It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019), directed by Marielle Heller

It is not easy to find a film that is “kosher” in the ultimate sense, but I think It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood qualifies. I define a “kosher movie” as one that has something meaningful to say about life, that can help us navigate our own lives; and this story of the friendship of celebrated children’s show host, Fred Rogers, with investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel has much Torah wisdom to offer.

The narrative begins as Mr. Rogers shows a photo of Lloyd Vogel with a bloody nose. He tells the audience that Lloyd has lots of anger and has much to learn about forgiveness. Lloyd’s backstory reveals that he and his wife Andrea have just had a baby and they plan to attend the wedding of Lloyd’s sister Lorraine.

Lloyd’s mood sours when he learns that his estranged father, Jerry, will be attending the wedding. At this special family celebration, Lloyd gets into an altercation with his father; and in the melee following the argument, someone punches Lloyd on his nose. This is the picture Mr. Rogers shows us at the beginning.

Lloyd’s editor, Ellen, asks him to write a profile of Mr. Rogers as part of a series on contemporary heroes. Lloyd regards it as a puff piece and is reluctant to do it, but he acquiesces. For the interview with Mr. Rogers, he travels to Pittsburgh to meet him on the set of his TV program.

Lloyd is taken aback by the kind demeanor of Mr. Rogers, who treats him with great respect. Inwardly, he wonders whether his kindness is just a show or is it genuine. As Lloyd interviews him, Mr. Rogers interrupts with questions of his own for Lloyd, in which he probes reasons for Lloyd’s black eye. Lloyd eventually tells him about his fight with his dad.

Soon after, Mr. Rogers invites Lloyd to spend a day with him when he will be in New York. Lloyd meets Fred’s wife, Joanne, who reinforces the notion that her husband is the real deal when it comes to being a person with great empathy and compassion for others. When Fred asks him questions about his childhood with his father and mother, Lloyd becomes uncomfortable, defensive, and abruptly leaves.

His dysfunctional relationship with his father, who abandoned his mother when she was ill, is too great a character failing for him to overlook. Lloyd’s anger towards his father does not abate and he allows it to live rent free in his head.

When his father suddenly has a heart attack, Lloyd is compelled to revaluate his relationship with his father. Mr. Rogers’ friendship during this period of emotional turmoil becomes a force for reconciliation.

Here are two pieces of wisdom that Mr. Rogers gives to Lloyd not by giving him direct advice, but by engaging Lloyd in conversation. When he and Lloyd are speaking on the phone, Fred asks him what is the most important thing in the world that I could be doing now? Lloyd has no answer but Fred does: “The most important thing I could be doing is talking to you.” The message for Lloyd: be present in the present. Do not allow yourself to be distracted when you are engaged with another human being. From a Torah perspective, this means to recognize the image of God in every man. If every man has divinity within him, then I must pay attention to the significant other that is speaking to me.

Another instance: When Jerry is dying, Mr. Rogers makes a private request of him. Lloyd wants to know the request. Fred tells him that he asked Jerry to pray for him. Why, asks Lloyd. Fred’s answer: “when a person is close to death, he is close to God.” This is a very Jewish response. The Sages in Ethics of the Fathers encourage us to think of death each day not in a morbid way, but to stimulate us to lead more meaningful lives. Experiencing crisis is often the catalyst to more focused use of our remaining time on earth and the rabbis want us to make every day a spiritual masterpiece.

These are only a small portion of the life lessons embedded in the thoughtful narrative of It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. It is a “kosher movie” to savor and worth viewing more than once.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The Biggest Little Farm (2018), directed by John Chester

p15996893_v_v8_abJewish law requires one to recite a blessing before eating. But it is not the same blessing for all foods. Each food has a unique blessing reflecting the reality that God created an abundant variety of foods to eat, not just one type of food. Indeed, we appreciate God more when we realize that He provides more than just nourishment for his creations. He also provides variety, and that is a testament to the divine complexity within nature. The Biggest Little Farm is a fascinating documentary that highlights this message.

John and Molly Chester make a decision to move out of the city and purchase 200 acres in the foothills of Ventura County, one hour north of Los Angeles. They plan naively to build a farm in harmony with nature, where they can grow a large diversity of crops and raise a wide range of farm animals.

Their initial problem: the land they bought is devoid of nutrients and suffering the effects of a long-term drought. The Chesters, however, are optimists; and, in spite of the challenging reality they face, they plant 10,000 orchard trees, over 300 different kinds of plants, and provide a home for an assortment of animals.

As time moves on and the ecosystem begins to reawaken, they realize that they need more knowledge to achieve their utopian vision. The teacher of that wisdom is Alan York, a guru of plant biodiversity, who teaches them that nature is cyclical. His message: what seems destructive today will, over time, be positive and enhance the harmony within nature.

Under his guidance, the land comes back to life. However, the Chesters’ experience of living in their self-made utopia comes to a standstill two years into their project. The rude awakening came in the form of pests. Birds eat fruit, causing a huge loss in farm revenue, snails eat tree trunks, gophers attack tree roots, and coyotes prey on chickens. Much of the farm labor spends time cleaning up the mess that is left, thus reducing time for crop tending and harvesting. When the Chesters begin questioning the practicality of their project, guru York is there advising patience, informing them that the ecosystem, like life, is cyclical and will eventually find its balance. York terms it “the rhythm of things.”

When York dies of cancer in the middle of the Chesters’ idealistic initiative, the Chesters have to figure out for themselves how to deal with the unpredictable vicissitudes of farming. Rain and wind do not come gently into farming life, and sometimes the consequences of rain and wind create major problems for harvesting crops. Over the long haul, however, their dreams are realized, perhaps not in the total way they envisioned; but their dream is basically actualized in the real world of sustainable, regenerative farming.

In The Biggest Little Farm, there are many life lessons. All the well known patriarchs of Judaism, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the greatest prophet of all, Moses, experienced failure of one sort or another in their lives, yet failure was not terminal for them. They learned from these mistakes, and grew to be better leaders because of them. So, too, is it with farming. Failure is a teacher, not the end of learning and growing and realizing one’s goal.

There is a lot to learn from farming failures. At the end of the day, the Chesters leave a legacy for the future for children, born and yet unborn. Here are some of the messages implicitly articulated for the next generation. There is a dance of co-existence in nature. For example, coyotes kill chickens, which seems to be a bad thing, yet when coyotes kill gophers, it seems to be a good thing. The key in nature is balance, which expresses a complicated web of life, representing a divinely ordained diversity measured over a very long period of time. Our planet and its ecosystem work with a comfortable level of disharmony, which creates a complex world with infinite possibilities.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com. Or watch it on Hulu.

Robot and Frank (2012), directed by Jake Schreier

A friend of mine recently wrote a book about his move to Israel and the many challenges he faced as a senior citizen in transitioning from one culture to another. As a senior, he felt a need to be productive, but his body told him that he could no longer function as a young man. However, he could use his memory and imagination to document his recent experiences, which he felt would be useful to seniors contemplating aliyah, emigrating to Israel.

I, too, found myself in a similar position. After teaching in Israel for five years, the Ministry of Education said I could teach no longer since I was well past the official retirement age. I was compelled, therefore, to find another way to earn money. And so I became a film critic, writing reviews for print media and on the Internet that connected Torah and secular culture. My role models were Abraham and Moses, biblical heroes who never retired, and twentieth century Torah luminaries like Rabbis Joseph Soloveitchik and Moshe Feinstein, who never stopped teaching Torah.

Robot and Frank deals with the same issue that my friend and I experienced: how to be relevant as a senior citizen when you are no longer working a traditional job. Frank is a retiree living alone. His son, Hunter, who lives in a different city, tries to take care of him long distance, but it is difficult; so Hunter gives his dad a gift of a robot caretaker as a full-time companion who will serve both an aide and as a friend of sorts.

At first Frank does not want the robot; but over time they become buddies and Frank recognizes its value to him, particularly in regard to giving him an opportunity to use a skill set that he used as a young man. Frank, in fact, was a cat burglar who served prison time. Stealing gave him an emotional high and now he wants to experience this feeling again. He convinces the robot, who has no independent sense of morality, to assist him in his nefarious plans. For the robot, helping Frank regain a sense of self is technically therapeutic.

Things get more complicated as Frank begins to show signs of dementia. Interestingly, the book he enjoys reading at this time of his life is Cervantes’ classic Don Quixote, a story of a man out of touch with reality. It is only Quixote’s loyal companion, Sancho Panza, who enables him to function in a world that sees him as an anachronism. So it is that Robot enables Frank to remain meaningfully connected to the modern world.

As his robberies become more bold, the authorities begin to investigate and Frank becomes a suspect because of his past criminal record. Whether he goes to prison or a nursing home facility ultimately depends on the police retrieving information from the robot, who, although only a machine, has become humanlike, so much like a human that Frank is reluctant to wipe out his memory even when Robot reminds him, “I’m not a real person, Frank.”

Robot and Frank is a comedy, but it is also a serious meditation on aging. How will we deal with the inevitable transition from youth to old age, when our bodies will no longer work like they did when we were young? With what will we occupy our time? How will we find a sense of meaning and purpose when society marginalizes the elderly? The film provides no answers, but suggests that it is important to stay busy, to find an outlet for our creativity, and to use our imagination and our memory to inspire us as we get older.

 

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Sun Dogs (2017), directed by Jennifer Morrison

My oldest sister, Carol, had Downs Syndrome. She was always smiling and willing to help around the house. When she spoke, there was not a trace of artifice. She could never lie and whatever she said came from the heart.

From time to time, I would wonder what was Carol’s mission on earth? She obviously was very limited mentally, yet she had a knack of bringing out the best in others. I thought that perhaps, from the aspect of eternity, her mission was to make better anyone who had the good fortune to know her, to make that person more sensitive, more caring about other people, and more grateful for their own mental health. An encounter with Carol left the other person feeling blessed and appreciative about leading a normal life.

Finding one’s mission in life is the subject of Sun Dogs, a dramedy about Ned Chipley, a mentally challenged young man who wants to join the Marines. He sees his mission in life as saving lives, but he lacks the intellectual ability to actually serve in the armed forces. When he visits the Marine recruiting office, Master Sgt. Jenkins is reluctant to tell Ned that he does not qualify for soldiering. Instead, he tells Ned that he is needed on the home front to search for secret terrorists cells in civilian locations. In this way, Ned will function as a secret operative. Ned takes this charge very seriously.

Sgt. Jenkins gives Ned a deck of cards with pictures of the leading terrorists in the world. This becomes Ned’s “to-do” list as he searches out suspicious individuals who look like people depicted in his deck of cards.

Although Ned’s behavior is strange and idiosyncratic, he does listen to people who offer advice. He may be intellectually slow, but he does pay attention to the voice of others and gleans wisdom from them. For example, after he tells a friend that he feels his life’s mission is to save lives, the friend gives him mathematical proof that, over a span of ten years, 3000 people jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, and Ned may have an opportunity to prevent those tragedies. It is a story he does not forget.

Almost all the characters in the film are decent. There are no villains, and most of the people are kind and sensitive to Ned’s disabilities and his mistakes in judgment. They, too, are flawed, but not in a terminal sense. They are on their own journeys to figure out the purpose of their own lives. They are good people who simply want more out of life. A seminal line, repeated at several points in the narrative, is that “everybody needs a purpose.” In Sun Dogs, we witness the decisions people make to define for themselves a worthy mission in life.

Jewish teachings encourage people to consider what is their mission in life. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks astutely observes that there is a difference between what we are good at and what we are called upon to do: “We can be good at many things, but what gives a life direction and meaning is a sense of mission, of something we are called on to do.” He continues: “Each of us is different. Therefore, we each have unique talents and skills to bring to the world. The fact that I am here, in this place, at this time, with these abilities, is not accidental. There is a task to perform, and God is calling us to it. Where what we want to do meets what needs to be done, that is where God wants us to be.”

Michael Novak, an American Catholic philosopher, suggested asking yourself three questions to discover your calling: is it unique to you; do you have a talent for it; and does it give you a sense of enjoyment and renewed energy? Moreover, it is important to realize that you may not discover your purpose immediately. You may have to make many mistakes before you find your true mission in life.

Indeed, God gave each of us a task. There is specific work for us to do, kindness to share, loneliness to abate, pain to assuage, and broken spirits to lift. In Sun Dogs, Ned Chipley ultimately discovers his life’s purpose; his story is worth contemplating.

 

Instant Family (2018), directed by Sean Anders

I know a little bit about adoption because of information I have picked up from family and friends. I know nothing about foster parenting, which is why I was interested in seeing Instant Family, a film which depicts both the process of becoming a foster parent and the reality one faces once one becomes a foster parent. I realized that gleaning information from a Hollywood version of foster parenting is not totally reliable; but, nonetheless, it would give me an idea of the complexities that people face in the foster parenting world.

Pete and Ellie Wagner have been married for several years and have no children. They feel a void in their lives and, after some soul-searching, decide to explore foster parenting. Foster parenting may lead to adoption or may just be a temporary way to provide at-risk children with a stable and safe environment.

Two social workers, Karen and Sharon, introduce the Wagners, along with other parent wannabes, to the world of foster parenting, which considers diverse parent models including, among others, a gay couple, an interracial couple, and a very religiously devout couple.

After attending a fair where they can meet kids whom they may want to adopt, Pete and Ellie decide to provide a home for Lizzie, a teenager from a broken home. But there is one catch: Lizzie has two younger siblings, Juan and Lita, so the Wagners would have to foster parent three kids, not one.

In spite of the potential problems about which they are warned by Karen and Sharon, Pete and Ellie decide to give it a try. Very soon, things get hectic and Pete and Ellie begin to rethink their decision. Being part of support group for foster parents helps, but it does not solve the daily problems that occur.

Just when life at home is settling down, the Wagners receive word that the children’s birth mother, Clara, may again assume custody of her kids. Pete and Ellie, who are interested in adopting the kids, now have to come to terms with their mission as foster parents; namely, their goal is to provide a safe and stable environment for the children even if it does not lead to adoption.

Judaism places high value on taking care of the physical and educational wellbeing of children, especially if the kids are not one’s own. It is one of the highest forms of chesed, loving kindness.

Nowadays, in the contemporary therapeutic milieu, the ideal goal is to keep kids in the parental home if at all possible. However, if the child is at risk of severe bodily harm, sexual abuse, or other violent behavior, then foster care is appropriate. The operative word here in Hebrew is rodef, pursuer. Shelley Berger, director of Ohel, a Jewish foster care institution in New York City, states: “a threat to a child is paramount. It’s a case of rodef, a pursuer of life that must be stopped.”

Ohel does its best to place each child in a home that matches the needs of the child. The primary reasons kids go into foster care is because their parents are involved in substance abuse or the parents are teenagers, too young to care for children of their own. Within the Jewish community, the prime reason for foster parenting is parent mental illness, where parents can’t care for their children and wind up neglecting them. Foster care provides a chance for the child to be in a stable, caring environment while parents have an opportunity to get their own lives back on track.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, head of a Jewish outreach organization in Arizona, is the founder of Yatom, a Jewish foster care initiative. Yatom means orphan in Hebrew, and Yatom attempts to bring more families into the foster care orbit, its raison d’etre being to protect children, those most vulnerable in society.

Yanklowitz and his wife have four biological children and have fostered six kids. I asked him about his own experience with foster parenting and this is what he said: “Without a doubt, being a foster parent is a feeling unlike any other. There is a special, intimate, spiritual bond that you create with a child who is not biologically your own, yet, in many ways, is an irrevocable part of the family. My family has been fortunate enough to foster vulnerable children and, though the process has its challenges, we have come away knowing that we’ve made a difference in a child’s life even if they won’t remember us.”

Instant Family is both a serious and hilarious look at foster care in America. While its depiction is cartoonish at times, it does reveal major challenges in the foster parenting world. It is a film worth seeing and worth thinking about.

Purchase this movie on Amazon.com.

Ready Player One (2018), directed by Steven Spielberg

I recently gave a talk on “kosher movies” to seniors in a New Jersey high school. In the Q&A after my presentation, one student asked why I did not discuss any superhero movie. The question reminded me that the cinematic points of reference in my talk were before the superhero craze in moviegoing. I was thinking of the past; the kids were thinking of the future.

Ready Player One is a story of the future, but rooted in the past. By exposing oneself to both past and future, our heroes learn that what links the generations is the human connection, not the artificial game, no matter how immersive it many be. Let me explain.

The story opens in 2045 in Columbus, Ohio, in a place called “The Stacks.” It looks like low-income housing, constructed by using trailers stacked on top of one another, but separated by staircases and poles.

Wade Watts has no living parents and resides with his Aunt Alice in this run-down neighborhood. In this dystopian world, Wade, along with many others, escapes his dreary reality by entering the Oasis, a virtual reality world where people can find entertainments of all sorts and where they can be avatars, fictional representatives of themselves capable of extraordinary feats. Wade’s avatar is Parzival, a super cool dude who does not physically resemble Wade, who in real life is a brainy nerd.

This virtual reality of the Oasis world spans time. Once in it, a person can uncover the past as well gain insight into the future. These time shifts are both clever and humorous. There are memorable characters and scenes from cinema classics like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Moreover, a plethora of other pop culture iconic images and references inhabit the Oasis.

We learn that the Oasis was created by James Halliday and his friend and fellow scientist, Ogden Morrow. At his death, Halliday proclaims the ultimate challenge for his fans. He informs them that he has hidden an Easter egg, a secret, within the game that will be revealed after someone successfully completes three challenges. The reward: half a trillion dollars and total control of the Oasis.

Wade’s main competitor is Nolan Sorrento, the CEO of a nefarious high tech company that wants to sabotage Wade’s efforts to meet Halliday’s challenges. Sorrento wants to commercialize the Oasis and claim the reward money for himself.

After a number of visually immersive chases and battles, Wade and Halliday express their profound belief that the real world is more important than the escapism that the Oasis provides. That is the legacy they want to endure. Kenneth Turan, movie critic for the LA Times perhaps sums up the movie’s message best: “While on the surface, this futuristic film is a celebration of gamers, gaming and the pleasures to be found in immersive virtual reality, underlying it all is a heartfelt brief for abandoning all screens and enjoying the satisfactions of the real world.”

Mem Bernstein, a philanthropist, articulates this perspective in a message she delivered to a group of donors. To her, the legacy of real-world accomplishments is what really matters. She paraphrases the Ethics of the Fathers: “you are not expected to complete the task, but you should insure that there are others who will continue to work on it.” This is essentially what Halliday and Wade desire for the future of the Oasis in Ready Player One. It is okay to enjoy the fantasy world of the Oasis in the short term; but, in the long run, one should always remember to nurture the human connections that underpin it.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Arctic (2018), directed by Joe Penna

One of the key skills I nurtured as a high school principal was to remain calm in the midst of stress and chaos. I recall the time when, on a class trip to New York, a student got lost at Rockefeller Center for over a half hour or the time students on a subway in New York gave money to a panhandler who responded by shouting that the money given him was not enough and began to threaten them. Thankfully, calm prevailed and both incidents ended happily. The ability to remain calm in the face of adversity is one of the key elements in Arctic, a survival story about Overgard, a cargo pilot whose plane crashes in a desolate Arctic wasteland.

As he waits for rescue, we see he is a problem-solver, not prone to panic. For example, he digs holes in the ice into which he places fishing lines to catch arctic trout. He also runs a distress beacon powered by a hand crank dynamo. Moreover, he clears away snow to create a gigantic SOS sign that can be seen by a plane flying overhead.

When a helicopter appears on the horizon to rescue him, tragically it crashes because of sudden strong winds. The pilot dies; but his passenger, the pilot’s young wife, survives badly injured and unconscious. Overgard carries her to his plane and attempts to provide rudimentary first-aid.

Soon he has to make a choice: stay with the plane and wait for rescue or leave the plane and try to find succor on foot? In the downed helicopter, he finds some food, a propane cooker, some medical equipment, a sled, and a map of the area. He then decides to make the trek to a refuge that appears to be only several days away. He secures the young woman to the sled and begins his journey, motivated by the knowledge that if he does not leave, the woman will surely die without proper medical attention.

Along the way, he faces several challenges. A polar bear terrorizes them, the map is inaccurate and forces him to take a longer route because he cannot surmount a rocky hill while pulling the sled, and he falls into a deep crevasse injuring his leg. Throughout the entire ordeal, he continually reassures the woman that help is only a matter of a day or so away, even though he knows it is not. He also assuages her fear by reiterating that she is not alone. At every step of the journey, Overgard is torn between being cautious and taking a courageous risk, between taking care of himself and altruistically taking care of his injured sled passenger, whom he encourages by telling her she is not alone.

Knowing that someone is with you at a time of crisis is a powerful antidote to despair. I recall an encounter I had during my early years as a synagogue rabbi. While visiting a hospital, I serendipitously met Aaron. He was 89 years old with no family, alone in the hospital. He told me he did not mind dying, but the staff at the hospital does not leave him alone. They insist on doing all they can to keep him alive. He asks me to send a message to mankind: people essentially love one another. He is so impressed with the goodness of other human beings that he breaks down in tears and thanks me for being with him.

Judaism offers several responses to adversity, which are highlighted by Breindy Lazor, a Jewish educator, on the Aish HaTorah website. They include the following: When faced with stark choices, always choose life over death. Help others who are less fortunate than you. Become better, not bitter. Focus on the positive. Take responsibility for your future.

Overgard in Arctic understands these Jewish responses to adversity. In spite of focusing on his own survival, he takes the high ethical road and does his best to save the other as well as himself. His altruism is worthy of emulation.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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