts on the bus and to reduced admissions at sundry places. Some people actually offer me their seats on public transportation. It makes me uncomfortable to be the recipient of these kindnesses and to realize that, at least in the eyes of some, I am old. I always thought the other guy was old and I was not, but that illusion is now shattered.

When I immigrated to Israel in 2010, I was automatically enrolled in a 55-plus club, no longer considered a young man. In my conversations with other members of the group, no one ever expressed to me a desire to be young again. All my new friends desired was to be healthy and not be dependent on the kindness of others, even if they were one’s own children. Moreover, the married couples seemed to enjoy growing old together. It was a time in life free of posturing or acquiring more stuff and, instead, allowing love to flow freely between spouses and parents and children and to be satisfied with little. A perfect life was simply to grow old together in good health.

 The Age of Adaline presents a unique perspective on aging. Adaline Bowman was born in 1908, married, and had a daughter. No long after her husband died in a work-related accident while building the Golden Gate Bridge, she drives to her parents’ home. Snow begins to fall, making the road hazardous. Her car crashes and a freak electrical storm ensues, creating an unusual chain reaction that causes Adaline to remain 29 years old forever.

Adaline researches her condition but cannot find clues as to why she remains young as others grow old. After being accosted and frightened by local and federal authorities, she resolves to leave San Francisco and establish a new identity every decade.

All is calm until she meets Ellis Jones, a wealthy philanthropist, at a New Year’s Eve party. She at first rejects his advances. But Ellis persists pursuing her and finally convinces her to have a date with him. At the date, Ellis reveals much about himself, but Adaline reveals little of her past. Their relationship deepens and Ellis invites her to visit his parents on the occasion of their 40th wedding anniversary.

When Ellis’ father, William, sees her for the first time, he instinctively calls her Adaline, for she reminds him of a woman with whom he had a past relationship and to whom he intended to propose marriage. Although Adaline informs him that Adaline was her mother, William is still puzzled at her stark resemblance to the love of his life so many years ago. The unraveling of the mystery of Adaline’s past and present life with William and Ellis makes us ponder the meaning of aging in our youth and old age.

The Ethics of the Fathers makes some important observations about reaching various stages of our life. The Sages tell us that at 5 years old, we should begin our study of the Bible, at 10 we should begin study of Mishna, the Oral Law, at 13 we begin to perform the commandments, at 18 we marry, at 20 we find a vocation, at 30 we are at our peak of physical strength, at 40 we understand life at a deeper level, at 50 we can give advice, and so the Sages continue until 100. At different ages, we are ready to experience different things, to develop ourselves in different ways, and to make our own unique contributions to society depending on our strength, our talents and our wisdom.

Adaline’s dilemma is that she is stuck at age 29. Life is imperfect because it stays the same. Finally, when her dilemma is serendipitously resolved, she notices a grey hair and her immediate response is “perfect.” Now she can grow old with someone she loves and now life becomes more meaningful because she experiences the phenomenon of change.

The possibility of change makes the present more precious. When we sense that life is transient, every day is cherished. When Adaline’s finally ages, it reminds us that growing old is a good thing for it makes us treasure each moment. Life now can be perfect.

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Hail, Caesar (2016), directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

hail-caesar-posterAs a high school principal, I often found myself multitasking. Professionally, I was teaching, administrating, and trying to raise money to pay salaries. Personally, I was trying to be an exemplary father and husband.

A constant challenge was to set priorities, to distinguish between the urgent from the truly important. It was not always easy to see the difference when I was dealing with an important educational issue and a salary deadline was only days away.

Seeing Eddie Mannix, the central character in Hail, Caesar, who is charged with fixing many crises in the Hollywood entertainment industry, reminded me of the many times I had to juggle many tasks at one time, each requiring a slightly different skill set and each demanding time and attention.

Hail, Caesar takes place in Hollywood during the 1950s. Eddie is charged with protecting the reputations of studio stars. Moreover, he works to solve sensitive issues related to movies that are in production or about to be produced. For example, in a Biblical epic about Christ, he consults with a Catholic priest, a Protestant clergyman, and a rabbi to insure there will be nothing that will offend any religious sensibility. Concurrently, he is working with Western cowboy star Hobie Doyle who is brought in by studio heads to star in a British comedy of manners. Here the problem is how to enable Hobie to drop his Southern drawl in favor of a British accent.

Things become more dicey when movie star Baird Whitlock, the actor playing the Roman Autolycus in the Biblical epic about Christ, is kidnapped by a group of communist screenwriters who feel that the major studios have abused them and taken advantage of them. They want Baird to champion their cause.

Baird’s abduction forces the movie to change its shooting schedule until he is found. Meanwhile, newspaper gossip columnists sense there is a story behind his disappearance and they go to Eddie to get answers. As Eddie finesses his way in giving information to the columnists, he receives word that the kidnappers are demanding a $100,000 ransom. In the midst of all this turmoil, a major corporation recruits Eddie to become a fixer for them.

Jewish law and tradition does not deal specifically with multi-tasking, but does consider two related topics: kavannah or intention, and hesech hadaat, distraction. Kavannah relates to the ability to concentrate, to focus on a present task. For example, when one is praying, one is supposed to focus on the words as he attempts to connect to the Creator. In the Talmud, there is a discussion whether we fulfill a ritual act if, in fact, we are unfocused when we do so. Many of the Sages rule that if one is unfocused during prayer, he has to recite the prayer over again.

Distraction also is a factor in multitasking. If your intention wanders during the ritual act, the act may have to be repeated. For example, Jews are required to ritually wash their hands before eating bread and then say a blessing. If there is conversation between the washing of the hands and the blessings, it is considered an interruption and one has to wash his hands a second time. Everything depends on one’s ability to concentrate no matter what the distraction.

Eddie Mannix is a master of positive multitasking. He succeeds in juggling many jobs at one time because he can shift his entire focus from one topic to another. He does not think about two things at the same time. Rather he moves from concentrating on one subject to concentrating fully on another subject in a matter of seconds. He knows that a wandering mind, an easily distracted person, is a liability to himself and others. Eddie Mannix reminds us that success comes to those who maintain focus in the midst of chaos.

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The Parent Trap (1998), directed by Nancy Meyers

parent-trap-posterDivorce is often painful for husband and wife, but most certainly for children. It is an emotional upheaval, leaving many damaged souls in its wake. As a synagogue rabbi for a number of years, I generally encouraged people contemplating divorce to stay married, but they usually came to me after the die for divorce was cast.

I also served as a legal witness in many Jewish divorce proceedings. Invariably, they were sad events. A wedding that had started out with so much promise now came to a tragic conclusion. A relationship that began in love ended with acrimony. I recall divorce proceedings where neither spouse wanted to talk to the other, so bitter was their parting.

The Parent Trap is a domestic fantasy that starts with two people who are already divorced. The opening titles reveal a loving relationship between Nick Parker and Elizabeth James that begins on an ocean liner cruise. The story continues eleven years later at a camp in Maine, where we meet two girls, Hallie and Annie, who look exactly like each other. They discover they are actually twins, and their divorced parents have never told them about the existence of the other. Nick has raised Hallie in Napa Valley where he grows vintage wines and Elizabeth raises Annie in London as she builds a career as a successful wedding gown designer.

After Hallie and Annie discover that they are twins, they devise a plan to meet the parent they never knew. Each girl teaches the other to impersonate her, and they switch places at the end of their camp stay. Hallie travels to London and Annie to Napa Valley.

Their ruse works for a while, but eventually Nick and Elizabeth became aware of the elaborate charade orchestrated by their twin daughters. This leads them to rethinking their divorce, which occurred so many years ago, and what prompted the split. How this family conundrum is resolved is the stuff of romantic fantasy.

The Bible says that through marriage, man and woman become “one flesh.” The commentators say this means that each person in a marriage is like an actual limb of the other. Just as a person does not get upset at his limb when he has a pain in his arm or leg, so too should a person not be upset when a spouse occasionally causes him pain. That occasional discomfort is part of marriage, an arrangement that grows and becomes stronger in the crucible of life’s ups and downs.

A central Jewish concept is Shalom Bayit, peace in the home. When spouses get along with one another, God’s presence is felt in the home. Divorce is permissible in Jewish law, but it is a last resort. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 22a) tells us that when divorce occurs, the Temple altar metaphorically weeps as if to mourn the emotional tragedy of a marriage torn asunder.

The Parent Trap is a light entertainment with important messages. Firstly, when there is disagreement between husband and wife, one should act quickly to resolve issues and not allow them to fester. “Never go to bed angry” was a wise piece of advice I heard many years ago that has proved valuable during many years of marriage. The longer one waits to resolve a problem, the more difficult it is to resolve. Secondly, one should focus on the positives in a relationship and overlook the negatives as much as possible, especially when the welfare of children is at stake.

Nick and Elizabeth finally understand, after years of miscommunication, that there is more that binds them together than divides them. Their story reminds us to think twice before severing the ties that bind.

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Unbroken (2014), directed by Angelina Jolie

unbroken posterFor the past several years, I have been teaching in a middle school and a high school in Israel. I have observed that in dealing with 7th and 8th graders, the students tend to be very self-absorbed, interested only in what they have to say and not paying attention to the comments of others. In the high school, I see students more respectful of each other, more willing to listen to the opinions of a peer. There I see more students sensitive to the Biblical notion of “loving your neighbor as yourself.” Just as you would want to be heard, so too should you listen to the words of your neighbor and give his comments respect even when you disagree with him.

In Jewish jurisprudence, there is discussion as to what degree we should observe this commandment of loving our neighbor as ourselves. Do we observe it even when, by doing so, we put ourselves and our interests at a disadvantage? Is there some balance between our needs and the needs of others that needs to be struck?

This moral dilemma is portrayed in a scene in Unbroken, the story of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, an airman who, during World War II, crashed into the Pacific Ocean on a rescue mission to locate a missing aircraft. Of the eight men aboard Louie’s plane, only three survive: Louie, Phil, and Mac. The three are able to inflate a life raft, and so begins their treacherous journey on the open sea.

They have limited food; and Louis, as the take-charge guy, tells his friends that they need to limit their consumption of food so that the meager food they have will enable them to survive until they are rescued. They have only one bar of chocolate and Louie tells them that they can eat one piece in the morning and one in the evening. Mac, however, decides to eat all the chocolate.

The Talmud (Baba Metzia 62a) discusses a similar case of “lifeboat ethics.” Two people are traveling in the desert and there is a jug with only enough water for one of them to survive. There is a difference of opinion as to what course should a person take in such a moral dilemma. One sage, Ben Petura, says that it is better if both of them drink rather than have one witness the death of the other. Rabbi Akiva, however, maintains that your life should come first before the life of your friend. This moral calculus is analyzed in contemporary volumes of Jewish law that deal with the conduct of men in battle who have to make decisions that affect the health and safety of others. Unbroken does not provide simplistic answers; it only raises the question.

Louis Zamperini, a practical man, does not compromise his integrity. He does not blame Mac for taking all of the chocolate for himself. He accepts the reality of Mac’s feelings and actions and then moves on to think of new ways to acquire food in the middle of the ocean. Louie, an optimist, does not lose his focus in the face of a setback. He continues to try his best to keep everyone alive.

When he finally is rescued, only to find himself in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. he again expresses his independent spirit. He is unwilling to bend in the face of physical punishment and extreme torture designed to undermine his humanity.

Louis Zamperini survives incarceration and even forgives his enemies. Years later, we see the real Louis Zamperini as a senior citizen running with the Olympic flag. He counts his blessings and traces his survival and success in life to his faith in God, which sustained him throughout all his trials. When faced with moral conundrums, Louie chooses the high road and becomes a model for us all.

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Don’t Come Knocking (2005), directed by Wim Wenders

don't come knocking posterOccasionally I meet old friends whose life has passed them by. As young men, they seemed so full of promise. I thought they would be professional successes in adulthood with loving wives and children. Yet something happened along the way. They were barely making a living, had not married, and were a shell of their former selves.

They tried to keep up a happy façade, but I sensed an undercurrent of profound sadness beneath the superficial smile. That narrative arc permeates Don’t Come Knocking, the elegiac narrative of Howard Spence, an aging movie star who recklessly tossed away every opportunity to lead a fulfilling family and professional life.

The movie begins with Howard suddenly leaving a film shoot of his latest western, which is being filled in the Utah desert. He rides away on a horse, changes his clothes so that he will be unrecognizable, and decides to reconnect with his mother whom he has not seen for thirty years. He travels to his hometown of Elko, Nevada to see her.

In the interim, the movie company launches a search for him led by Mr. Sutter, an insurance executive determined to find Howard and return him to the set. For the moment, the production is stalled and cannot continue. Tension mounts on the set because for each day the film is delayed, there is great financial loss to the studio. Indeed, without Howard returning and completing his scenes, the director cannot wrap up the film. Sutter’s search for Howard is the subplot of Howard’s personal journey to find himself after years of behavioral excess.

Howard’s reunion with his mother, after thirty years of absence, is both touching and weird. They speak with a familiarity that suggests a loving and authentic rapport with each other, but Howard’s conversation with her seems like the tentative remarks of a teenager who has stayed out late one night. Howard is almost clueless about the mess he has made with his life until he peruses his mother’s scrapbooks, which contain newspaper accounts of Howard’s self-destructive behavior with drugs and women, his barroom brawls, and his movie debacles.

His mother informs him that he has a son in Butte, Montana. This piques Howard’s curiosity and he decides to find him. While in Butte, he meets Doreen, his old flame and the mother of Earl, his son. Both Doreen and Earl are puzzled by Howard’s return; they resent him intruding into their lives after an absence of twenty years.

Confronting his past is not easy for Howard either. His emotional malaise is captured in an iconic scene in which he sits on a couch that has been left abandoned in the middle of an empty street. Howard sits quietly while the camera pans around him from dusk to dawn. He is still, but everything around him is moving. The scene suggests that for many years he has not adapted to the changes going on around him. He cries, he reflects, he meditates, and finally begins to understand the price he has paid for his youthful folly.

How Howard tries to reconcile with Doreen and Earl makes for a compelling and, at the same time, an oblique family drama. Don’t Come Knocking does not have a neat ending, but it does intimate that even in the most extreme of circumstances, people can find a way to communicate and adjust to new emotional realities.

Howard Spence, after years of profligate living, begins to comprehend the damage he has inflicted on others by his casual attitude towards marriage and fatherhood. He cannot alter the past; but he can be wiser, at least in some small way, for the rest of his life.

There is a story told about a great nineteenth century ethicist, Rabbi Israel Salanter, who happened to be walking late one night in front of the home of a shoemaker. Rabbi Salanter observed the man was working by the light of flickering candle. He asked the shoemaker why he was laboring so late at night. He replied: “As long as the candle is still burning, it is still possible to accomplish and to mend.”

This is an insight that Howard gains through the crucible of painful human experience. He cannot change the past; but as long as he is alive, he can make connections in the present that make him relevant to lost loves and forsaken children.

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Music of the Heart (1999), directed by Wes Craven

music of the heart posterI was a mediocre high school student at A.B. Davis High School in Mt. Vernon, New York. One day when I had to turn in a book report about a book I had not read, I decided to copy a friend’s paper. I did not realize that my friend had plagiarized his paper, so my act of plagiarism was once removed from the original act. Nonetheless, I was submitting work that was not mine. My history teacher, Mr. Elman, for whom the report was written, discovered my duplicity and failed me for the course. He was very disappointed in me and I felt ashamed of what I did.

Today, I thank God that I had Mr. Elman for a teacher and that he failed me. He taught me an invaluable lesson of honesty early on in life and I am eternally grateful to him. In hindsight, I realize that getting caught was a good thing. At the time, it was an academic catastrophe, but later on I saw the good that came out of an unpleasant incident.

The notion that out of disaster good can come underpins the narrative arc of Music of the Heart, the heartwarming story of Roberta Guaspari. Roberta, a talented violinist who put aside her musical ambitions to be a loyal wife and mother, has been left fifty violins by the husband who deserted her.

Her whole life in turmoil, she seeks employment as a music teacher, but can only find work at an innercity New York school. She is hired as a sub, but slowly becomes an important player in the school’s music program, especially when she gives her students violins to play as she initiates a string program at the school. At first, parents are ambivalent about the program, but when they see the excitement in their children’s eyes, their objections to the program vanish.

The film skips to ten years later when three schools are successfully implementing Roberta’s violin program. Her grit and energy have been transmitted to her students; they are happy to be acolytes in her program, which fosters discipline and gives the students recognition within the city school system. Indeed, the program makes the kids feel important.

At the zenith of her success, another problem arises. Budgetary cuts force the program to close and Roberta is compelled to find a funding source that will enable it to continue. To solve her problem, she, together with former students, parents, and teachers, decide to stage a major fund-raising concert at the 92nd Street Y. All seems fine until, only a few weeks before the concert, they lose their coveted venue. A lay leader, impressed by Roberta’s program comes to the rescue. Her husband, Arnold Steinhardt, is a world-class violinist and he secures Carnegie Hall for the concert. Moreover, he enlists his friends, Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, and Mark O’Connor, to participate in the concert with the student performers.

In the closing scene of the film, Roberta’s mother reminds her that none of the good stuff she is experiencing now would have happened had not her husband divorced her and forced her to establish herself in a new career. She transformed herself from a housewife and mother to a successful teacher and mentor to many children who passed through her classes.

Judaism never sees catastrophe as terminal. In fact, Jews traditionally say a blessing both for the good and bad that life brings them. The reason: one never knows if short-term adversity will lead ultimately to a good outcome. Indeed, when Jews were exiled from their land after the destruction of both first and second Temples, they did not despair for long. They recognized that now they had to redefine themselves as a nation without a land but bound by the Torah, the God-given law that enabled them to survive for centuries. The ability to affirm life after calamity strikes is the crux of Roberta Guaspari’s story. Music of the Heart illustrates her journey from despondency to success.

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All the Pretty Horses (2000), directed by Billy Bob Thornton

all the pretty horses posterOn rare occasions, I have been confronted with having to make a decision knowing that if I decide one way, I will hurt someone I care about; and if I decide differently, I will hurt someone else. Either way, I will wind up alienating a friend.

I recall that about 15 years ago, I was faced with such a dilemma and I decided to consult an older man with great knowledge of Torah and a deep understanding of human nature. He gave me a good perspective on my situation, enabling me to live with my decision without the burden of guilt. I continued to call him for advice until one fateful evening when I called his home, only to find out that his wife and family were in the midst of the week of mourning for my friend and mentor who had died only a few days before.

In the days that followed, I reflected on the time spent consulting with him. Although I could no longer speak with him, I learned much from the wisdom he shared with me, and I attempted to incorporate his perspectives in the way I viewed my own quandaries. Senior wisdom is priceless and I tried my utmost to take advantage of it whenever I could not come up with a satisfactory resolution to a problem. Such is what happens in All the Pretty Horses when John Grady Cole finds himself burdened by guilt by making good decisions that, regrettably, did not turn out well. Ultimately, he turns to a senior to put his own problems into perspective.

The year is 1949. John Grady Cole, a young cowboy raised in the wide-open spaces of a Texas ranch, is forced to find new means of employment when his grandfather dies and his heirs sell the property that was in his family for many years.

Together with his friend Lacey Rawlins, they journey south of the border to Mexico to find work. Along the way, they meet Jimmy Blevins, a savvy but unpredictable teenager, who wants to ride with them. Later they find employment with a wealthy rancher who needs help managing his exceptional prize horses. John and Lacey enjoy their work, but things get complicated when John falls in live with Alejandra, the rancher’s daughter.

Things change dramatically when both John and Lacey are arrested by the Mexican police. In jail, they again meet Blevins who is incarcerated for horse stealing and murder, and they learn that they are viewed as his accomplices. John and Lacey are sent to prison where they are surrounded by cutthroat prisoners who threaten their lives. They languish there until Alejandra’s aunt arranges to free them on condition that John never sees Alejandra again.

When John returns to Texas, he is arrested for horse stealing and appears in court to explain his side of the story. Surprisingly, the judge believes John and tells him that he is free to go. Never having encountered such fair play before, John visits the judge at his home, perhaps seeing him as a wise man and father figure. He confesses that he killed a man in prison and did not do enough to save his friend Blevins from being murdered.

The judge listens patiently and gently tells John that he could not have done anything to avoid those tragedies. Moreover, what John should do now is simply move on with his life, knowing that those tragic moments will be sorted out over time. The judge understands that John needs to share these secrets to assuage feelings of guilt. The judge intuits the wisdom of Ethics of the Fathers, which states that a person should not consider himself evil. When a person lacks self-esteem and views himself as a bad person, he may become emotionally paralyzed and give up trying to improve.

All the Pretty Horses depicts a rite of passage for a young man trying to make sense out of a life filled with contradictions. What enables him to survive is senior wisdom coupled with an abiding belief in God, which animates him every day. This sentiment is openly articulated by John at the film’s close: “I believe that God does watch over us, if he didn’t, I don’t see how we could get through each day.”

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