F.R.E.D.I. (2018), directed by Sean Olson

My grandchildren recently asked me for a recommendation for a movie to watch. It took me some time to suggest a title or two since so much of what is out there is potentially corrupting.

When parents ask me for a suggestion, I invariably tell them to look at the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) website and consult the Parent Advisory section to determine if the film you are considering viewing for yourself or for your children is one which you are comfortable with from a personal and parenting perspective.

F.R.E.D.I. is one of those rare films that is kosher in the conventional sense: no foul language, no violence, no sex or nudity. Since my “Kosher Movies” website is designed for adults, my definition of a “kosher movie” is very broad. A “kosher movie” is one that has something meaningful to say about life, a film that may even help us navigate our own lives. It does not indicate whether a film is appropriate for children, so it was with pleasure that I watched F.R.E.D.I. and discovered a movie that I could endorse for teens.

The story begins in a top-secret laboratory in Bentonville, Arkansas. Dr. Andi Palmer is a scientist who created a robot, named F.R.E.D.I., in order to help people and improve their quality of life. Once she realizes that her boss, Grant, will use the robot to advance his own pecuniary concerns rather than improve life for the world, she decides to make sure that her boss has no access to her creation. Fleeing into the forest from Grant’s cohorts, she hides F.R.E.D.I. but does not have enough time to retrieve it after the chase.

A 15-year-old teenager, James Nash, discovers the robot named F.R.E.D.I. in a forest near his home. They soon learn to communicate with one another and a friendship blossoms. James decides to bring the robot home and F.R.E.D.I. gives James much attention. James needs attention because his father, a single parent, is constantly distracted by his business concerns and does not spend much time with his son. James begins to understand how important F.R.E.D.I. is when he observes the robot responding in a friendly and helpful way to human stimuli. Then he feels responsible to protect the robot from the corporate profiteers who want to exploit its powers.

Watching F.R.E.D.I. brings to mind a host of films that in my mind are “kosher“ for teens and that have something valuable to say to adults about navigating life. Here are some of my favorites with an indication of their kosher themes:

Searching for Bobby Fischer – why it is important to lead a balanced life;

Wonder – how we should treat those who are disfigured or disabled;

Toy Story 3– how anger destroys our ability to perceive truth;

It’s a Wonderful Life– why we should be grateful for what we have;

Raiders of the Lost Ark – why it is important to adjust to new realities even when things do not go our way;

E.T. – how we should respond to the stranger in our midst;

Hugo – how we should regard the contributions of the elderly who enrich our lives;

Karate Kid (1984) – how the power of concentration can turn the present moment into an eternal one;

Remember the Titans – how freeing ourselves from prejudice can enrich our lives;

Back to the Future – the value of time and how one moment can change our destinies;

October Sky – considers the question of who is more influential in the life of a child, parents or teachers;

A Little Princess –the importance of having a positive attitude and smiling in the face of adversity;

Hachi: A Dog’s Tale – a reminder for us to treasure acts of kindness.

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Victoria and Abdul (2017), directed by Stephen Frears

 Being a school principal has been a tremendously exciting and emotionally satisfying experience. Having served in such a position for over 30 years, I remember enjoying the academic challenges and the heartfelt satisfaction of helping teenagers acquire knowledge and navigate life.

But there is a reality felt by people in leadership positions, the reality of loneliness. I had many friends and fans in the communities in which I worked, but few close friends. My closest friends were my wife and my family who shared my life and were consistent beacons of support and inspiration.

Victoria and Abdul portrays the loneliness of Queen Victoria, especially after her husband, Albert, died. The narrative begins in 1887, the 50th year of her reign. To mark the celebration, two Indian Muslims are chosen at random to come to England and present the Queen with a Mohur, a special minted commemorative gold coin as a gift from British-ruled India.

At the ceremony, the Queen and Abdul, the more handsome of the two, exchange glances and the Queen becomes interested in knowing him better. It is not a romantic relationship that develops but rather an intellectual and friendly one. The Queen is simply tired of the superficial conversations she has with her British peers. Indeed, she longs for deeper connection.

Abdul becomes a favored servant and remains at the Queen’s service for 14 years, functioning as her teacher and spiritual mentor as well as confidant. The Queen admires him and enjoys his friendship while the Royal Household fumes with hatred and jealousy at this foreigner who has captured the Queen’s attention and favor. The question looming over their relationship is how and when will it end.

Elie Weisel in a provocative essay analyzing Biblical characters considers the challenge of being alone as a leader. He describes two kinds of aloneness: “solitude, which can be a wellspring of self-discovery and can provide vital energy for creative work, and isolation, which has historically been used as a tool of oppression.” Weisel describes the difference between solitude and isolation: “Solitude is often voluntary, whereas isolation is not. Isolation is compulsory, close to imprisonment, whereas solitude is sought by poets, painters, musicians, dreamers — in other words, creators. Criminals isolate themselves in their crimes, but poets free themselves and their words through and with their solitude.”

Weisel cites Moses as an example of the leader who is in the midst of his people, but who is alone at the same time. To Weisel, Moses is the loneliest of all the Biblical characters, and his loneliness is linked to his role as leader: “his solitude is linked to his extraordinary talents, virtues, and responsibilities as our people’s supreme leader. In fact, he embodies the very concept of leadership with its collective triumphs and personal disillusionments.” He recognizes that Moses, like all leaders, needs to have a certain solitary mystique around them so that they will be both respected and obeyed. However, at the same time, a leader needs to be seen as a man of the people. This ambivalence is inherent in the leader who always feels alone at the crucial moment in which he has to make a decision affecting others.

Abdul taps into the isolation of leadership and comforts Queen Victoria, especially during her senior years when her health is flagging. She laments to Abdul: “Everyone I love has died and I just go and on. What is the point?” Abdul wisely responds: “Your Majesty. We are here for a greater purpose.”

Abdul understands that one of the main satisfactions of leadership is the knowledge that you are leaving a worthwhile legacy behind. The knowledge that she has steered her country through a wide range of social and political challenges and that the country has emerged as one of the world’s strongest nations enables the Queen to let go of life and embrace a world beyond the present, a world where she can be reunited with her beloved Prince Albert.

 

Shtisel (2013), created by Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky (A Netflix Series)

Shtisel (2013), created by Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky  (A Netflix Series)

Close to my neighborhood in Beit Shemesh, there is a haredi (ultraorthodox, for want of a better word) community. I attend prayer services three times a day; and when it is late at night and I have missed the prayer in my local synagogue, I travel to the haredi enclave where I can always find the requisite quorum for prayer no matter how late the hour.

Mostly everyone is dressed in Chassidic garb, and I stand out in my baseball hat, casual cargo pants, and colored shirt. I realize that I probably have little in common with them from a social perspective, but I know that we speak the same language of faith. We pray to the same God and utter the same prayers. Watching the Netflix series Shtisel reminds me that, in spite of our different dress and lifestyles, there is more that unites us than divides us.

Shtisel is the story of a haredi family living in Jerusalem. Its patriarch is Shulem Shtisel, a person of much wisdom and life experience, but who has trouble navigating parenthood when the outside world intrudes on the traditional lifestyle in which he was reared.

Challenges come and go in the Shtisel family, and I will only mention a few of them. The central plot line concerns Shulem Shtisel and Akiva, his son. Akiva likes to draw. Working as a teacher in a haredi school is not what he wants to do for the rest of his life. People who see some of his drawings recognize that he has artistic talent. But what will he do with it?

 Akiva respects his father greatly, but feels confined by a worldview that sees art as childish, not something a grown man would do to make a living. Akiva’s talent, however, is fortuitously recognized by the owner of a Jerusalem gallery, who arranges for Akiva to receive a stipend and to use a studio where he can continue to develop his artistic skill. Moreover, the owner sets up an exhibition of Akiva’s work with plans for a subsequent trip to the United States to meet the patron who is sponsoring his exhibition. This, as expected, creates tension in the father-son relationship.

Akiva’s sister, Gitti, has problems on the home front. Her husband leaves the family for work in a foreign country. While there, he shaves his beard and abandons his Chasidic lifestyle. Within a short time, he regrets his action and returns home. How his wife and family react to his return after abandoning them is a complex emotional question for everyone.

Shulem’s elderly mother finds relaxation by watching television, which is considered an anathema to haredi Jews. How her relatives handle this without hurting their mother is a challenge. They want to please her, but pleasing her means bringing her and parts of the family into an orbit of immorality and foolishness from the family’s perspective.

Many, though not all, of the family issues depicted in Shtisel deal with the conflict between modernity and the traditional haredi way of life. There are no simple answers offered to any of the questions that the show raises. Life turns out to be a mix of joy, sadness, contradiction, and satisfaction in a world that is changing both without and within.

Rabbi Mordechai and Nina Glick, veteran Jewish educators, discuss the lure of this one-of-a-kind television program: “Shtisel leaves us with the feeling that we are all the same. We might look different, but this series definitely instills in us the feeling that the same insecurities and doubts, happy moments and family dynamics exist everywhere. There is no perfect world, and for that reason we always speak of the need to continue striving to make it better.”

Watch this series on Netflix.

Three Identical Strangers (2018), directed by Tim Wardie

As a school principal for many years, a number of adopted children have attended my school. At first I did not know they were adopted and simply assumed they were the natural progeny of their parents. Some of the kids even looked like their parents, and I regarded their parents as their true biological parents.

Later, when I became aware that these children were adopted, I occasionally saw a disconnect between parents and children, and it made me think about the age-old discussion of nature vs. nurture. Which is more important in a child’s development?

Three Identical Strangers is a documentary that considers the problem from a unique perspective. The true story concerns identical triplets, Bobby, Eddy, and David, born in 1961, who were separated at birth and adopted by three different families. Each remains oblivious of the other until they meet 19 years later as adults. They are outwardly carbon copies of one another and they bond quickly as brothers.

The triplets reunited in 1980 as a result of a chance encounter at college where one brother was confused with another because they looked alike. The discovery led to a viral response by the media, which led to numerous appearances on TV. Their celebrity grew, and at first they basked in the attention they were getting. As time passed, the individuality of each brother asserted itself, and we see that emotionally they were very different.

Serendipitously, it was discovered that their separation at birth from a single mother, and their subsequent placement in homes with different economic circumstances – one blue-collar, one middle-class, and one upper-class – was the result of a psychiatric experiment conducted by Dr. Peter Neubauer who was investigating whether nurture or nature was the determining factor in who a child turned out to be.

The brothers felt like rats used in an experiment. They understood that it may have been difficult for a couple to adopt three babies at once, but they were disturbed that no one at the adoption agency told the adopting parents that their one child was one of triplets.

Dr. Neubauer’s research came to a close when he died, and the study was abandoned. The answer to this age-old question of nature vs. nurture was not resolved, especially when one of the brothers, Eddy, committed suicide in 1995.

Rabbi Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox, a psychologist specializing in ADHD and learning disabilities, asks: “Are we in charge of our destinies? Are we shaped by our surroundings? Or are we a product of our genetic makeup? “ In truth, our actions are determined by a combination of our genes and our environment. Bobby, Eddy, and David clearly were genetically similar, but the Torah tells us that we all are created “in the image of God.” The corollary: every individual is unique. Outward likeness does not mean that the inner soul, the inner emotional make-up, of a person is the same.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that we are more than our DNA: “Our early character is determined partly by DNA – the genetic heritage of our parents and theirs – partly by our home and upbringing, partly by our friends, and partly by the surrounding culture. We are not born free. We have to work hard to achieve freedom.”

Sacks indicates that we can exercise our free will no matter our genetic or cultural background. Whether our future is determined by our genes or by the way we are educated is a question that cannot be answered. What is evident that both influence our destinies, and we still have free will to choose what direction in life we will take. We may possess biological tendencies to move in one direction, but we have the ability to make midcourse corrections that will enable us to have fulfilling lives.

Three Identical Strangers raises the question of how our future as adults is determined. The Jewish approach is to take what we are given, the God-given attributes with which God blesses us, and use them for good. Only by exercising our free will do we fulfill our cosmic destinies.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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.

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.

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