What They Had (2018), directed by Elizabeth Chomko

From 1967 through 1970, I taught English in the evening division of Rockland Community College in Suffern, New York. It was an introductory course that included both literature and composition. On one evening, I took my mother with me so she could observe me as a teacher for the first time. Since most of my students were adults, my mother’s presence would not be noticed.

It was a special moment that I treasure. She had invested so much in my education that it gave me much pleasure to display my talents as a teacher to her. She never told me to be a teacher, but she always spoke in positive terms about the teaching profession. To her, it was an honest and dependable way to make a living.

I thought of that memory as I watched a scene in What They Had in which a parent finally sees his child as a competent adult, and that moment changes the entire relationship between them.

What They Had is the story of family that has to come to grips with what to do with their mother who is entering the stage of dementia. Ruth has Alzheimer’s, walking out of her home on Christmas Eve in spite of a blizzard outside in the windy city of Chicago. Fortunately, she returns home safely, but the incident is a catalyst for the family to make a decision about whether Ruth should be placed in an assisted-living facility or remain at home under the loving care of her husband.

Nicky, the son who lives in Chicago, is dealing with the day-to- day issues that come up and is functioning as the local caregiver. He is very tired and wants very much to place his mother in an assisted-living facility where they can take care of her properly. To make that decision, he needs his father to sign an authorization form and he needs his sister, Bridget, to approve the arrangement as well. He calls her and asks her to come from Los Angeles to Chicago, and she readily travels. Moreover, he wants Bridget to help him convince their father of the wisdom of moving their mother into a supervised residence.

Burt, their father, has been in love with Ruth for a veritable lifetime and feels he can provide the best care for Ruth, not an impersonal health care facility. Bridget is supportive of Nicky’s plan to move their mother, but she is also dealing with her own family issues that distract her. Her daughter, Emma, is uncommunicative and has stopped attending college classes, and Bridget feels emotionally distant from her husband.

Tempers flare as the family tries to sort out conflicts that have been dormant for many years, but now re-emerge because of the family dilemma that is consuming them. Things are messy, but there are moments of tenderness that surface and help ease moments of crisis. One such interlude occurs when Burt spontaneously visits his son Nicky for the first time at the bar that he owns. Nicky makes a “Manhattan” for him and his dad tells him it one of the best he has ever tasted. This small bit of praise by a father for his son does much to reduce the tension between father and son and alters their relationship.

The scene reminds us of how important it is to promote self-esteem in our children. Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski, a noted rabbi and psychiatrist, gives some practical advice: “God in His great mercy distributed various talents among people in the world. Everyone has some special talent. Be sure to point out to your child where his talents lie. This will enable his self-esteem to grow. Do not let a day go by without giving some praise to your children. This will help them to grow and to be a source of pride to you.”

One wonders how Nicky and Bridget would have turned out if Burt had consistently given praise to his children instead of constant criticism. Although it is clear that affection exists between parents and children in What They Had, it is evident that for it to grow and be strong, it needs to be planted in a garden of love, nourished daily with words of praise.

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The Accountant of Auschwitz (2018), directed by Matthew Shoychet

Every summer, the Jewish people observe three weeks of mourning. The three weeks begin from the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz until the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, during which time traditional Jews commemorate and think about the destruction of the First and Second Temples and why those catastrophes occurred. This time period in the yearly Hebrew calendar is devoted to remembering those past calamities and those holy souls whose lives ended prematurely in the cauldrons of anti-Semitic violence. The Accountant of Auschwitz raises the important question of how long we should remember these kinds of events.

Oskar Groning was one of the last living members of the SS to be implicated in Nazi crimes against humanity. He was known as the “Accountant of Auschwitz.” In 2005, he appeared in a BBC documentary about the Holocaust. On that program he spoke matter-of-factly about his duties as a member of the SS who served at Auschwitz.

His responsibilities at the concentration camp included counting and sorting the money taken from prisoners and being in charge of the personal property of arriving prisoners. On a few occasions, he witnessed the procedures of mass killing in the camp and the indiscriminate killing of babies. He admitted to seeing an SS soldier grab a crying baby by the legs and smashing its head against the iron side of a truck until the baby was silent.

Groning was discomforted by such viciousness; but, after a while, such horrific actions became routine to him, especially when his superiors reminded him of the pernicious influence of the Jews who were considered enemies of the German people.

The television program on which he appeared brought him to the attention of the German judiciary, who decided to charge him with the killing of 300,000 Jews. His trial in 2015, when he was 94 years old, made worldwide headlines.

There was much controversy about his trial. One segment of the population felt that he was a witness, and, therefore, complicit in the crimes. Another segment thought it was pointless to target a frail man in the twilight of his life.

Interestingly, Groning decided to go public on television with his story because he was incensed by Holocaust deniers who claimed the Holocaust never happened. Groning was there at Auschwitz and he felt obligated to speak the truth, in spite of incriminating himself.

On July 15, 2015, he was found guilty of being an accessory to the crime of murder of 3000,000 Jews. Ironically, he died before serving one day in prison.

Survivors who testified at the trial felt it was important for the world to remember the atrocities of the Holocaust. There should be no statute of limitations when it involves prosecuting someone for murder. One survivor reflected on the historical significance of keeping memories alive: “Without history, there is no memory. Without memory, there is no future if we do not learn from the mistakes of the past.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Britain, writes: “We are what we remember.” He suggests that three basic questions of life relate to memory: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? These questions compel us to revisit the past in order to chart a future life path. It involves using our individual and collective memories to shape our personal and group identities. Our collective memory of the Holocaust reminds us of the unpredictability of life and the evil of which men are capable. Accepting that reality prepares us better to deal with life as we travel through it.

As survivors pass away, it becomes even more important to conserve the legacy of memories that they leave us. The Accountant of Auschwitz reminds us that bringing Oskar Groning to trial was important because it means we never totally forget the past.

Balibo (2009), directed by Robert Connolly

 In recent years, the concept of “fake news” has gained popular currency. People, generally, are less accepting of the word of mass media. However, there was a time when people trusted the news outlets. If Tom Brokaw or Walter Cronkite reported something, we assumed it was true and we had great respect for those who reported the news. Balibo harks back to a time when people looked to the newsman to find out what was happening in the world and relied upon reporters to deliver the truth.

The film, Balibo, follows the Balibo Five, a cohort of five journalists who were captured by Indonesian forces invading the tiny country of East Timor in 1975. They subsequently were killed while reporting on the conflict.

The story begins when Roger East, a veteran journalist, journeys to East Timor in 1975 to investigate the death of the reporters and to set up a news agency to broadcast news about the impending Indonesian invasion. He does this at the encouragement of young, charismatic activist Jose Ramos-Horta, who was East Timor’s secretary of foreign affairs.

Jose feels that the desperate plight of the people of East Timor will receive more international attention if the fate of the Australian journalists in East Timor is front-page news. The journalists are white while the East Timorese are brown, and the English media will identify with the Anglo journalists, not the brown-skinned Timorese whom, by and large, are anonymous. In fact, at the end of the invasion, which took place over an extended period of time, almost 200,000 East Timorese were killed.

The crux of the film revolves around the question of whether, given the dangerous environment, the journalists who, indeed, were in harm’s way, should have pulled out earlier. The reporters, totally focused on getting out the story, are depicted as naïve and naturally competitive, two qualities that often encourage simplistic thinking without considering the risks involved in a particular course of action.

Jewish law has a clear perspective on risk-taking. Dr. Daniel Eisenberg, a Jewish educator, writes: “Risk is everywhere — an unavoidable part of daily life. What are the parameters of our obligation to protect ourselves from everyday dangers? Judaism teaches God gave each person a body to use, but we are required to protect it. This is a difficult balancing act. If we are overly cautious, we miss out on much in life. Yet if we are reckless, we risk destroying the very body we were given to protect. What is the prudent course and what are the limitations?”

Dr. Eisenberg provides an answer: “In addition to removing hazards, the Torah twice commands us to protect our health, safety and well being. For example, the Talmud forbids walking near a shaky wall, lest it fall and injure the passerby. Similarly, all dangerous pursuits (bungy-jumping is an example) are proscribed.

Obviously, there is latitude in evaluating how much risk is acceptable. A person need not avoid small risks that are accepted by the rest of normal society without undue concern.

Judaism recognizes the need to earn a livelihood as a mitigating factor in allowing risky behavior. The Talmud asks: Why does the worker climb the tree and risk his life? Is it not to earn his wages?

Intrinsic in the Talmud’s argument is the assumption that one may take risks to earn a living that would not otherwise be permitted. Someone has to paint the bridge, build the skyscraper, and dive for pearls. So long as the risk stays within reasonable parameters, such activities are permitted as professions.

The exact degree of risk in any endeavor always remains hazy. And the overarching rule is the obligation to protect one’s health.”

It is clear that the idealistic journalists in Balibo confront extraordinary risk to life and, from the perspective of Jewish law, overreach normal standards of risk. Although their goal is worthy, they make the mistake of accepting an unacceptable risk.

 

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

 

A Separation (2011), directed by Asghar Farhadi

When I was 11 or 12 years old, my sister Martha arranged for me to take a babysitting job in her stead. I approached the job casually, arrived on time, turned on the TV, and relaxed on the couch. The next thing I remember was being woken by the child’s parents with the baby crying violently in the background. Needless to say, it was my first and last babysitting job.

Caring for a baby is serious business because the baby is helpless and relies on the caregiver, i.e. the babysitter, to take care of the child in an emergency. A similar incident occurs in A Separation, in which a caregiver is careless about taking care of an Alzheimer’s patient and there are consequences for the caregiver. First, some background.

A Separation begins with a divorce hearing before a judge in an Iranian court. The adversaries are Nader and Simin. They love one another but have issues that are driving them apart. They both had planned to move to Europe to provide better educational opportunities for their daughter Termeh. However, Nader’s father suffers from Alzheimer’s and his situation is deteriorating. He no longer recognizes his children and needs 24-hour care. When Simin remarks to Nader “your father does not even know you,” he responds “but I know him.” This is the crux of the dilemma. Nader does not want to abandon his father, even if the consequence is divorce from his wife.

Simin leaves home with her daughter, compelling Nader to hire a caregiver for his father. The caregiver is Razieh who accepts the job reluctantly. She needs the money; but, in view of her strict religious upbringing, she does not feel comfortable cleaning Nader’s father when he has an accident in the bathroom.

On one particular day when she has to run an errand, she ties Nader’s father to the bed to prevent him from walking out of the apartment. Nader makes a surprise visit and discovers his father on the floor in distress. Nader sees Razieh as irresponsible, and in anger pushes her out of the house. As a result, Razieh falls down the stairs and has a miscarriage.

This leads to more complications. Nader is accused of killing Razieh’s unborn baby. Now Nader has to deal with this accusation in the courts in addition to dealing with his father’s deteriorating condition at home. Both families are struggling with challenges: economic, religious, and familial. There are no easy answers as each person is trying to navigate a complex reality that deals with accepting responsibility for one’s behavior and being truthful in one’s social interactions. Watching the Iranian family court system dealing with the child custody case in the light of numerous other issues is illuminating as it attempts to blend the letter of the law with what is in the child’s best interest.

Determination of custody is a common topic in most legal systems. The Talmud lists three guiding principles: (1) Custody of all children under the age of six is to be given to the mother; (2) Custody of boys over the age of six is to be given to the father; (3) Custody of girls over the age of six is to be given to the mother.

However, these rules are viewed with flexibility. Rabbi Michael Broyde, professor of Law at Emory University, observes: “Jewish law never understood these rules as cast in stone; all decisors accepted that there are circumstances where the interest of the child overwhelmed the obligation to follow the rules in all circumstances.” This nuanced view also appears in Iranian courts as depicted in A Separation, a film that presents a balanced view of justice with unpredictable outcomes.

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Apollo 11 (2019), directed by Todd Douglas Miller

To achieve any lofty goal requires great attention to detail. When I first became a principal, the school of which I was the head was in survival mode. It barely had the funds for payroll and enrollment was low. It was the first Jewish day high school in the city and did not have much community support. My job in part was to keep it afloat and help it grow. Thank God, the school grew numerically and financially and fulfilled our dreams.

There was another level of excellence that the school experienced. To compete with an array of exemplary private high schools, we had to go through an accreditation process. All the details of the school’s operation were scrutinized. Visiting members of the accreditation committee looked at our mission statement, our course descriptions, our teacher profiles, our student acceptance rate into college, and sundry other items.

After a thorough examination, we became accredited by our regional accreditation agency, which helped with our recruitment of new students. The overall results were very good, and we accomplished our goal because we buttressed all of our observations and reports with details that far exceeded what was required.

It is this kind of attention to detail that characterized the work of those laboring on the “man on the moon” project in 1969, which enabled the United States to successfully place a man on the moon. This event is celebrated in the fascinating documentary Apollo 11.

Apollo 11 tells the story of NASA’s historic lunar landing mission. Produced from newly discovered film footage, it depicts the days leading up to the launch, the launch itself, and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon in which he declared that, by placing one small step on the moon, he was making a giant leap for mankind. The movie concludes with the return of the lunar module to earth’s atmosphere, and its landing in the ocean.

The central characters are the three astronauts: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. But the supporting players at Mission Control also play a key role in the achievement. These employees provided the detailed information necessary for the astronauts to be successful.

The film devotes equal time to them sitting behind their computer monitors, analyzing real-time data, and relaying radio transmissions. The detail is mind-boggling. In order for the lunar module to reach the moon, it requires 7.6 million pounds of thrust to leave the earth and it has to attain a speed of 23,000 mph to break free of the orbit around the earth. These numbers are impossible to comprehend.

This commitment to an overall goal and to the details required to achieve it evoke comparisons to Judaism’s approach to leading a holy life. For example, Rabbi David Wolkenfeld discusses the admonition “you shall be holy” that appears in the Bible. Wolkenfeld remarks: “It is a brief statement that can fit on a billboard, that can even fit on a bumper-sticker.” That succinct line is the mission statement of the Jewish people.

But what does it mean? The Sages tell us that to be holy requires observance of a whole host of commandments that touch every aspect of human life: determining what we can eat, how we pray, performing an array of rituals related to the Jewish holidays, and carefully evaluating how to interact with our fellow man. In all, there are 613 commandments, not just ten. God is truly in the details of how we lead our lives.

Apollo 11 reminds us that to achieve a worthy goal requires more than just sincere resolve. Rather, it involves a commitment to details and using them to support a worthy goal, bringing it from idea to reality.

 

Ant-Man (2015), directed by Peyton Reed

As I was progressing in the early 1960s through Yeshiva University’s Jewish Studies Program designed for students who had not attended a Jewish day school, I asked a rabbi what would I accomplish after four years of intense Judaic studies in this new program. He told me that at the end of my academic program, I would be able to listen to a class in Bible or Talmud and understand it intelligently.

It was after that conversation that I decided to pursue ordination. I was not happy that, at the end of my studies, the rabbi’s assessment was that all I could do was understand a challenging class and not have some level of personal proficiency navigating original source material in Hebrew and Aramaic.

Little did the rabbi who spoke to me about my academic limitations realize that his comments inspired me to delve deeper into my studies in order to reach a higher level of proficiency. As the poet Robert Browning said: “man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”

That desire to do more and be more than people expect energizes Scott Lang, an electrical engineer with a criminal record, to accept the challenge of saving the world. Moreover, once having saved the world, he will ultimately reunite with his beloved daughter, Cassie, who is now living with, Maggie, Scott’s ex-wife and her new husband.

Here is the backstory. Hank Pym, founder of a high tech company developing shrinking technology, resigns as head of the business when he realizes that his protégé, Darren Cross, wants to use the technology in weapons systems that are capable of destroying civilizations. The technology becomes useable through a special Ant-Man suit that enables the wearer to shrink to a tiny size and penetrate almost any obstacle.

Hank needs a thief to steal Cross’s prototype suit and chooses Scott to carry out the mission. Hank’s daughter, Hope, feels Scott is ill-equipped to execute this complicated task and shares her low estimate of Scott’s talent with him. Upon hearing it, Scott becomes more resolved to rise to the occasion and save the world from Cross’s evil plans. Hope’s negative assessment of Scott spurs him on to positive accomplishment.

Hank solidifies Scott’s determination to succeed by reminding him to take advantage of this opportunity for greatness: “Second chances don’t come around all that often. I suggest you take a really close look at it. This is your chance to earn that look in your daughter’s eyes, to become the hero that she already thinks you are.” Indeed, Scott realizes that no one but he can save the world at this moment and he rises to the occasion. Initially, he sees himself as inadequate; but at this moment he sees the infinite potential for good within him.

In The Ethics of the Fathers, the great sage Hillel says, “in a place where there is no man, be a man (2:6).” This means that sometimes one has to take charge when a situation calls for action. Someone has to stand up for what is right and often when catastrophe is right around the corner.

Consider, for example, the story of Moses who at first does not want to face Pharaoh to ask for the release of his Hebrew slaves. Moses claims he is a stutterer and not up to the task. God, however, reminds him not to define himself by his disability. Rather, define yourself by what your potential is, by what you could be and not by your present impediment. Scott Lang in The Ant-Man sees himself as a hero, and that mindset enables him to be heroic and save the day.

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Akeelah and the Bee (2006), directed by Doug Atchison

In 1970, I had to make a choice. Do I want to launch my career as a rabbi on my own serving as a pulpit rabbi or do I want to be an assistant rabbi and learn from a skilled and wise mentor? I chose the latter, and, in retrospect, it was a good decision.

In making the decision, I recognized my limitations and thought I would be a better rabbi in the long run if I had someone from whom I could learn. In Akeelah and the Bee, eleven-year-old Akeelah Anderson makes a decision to acquire a mentor as she prepares for the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, and that makes all the difference in her performance on game day.

African-American Akeelah Anderson resides in South Los Angeles, a tough neighborhood with poor schools. She is bored with being in an unchallenging academic environment. However, in spite of her surroundings, she has developed a talent for spelling. Principal Welch notices this and encourages Akeelah to enter the school’s spelling bee, which is the first step towards qualifying for the National Spelling Bee competition.

Akeelah, feeling that participation in the academic competition will brand her as a nerd, is reluctant to participate. In the face of consistent encouragement by the administration of the school, however, she relents and competes in the school’s contest and easily wins. This is the first step on the road to the national competition.

Along the way, she becomes friends with Javier Mendez, a spelling bee competitor from another school district consisting mostly of white middle class and wealthy families. Unlike her preconceptions of such students from affluent homes, Javier is friendly, supportive, and always has a smile on his face. In her conversations with him, she begins to see the world differently, becomes willing to step outside of her comfort zone, and starts to enjoy the challenge of competing in the national contest.

At first, Akeelah thinks she can win purely on the strength of her ability to master rote spelling skills. But as she competes in local contests, she realizes she will need a coach who will teach her about word roots and how to figure out how to spell complex words with obscure language origins. Serendipitously, Dr. Joshua Larabee, former chair of the UCLA English Department, becomes her mentor and coach. He is a harsh taskmaster, but ultimately Akeelah recognizes the value of his advice and follows his recommendations.

What Akeelah does conceptually is follow the advice of The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, which states “make for yourself a teacher (1:6).” The Sages interpret this to mean to get yourself a mentor, someone who will give you good advice as you navigate life.

Yaakov Astor, writer and Jewish educator, explains this aphorism. To get the most benefit from a mentor, you first have to acknowledge your own limitations and lack of perspective on certain issues. Once that is done, then you can seek out someone with wisdom and life experience to assist you. The mentor does not have to know everything, but he possesses more knowledge than you and can offer you perspective on your problems. He is objective where you are subjective.

Akeelah and the Bee demonstrates the positive effect that a mentor can have on your life. First, you need to know your strengths and weaknesses. Second, you can learn much and overcome challenges in life if you open to the perspective of an older and wiser person whom you respect and trust. It is then more likely that you will achieve success in life.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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