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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Starting Out in the Evening (2007), directed by Andrew Wagner

startng out in the evening posterIn the late 1960s, I was a graduate student in English at Hunter College, a division of the City University of New York. I read literary critics like Irving Howe and Lionel Trilling, and breathed in the air of the New York intellectual scene.

After graduating Yeshiva University, Torah studies were my main interest; but I wanted to get credentials in another field in case my plans to be a rabbi did not work out. I remember having a conversation with my Medieval Literature professor in which she told me how critical her English studies were in terms of giving her direction in life.

Religion gave me direction in life, and it was unusual for me to hear that English literature was that important to someone. Indeed, it did give her life meaning just as faith gave my life meaning.

I was reintroduced to that cerebral world in Starting Out in the Evening, the story of New Yorker Leonard Schiller, an aging professor and novelist who is writing his last novel after not writing for a long time. His first four novels were extraordinary successes, but he has not been able to replicate that achievement for many years.

Heather Wolfe, a young and attractive graduate student, approaches Leonard, hoping to interview him for her master’s thesis focusing on his early novels. After initially rejecting her offer, which he claims will take valuable time away from his current writing, Leonard relents and consents to her overtures.

Over the course of her interviews, he becomes at ease with her, prompting Heather to ask Leonard about his marriage and personal life, about which he is very uncomfortable speaking. Tension between them rises and falls as they navigate intellectual terrain together. It is a jousting match that is not without its moments of emotional pain and discovery.

Simultaneously as we watch the relationship between Heather and Leonard wax and wane, there is another drama transpiring. Leonard has a 40-year-old daughter, Ariel, whom he wants to see married and with child. Ariel wants the same, but Casey, the person she loves, does not want children. Her father urges her to break the relationship, but it is complicated in view of her strong passion for Casey.

Tension between Leonard with both Heather and Ariel creates pressure on him, eventually taking a toll on Leonard’s health. What transpires between Leonard and Ariel, on the one hand, and Heather and Leonard, on the other, makes for a complex and powerful denouement in which family and professional issues are not resolved but reach the kind of tentative ending that is true to real life.

Starting Out in the Evening is, indeed, two stories. It is the story of a writer who has written his magnum opus and cannot summon the intellectual energy and creativity to begin anew. It is also the story of a father who wants to leave a legacy, a written legacy of great books, and, more important, a human legacy of children. He desperately wants his daughter to have a child and not be stuck in a relationship without even the possibility of having children. When illness strikes, it is his daughter who stands beside him. His written work is only a memory, without the power to sustain him during a time of crisis.

Jewish tradition is very clear on what constitutes a legacy not just for Jews, but for all mankind. The first commandment in the Bible is to be fruitful and multiply, and it is addressed to all men. Children are our physical and spiritual heirs. When we have children, in a sense we overcome mortality by producing children who continue our lives beyond the time in which we live. No intellectual achievement matches that. Once Leonard Schiller understands that, he frees himself to write again in the evening of this life.

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Belle (2013), directed by Amma Asante

belle_xlgGrowing up in the 50s and 60s, dating for marriage was a very straightforward process. You met, dated for several months, and then came the moment of truth. Do you propose marriage or move on to dating someone else?

Nowadays, the dating landscape is different, especially in very religious Orthodox Jewish circles. I have granddaughters who live in Orthodox communities in America; they tell me that they have to prepare resumes that are submitted to matchmakers, who then work on their behalf to find suitable matches. I do not know if the system works, but it is very different from my own experience many years ago.

Although good character is still the key factor in determining the suitability of a match, finances also play a role. Will the prospective parents of the groom and bride be able to support the couple for a few years while the boy continues his Torah studies before entering the work force and will the parents help with buying a home as the couple morphs into a family with children?

Arranged marriage figures prominently in Belle, the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, born in 1761, who was the natural daughter of Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman in the West Indies, and Captain John Lindsay, a British Royal Navy officer. When Belle’s mother dies, Captain Lindsay takes her to England in 1765 to live with his uncle William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice of England. Lord and Lady Mansfield raise Belle as a free gentlewoman.

As a mixed-race child in a white household, her marriage prospects are dim. That changes when Belle’s father dies and leaves her an inheritance of 2000 pounds a year. Suitors do not run to her door, but marriage now becomes possible. In truth, Belle is no fool and is not interested in marriage for its own sake. She understands that she has the money to remain independent. But a vicar’s son and apprentice to the profession of law, John Davinier, captures her attention with his sincerity and devotion to worthy causes.

Tension arises between Lord Mansfield and Davinier when Davinier pressures him to make a controversial ruling that would make moral sense but would put the nation at great economic risk. Belle becomes aware of the rift and works behind the scenes to help Davinier. She does this is spite of being torn between affection for Davinier and loyalty to her guardian Lord Mansfield. The story, a gripping footnote to black history in England, is the background for Belle’s efforts to marry for love rather than for financial convenience.

Judaism has much to say about arranged marriages. To be a matchmaker is a good thing, and parents were the primary matchmakers throughout much of Jewish history. To find the right marriage partner is God’s work, but parents were God’s surrogates in the quest for a suitable marriage mate.

The patriarchs of the Jewish people took a major role in finding the appropriate wife for their child. The Bible recounts in detail how Abraham appointed his trusted servant Eliezer with finding a spouse for Isaac. The focus was on the potential mate’s spiritual qualities and good character. Being wealthy was not one of the criteria they sought.

Belle provides a fascinating look at the marriage market in the eighteenth century. Considerations of wealth and political position were uppermost in the minds of parents looking to move up socially through the marriage of a daughter to a person of rank. However, sensitive parents were not immune to the entreaties of children who wanted to marry people of good character rather than people of prestige and economic power. Belle and Lord Murray ultimately see eye to eye on this most important of matters.

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Sicario (2015), directed by Denis Villeneuve

sicario posterI live in Israel where I often read about the moral dilemmas faced by the Israel Defense Forces as they fight terror that threatens the fabric of daily life. There are no simple answers to these complex questions. I reflected on this reality as I watched Sicario, a tense and unsettling look on law enforcement in America as it tries to control illegal drug trafficking in Mexico, a drug trade that infiltrates the southern border of the United States.

The story begins with an FBI SWAT raid of a home used by Mexican drug cartel kidnappers. Agent Kate Macer and her partner Reggie Wayne discover dozens of dead bodies, presumably executed by drug dealers. Kate’s boss thinks highly of her and recommends that she participate in a special task force put together by the Defense Department and the CIA to ferret out the people who caused these horrific murders.

The leaders of the team are CIA agent Matt Graver and his partner Alejandro Gillick, who are joined by U.S. Marshals and an elite cohort of Delta Force soldiers. Their target is Manuel Diaz, one of the major players in the drug cartel operation. As the mission progresses, Kate wonders what the true purpose of the mission is. Gradually she learns that Diaz is only important for his connection to the drug lord Fausto Alarcon.

In order to reach him, many may die. CIA agent Graver believes that collateral damage is worth it if they achieve the goal of disrupting the flow of drugs into America. Kate sees it as using immoral means to attain worthy goals. She is uncomfortable with the mission, which expects her to compromise truth in order to attain the desired results.

Jewish tradition asks us to consider the moral calculus before embarking on a mission that involves compromising one’s integrity. The litmus test is whether the action fits within the parameters of the Torah and Jewish Talmudic law, which offers general guidelines as to how to deal with these very thorny moral questions.

In an article on battlefield ethics based on sources in the Talmud and Codes of Jewish Law, Rabbi Michael Broyde outlines the conditions that allow for a theoretical “license to kill.” One may not kill an innocent third party to save someone’s life. One may not compel a person to risk his life to save another. One may not kill a person after he has already committed an evil act, and one may not use more force than is minimally needed. Moreover, before waging battle, one must first try to establish peace. Of utmost importance is killing only combatants, not innocent people. They must be given a chance to leave the battle theater. Once these conditions are met, then one has a theoretical “license to kill.”

When one considers these givens of Jewish tradition as guidelines for proper conduct, we see that the good guys in Sicario operate in morally ambiguous terrain. It is not easy to live in this environment, which continually tests our sense of right and wrong.

Understanding this reality, Alejandro advises the morally sensitive Kate to leave: “You should move to a small town, someplace where the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now.”

Sicario is not a typical action flick, although it has its share of tense and visceral action scenes. The film also makes us think about the complexity of law enforcement in an environment where there is no respect for the law. There are no easy answers for someone with a conscience. Kate Macer is thrown into chaotic universe with no moral center, and it unnerves her. Watching Sicario unnerves us as well.

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Goal! The Dream Begins (2005), directed by Danny Cannon

goal the dream begins posterI once heard a quotation that was reputed to be first said by Eddie Cantor, a celebrated comedian in the late 40s and 50s, which was “It takes twenty years to become an overnight sensation.” It was a piece of wisdom that caught my attention many years ago and that remains with me today. It is advice that I share with young people trying to make a mark in the world and who encounter setbacks, but I also tell myself and other seniors the same piece of advice. Let me explain why recently I have this adage on my mind.

For the past several years, I have taught in two schools in Israel. I enjoy teaching. I enjoy the fact that I am not totally anonymous as a senior citizen. I even enjoy parent-teacher meetings, which allow me to forge friendships with adults who are in the midst of defining themselves and shaping the lives of their children.

But there is one challenge. Frontal teaching is tiring, and I felt I needed to find other work that was less physically taxing. The question is what to do. After much thought, I concluded that since I enjoy writing and have had some success over the years in writing, I would try to develop an income stream around that skill. So it was with that in mind that I started to write film reviews, first in a blog, then in newspapers, and finally in a book entitled Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema.

 Speaking about the book in various communities both in US, in Europe, and in Capetown, SA, has led me to another goal: creating a cable TV program on “Kosher Movies’ patterned after the successful “Siskel and Ebert” show which ran for many years on public television in America. This vocational journey is still in progress and has taken almost five years so far, a journey that has reinforced my belief that success comes gradually and only after much hard work and effort.

This was a lesson I learned when I was a much younger man. However, it is lesson that still is with me today; and it is the crux of the inspiring movie Goal! The Dream Begins. Goal is the story of a soccer player who begins his path to success as a small child in Mexico who loves playing soccer, and whose story ends many years later in the soccer stadiums of England where he plays for the Newcastle professional team.

Santiago Muñez plays soccer in Los Angeles for a local Hispanic team. He has little hope to play professionally because he does not play in a college league and he comes from a very poor family. However, one day, he is spotted by Glen Foy, a former soccer player and scout, who encourages him to come to England to try out for a professional team.

Working in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant and in his father’s gardening business, Santiago gradually saves up money to make the trip to England. But a problem arises. His father, feeling his son’s soccer aspirations are unrealistic, surreptitiously takes his son’s hard-earned money and uses it to buy a truck which will allow him to build up his own gardening business and to provide a livelihood for his son. Santiago’s dream is shattered, but then his grandmother comes to his rescue and gives him the money for the trip.

Arriving in Newcastle, he tries out for the team, but does not perform well. Again, he is rescued by a friend, who pleads with the team management to give him another chance. As a result, Santiago is given a month’s trial. Santiago has more setbacks during this trial period, but he has many stellar moments as well. Over time the coach recognizes his extraordinary talent, paving the way for Santiago’s success as a professional player.

Judaism values perseverance, staying on task and showing commitment in the face of obstacles. The patriarchs of the Jewish people–Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–all exemplified this trait. Maimonides mentions Abraham specifically because of the ten tests he endured during his lifetime. Those tests included, among others, the experience of being exiled, the abduction of Sarah, his wife, the binding of his son, Isaac, and his battle with the four kings.

One of the commentators observes that he was able to overcome these challenges because his perseverance was rooted in hope, in a positive outcome after many years of struggle. Abraham believed that things would get better, and, therefore, he was able to withstand the obstacles.

Santiago Munez in Goal! The Dream Begins almost loses hope, but his innate sense of optimism and hope for the future enables him ultimately to triumph. For him, the impossible dream becomes possible.

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