Pawn Sacrifice (2014), directed by Edward Zwick

pawn-sacrifice-posterI once employed a teacher who wanted very much to succeed in the classroom. The model lesson that he gave before being hired was superb and I thought he would be a great asset to the school.

Things went well in the first year of his employment, but then problems emerged. He did not take criticism well and blamed others for his own shortcomings. Either the students were not cooperative or the parents were conspiring against him, deliberately sabotaging his teaching efforts. Eventually I had to release him because of his constant complaining, which bordered on paranoia. I felt that there was a danger that he might infect the kids with his overwhelming negativity and inability to respond to criticism constructively.

This notion that talented people are sometimes sabotaged in life because of their own self-induced psychological issues underpins the sad narrative of Bobby Fischer, the chess genius. Fischer vanquished Russian Boris Spassky in the chess match of the century, yet suffered serious mental issues that, at the end of his life, left him a vagrant and alone, espousing conspiracy theories to anyone who would listen.

The film, which begins with Bobby as a child, depicts him being exposed to conspiracy theories by his mother, a Russian immigrant, who fears a possible social revolution in the United States, in which ordinary citizens are spied upon. A loner as a young boy, Bobby learns to play chess on his own, and it soon becomes his obsession. His mentor, a local chessmaster, creates opportunities that lead Bobby to the arena of professional chess championships.

After he becomes the youngest grand master ever, Bobby senses that the Russians are out to get him and responds with vitriolic outbursts that surprise even his fans. He seems unhinged mentally when he decides to leave the professional world of chess because of suspicions that the Russians are trying to isolate him and make it impossible for him to win.

Sensing that it is important for an American to win the World Chess Championship in the era of the Cold War, an American lawyer volunteers his services to Fischer to enable him to modify the tournament rules so that he will have a fair chance to win future competitions. Bobby then turns to William Lombardy, a former World Junior Chess Champion, to be his second, a man who will encourage Bobby to mitigate his excessive demands and return to winning tournaments. Bobby then re-enters the world of professional chess.

Although Bobby projects confidence and invincibility, we sense insecurity and mental psychosis because of the pressure to win every match. His first match with Russian Boris Spassky, the reigning World Chess Champion, ends in defeat; but Bobby and Spassky eventually meet again in Reykjavik, Iceland, for a historic match to determine who, indeed, is the world’s greatest chess player. It is a sporting event like no other and it captures the excitement of chess fans all over the world.

Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish thinker, promotes the golden path in life, avoiding extremes in lifestyle and character traits. Moreover, the Sages of the Talmud always espouse living a live of balance. They especially discouraged a life motivated by jealousy and a life in which the desire for honor and recognition dominates.

Bobby Fischer does not lead a balanced life. He is a troubled child who grows up to be a troubled adult. Focused on chess alone, he turns inward and divorces himself from the real world. His inability to see things from the perspective of the other does not allow him to appreciate the contributions of those around him. All he sees are people who want to take advantage of his celebrity. Such a narrow, extreme view of life leads to paranoia and emotional instability.

Bobby Fischer’s narrative in Pawn Sacrifice is a cautionary tale of what can happen when you lead a life without balance, when you are concerned only with your own welfare and no one else’s.

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Black or White (2015), directed by Mike Binder

black-or-whiteAs a youngster, I lived in a neighborhood of low income housing in Mt. Vernon, New York, predominantly occupied by black families. In my elementary and junior high schools, there was a sizeable population of black students, and I was friendly with some of them. There was Dickie Fisher, Joyce Jones, Wendell Tyree, Linwood Lee, and Quentin Pair. Their names fascinated me and gave expression to the unique personalities of each one of them.

I was not especially close with any black student, but we were cordial with one another. My parents never made any disparaging remarks about people of color so I did not have any negative baggage when I interacted with these students.

In ninth grade, however, my experience was different. I attended a boarding school in New York City located at the edge of Harlem at the corner of Riverside Drive and 145th Street. Late one night after attending a jazz concert with a friend, three black students accosted us as we walked back to school. One was on roller skates and he wanted our money or else he would beat us up. He waved his fist in my face and on his hand was a big ring, which he threatened would land on my face.

My friend Max suddenly kicked the boy and yelled out “Herbie, run,” and that is exactly what I did. I ran faster than I ever had before in my life and did not stop until we were several blocks away and felt safe. I did not change my view of blacks because of this traumatic incident, but the event gave me another perspective on black-white relations.

 Black or White is about black and white relations, but from a totally unfamiliar perspective. It is the story of a grandfather, Elliot Anderson, who is suddenly left to care for his beloved multi-racial granddaughter, 7-year old Eloise, after his wife dies in a car crash. The granddaughter’s father is black; the mother, Elliot’s deceased daughter, is white.

As long as Elliot’s wife was living, Eloise’s black grandmother, Rowena, was okay with Eloise living with her white grandparents. Now that Elliot is a widower and Eloise no longer has a motherly presence at home, Rowena wants Eloise to live with her, especially since Elliot has a serious drinking problem.

Elliot does not want to relinquish custody because he knows Rowena has another agenda: she wants Eloise to have a relationship with her drug-addicted father, Reggie, her son. Elliot holds Reggie responsible for the death of his daughter, who became pregnant by Reggie, her 23-year old boyfriend, and died in childbirth at age 17.

The custody battle between Rowena and Elliot is depicted in a nuanced way. Both sides love Eloise and want the best for Eloise, but they define the “best” in different ways. The issues of race and prejudice are the subtext of the film, but they do not figure into the ultimate outcome of the case. What matters is who the principals are and what is in Eloise’s best interest, not the color of anyone’s skin.

Jewish sources in the Bible and Talmud do not say much about the relationship between blacks and whites in society, but there is much said about stereotyping or to use the more contemporary term “profiling.” For example, the Talmud considers the consequences of stereotyping not based on skin color but based on one’s past behavior.

There is an unusual story in the Talmud, which relates obliquely to profiling. Rabbi Elazar, the son of the great sage, Rabbi Shimon, met a man whose job it was to catch thieves. He asked him how he was able to identify the criminal. He told him the following: “Go into an inn in the late morning. If you see a person nodding off with a cup of wine in his hands, ask after him. If he is a Torah scholar, he is nodding off because he got up early to learn. If he is a workman, it’s because he rose early to work. If he works at night, he was working late. Otherwise, he is a thief, and arrest him.” The commentators point out that in general we do not rely on such circumstantial evidence, but in times of great lawlessness, we can sometimes resort to this kind of profiling.

Black or White raises the issue of black-white relations and implicitly suggests that profiling may have some legitimacy. After all, Reggie, Eloise’s father, is a convicted felon and still involved with drugs. It is reasonable to assume that contact with him may not be in Eloise’s best interest even though he is her father.

In the final analysis, however, profiling is not enough to make a definitive judgment about a person. For that one needs an appreciation of the whole man, not just one snapshot in time.

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The Damned United (2009), directed by Tom Hooper

damned-unitedIn retrospect, I have had a wonderful career in Jewish education, the highlight of which was in Atlanta from 1970 through 1998. The school I led was Yeshiva High School of Atlanta and its enrollment grew from 36 to approximately 200 during my long and occasionally turbulent tenure.

I never for one moment thought that the success of the school was due to my efforts alone. That would be both arrogant and untrue. It succeeded because of many people: teachers, office staff, lay leaders, all of whom left an indelible mark on the school’s history.

For me, in particular, success resulted because of an extraordinary teaching staff that cared deeply for the students, that was extremely skilled, and that was dedicated to the welfare of the school and its students. Success was always measured by how well the students did academically and spiritually, not by increasing enrollment numbers alone. For the staff, the more important question was whether the students were touched and influenced by the ethos of the institution?

How to measure success in the arena of competitive sports is the subject of The Damned United, an unflinching look at the coaching tactics of Brian Clough, manager of an English soccer team. Although a professional sports team is different from a school, there are similarities. In both arenas, it is never one man that brings success; rather it is one man working with others that can change outcomes in an organization.

Brian Clough, manager of the lowly Second Division Derby soccer team aspires to coach a First Division team. When the chance comes to manage the highly successful Leeds United team, he jumps at the opportunity, leaving his long time assistant Peter Taylor behind.

Things, however, do not work out well for Brian in his new job. He immediately sabotages his relationship with his new players by berating them for their unsportsmanlike behavior in the past. Clough does this because of a long-standing antipathy for Leed’s former manager Don Revie, who ignored Clough when he came to Darby in 1967 to play Clough’s team. Clough, insulted by Revie’s slight of him, viewed the disrespect as intentional. This incident haunts him and often motivates his actions in the present.

Clough continues to alienate his players by constantly criticizing them and the team loses game after game until management fires him. After that sobering moment, Clough realizes his mistakes and seeks reconciliation with his former partner and best friend Peter Taylor. When the two friends finally hug and renew the loving ties that bound them when they first started working together, the relationship is restored.

The reconciliation comes about when Clough realizes that whatever success he has had is not due to his efforts alone, but to the efforts of Peter Taylor as well. Clough finally moves from arrogance to humility, ushering in a period of professional success where they again begin working with inexperienced players and enable them to win championships that far exceed past achievements.

Jewish tradition has much to say about arrogance and humility, polar opposites of human character. While self-confidence and self-esteem are praised, arrogance is viewed as a serious character flaw because the arrogant person assumes he knows it all. He does not allow room for the contribution of others, and so has a distorted view of reality. He is is so full of himself, there is no space either for God or other men to enter.

In contrast is the trait of humility, which presumes that man is imperfect, that he both fails and succeeds in life, and that God is ultimately in charge of the results of one’s actions. As the Sages caution in the Ethics of the Father, “be very, very humble.” The repetition of the word “very” suggests that one has to be overly concerned about succumbing to the aphrodisiac of arrogance.

Brian Clough’s journey from arrogance to humility in The Damned United reminds us that success in life in most cases requires one to be humble and acknowledge the contribution of others. It is only through the “one of us” that true success is achieved.

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Mr. Holmes (2015), directed by Bill Condon

mr-holmes-posterAs a child, I often read Classic Comics, which presented classic novels in cartoons. I remember reading one of the Sherlock Holmes novels in this format and being fascinated by Holmes’s ability to focus on the details of a case and ignoring extraneous details.

One particular interchange between him and his friend Watson surprised me and I still recall it many years later. The conversation revealed that Holmes did not know that the earth revolved around the sun. Although it was a common fact known to everybody in his day and age, for Holmes the fact was irrelevant. I thought it was cool that such a brilliant detective could be so ignorant about general knowledge, and only remember information that was germane to the case he was working on, nothing else.

Mr. Holmes, a fascinating look at Sherlock Holmes during his senior years, hinges on Holmes’ ability to remember things, not an easy task for him at 93 years old. The story begins in 1947 when Holmes is living in a Sussex farmhouse with his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, and her son, Roger with whom he forms a fatherly friendship. Roger is both inquisitive and intelligent and Holmes senses in him a kindred spirit.

The film opens as Holmes returns from a trip to Japan. He has difficulty remembering the details of the case he went there to solve. Gradually, however, through his discussions with Roger who stimulates his thinking, Holmes begins to recalls details of the case in Japan as well as a case that occurred thirty years earlier that involved a woman who committed suicide.

In the present, Holmes’ health deteriorates and Mrs. Munro finds taking care of him more onerous. She also does not like the intense friendship that her son, Roger, has developed for him, a friendship that alienates Roger from her, nurturing in him an independent and at times condescending spirit. Tension develops between mother and son until a crisis changes things for Holmes, Mrs. Munro, and her son.

The cultivation of memory, which has been a focus of Holmes’ entire professional life, is important in Jewish law and tradition. It is critical in the way we observe our holy days, which require us not only to remember the past but to relive it. For example, we do not just remember the Exodus from Egypt, but we eat the bread of affliction, the matzah, and the bitter herbs. We also experience the transition to freedom by drinking four cups of wine and reclining on cushions at certain points in the Passover seder, the archetypal meal of the holiday.

Moreover, on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, a commemoration of the destruction of the First and Second Temples, we do not just recall the catastrophe. On that day, we fast and sit on low stools, and lament as if the tragedy were only yesterday. On the festival of Tabernacles, which commemorates the journey in the wilderness from Egypt to the Promised Land, we move into fragile huts covered with greenery to re-experience a time when we felt totally dependent on God’s kindness and protection.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, states that we should make an effort to retain what we have learned in the past. We are required not to forget, to keep our memories alive and relevant to the present.

Mr. Holmes depicts a man trying to retain his memory, for the past animates his present. He desires to remember the old cases, many of which taught him valuable life lessons. He is not just remembering because he wants to preserve information; he is remembering because through memory he can recreate his past life and transmit some of the wisdom he has gleaned to future generations. For him and for all men, memory links the generations.

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La La Land (2016), directed by Damien Chazelle

la-la-land-posterI live life as it unfolds in the present moment. I do not recall saying to myself “What if I had done this rather than that.” Yet I have friends who continually ask themselves “what would my life be like if I had made this decision rather than that decision.” The reality is that we cannot turn back the clock and decisions we made years ago cannot be changed. Those decisions affect our lives many years later.

This dilemma is the subtext of La La Land, a one-of-a-kind musical in which the protagonists arrive at a moment when the past is all too present in their minds, but it is too late to make midcourse corrections.

The story takes place in Los Angeles and describes the efforts of two talented people to succeed in the entertainment industry. Mia is an actress working in a coffee shop while she goes to endless auditions looking for a part in a movie or play. Rejections for her are both routine and emotionally painful. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who wants to open his own jazz club. For him, jazz is exciting, unpredictable, and innovative. He revels in the great jazz musicians of the past and wants to continue their legacy of musical innovation. The problem, however, is that he has no money and barely survives financially.

Mia and Sebastian meet serendipitously over several months. They bicker, make jokes, and slowly begin developing a serious rapport with one another. As love blossoms, they share their professional aspirations with each other. Each is the other’s muse, and they inspire one another to fulfill their dreams. When Sebastian hears how demeaning the auditions are, he suggests that she write her own material and present herself as a writer as well as performer. Mia encourages him to open his own jazz venue.

What happens next is the stuff of fantasy. They watch the classic film, Rebel Without a Cause, with its pivotal scene at the Griffith Observatory, and then actually visit the site and dance among the stars at the planetarium.

Recognizing their strong affection for one another, they share their goals again, measuring how far they have come to actualizing them. Mia is in the midst of writing a one-woman show and Sebastian has been offered a job with a touring band that is led by his old friend, Keith. The job will provide him with financial stability. They both realize that the pursuit of their individual careers may not permit their love to continue.

Judaism believes that it is important to set goals, to have dreams. In fact, once a year on Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, Jewish law requires us to take inventory of our lives. What did we accomplish in the past year? How can I do better in the year ahead? What are my goals for the coming year? Azriel Hirsch Friedman, a Torah teacher and motivational lecturer in Jerusalem, writes: “Failure is the building block of success. Even with a promise of success from God, Moses failed miserably when he first tried to take the Jews from Egypt. To get out of the place you are stuck, you will unquestionably fail. Don’t worry. It’s often just God’s way of testing how much you believe in your own dreams, helping you to clarify, re-evaluate and perfect them. We are judged only on our effort and never on our success. Jewish success is to be able to know for yourself.”

Mia and Sebastian ultimately come to know themselves as they work to define their talents and strengths. That does not mean that the outcome will always be satisfying. La La Land reminds us that outcomes are not in our hands. Nonetheless, we still have to try our best as we navigate the challenges we face in our own lives.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989), directed by Bruce Beresford

driving-miss-daisyI remember a weird story from my youth. I attended public school and in the afternoon went to a synagogue Hebrew school where I learned how to read Hebrew and lead the services. Although I was a good student, I occasionally was mischievous. One cold, snowy day, I decided to play a prank on the teacher and placed a snowball on his chair expecting him to get up right way when he discovered the moisture on his seat.

To my surprise, he said nothing. However, on the next day he called into the school office a student whom he suspected of causing the prank. The student, of course, denied it, and the incident passed without any student being punished. Retrospectively, I realized it was an example of the presumption of innocence being operative here. I was known to be a good student; the other pupil was known to be a troublemaker, and so he was called into the office and I was not.

The notion of the presumption of innocence is visible in a crucial scene in Driving Miss Daisy, the story of Daisy Werthan, a 72-year-old Jewish widow who needs the help of a driver to chauffer her to various citywide functions and activities. Although reluctant to hire a driver, her son Boolie insists that she be driven rather than drive herself. He fears that his mother may hurt herself and hurt others with her diminished driving skills.

The driver he hires is Hoke Coleburn, a 60 year-old black man. At first their relationship is rocky when she refuses his overtures to help her. In time, however, they become fast friends when one incident changes their relationship. On one winter morning, Daisy discovers a can of salmon missing from the pantry. She immediately suspects Hoke of pilfering it. When Hoke returns to her home, he openly informs her that he took a can of salmon for dinner the previous night because the leftover food was inedible. Daisy is ashamed of herself and from that point on sees Hoke as a man to be trusted.

The notion of judging someone favorably and giving people the benefit of the doubt is a Jewish sensibility. The Talmudic Sages tell us that one who favorably judges others will be judged positively by God. It is good to give someone the benefit of the doubt. This approach to human relationships is based on a legal concept in Jewish law known as a chezkat kashrut, the assumption that all people are basically good and do not want to take advantage of you.

This Hebraic notion finds expression in American law as well, and is referred to as the presumption of innocence. A person is presumed to be innocent of wrongdoing, and it is the prosecution’s task to prove that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This presumed status of honesty in relating to other people is what lubricates the fabric of society, enabling people to trust others in both social and financial matters.

In Driving Miss Daisy, Hoke is a role model of someone who thinks the best of others, even when the other at times acts badly. He holds no grudges and always sees the best in Daisy in spite of her occasional rebuke of him.

Daisy has social baggage. Living in the South for many years, she innocently has picked up certain social prejudices regarding blacks, but they do not prevent her from seeing things anew. Daisy is open-minded and is willing to see things from the perspective of another, enabling her to form a lasting friendship with her driver, Hoke. It is a friendship that transcends race and class, and suggests that we are all part of one grand human family.

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Infinitely Polar Bear (2014), directed by Maya Forbes

infinitely-polar-bear-posterAs a child with a Downs Syndrome sister, I recall in the 1950s families with Downs Syndrome children often kept their kids in the proverbial closet. My mother and father thought differently. They felt Carol, their daughter, needed to be visible in the community and that the community should provide the resources for such kids to develop their potential to the fullest extent possible. That’s why my mother fought for the establishment for a school in Westchester County for the mentally retarded and, when Carol was older, for the establishment of a retarded children’s workshop in White Plains so that Carol could feel and be productive in her mature years.

Not all parents felt the same way. Some wanted to hide the disability, for they were uncomfortable saying they had a retarded child. I know of one specific instance where the parents decided not to take the child home from the hospital, consigning the baby to life in an institution.

Infinitely Polar Bear does not deal with mental retardation, but rather with a manic-depressive father and the family’s attempt to live a normal life, which is challenged every day by the erratic and outlandish behavior of the father.

It is Boston in the late 1970s. Cameron Stuart suffers from manic depression, sometimes referred to as bipolar disorder. The film begins with him being fired from his job and going into rehabilitation in a hospital setting. To manage the situation financially, his wife Maggie and their two young girls move into a small apartment while she does her best to support the family.

As Cameron’s mental health stabilizes, Maggie applies to graduate school for an M.B.A. so she can earn more money and send her girls to private school. Fortuitously, Columbia University grants her a scholarship. To attend, she asks Cameron to take care of their kids for 18 months, the time she needs to complete the degree, after which they can reunite as a family. Cameron agrees, but has his doubts about whether he can fulfill the mission.

Living with their father is a constant source of embarrassment for the girls. They love him dearly, but Cameron’s bizarre behavior tests them. He occasionally abandons them during the night, is overly friendly with neighbors whom he hardly knows, and begins many home improvement projects that are never finished, leaving the house in disarray. To complicate matters, Cameron does not take the meds needed to keep him calm, and the home life of the family is shattered with frequent emotional outbursts.

Infinitely Polar Bear raises the question of how much a child should tolerate the abusive behavior of a parent. The Talmud in the Tractate of Kiddushin (31a) is instructive. A story is recounted in which a prominent man wearing expensive garments was seated among Roman officials. His mother forced her way into the gathering and tore his garment, hit him on the head, and spat in front of him. In spite of this, he did not embarrass her. Another sage states that if the mother threw his wallet into the sea, the child should remain passive and not embarrass his parent.

Implicit in this Talmudic narrative is the notion that honoring parents does not depend on what parents did for you or whether they were good to you. Rather the commandment to honor parents is simply because they gave you life. As a result, you need to be nice to them even if they are not nice to you.

Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin, a clinical psychologist, considers the extent to which a child should honor a parent who is abusive. He makes a distinction between a parent who is mentally competent and one who is deranged. In the former, there is more latitude for the child to respond to abuse; in the latter case, there is less. When a parent, for example, has bipolar disorder or Alzheimer’s, the child is faced with a great challenge to keep his composure in the face of behavior that might otherwise be condemned.

Infinitely Polar Bear reminds us of the challenge of being respectful to parents even when they do not behave as parents. It also indicates that an abiding love for parents can often overcome the worst of parental provocations.

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