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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Little Princess (1995), directed by Alfonso Cuaron

little princess posterIn the 1960s, when I was an undergraduate student at Yeshiva University, one of my good friends told me about a student group that traveled once a week to the home of Rabbi Avigdor Miller, a celebrated Torah scholar and ethicist. Once there, the revered rabbi would speak for about ten to fifteen minutes about a particular character trait and then give the students an assignment that would help us integrate that character trait into our daily lives.

I vividly remember one assignment. After hearing a talk on the maxim in Ethics of the Fathers about greeting people with a smile, he told us that our assignment was to smile at everyone we met, even if we did not feel like smiling, even when we felt that our smile was insincere and was only a pretense. He told us that, regardless of our inner thoughts, our smile would evoke a smile in everyone we meet.

Smiling is contagious, and so we experimented the following week, and what he said was true. Everyone to whom we smiled responded to us with a smile. It reminded me that we can create positive energy and optimism just by having a pleasant countenance. We can make the world a happier place if we share a smile with another human being.

This actually happens in A Little Princess, the captivating story of Sara Crewe, a little girl whose mother has died and is placed in a girls’ boarding school in New York when her father, a wealthy aristocrat, volunteers to fight for the British in World War I. The head of the school is Miss Minchin, a harsh, cold-hearted woman who puts on a façade of warmth and caring to entice parents to enroll at her school. Once enrolled, the girls encounter a boring, rigid, and stifling educational experience.

During the beginning of the semester, Sara receives notification that her father has died in battle. When Miss Minchin realizes that she will no longer receive tuition, she makes Sara a scullery maid in the school. In truth, Sara’s father has not died, and the dead body was misidentified. In time, he will find his way back to Sara, but in the interim Sara is challenged to survive in an environment devoid of love and connection.

What enables Sara to handle the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” is her essential kindly nature, her lively imagination, and her contagious smile. Most of the girls gravitate to her because of her happy demeanor, which gives them some respite from the harsh milieu of school. Her simple and genuine smile lifts the girls’ spirits as they endure their dull and spiritless education.

Before he left for war, Captain Crewe, Sara’s father, left her with a parting comment that remained with her and inspired her as she came to terms with the reality of being a maid in the school where she once was a pupil. He told her that she was a princess, and that made her feel special even if the people around her did not treat her as a princess. Sara possessed a healthy self-esteem and that made all the difference. When the girls at the school were emotionally spent from the bad-tempered words of Miss Minchin, Sara reminded them that they all were princesses, and Miss Minchin’s acerbic temperament could not change that.

A Little Princess reminds all of us that a positive attitude and a smile can help us navigate life successfully. In the midst of trials, it is important to focus on positive outcomes and not allow temporary adversity to dampen our spirits. Sara Crewe’s smile beckons us to look for the good in whatever life brings us.

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The Dancer Upstairs (2002), directed by John Malkovich

the dancer upstairs posterTerrorism is very much a part of the world’s landscape at this point in history. Terrorist attacks occur not only in Israel, but in the United States, France, and Belgium among other countries. The world is a scary place, and many are trying to figure out what is the intellectual and emotional appeal of this aberrant behavior, which destabilizes the world. The Dancer Upstairs is a quiet, thoughtful, and tense film that gives us some understanding of the philosophical and practical motives that drive terrorists in the modern world.

Detective Augustin Rejas searches for a mysterious President Ezekiel, who is behind a series of terrorist acts committed by the have-nots against the corrupt government of an unnamed Latin America government. Ezekiel’s methods are brutal and many innocents die. Although no manifesto for revolution is written, it is clear that Ezekiel believes that anarchy will force the creation of a new government free of corruption and be more responsive to the needs of the people.

Rejas himself was a victim of the Marxist government that confiscated his father’s coffee farm, but he chose to find another career instead of challenging the regime. Now his task as a police officer is to find the terrorist Ezekiel and bring him to justice. This takes years of painstaking police work as his team slowly unravels the mystery of Ezekiel and his extremist followers, which include highly impressionable children whom he enlists as surrogate assassins for his cause.

Random executions, some committed by children and some by adults, perpetrated over several years rattle the state and create fear in the citizens, and this is exactly what Ezekiel wants to do. To combat the wave of terror that grows in intensity over time, the government resorts to the army to keep order; but this only drives the people away from the government, which they already see as corrupt.

As Rejas builds his case, we see that Ezekiel is a terrorist with mixed motivations. He stages parties for his supporters and takes sexual advantage of willing acolytes. For him, revolution is not just political; it is a cover for his base instincts as well. Regrettably his followers do not see his dark side, only his political charisma.

Ezekiel does not publicly reveal what drives him to wreak havoc on the nation’s institutions and innocent bystanders. In clandestine settings, he uses words to provoke the emotions of the downtrodden; not to appeal to their reason. His audience primarily consists of Marxist intellectuals, impressionable young women, and local Indians who are convinced that violence is necessary in order to liberate their country from a corrupt military regime.

In stark contrast to the terrorist leader Ezekiel is the Jewish notion of a prophet-leader. Here, the prophet-leader must be virtuous. Maimonides, the great medieval sage, states that the prophet-leader must also be very wise and never be overcome by natural desires. He must see the big picture and evaluate situations from the aspect of eternity, for God is at the center of his emotional and moral universe.

The Dancer Upstairs gives us an insight into the multitude of motives in the mind of a terrorist who commits evil not only for ideological reasons, but also to gain personal advantages. Additionally, it unsettles us by its portrayal of the ease with which an evil man can convert the naive into willing accomplices to his morally abhorrent behaviors.

Detective Rejas, through patient analysis, uncovers the contradictions that exist in the psyche of a vicious madman who wants to destabilize society through anarchic means. The film, a cautionary lesson to free men who want to improve society, reminds us that we need to evaluate the methods of any change agent and consider the cost in human suffering that may be required to bring about one’s social goals.

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The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), directed by Woody Allen

purple rose of cairoFrom my early childhood, I was an avid moviegoer. My mother took me regularly; and when I grew older, I continued to go frequently. Movies captivated me because they transported me to faraway places and to exciting adventures. I lived in a small town and movies were my ticket to Neverland. Although I enjoyed movies, I generally did not think of them as accurate descriptions of the real world. They were fantasies, pleasing entertainments, and that was it.

As an adult, I occasionally met people who were addicted to movies. For example, one of my former high school students had trouble separating fantasy from reality. He always assumed there would be the proverbial Hollywood ending to his scholastic endeavors no matter how little he prepared for class. Unfortunately for him, he never achieved his academic potential and remained a mediocre student throughout his high school and college careers. Movies distracted him, preventing him from doing the real work that is required for success in life.

In The Purple Rose of Cairo, there is a different take on moviegoing. Cecelia, a struggling waitress during the depression years of the 1930s, goes to the movies weekly to escape her abusive and unappreciative husband and finds cathartic release by watching what transpires on the screen. She is totally mesmerized by the world of celluloid, which enables her to survive her drab everyday life. But she still understands that what is on the screen is fiction, not real life.

Things take a confusing turn when Tom Baxter, a character in The Purple Rose of Cairo, a movie within a movie, steps out of the screen and convinces Cecelia to run off with him. He openly tells her: “I don’t get hurt or bleed, hair doesn’t muss; it’s one of the advantages of being imaginary.”

The two fall in love, but Cecelia is still skeptical. After all, Tom, by stepping out of the film, has left the other characters stranded. The movie cannot continue when all the players are not there. The action comes to an abrupt halt while the producer tries to find a solution before other characters walk out of the film as well and cause financial losses to the studio.

The producer enlists the real-life actor, Gil Shepherd, to help him convince the fictional Tom Baxter to return to the film. In the process, he meets Cecilia who enchants him. He also wants to marry her and Celia has to choose between the real Tom Baxter (Gil Shepherd), and his fictionalized counterpart. For a while, she is confused as she tells her friend: “I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything.”

The ability to separate fact from fiction is the mark of a mature sensibility. Children often confuse the two; but adults, generally speaking, can distinguish between them. Rachel Gordon in an insightful article on the power of the imagination in the world of Hollywood observes that here “ the fine edge between imagination and reality becomes hazy and indistinct. Indeed, this very fuzziness between real life and their fantasy worlds is the reason why, behind the scenes, many of Hollywood’s greatest stars suffer from the world’s most appalling psychological plagues.“ It is not good when one has difficulty separating fact from fiction, reality from fantasy, dreams from what happens in real life.

The classic example in Jewish tradition of sensibly combining imagination with reality is the image of Jacob’s ladder. It points heavenward suggesting infinite possibilities, but the ladder is firmly planted on the ground. It is good to dream. It can motivate one to accomplish great things. Dreaming can also help a person get through a dismal present reality.

In the final analysis, one lives in the real world and that is where we must endure the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Cecelia in The Purple Rose of Cairo ultimately understands the lesson of Jacob’s ladder and is able to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Moreover, she intuits that fantasy can help us cope with a painful present.

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Mission: Impossible III (2006), directed by J.J. Abrams

mission impossible IIII began my doctoral studies in English in Atlanta in 1972. It was intended to be a 5-year program, but it took much longer because I was busy with earning a living and rearing a young family. I finally received my PhD in 1984, twelve years after I started.

At one point, the school wanted me to leave the program because of my slow progress; but my advisor, Dr. William Sessions, a Milton scholar, intervened and asked them to allow me to continue. He knew I was a serious and capable student and that only the pressures of earning a living and raising a family were preventing me from moving through the program quickly. It was Dr. Sessions who found a way to remove the interference that was blocking my way to academic success. He was a person who never allowed me to give up.

Never giving up is precisely what Ethan Hunt does in the tense thriller Mission Impossible III. Ethan is a retired secret service operative working for IMF, a government organization tasked with high priority missions that are critical to national security. At his engagement party, he is summoned by Operations Director Musgrave to rescue Agent Lindsey Ferris, Ethan’s special forces protégé, who has been captured in Germany by Owen Davian, a black market arms dealer. The rescue is successful, but Lindsey dies when an explosive planted in her head detonates.

Ethan then decides to go directly after Davian, who is scheduled to appear in Vatican City where a deal involving the transfer of an unknown “rabbit’s foot” is in progress. In an elaborate ruse, Ethan and his team capture Davian. When Davian tells Ethan that he will brutally slay Ethan’s wife Julia when he has the opportunity, Ethan opens a bay on the plane and almost throws him out.

Regrettably for Ethan, Davian escapes en route to prison and now his threat becomes real. Fearing for his wife Julia, Ethan tries to protect her from Davian’s men, but he arrives too late to prevent her kidnapping.

Davian contacts Ethan and tells him to retrieve the “rabbit’s foot” in 48 hours or he will kill his wife. Ethan travels to Shanghai to locate and steal the rabbit’s foot from its current owner. At each step of the way, Ethan encounters what seem to be insurmountable obstacles, yet he is never deterred. From the first challenge to capture Davian in Vatican City, which has extremely heavy security systems in place, to the final confrontation with him in Shanghai, Ethan always finds a way to approach a problem or imminent threat and succeed. He never gives up. He lives in a treacherous reality, but never succumbs to pessimism.

The history of the Jews in many ways is a history of never giving up in the face of insurmountable challenges. The Chanukah holiday commemorates a festival when a superior military force wanted to defeat the Jews; but the Maccabees, inspired by their faith in God, led the Jews to military triumph. The key to their success was never giving up. The holiday of Purim, featuring the heroics of Ether and Mordechai, also celebrates a similar victory where the few triumph over the many.

Perhaps the most vivid example of not giving up and prevailing against impossible odds is the action of Nachshon, the son of Aminadav, who jumped into the Red Sea before it split, believing that somehow he would survive. The message: miracles can happen but only after we do our part to implement a solution. Ultimately, the outcome is in God’s hands.

To transform the unthinkable dream into a reality, we need a combination of confident preparation for the challenge we face and an overriding belief that God will help us achieve our goals. David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, expressed this idea poetically when he said: “in Israel in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”

Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible III lives by that credo. He does not give up. Obstacles do not limit him because he knows that as long as there is life, there is the possibility of achieving the seemingly impossible.

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City of Angels (1998), directed by Brad Silberling

city of angels posterThe Ethics of the Fathers tells us that one hour repenting and doing good deeds in this world is better than life in the world-to-come. Why? The Sages explain: we can only exercise our free will while we are alive. Therefore, we can choose to do good deeds only when we are alive. Doing good deeds is our mission on earth, so everything we do or don’t do influences our eternal destiny. That is why life in this world is so precious.

Once our life is over, we no longer have free will and our destiny in the world-to-come is fixed. This is the crux of Seth’s dilemma in City of Angels, a thought-provoking love story about an angel who wants to exercise free will in order to become human and share in the joys and pains of human life.

Seth is an angel whose job it is to observe mankind and be with them as they move from this world to the next. In some cases, he will protect them from harm; in others he will chaperone them to the world-to-come.

While observing a man about to die from cardiac surgery, Seth’s attention is captured by Dr. Maggie Rice, a surgeon, who valiantly tries to save the man’s life and is remorseful when her efforts do not succeed. Seth is genuinely touched by the beauty of her heart and soul, so much so that he wants her to physically see him.

Contrary to conventional angel protocol, he decides to become visible to her in some rudimentary way so that they can develop a friendship. In the physical presence of Seth, Maggie begins to inquire about his past. In spite of his evasive answers to Maggie’s basic questions such as where does he live and how he earns his living, their relationship blossoms.

Things take an unexpected turn for Seth when he meets Nathaniel Messenger, a patient of Maggie’s about to undergo surgery. Nathaniel can sense the presence of Seth because he, too, was once an angel who decided to become human to experience the joy of human relationships. Seth, after sharing his emotional turmoil with Nathaniel, considers the possibility of becoming human in order to actualize the love he feels for Maggie. The decision he makes will change his destiny forever.

In Jewish tradition, an angel is basically a messenger of God. They lack any will of their own, and they can only perform one task at the time. The Bible speaks of three angels who visited Abraham in the heat of the day when he was recuperating from his circumcision. Each angel had a specific mission. One was to inform Sarah that she would have a child. Another was to heal Abraham and save Lot, a mission of saving lives. The last angel was to inform Lot that Sodom would be destroyed.

In contrast to angels, humans have free will and can perform many missions. They can choose to do good or evil, and experience happiness and sadness in life. God gave his Torah, his book of instructions for mankind, to men, not to angels, because men, created in the Divine image, have free choice. It is in the arena of free choice that humans express their unique humanity.

The Hebrew word for Jewish law is halacha, which literally means “walking.” Choosing to follow God’s instructions for living is a dynamic journey fraught with perils, not simply a destination. It involves making many choices along the way; but where there is choice, there is great reward for choosing correctly. Seth, in The City of Angels, by deciding to become human, takes a risk that brings with it both the agonies and ecstasies of human existence.

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