Julius Caesar (1953), directed by Joseph Mankiewicz

julius caesarI taught an eighth grade class for a number of years in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school in Israel. The secular class began in late afternoon and there were only two hours per week devoted to English language study.

However, I still wanted to introduce the students to classic literature, and so I created a unit on Shakespeare in which the students read and acted out a few seminal scenes from the great bard’s plays. Included was the assassination scene in Julius Caesar. The kids had fun wearing makeshift togas and learned about something about the wielding of political power. Moreover, we reviewed some of the classic lines in the play in their context.

This cinematic version of Julius Caesar still has legs although it was filmed in black and white over sixty years ago. The reason: the stellar cast which included Marlon Brando as Marc Antony, James Mason as Brutus, and John Gielgud as Cassius.

The story begins in Rome when Caesar is at the height of his power. Some, however, see his rise to power as a reflection of his unflinching ambition and as a threat to Rome. They recruit the honorable Brutus to join with them in a plot to murder Caesar and, by doing so, save Rome. Brutus’ participation gives the conspirators respectability and the courage to move forward with their plans.

After the assassination, Brutus gives permission for Antony to eulogize Caesar, and his emotional speech turns the crowd against the conspirators. His funeral oration beginning with the famous words “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” is a speech for the ages, and Brando executes it in iconic fashion. This sets the stage for war between Antony and Brutus and their respective constituencies.

When I discussed the themes of the play with the students, I inwardly lamented their lack of exposure to great literature, the touchstone of superior culture. Of course, I understood that Torah study was primary, but one can still learn from great literature and the study of the humanities in general. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a rabbinic scholar with a PhD in English from Harvard, writes that the humanities gives us insight into the human soul: “Great literature presents either a rendering, factual or imaginative, of aspects of the human condition, or a record of the artist’s grappling with the ultimate questions of human existence: man’s relation to himself, to others, to the cosmos, and above all to God.” As such, reading exceptional works of literature can help us navigate our own lives.

There are lines in Julius Caesar that express truths about life in a poetic way that touch the heart as well as the mind. Moreover, they coincide with Jewish sensibilities. Here is one of them: “Cowards die many times before their death, the valiant never taste of death but once.” This passage makes us think about how to confront fear. Another passage: “There is a tide in the affairs of men/ Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune/ Omitted, all the voyage of their life/ Is bound in shallows and miseries/ On such a full sea as we are now afloat/ And we must take the current when it serves/ Or lose our ventures.” The message here is to take advantage of the moment. Evaluate the present and then act boldly to determine your future.

What I found in instructing students of all ages is that life lessons that were embedded in sacred Jewish texts often emerged in the secular texts I was teaching in my English literature classes. My students, many of whom were not reared in observant Jewish homes, connected with the secular source more easily than with the sacred. In teaching, I understood that when it comes to student learning “the readiness is all.”

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The Last Play at Shea (2010), directed by Paul Crowder

last play at sheaIn the 1970s and beyond, Billy Joel was one of my favorite musical artists. At the start of his career, I had an opportunity to hear him in Atlanta, but I missed that chance. I finally saw him in concert at Madison Square Garden in New York in 2017; the show was one of those one-of-a-kind concerts that remains in your memory for a long time after. So it was with great anticipation that I watched The Last Play at the Shea, a 2010 documentary that recorded the 2008 Billy Joel concert that was the last concert at Shea Stadium, a huge sports venue that was scheduled for demolition the following year.

Primarily, Shea was known as the home of the New York Mets, so it was fitting that a native New Yorker like Joel was there to bid the stadium farewell. Interestingly, Paul McCartney of the Beatles makes a guest appearance at the end of the concert, which brings the history of the venue full circle. It was the Beatles who first appeared at Shea in 1965 soon after it opened; so when McCartney joins Joel for the concert finale, it poetically resonates.

The Last Play at the Shea is a blend of historical material, animation, and current footage of this landmark concert, interweaving the history of Shea, the Mets, and Billy Joel. New to me was the leadership of city planner Robert Moses, who was the engine behind the building of Shea and other city projects. In truth, Moses developed a master plan for the construction of the modern suburb in Long Island. He was ahead of his time when he began building the quintessential suburb in Queens. He comprehended that living in the city was cost prohibitive and that people would welcome the chance to work in the city but live in spacious, more affordable residences.

What impressed me were the comments of Joel as he tried to navigate his own career in a tumultuous time. He trusted people whom he regarded as friends and assumed they had his best interests at heart. Regrettably, some of these people swindled him and, at one point, he actually lost all his money. He felt compelled to tour relentlessly in order to rebuild his bank account, and this took a toll on his family life.

In spite of occasional disappointments, Joel maintains an overwhelming sense of gratitude for having the opportunity to perform before thousands who appreciate his music. His transparent sincerity endears him to his fans. He openly confesses: “If it weren’t for the Beatles, I wouldn’t do what I do.” His reuniting with Paul McCartney at the end of the film to sing the classic Beatles’ song “Let It Be” is a perfect ending to this nostalgic view of Shea, the Mets, and Billy Joel.

There is a powerful statement in The Ethics of the Fathers, by which Joel lives. The Sages say: “He who learns from his friend one chapter, one rule, one verse, even one letter, is obliged to treat him with respect.” Joel respects and appreciates the musical contributions of all who have gone before him. The Beatles were his muse, and their music changed him as well as the world. Joel understands that great rock music did not begin with him, but rather was an evolving art that expressed itself in a variety of ways over many years.

What stands out in The Last Play at the Shea is Joel’s honesty and sincere appreciation for those who helped him over the rough spots in his life. He is grateful for life, for the opportunity to do what he loves, and he is grateful to those people who inspired him along the way.

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Paterson (2016), directed by Jim Jarmusch

paterson posterAfter five years of teaching English in Israeli schools, I now have no official job. The school in which I worked cannot hire me because I am beyond retirement age. What do I do now? I learn Torah every day and I exercise every day. Additionally, I write almost every day. Mostly, I write film reviews that appear on the Internet and, when I visit the States, I lecture on “kosher movies,” films that have something meaningful to say about life and the subject of my recent book, Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema. Such writing compels me to think, to remember certain aspects of my life, and to formulate life lessons to impart to the reader. Writing keeps me engaged with the world.

I think of my old friend, Charlie, who owned a grocery store in Atlanta. We would study Jewish texts together and one day I asked him about his grocery business. Did he like it or was he in it only because it was his father’s family business? His response: I am in it because it is pleasant and affords me a livelihood, but my real interest is in Torah study. I may be in the grocery store, but my creative intellectual juices are focused on Torah study, not on my grocery inventory.

Reflection on these two experiences makes me appreciate Paterson more. Paterson is an unusual slice-of-life film about a bus driver named Paterson who drives a bus in Paterson, New Jersey. His regular job is driving a bus, but every day he finds time to write poetry. The subject of his poetry is his wife, Laura, and the varied people he meets in the course of the day, both on the bus and at a local bar where he stops each evening as he walks his dog Marvin. He carefully observes the world around him because he is interested in other people and because the scenes he sees and the people he meets provide poetic inspiration for him.

The film covers a week in his life. Every day starts out the same, but there are minor variations. In a sense, the movie is a visual poem with themes being repeated and visuals that are doubled into what might be considered as internal rhymes in poetry; these visual rhymes underpin the thoughts of Paterson as he drives his bus during the day.

Paterson is extremely sensitive to details and inspired by little things in life. For example, a simple matchbox motivates him to write a love poem. Life for him is filled with poetic possibilities. The film gives the viewer a window into the creative process. As Paterson closely observes the world around him, we hear him articulating his poetry and the poetry simultaneously appears as squiggly writing on the screen.

Although Paterson is a man of routine, at times life intervenes and he does something extraordinary. It may be just writing a poem or it may be as serious as saving someone’s life. Whatever happens, he remains peaceful in the midst of chaos.

Even when Paterson is faced with tragedy, he finds comfort in the contemplation of nature’s beauty and in his private thoughts. Serendipitously, when he is trying to come to terms with a personal loss, he comes upon a Japanese stranger. The stranger is also a poet, who, after a brief but cryptic conversation, presents Paterson with an empty notebook, implicitly suggesting that Paterson’s creative instincts are alive and well and they will enable him to see new poetic possibilities.

Patterson maintains his routine outer life because he lives an exciting inner life of intellectuality and creativity. Interestingly, the rabbis of the Talmud lived their lives in similar fashion. They intellectually rejoiced in Torah study and in matters of the mind and spirit, while possessing mundane jobs enabling them to survive financially. It is recorded that the occupations of the Sages included woodchopper, builder, field laborer, businessman, gravedigger, launderer, shoemaker, tanner, winemaker, blacksmith, and physician.

Patterson reminds us that no matter what our life’s profession, we can still lead intellectually creative lives. All we have to do is live small but dream large.

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The Confirmation (2016), directed by Bob Nelson

confirmationOne of the important lessons I learned over my long career in education is that kids are works in progress. If a student seems like a loser in high school, that does not mean he will always be a loser. I have witnessed many a student who has undergone a metamorphosis academically and spiritually. In high school, they were incorrigible; as adults they were exemplary human beings. I recall one student in particular, Daniel, who gave me grief every day he came to school, yet I controlled my response to his negative behavior and never said anything to him I regretted. Many years later, I received a phone call from Daniel apologizing for his confrontational behavior in high school. He then gave the school a sizable donation.

Watching The Confirmation, a coming of age story about Anthony, an eight-year-old child of divorce, reminded me of the truth of my experience as a teacher and principal. Anthony is a very sweet boy and he is clearly a work in progress. His father, Walt, and mother, Bonnie, are good people, but each has a different vision of what kind of adult Anthony should be. His mother encourages him to go to church. His father does not oppose this, but he tells his son that being a devout Christian is not necessarily a sure bet to get into Heaven. Maybe what the Church tells him is right and maybe it is not. He can listen to all points of view as a child, but when he grows into adulthood, he will have the freedom to decide for himself what path to follow.

The opportunity for the extended discussion between father and son occurs when Bonnie departs for a Christian Couples Retreat with her new husband, Kyle. She leaves Anthony in the care of his father, warning him that if he imbibes alcohol, he will lose visitation rights to Anthony. Walt, in truth, is in recovery for his alcoholic problem, but a series of unfortunate events test him emotionally. First, his car breaks down, then he receives an eviction notice from his landlord, and finally someone steals his carpentry tools, which he needs for an upcoming job.

Spending the day together with his father, who is challenged by so many problems, gives Anthony a window into the complexity of adult life. He begins to realize how complicated decision-making can be when, instead of seeing situations only in black and white, the predominant color of real life is grey.

There are two confession scenes that bookend the story. At the beginning, Anthony, at the request of this mother, goes to the priest to make confession. When the priest asks him to enumerate his sins, Anthony cannot name any. Even when the priest prompts him by asking if he was disrespectful to his parents or had impure thoughts, Anthony, in his innocent state, can recall nothing.

Near the end of the film, one day after spending a day with his father, he returns to the confessional booth with a very different narrative. In truth, Anthony is the same innocent boy, but now he has a better understanding of the complexity of life after seeing what his father’s life is like. For example, Anthony knows that sometimes lying is acceptable if it preserves peace in the home.

The Talmud’s style of discourse is to record different opinions, not merely to recite Jewish law. Having studied it for many years, I am continually amazed at its intellectual rigor and honesty. Rarely is a topic seen solely in black and white terms. One line of reasoning is presented; then another rabbi disagrees and expresses doubt about the conclusions reached by the previous sage. A final opinion is offered, but only after much analysis and give and take argument. Anthony in The Confirmation, after seeing the challenges his father faces and the strange assortment of characters he meets, emerges as a wiser young man who, in all likelihood, will mature into a wise and competent adult able to evaluate life in all its complexity.

Life of Pi (2012), directed by Ang Lee

life of piI enjoy and respect the company of people of faith, as long as they are not functioning as missionaries. Let me give you an example. When I was principal of a Jewish high school, I learned that one of our very fine Jewish general studies instructors was living with someone other than his wife. It was a private matter until I discovered he was hiring our students as babysitters for his paramour. At that point, I asked myself: if I were a parent, would I want my child to be exposed to a situation which was contrary to my own value system by a teacher in a school that shared my value system. Flash forward to another teacher in the school, the Christian mother of five children who was an outstanding science teacher. In her spare time, she wrote poetry about the details of God’s creation and always emphasized the renewal of God’s sustaining powers on each day of a person’s life, a message very much consistent with the ethos of our Jewish day school.

I realized then as I do now that faith transcends religious boundaries. One can be a serious person of faith and that particular faith does not have to match yours. This is the thinking than permeates Pi Patel, the central character in The Life of Pi. Pi, an immigrant from India now living in Montreal, Canada, is approached by a local writer who has heard that Pi has an unusual life story that would make a great book, a story that will make him believe in God.

Pi’s religious faith is eclectic, developing over time. He begins life as a Hindu, then finds meaning in Christianity, and connects to Islam as a teenager. He even has an interest in the Jewish Kabbalah but has not yet embraced it as a personal doctrine. His religious faith is very much part of him as he moves through his unconventional childhood and adolescence.

We learn that his father owns a zoo, affording Pi an opportunity to feel comfortable with animals from early boyhood. In particular, he is fascinated with a tiger whose name is Richard Parker due to a clerical error when the animal was acquired. When his father decides to close the zoo and move to Canada where there are more financial opportunities, the family sets sail on a Japanese freighter. They bring the animals with them to sell them in North America. Tragically, they encounter a fierce storm which capsizes the ship and Pi’s family is killed.

Pi, who was on the deck when the storm erupted, is miraculously saved by being thrown into a lifeboat in which there is an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and the Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. How Pi manages this situation is an arresting survivalist adventure in which Pi’s strength, intelligence, and emotions are tested.

After many days at sea, Pi is rescued and insurance agents visit to get his account of what happened. When his initial story is dismissed as too hard to believe, he offers a second, more plausible account. When at the close of the conversation with the novelist, he asks him which story he believes is true, the writer cites the story with the tiger because it is a better story. Pi cryptically responds: “And so it is with God.”

It is a fitting end to a narrative that defies reality. In a profound sense, Life of Pi is about accepting God in one’s life. The specific religion to which one subscribes is not important. What is relevant is the overall acceptance that things happen with a divine providential hand. Pi wisely tells the writer that “faith is a house with many rooms with doubt on every floor.” Furthermore, “doubt is useful; it keeps faith a living thing. After all, you cannot know the strength of your faith until it is tested.”

When all seems lost, Pi still senses that God is watching over him. Pi observes in retrospect that “even when He seemed indifferent to my suffering, He was watching and when I was beyond all hope of saving, He gave me rest and gave me a sign to continue my journey.” Speaking as a sincere man of faith, he says in his moment of extremity: “God! I give myself to you. I am your vessel.” This is a Jewish sensibility: to try our best and then to acknowledge that the outcome is in God’s hands.

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The Accountant (2016), directed by Gavin O’Connor

accountant posterMy son-in-law is a special education educator focusing on autistic students. He helps kids and their families cope with a disability that manifests itself in different ways depending upon many idiosyncratic factors such as age and family background. Therapies that work in one situation may not work in another.

Although we don’t see the actual therapies that work in The Accountant, a thriller about an autistic man who cooks the books for a number of criminal elements, we do see him as a child manifesting autistic behaviors. At the beginning of the film, we visit Harbor Neuroscience Institute in New Hampshire, a place where parents go for help with their autistic children. Christian Wolff, a young boy, is there with his parents to consult with a psychologist.

The father, a military man, sees the problem one way, his mother another. When the therapist discusses the boy’s sensitivity to bright lights and loud noises, the father suggests exposing his son to more light and noise since this will better prepare him for a world that will not accommodate his son’s needs. The mother prefers to leave him at the institute where her son can learn how to cope with excessive light and noise and where he can be in calm environment, learn how to make eye contact with people, and make friends.

Flash forward to the present day in which Christian has a small accounting practice and derives his primary income from serving as an accountant for some of the world’s worst criminals and terrorists. Ray King, director of financial crimes at the Treasury Department, launches an investigation to discover the identity of this man who enables the bad guys to avoid tax liability and to launder large amounts of cash.

It is fascinating to watch Christian behave as a high-functioning autistic. His home is devoid of luxury and there are no decorations. His behavior is strongly ritualized as we see him prepare dinner. He owns only one fork, one knife, and one spoon and every movement reveals an attention to detail. In a storage facility nearby, he has a trailer in which are valuable paintings, cash, multiple passports, and lots of weapons of all types.

Things change for Christian when he accepts a job for a company presumed to be legitimate. Having heard of Christian’s special accounting expertise, the CEO of Living Robotics, a high tech company specializing in advanced prosthetics, hires him to discover a huge financial discrepancy in the business. When he is on the verge of discovering that 61 million is unaccounted for, he is fired. But Christian cannot just abandon his work. His autistic sensibility drives him to finish the job, and the denouement involves lots of twists and turns before we find out the truth.

Although Christian Wolff is a fictional character, he still represents the general profile of a high-functioning autistic individual. His social interaction skills are weak, he has problems with verbal and non-verbal communication, and is at times obsessive about his routines and interests. But he ultimately makes a valuable contribution to the world, albeit in an unconventional way.

Judaism regards the autistic person, or any disabled person, as created by God in His image. The Sages tell us that only one man was created to send a strong message that all men come from the same mold, yet each person is unique as God is unique. Moreover, the Ethics of the Fathers observes that we should not disdain any person, for every person has his hour. Everyone has something to contribute to the totality of society, even the disabled.

Tammy Ruggles, mother of an autistic child, observes that the Passover Seder is an evening of inclusion. There is a section in it known as “the four sons.” Here four different sons are described, one of which is the son who knows not how to ask. The son is emblematic of the autistic child who needs patience and love from a supportive family in order to function.

The Talmud (Eruvin 54b) shares the vignette of Rav Preida, a great sage, who repeated his lesson to his young student 800 times in order to be sure he understood the material. For that effort, God rewarded him with long life and life in the world to come. The story reminds us we have to be patient and be diligent in our efforts to help the autistic child and any child whose disability prevents them learning and integrating into the larger world.

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Becoming Warren Buffet (2017), directed by Peter W. Kunhardt and Brian Oates

becoming warren buffetAs I have gotten older, I have less and less interest in acquiring things. I remember that as a young man, I had a serious interest in cameras and in audio systems. I no longer possess such interests. I am guided by what the great Jewish Sages have said about how to conduct one’s life; namely, that the only thing we take with us to the after-life is our good deeds; and so I spend my time learning Torah, trying to make the world a better place through my writing both on the Internet and in books, and doing acts of kindness. This mindset made me very receptive to the inspiring documentary about Warren Buffet entitled Becoming Warren Buffet.

Warren Buffett is a billionaire, yet he does not live like one. He resides in a modest residence in Omaha where he was born and drives to work every day to his company Berkshire Hathaway, the fifth largest public company in the world. He is now 86 years old and still retains the energy and curiosity of a much younger man.

His ambition to become a millionaire began when he was a teenager. He sold papers and started to sell stocks not long after. He was very good at calculations and developed two important rules as he accumulated wealth: (1) never lose money and (2) never forget rule number 1.

Buffet was not guided by passing investment fads. He always looked for value. Ultimately, value will be recognized even if a stock at present seems not worth much. For that reason, he began his career searching for undervalued stocks that might one day be more valuable.

Most noteworthy is the fact that throughout his career he conducted himself with a deep sense of morality. If there ever were a conflict between monetary profit and retaining one’s good name, he chose to protect his good name and the integrity of his company. Here are three of his most famous quotes: (1) “We can afford to lose money – even a lot of money.  But we can’t afford to lose reputation – even a shred of reputation. We must continue to measure every act against not only what is legal but also what we would be happy to have written about on the front page of a national newspaper in an article written by an unfriendly but intelligent reporter.” (2) “As a corollary, let me know promptly if there’s any significant bad news.  I can handle bad news but I don’t like to deal with it after it has festered for a while.  A reluctance to face up immediately to bad news is what turned a problem at Salomon from one that could have easily been disposed of into one that almost caused the demise of a firm with 8,000 employees.” (3) “Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding. Lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.’”

As the film describes his boyhood and the powerful influence of his father among many others who shaped his future, we see how Buffet arrives at a point in life when all he wants to do is leave a legacy of good things for the future. He wants to make the world a better place, and allies himself with the foundation of Bill and Melinda Gates to make his largest ever charitable gift of nearly 2.8 billion dollars.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, tells us there are several ways to achieve spiritual greatness, but one way supersedes all others: “Rabbi Shimon used to say: There are three crowns–the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of sovereignty–but the crown of a good name surmounts them all.” The crown of Torah represents Jewish learning as a way to become holy. The crown of priesthood represents getting close to holiness through Temple service and prayer. The crown of sovereignty represents occupying public office, which enables you to improve the plight of your subjects. However, the crowning achievement is maintaining a good name, which represents being able navigate life in a way that brings credit to you and to God. Becoming Warren Buffet is a testament to the wisdom and satisfaction of leading a life that inspires and benefits the world around you.

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