Green Book (2018), directed by Peter Farrelly

I have seen many “road movies.” The basic plot concerns two characters who do not like one another, but who make a journey together. In the process of spending lots of time with each other, they learn to like each other and often discover a new insight about life.

Many, many years ago, I was a camp counselor and I recall that, at the beginning of the summer, certain kids in the bunk did not get along with one another; but forced to live with one another, they overcame their initial negativity about a particular camper and wound up being fast friends. This narrative arc is at the core of Green Book, a road movie featuring a white driver who, in 1962, must transport a black concert pianist for an eight-week concert tour in the Deep South.

Tony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, a bouncer at the prestigious Copacabana nightclub in New York City, is temporarily out of work when the club is forced to close for renovations. To make money during the two months the club will be closed, he looks for employment. An unusual offer comes his way: to drive Dr. Don Shirley, a black classical pianist, for a concert tour in the Deep South. Shirley wants a driver who can protect him in case they encounter trouble on the trip.

Tony accepts the job and is given The Negro Motorist Green Book, a listing of motels and hotels that will provide safe lodging in a part of the country that is racially segregated.

From the outset, Tony and Don clash. They have different lifestyles, different ways of speaking, and different goals in life. Things begin to change when, forced to stop on the road, they witness blacks working in cotton fields. Tony gazes at them and they gaze at him and his black passenger. It is an incongruous picture that blacks have never seen: a white man in the employ of a black man, and the white man is doing the work of a chauffer while the black man is dressed to the nines in a suit.

As they progress on their tour deeper into the South, they encounter problems. White men threaten Don’s life. Don experiences discrimination in restaurants and hotels, and he is assaulted by white patrons in a segregated bar. Tony rescues him repeatedly and grows to have a great respect for Don as a man of principle and as a brilliant musician. At the same time, Don admires Tony’s loyalty to family and his worldly experience.

Time spent together also gives them an opportunity to express their different views of the world. In one telling exchange, Don heatedly tells Tony that Tony is unwilling to better himself. Tony responds that Don always is making things worse by not being flexible and that Don, indeed, does not fit in anywhere. Don yells at Tony, revealing his sense of isolation in a white man’s world: “if I’m not black enough, and I’m not white enough, I’m not man enough, then what am I?” In spite of such emotional outbursts, they eventually realize that there is more that unites them than divides them, and the friendship begins to flower.

Jewish tradition has much to say about friendship. King Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes: “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labor; for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him that is alone when he falls, for he has not another to help him up (4:9-10).”

Rabbi Noah Weinberg defines friendship in an innovative way. It means having “the emotional pleasure of identifying virtues in another person,” looking for the good in another human being.

In Green Book, two disparate personalities come to understand the other traveler on a road trip that gives Tony and Don life lessons about friendship. They embody the words of Solomon, for each is there to lift up the other. Moreover, they personify Rabbi Weinberg’s definition of friendship, for each one finds good in the other. Together, they achieve an epiphany of understanding that can serve as a guide for navigating relationships with those who are different from us.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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All the Money in the World (2017), directed by Ridley Scott

The older I get, the more of my possessions I want to give away. Our Sages tells us that the only thing we take into the next world are our good deeds, so I am not interested in accumulating more stuff at this time in my life. For example, I have begun giving away treasured parts of my book collection to my children, grandchildren, and friends because I know that, after 120 years, I will not be able to designate who will receive which books.

All the Money in the World deals with John Paul Getty, one of the wealthiest men in the world, who is fixated on possessing as much money as possible believing that wealth will give him financial security and happiness. In a revealing conversation with Fletcher Chace, his top advisor, Fletcher asks, “What would it take to make you feel secure?” Getty Sr. answers: “More.” His response evokes King Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes: “He that loveth money shall not be satisfied with money (5:9).”

In 1973, Getty’s 16-year-old grandson, John Paul Getty III, is kidnapped in Rome. The kidnappers demand a ransom of 17 million dollars. The boy’s parents are divorced because of Getty Jr.’s drug addiction. His wife Gail declined any alimony in exchange for full custody of her children. In truth, she has no money to pay the ransom.

Gail travels to her son’s grandfather to ask him to pay the ransom, but he refuses citing the fact that, if he pays, it will encourage other very bad people to kidnap more family members. In the interim, Getty Sr. asks his trusted advisor and former CIA operative, Fletcher Chace, to see what he can do to secure the boy’s release and reduce the ransom. Months go by and the ransom amount is reduced to four million, but the boy is still captive.

Getty finally decides to pay the ransom, but he limits his payment to only one million since that is the maximum he can give and have the sum considered tax-deductible. Chace and Getty Sr. argue about strategy, but eventually come to a meeting of the minds, all while the boy’s fate is uncertain.

Although he is mesmerized by his own riches, his intellect reminds him of the downside of wealth: “When a man gets wealthy, he has to deal with the problems of freedom. All the choices he could possibly want. An abyss opens up. Well, I watched that abyss. I watched it ruin men, marriages, but most of all, it ruins the children.” Sadly, he does not translate this wisdom into the way he parents his own offspring.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, describes the truly contented man: “Who is rich? He who is content with what he has.” The Sages tell us that all wealth comes from God. We are only stewards for what the Divine grants us.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, author of The Handbook of Jewish Thought, writes: “a minimum of one-tenth of one’s income belongs to God, and should be used for charity or other religious purposes. This is a measure handed down from the Patriarchs, as Jacob himself said to God, Of all that You give me, I will set aside a tenth to You (Genesis 28:22). Similarly, the Talmud learns that we must give one-tenth of our income to charity from the verse, Honor God with your wealth, and with the first fruits of all your produce” (Proverbs 3:9).

John Paul Getty, Sr. is a self-made man who became the wealthiest man in the world during his lifetime. The kidnapping of his grandson and his response created a media frenzy, which highlighted the perils of wealth. In hindsight, we see that an abundance of material possessions can desensitize us to the things that really matter, such as family and friendships. All the Money in the World reminds us that money cannot buy happiness.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The Climb (2017), directed by Ludovic Bernard

When I entered Yeshiva University as an undergraduate, I thought I might join the basketball team since sports has always been an important part of my life. At the time, Yeshiva University had no gym of its own, so the practice was at a distant public high school. This required us to take a long subway ride before an intense practice. I journeyed to one practice and quickly realized that I was not ready to play college ball. I lacked the skills and the drive to make it a priority.

I then turned to wresting and I went to a few practices, which took place late in the evening. I was very tired and took caffeine tablets called No-Doze to stay awake. Here too, I soon realized that participating as a member of the wrestling team was beyond my level of competence.

I then decided to focus completely on my studies where my self-esteem was high and where I could define myself in a singular and satisfying way. The Climb describes a young man’s journey to find self-esteem through attempting a feat far beyond his level of competence, and we follow his arduous and sometimes frightening path to self-knowledge.

Samy Dhiakate has no job and lives in a low-income neighborhood in Paris. He falls in love with Nadia, a childhood friend, but Nadia refuses to date him because of his seemingly aimless life without clear goals and a plan for occupational success. In jest, Nadia tells Samy to climb Mt. Everest to prove his mettle and to convince her that he is capable of completing a task.

Samy takes her request seriously and finds sponsors to support his trek to the Himalayas. But there is a problem. Samy has no mountaineering experience. Samy cons Jeff, the tour leader, into thinking that he has hiked Kilimanjaro, and Jeff accepts him for the trip. Fortunately, Samy’s Sherpa Johnny, his mountain guide, teaches him how to climb in return for which Samy reads Johnny a romance novel that intrigues him.

One of Samy’s sponsors is a local radio station that broadcasts updates on Samy’s progress. Soon his journey attracts a national following in France, all of whom support Samy’s grand, and perhaps foolish, gesture of love.

The trek is filled with tension as Samy has breathing problems the higher he goes on the mountain. Moreover, the terrain is unstable in spots, and Samy is in danger of falling and perhaps dying. Everyone at home is both exhilarated and worried about Samy’s adventure and they want to see him safely home.

For Samy, the trek is his way of earning esteem in the eyes of others and building self-confidence. He tells his Sherpa guide before the final ascent that he has learned that self-esteem is the key to success in life: “What’s important is that before you love someone else, you first have to love yourself.”

Jewish educator Arye Ackerman writes: “What you believe about yourself and your abilities serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your self-image is not an objective reality. It is based on who you think you are and what you are like. It is based on messages you received from your parents, brothers, sisters, friends, classmates, teachers, neighbors, and everyone you met in your life.”

If, indeed, your self-image is not an objective reality, then what is important is how we think of ourselves in the present without the baggage of the past. If we think of ourselves as competent and as possessing infinite value, then we can develop healthy self-esteem. Ackerman suggests an innovative way to view self-esteem: “Think of self-esteem as the immune system of consciousness. If you have a healthy immune system, you might become ill, but you are less likely to; if you do become ill, you will likely recover faster, your resilience is greater.”

Samy, through accepting the task of summiting Mt. Everest, becomes the success he always dreamed he could be. The Climb is testimony to what one can achieve when one views himself as a winner.

Watch this movie on Netflix.

BlacKkKlansman (2018), directed by Spike Lee

There is a memorable climax at the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, which juxtaposes scenes of a baptism with scenes of brutal murder at the hands of mafia hit men. While one community rejoices, another suffers. I have no doubt that Spike Lee was aware of cinematic allusions and Coppola’s masterpiece, and that they informed his directorial decisions in BlacKkKlansman, a comedy-drama about race relations in America in the 1970s.

The film opens with images from Gone with the Wind revealing a host of bodies of Confederate soldiers, some of whom are wounded and some of whom are dead. It then switches to a video of Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, a racist launching a tirade against African Americans, claiming they, along with Jews with money, are threatening Protestant Americans.

Against this backdrop, BlacKkKlansman unfolds. It is 1972 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Ron Stallworth, who is black, applies for a job as a policeman/detective. After his interview, he is given a position on the force, becoming the city’s first black law enforcement officer.

He initially is given an office job filing reports, but Ron yearns to be out in the field. Chief Bridges, after some doubt, decides to reassign Ron to undercover work.

His first assignment is attending a Black Panther gathering at which Stokely Carmichael, a black power advocate, will be speaking. The Chief wants to know if Carmichael is planning to radicalize the blacks in Colorado Springs. Ron attends the meeting with a wire, accompanied by Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish cop, who will monitor Ron’s conversations from a nearby police car.

Chief Bridges admires Ron’s work ethic and performance, so when Ron asks for permission to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, he gives it to him. But there is one problem. When Ron contacted the Klan recruitment telephone number, he used his real name. Now he needs a white policeman to pose as Ron when the Klan wants to meet this new recruit in person. Enter Flip Zimmerman, who is willing to present himself as white supremacist Ron Stallworth for the face-to-face meetings with the Klan’s local administration. This charade is comical but serious at the same time, since Flip, both an undercover policeman and a Jew, can easily be in harm’s way.

Throughout all his undercover work, Ron is conflicted. He identifies with blacks and their desire for more power. He also takes pride in their heritage, but he is not in favor of using violence to further the cause. Contrasting with his balanced view of life is the depiction of the members of the Klan, who see all blacks and Jews as subversive and deserving of death.

His inner conflict is depicted in a series of juxtaposed scenes contrasting a meeting of blacks with a meeting of whites. At the black assembly, a community elder recounts a terrible injustice done to a mentally handicapped black man convicted of rape and murder within minutes by a jury of white men. Across town is a celebratory gathering of white Klansmen who are initiating a new member. There, David Duke, a known racist, spreads a message of hate and white supremacy.

BlacKkKlansman is not a subtle movie. Spike Lee has an aggressive directing style. He places identity politics directly in front of the audience, depicting the dangerous extremism of which many people are capable.

There are no easy answers to the questions he raises about race relations in America. Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, the black ideologue, paraphrases the words of the Sages in Ethics of the Fathers by posing the following questions in his speech: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am for myself alone, who am I? If not now, when? And if not you, who?”

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The Resistance Banker (2018), directed by Joram Lursen

I recently had a discussion with a family member about how I am conducting my life now that I am in my mid-70s. He asked if I have made any changes in my daily routine. I told him I certainly have.

Health challenges over the past several years have made me very sensitive to the passage of time. I am driven to make sure that I use my time wisely in the service of God. Instead of learning one page of Talmud a day, I now study two. I am very careful about my interactions with other people, greeting everyone I meet with a pleasant countenance and doing my best not to get angry at anyone.

Moreover, I am very meticulous about meeting my film review writing goals on time. Inwardly, I feel the reviews are Mussar lessons, ethical instruction, not just film reviews. They are a legacy of Torah sensibilities, not an evaluation of mere entertainments.

I have a sense that any day could be my last and I want every day to count, for time cannot be retrieved.

This focus on making the most of every day is on display in The Resistance Banker, the true story of banker Walraven (Wally) van Hall, who uses every moment to work on behalf of Dutch citizens persecuted by the Nazi regime. In his eyes, his job is never completed. He feels he can always do more. What is his mission? To bankroll the Dutch resistance to the Nazi regime during World War II.

Wally did not start off as a banker. He first worked at a New York Wall Street stock brokerage, a job secured by his brother Gijs van Hall, who later became the mayor of Amsterdam. When Wally came back to the Netherlands, he worked as a banker and stockbroker. This experience proved invaluable after the Germans invaded the Netherlands.

In the beginning, Wally’s efforts were directed to helping merchant-sailors and their families manage when many husbands and breadwinners were stranded abroad. Wally secured guarantees from the Dutch government-in-exile in London that enabled him to get funds to the Dutch sailors.

When the Germans started to enact anti-Jewish measures, Wally’s abhorrence of the Germans intensified, and he began fundraising for a whole array of resistance groups. So pervasive were his efforts that he became known as the banker of the resistance.

Wally raised money for the resistance through circuitous means. He and his brother arranged for the forgery of valueless bank bonds and exchanged them for valuable bank bonds. These bonds were used for the collection of authentic paper money. They also borrowed money from wealthy Dutch people with the understanding that the lenders would get their money back at the end of the war.

Wally was obsessive in his work, knowing that every day people counted on him financially for survival. He also knew that on any day he might be caught and killed by the Germans, but he could not rest as long as the job was not finished. It is said that in today’s currency, the money he collected would be over a half billion Euros.

Wally van Hall intuitively understood two statements of the Sages in The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature. The first is that when it comes to good deeds, one should always begin the task even if the outcome is in doubt. Outcomes are in God’s hands, not ours.

Secondly, one should also consider the possibility that every day might be one’s last day, and, therefore, one should make every day a masterpiece of righteous living. Knowing that time is short should be a motivator for performing good deeds now.

Watch this movie on Netflix.

The White Helmets (2016), directed by Orlando von Einsiedel

For the last several years, I have seen in the media a plethora of stories about the Syrian Civil War. Exactly who is fighting who and for what reasons is sometimes unclear to me. So I looked forward to viewing The White Helmets, an award-winning documentary about this cadre of volunteers, all of whom wear white helmets. Their mission: to rescue people caught in the crossfire of the conflict in Syria. I hoped the film would give me a better understanding of this ongoing conflict and it did.

The film is composed of raw footage of the bombings of populated areas, wounded adults and children, the rescue training of the volunteers, depictions of some of their actual rescue efforts, and interviews with some of its members, who are mission-driven to save lives.

The White Helmet organization began in 2014 to labor in the fields of medical evacuation, urban search and rescue, evacuation of civilians from dangerous locations, and general service delivery of life essentials. As of April 2018, the White Helmets claim to have saved 114,000 lives, and in the process 201 White Helmets have died. They claim not to be affiliated with any particular cause in the Syrian conflict. Nonetheless, they are targets of Russian and Syrian airstrikes, both of which see them as aligned with the terrorist opposition to Assad’s Syrian government.

Interestingly, in July of 2018, Israel opened the Golan Hieghts border to permit a UN rescue team to evacuate 422 people, 98 While Helmet members and their families, to Jordan because their lives were in danger. A Syrian government spokesman condemned the rescue as a “criminal operation” that supported a terrorist entity.

Observing the rescue work that the White Helmets do, it is hard to imagine the group is a terrorist entity. Interviews with three of the volunteers demonstrate their passionate desire to save lives as their sole motivation.

Similar motivations are expressed by Hatzalah, a Jewish volunteer rescue organization in America and Israel. No matter whether thay are professionals or day laborers, they drop what they are doing and travel at a moment’s notice to save a life. One Hatzaloh member observes: “We help our neighbors, friends, relatives, and complete strangers. We get their fast so that we can minimize the trauma and suffering of the patient. That is our job and that is why I love it. I get to help make the community I live in a better and safer place.”

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) states: “Whoever saves one life is considered as if he saved an entire world.” Aaron Kirschenbaum, Law Professor at Tel Aviv University, traces the origin of this Talmudic statement to Leviticus (19:16), which states: ”thou shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” The takeaway is that every human being has an obligation to help someone in distress. Maimonides in his Code of Jewish Law provides some specific guidelines. Most important, we must be able to save another. Stepping into a dangerous situation without the proper training can lead to more harm both to the victims of terror and the rescuers themselves. Moreover, a number of ancillary considerations come into play in rescue efforts, such as geographic proximity, mental awareness, creative thinking, and physical disposition.

The White Helmets reminds us not only of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, but also of the many everyday heroes who desire to alleviate the pain and suffering of innocents. Their altruistic spirit and their hope for a better future in the face of present adversity should be an inspiration to all of us.

Watch “The White Helmets” on Netflix.

Divergent (2014), directed by Neil Burger

I recently had a conversation with a friend who told me how difficult it was to be the youngest brother in a family of five boys. All his siblings were clear-eyed about the future and had a career path in mind when they were teenagers. One wanted to be doctor, another a lawyer, another a college professor of English Literature, and another a high tech entrepreneur. Amazingly, four of the brothers achieved success in their chosen fields. My friend, the fifth and youngest, however, although very talented in many areas, had trouble deciding on a major in college. His indecision remained with him for many years.

Although he graduated college with a history degree, he was unable to make any career commitment until he reached 30 years of age. For most of his formative years, he felt that he did not fit in. He was divergent from the rest of his family.

Trying to fit in was important to me as a youngster as well, and this is the dilemma faced by the teenagers in Divergent, a science-fiction story that takes place in a future dystopia where kids, at age 16, have to choose which of five groups they want to join. The five factions are described by Beatrice Prior, the heroine of Divergent: “The smart ones, the ones who value knowledge and logic, are in Erudite. Amity farm the land. They’re all about kindness and harmony, always happy. Candor value honesty and order. And then there’s Dauntless. They’re our protectors, our soldiers, our police. Brave, fearless and free. My faction is Abnegation. We lead a simple life, selfless, dedicated to helping others. Because we’re public servants, we’re trusted to run the government. It all works. Everyone knows where they belong. Except for me.”

Joining a faction means committing oneself to that group for the rest of one’s life, assuming their social identity, and meeting society’s expectations for that cohort.

In order to determine what faction you are suited for, teenagers are required to take an aptitude test to see where one’s proclivities lie. Beatrice’s test results are inconclusive, suggesting she may be a good fit for Abnegation, or Erudite, or Dauntless. In brief, she does not fit only one category. She is divergent.

At the Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice opts for Dauntless and goes through an intensive training program in combat and control of fear, all the while doubting her choice. In the course of her training, she meets Four, another secret divergent, who is part of the Dauntless leadership. In the course of their training, they discover that one faction is planning to get rid of another. Will Beatrice and Four be able to stop them from attaining their nefarious goal?

Divergent is essentially about having the courage not to conform to the expectation of others, but rather being true to oneself. Jewish history is bound up with the story of non-conformists. Abraham is the most notable example. God tells him to leave his land, his birthplace, and journey to the land that God will show him. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes: “I want you, says God to Abraham, to be different. Not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of starting something new: a religion that will not worship power and the symbols of power—for that is what idols really were and are. To be a Jew is to be willing to challenge the prevailing consensus when, as so often happens, nations slip into worshipping the old gods.” Abraham was called ha-ivri, which in Hebrew means the side, because he was philosophically on one side and the entire world was on the other.

There is a folk saying that “dead fish go with the flow, but live fish swim against the current.” As it was with Abraham, so it is with Beatrice and Four, who challenge the status quo by asserting their individuality in the midst of powers that desire conformity. Their fight represents an actualization of the famous lines of poet Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled on/ And that has made all the difference.”

Purchase this movie on Amazon.com.

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