Netflix vs. the World (2019), directed by Shawn Cauthen

I have been a moviegoer since childhood. Movies were pure escapism that allowed me to imaginatively travel to different places and different times to vicariously experience the larger world of which I was a citizen. I became an aficionado of Netflix in the early 2000s when I was living in Denver. I rarely went to a movie theatre, but became enthralled with the idea that movies could be delivered regularly to my home where I could keep them for several days before returning them in the mail. So it was with great interest that I watched Netflix vs. the World, which describes the company’s origins and its amazing financial trajectory into the 21st century.

Netflix’s initial niche strategy was to mail DVDs to your home, thus avoiding the trips and late fees associated with Blockbuster Video, a giant in the video rental business and their major competitor. Marc Randolph and Reed Hastings were the visionaries who transformed their little DVD rental company into the major player in the movie streaming business, which changed the way most people enjoyed the cinema experience. A good deal of the film describes the conflict between Netflix and Blockbuster, with Blockbuster eventually not surviving. To be privy to the executive thinking of top management of Blockbuster as it tried to stay afloat financially in the face of an aggressive and savvy competitor is a lesson in economics that is worth contemplating.

Once Netflix won the battle of dominance in the DVD rental arena, they became a financial powerhouse that could also dominate the next technological frontier in the entertainment industry:  digital streaming of movies and developing its own original content. The watershed moment was its successful production of House of Cards, a series that debuted in 2013.

Bob Diener, author of Biblical Secrets to Business Success and founder of Hotels.com, writes about entrepreneurship and the ingredients for starting a successful business, ingredients that were part of the management DNA of Netflix founders Randolph and Hastings. First, Diener recommends doing your homework. Make sure you understand all the issues and take nothing for granted. Second, have a high level of customer service. In Biblical terms, he says “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) refers to putting yourself in the shoes of the customers and treating them the way you desire to be treated. Super customer service almost inevitably leads to building a long-term customer base. Third, when making a mistake, admit it to your customers. Hiding a problem will lead to erosion of the customer’s belief in the company’s honesty and integrity.

These basic pillars of a quality company were evident in the way Netflix management dealt with problematic issues. For example, before launching their own DVD rental service, they did their homework. They investigated the Blockbuster operation to determine what they could do to challenge their dominance. One area that emerged was the large amount of movie choices that they could make available through the mail, not relying on brick and mortar stores. Another area that highlighted Blockbusters’ vulnerability was the issue of late fees, a major irritant to Blockbuster patrons. By sending DVDs through the mail and allowing customers to keep the DVDs for long periods of time, the major irritant of late fees was removed for Netflix users. Moreover, the convenience of home delivery of DVDs to one’s home mailbox was extremely attractive. No more trips to the store and waiting in line to check out.

What is impressive about the Netflix story is the total commitment of the founders and management to create a new paradigm for the consumption of mass entertainment. Indeed, a guiding light for them was the idea that they were providing people with enjoyable entertainment and that was a worthy goal. In many ways, there were ahead of the curve. Because of that, they were able to chart their own distinctive path rather than merely respond to the challenges of others.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), directed by Aaron Sorkin

In August of 1968, I was busy with my rabbinic studies, going for a master’s degree in English from Hunter College, and trying to be a good husband and father. I had little interest in the protests of the day, but kept abreast of them by reading the newspapers. Watching The Trial of the Chicago 7, a fascinating recreation of the characters and societal problems that played out in the media at that time, gave me a better understanding of the issues that were at stake during that tumultuous period in American history.

The country was experiencing many demonstrations against the Vietnam War. The anti-war faction felt that a peaceful protest at the Democratic National Convention would be a good place to make their views known and put pressure on the United States government to exit from a seemingly endless conflict. The plan was to challenge representatives of authority even if it might lead to a confrontation with police, which it did.

The film essentially begins with the trial after the Chicago riots, in which seven of the demonstrators are tried for conspiracy to cross state lines and start a riot. The seven demonstrators included Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Lee Weiner, and David Dellinger, most of whom did not know one another and had different motivations for participating in the protest.

The SDS, Students for a Democratic Society were led by Tom Hayden, a moderate group interested only in bringing an end to the War. The Yippies, led by Abbie Hoffman, was a militant group that challenged the entire social order. The defendants were represented in court by William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass. The judge in the case was Julius Hoffman.

The trial is filled with interruptions by the defendants, some of whom make fun of the judge and draw contempt of court citations. The outrageous antics of activists Hoffman and Rubin, in particular, undermine the defense strategy of Kunstler and Weinglass. In the end, both sides are given an opportunity to explain their motives, and the jury decides the verdict. As the credits come on, a coda tells us what happened after the verdict was handed down and what the defendants did with the rest of their lives.

Political dissent is the subject of The Trial of the Chicago 7. The film raises the question of how do we express dissent in a way that will accomplish our ends. America in the past four years has become more polarized with extreme positions on both sides of the political spectrum. Rabbi Efrem Goldberg writes about the need for tolerance of the views of others, reminding people that what unites us is far greater than what divides us. He cites the Talmud (Berachot 58a) that says. Just as the faces of people do not exactly resemble one another, so too their opinions do not exactly resemble one another. Rabbi Goldberg observes: “we should recognize that everyone’s opinions are the result of their being created differently and raised differently. Just as someone is entitled to look different, so too are they entitled to think differently and approach things differently without harsh disapproval or condemnation.”

Interestingly, he brings a proof for this perspective from the liturgical practice of taking three steps backward at the conclusion of the silent prayer known as the Amidah: “Jews take three steps backward at the conclusion of the Amidah, as the Talmud says, (Yoma 53) The one who prays must take three steps back and only then pray for peace. Rabbi Menachem BenZion Zaks explains that we cannot pray for, nor achieve, peace if we are not willing to step back a little and make room for others and their opinions, their tastes and personalities. After stepping back, we ask oseh shalom bimromav, God, please bring peace, and we then turn to the right and to the left. Explains Rabbi Zaks, achieving peace and harmony means bowing towards those on the right of us and those on the left of us, not just straight ahead on our path.”

This balanced, nuanced approach to how we interact with those whose opinions differ from ours is nowhere in evidence amongst the Chicago 7. Their comic antics may be entertaining, but there is little positive outcome from their mockery of established judicial institutions.

A Little Game (2014), directed by Evan Oppenheimer

I have always been fascinated by the game of chess, but I never learned to play. It seemed too complicated. If I wanted to chill out for a few moments, checkers seemed simpler and took less time. My son, Elie, however, took to the game and played on our high school team with great success. Indeed, our school team, coached by a parent whose son was a chess star, won many tournaments. Even though I did not play chess, the image of our school in the community rose because of our involvement in chess competition. Which is why I was captivated by A Little Game, a story about a young girl who learns how to play chess from a master.

Max is a very bright ten-year old girl living in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. Although happy in her present school, her parents want to give her the very best education, and so decide to enroll her in a prestigious all-girls private school on the Upper East Side even though it will be burdensome to them financially. Dad works as a building superintendent, and Mom is a chef at a neighborhood restaurant. Neither of them makes big salaries. 

Challenges arise in her new school. Friends do not easily connect with her, sensing she is from a lower social strata; and one, in particular, Isabella, is jealous of her academic success. Isabella even makes fun of the fact the Max does not know how to play chess, a game for intellectuals. Compounded with lack of friends is the sudden loss of her beloved grandmother who always shared with her pieces of wisdom gleaned over a lifetime.

Max’s teacher thinks Max possesses exceptional math skills and encourages her to play chess, which requires a similar kind of mathematical discipline. Every day Max walks home through Washington Square Park, and one day she comes upon one of the outdoor chess players who competes regularly against all comers. He is an elderly gentleman and his name is Norman. When Max asks Norman to teach her chess, he at first refuses. However, Max persists in asking him to teach her and eventually he agrees, but only if she learns the game from him and no other.

Norman is an unusual teacher. Instead of teaching her the rules of chess, he gives her clues that require her to be a keen observer of things in the city, and from these clues deduce chess strategy. The chessboard for Norman is not a game board. It is a metaphor for the city and each chess piece has within it a message for life. Over time, Max learns how to play chess, and, more important, she learns valuable life lessons.

Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo reflects about the Jewish fascination with chess. For many Jews, the chessboard is a microcosm of the world. To navigate chess and navigate life, one must know the rules. But knowing the rules is not enough. The rules are tools to discover new pathways of understanding that emerge only because of the “unbearable limitations” that govern the movements of the pieces. Rabbi Cardozo writes that playing chess “is mental torture, but it is the height of beauty as well. It is poetry to the game, as melody is to music — like one gentle brushstroke of Rembrandt on a colorful canvas, making everything look radically different; or like the genius musician playing her Stradivarius, re-creating the whole of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5. It transports the chess player to heaven.”

Rabbi Cardozo suggests that this sense of intellectual tension and contradiction is the reason why scholars of Talmud love the game of chess: “Chess reminds them, consciously or subconsciously, of the world of Talmudic halachic debate with all its intrigues, obstacles, and seemingly deliberate tendency to make life more difficult. For the true posek (halachic expert and decisor), the tension, challenge and delight involved in discovering an unprecedented solution is the ultimate simcha (joy).”

In the end, Max learns to play chess well and understands its parallels to the real world. Indeed, that “little game” opens up pathways for Max to better understand the big game of life itself.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

On the Map (2016), directed by Dani Menkin

When we moved from New York to Atlanta for my first rabbinical post, we were always happy when our parents came down to visit. It was a special event filled with love, and we enjoyed it immensely because their presence validated what we were doing with our lives. The approval of parents then and now was an important piece of maintaining our psychic health and happiness, especially when we were separated by long distances.

On the Map is a basketball story about the come-from-behind triumph of the Maccabi Tel Aviv team in the 1977 European Championship. But there is one vignette in the narrative that lingers in my mind.

Only a few days before the championship game, the captain of the team, Tal Brody, receives a call informing him that his father has had a heart attack and is in the ICU unit of a hospital in America. Tal decides to go immediately to his dad in spite of the fact that this means his lifelong dream to play, and perhaps win, the European basketball championship will vanish. As Tal says: “A father is a father,” and that desire to be with his dad at a time of crisis prevails.

The European basketball championship took place after a tumultuous time in the history of Israel. In 1972 the Munich massacre at the Olympic Games forever changed the nature of international sports. The 1973 Yom Kippur War dramatically diminished the sense of euphoria that existed after the Six Day War, and the 1976 hijacking of an Air France plane in Entebbe, Africa, left Israel with a sense of its own international fragility. In the midst of these events and domestic turmoil in Israel’s government, as well as the tensions of the Cold War, the distraction of sports was a welcome reprieve from the chaotic world situation.

The central figure in this renaissance of basketball was Tal Brody, an American who played college ball at the University of Illinois and was drafted into the NBA. Moshe Dayan saw him play at the Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv, and encouraged Tal to come to Israel and join the Maccabi team. It is a mark of the man that Tal passed on the fame and wealth of being on an NBA team to play with the country of his heritage. His presence on the team encouraged other American players to join Maccabi. Their mission was to win the European League Championship.

The journey of the team to win that accolade is fraught with challenges and obstacles, which manifest themselves as the team faces imposing adversaries such as Russia. It is a joy to watch the players coalesce and improve as the season progresses.

Tal Brody is the man of the hour, and it is an inspiration to see him make the correct Jewish decision when his father has a medical emergency. He focuses on honoring a parent, not winning a game, and this focus on family is an affirmation of his Jewish values.

Rabbi Shraga Simmons writes about the importance of this mitzvah: “It’s one of the Ten Commandments – right up there with belief in God and don’t murder. What’s so special about the mitzvah to honor parents?

Many people think that honoring parents is some kind of payback for all those years of changing diapers and paying for college.

In truth, this mitzvah of honoring parents does not depend on what your parents did for you, or even whether they were good parents. Rather, we honor parents simply because they gave us the gift of life.

By honoring those who brought us into existence, we learn not to take things for granted and develop an appreciation for the kindness of others.”

Rabbi Simmons mentions several ways we fulfill this commandment. We take care of them, especially when they are older. We take them to the doctor, we bring them food, we help them manage their financial affairs. We phone them often. We do not make them feel that they are a burden to us. In the end, the Torah tells us that the reward for honoring parents is long life so it is wise to fulfill this commandment diligently.

Tal Brody, by rushing off to the States to be with his ailing father at a time when he stands to gain immensely if he stays in Europe, reminds us that loyalty and service to parents is more important than transient fame or financial reward. Honoring parents trumps everything.

The Way Back (2020), directed by Gavin O’Connor

I write this review during the Hebrew month of Elul, which occurs before Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year. The theme of the season is repentance. This involves feeling contrite about the sins one has done in the previous year, resolving not to commit the errors of the past in the new year, and confessing to anyone you have injured in any way, either emotionally or financially. The Way Back is the story of Jack Cunningham, a man who has made many bad decisions in his life and who ultimately finds a way to redeem himself through making positive life-changing decisions going forward.

In high school, Jack Cunningham was a celebrated basketball star, setting scoring records at Bishop Hayes High School, a parochial Catholic institution. Inexplicably, he walked away from opportunities to play on college teams, which recruited him and offered him full scholarships. Instead, he became a construction worker without life goals, laboring just to make a living.

After Jack marries, he experiences a major family tragedy and is unable to recover from it. He separates from his wife Angela and resorts to alcohol to deal with life. Soon he becomes addicted to it. His family is concerned about his drinking problem and isolation from family and friends.

Serendipitously, he receives a call from Father Divine, the head of Jack’s alma mater, requesting him to take over the coaching position of the boys’ basketball team. The Father explains that the present coach suffered a heart attack and cannot complete the season. Jack reluctantly accepts the job.

Jack’s inaugural games are rough. The team has not been in the playoffs since Jack was a student and has only won one game this season. Slowly, he warms to the job and connects with the players, all the while trying to stay sober and refrain from cursing the players and the referees. Indeed, there is an overwhelming use of profanity in the film.

Game by game, the team improves and players come to respect their new coach. With each success, Jack’s alcoholism decreases, but it is a constant battle. Whether Jack possesses the will to change his direction in life when he is daily challenged by alcohol and a host of emotional demons is the question the film raises. Can Jack, indeed, be a true penitent?

Rabbi Mordechai Rottman writes about the steps one needs to take to become a true penitent: “The Torah teaches us that it is never too late to change. Changing for the better is called doing teshuva. The Hebrew word teshuva, which is often translated as repentance, actually means to return. Return to God. Return to our pure self.”

There are four steps to repentance in Jewish tradition. We first have to regret what we have done wrong. Then we have to “leave the negativity behind,” as Rabbi Rottman expresses it. This means staying far away from those things that led to the negative behavior. Jack is especially challenged by his temptation to revisit his old haunts in times of emotional crisis.

Next, we need to verbalize the transgression and seek forgiveness from the person we may have wronged. Saying it makes it more real in the mind of the penitent. When Jack has a heart to heart, face-to-face conversation with Angela, Jack reveals a sensitivity and honest desire to turn over a new leaf.

The final step is to resolve not to repeat the negative behavior in the future. The closing scenes of The Way Back imply that Jack is beginning to chart a new path in life.

The Way Back on the surface may be a sports film that deals with a coach motivating his mediocre basketball team, but the real story is about a man who comes to terms with the consequences of making lots of bad decisions. Ultimately, he realizes that redemption will only come about by courageously resolving to make a mid-course correction in his own life.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020), directed by Sharan Sharma

Growing up in the 1950s, I always thought that a conventional college education was a prerequisite for success in life. As I got older, especially when I became a father and had my own children, I began to broaden my perspectives. I saw young men and women who did not complete college, but still go on to become major successes in life. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were two prime models.

Why were they successful? For many reasons, one of which is that each had a clear goal and a burning sense of mission about what they wanted to do and achieve in life. Gunjan Saxena, born in 1975, is another example of a person who is driven by a mission that animates everything she does as long as it fits with her ultimate goal, which is to become a pilot.

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is an inspirational film that begins by dramatizing Gunjan’s childhood experiences in India, which were the catalyst for her desire to fly a plane. Looking up at the sky and seeing an airplane captured her imagination. When she flies on a commercial airline with her family, a kind flight attendant brings her to the cockpit where she views the sky from the pilot’s perspective. This leaves an indelible impression on her young mind. From then on, her only desire is to pilot a plane.

That career path is not easy for Gunjan to take. It requires lots of financial support and getting very good grades in school. Moreover, there is gender inequality in the aviation profession and little public support for training female pilots. Furthermore, she is challenged by not meeting the height criterion of the Indian Air Force and by being overweight. The latter challenge can be addressed with a weight loss regimen. The height deficiency cannot be easily solved. How Gunjan deals with these obstacles is a testament to her grit and determination to achieve her life’s goal. Assisting her every step of the way is her father who does not want his daughter to give up her lifelong dreams. Gunjan persists and eventually is given a chance to prove her value as an Indian Air Force helicopter pilot in the Kargil War.

Gunjan Saxena finds her unique purpose in life as a pilot. Jewish tradition believes in the importance of discovering one’s life mission. Rabbi Dov Heller writes: “Each of us is here to make a unique contribution to better the world. In addition to our unique personal mission, we also have a universal mission of being a light unto the nations as being part of the Jewish people. Understanding our universal and unique personal mission engenders a sense of purpose and drive; it is one of the keys to living a meaningful, energized life. A person charged with a purpose is free from boredom and looking for distractions to kill time. Living with purpose also has a curative power. A person with a mission is liberated from the psychological malady of self-absorption and frees him from envy, competition, and hatred of others, enabling him to love and help others.”

Gunjan Saxena follows her dream and makes a difference in the world around her. Specifically, as a pilot of rescue helicopters, she saves the lives of many soldiers wounded in battle who owe their survival to her heroic actions on the battlefield. Moreover, her becoming a pilot made it easier for other women to join the Indian Air Force and become a critical part of the Indian military. Her story testifies to the value of finding one’s unique mission in life, one that fulfills your own aspirations and also makes the world a better place.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound (2019), directed by Midge Costin

 In 1965, an uncle of mine, a serious audiophile, gave us a wedding gift of a high fidelity sound system with stereo speakers. After listening to music on monotone speakers for much of my life, the surround sound effect of this new technology was amazing. I could hear sounds not just in front of me but emanating from the sides of the room as well. It truly was an enveloping experience. Which is why I was fascinated by the documentary Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound.

The film is an engaging history of the power of sound in movies. Telling the story are the sound engineers who create the film’s soundtrack and the famous directors with whom they collaborate to bring the audience the best of immersive film experiences. The narrative begins with archival footage of silent movies and takes a nostalgic look at early cinema before moving gradually into the era of sound. Through film clips and interviews with legendary directors and sound designers, the creative process behind this often overlooked part of moviemaking is revealed.

Directors interviewed include, among others, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, David Lynch, and Ang Lee. All of them discuss their collaboration with their sound designers and how it made their movies better. Steven Spielberg tries to frame their contribution with the following observation: “Our ears lead our eyes to where the story lives.”

Particularly engaging is Barbra Streisand’s request to record her voice live for A Star is Born to create a more heartfelt rendition of a song rather than dubbing the voice after the scene is shot. Steven Spielberg’s discussion of the opening of Saving Private Ryan is instructive. He details the cacophony of the sounds of battle as heard from the perspective of the soldiers at the Normandy beach landing. The percussive noise of bullets and bombs gives the viewer a sense of being in the middle of a life and death conflict. Spielberg’s analysis of the integration of sight and sound gives one a sense of how valuable is the work of the sound mixer and editor.

The movie considers sound from three perspectives: music, sound effects, and voice. These three elements are then subdivided into smaller units creating what the film’s narrator calls a “circle of talent” that will give the viewer an immersive cinematic experience. The ability of sound to create a total visceral experience for the listener is embedded in the Jewish tradition of sounding the shofar on Rosh HaShanah.

In Exodus (20:15), it says: “And all the people saw the sounds and the flames, the sound of the Shofar and the mountain smoking, and the people saw and shuddered and stood at a distance.” Rabbi Avigdor Bonchek cites Rashi, the pre-eminent Torah commentator, who writes: “They saw that which is ordinarily heard, that which is impossible to see otherwise.” Rabbi Bonchek explains: “Rashi is telling us to take the word see (in Hebrew ‘ro’im’) literally. They literally could see the sound waves of the voice of God as He spoke. In modern psychology, this is called synesthesia, when the sense experience crosses over to another psychological space. Seeing the sounds becomes a miraculous event.”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe amplifies this idea. He observes that seeing enables us to gain a clear perception of the physical world. However, hearing has an advantage over seeing in the sense that it enables us to relate to ideas, abstract concepts and spiritual feelings. These cannot be understood by sight but rather by hearing.

Rabbi Doniel Baron relates this to the sound of the shofar: “The sound of the shofar begins with a simple breath, and ends with a note, broken or straight, depending on the required sound. In describing those sounds, the Talmud uses metaphors of crying — a protracted sighing cry and uncontrollable broken weeping. That primal cry of the shofar reveals its secret. Mystical sources explain that the shofar spiritually expresses places in a person that words cannot reach. It penetrates the core of a Jew’s existence, and taps into the essence of the Jew. It is the primal cry of the soul, an existential scream.”

Making Waves reminds us that sounds convey a message that goes beyond mere words. It allows us to experience the world on multiple levels, and we emerge from the film appreciating the technicians who enable the movies to touch our hearts as well as our heads.

Watch this movie on Amazon.com.

7500 (2019), directed by Patrick Vollrath

 There was a time many years ago, before 9/11, when I could arrive at the airport close to the time of the departure of my flight. I could leave my home an hour before the plane would take off and there was no problem getting from the check-in gate to the plane.

Those days are long gone. Now I always leave my home early in order to arrive at the airport at least two hours before departure to allow time for security checks. 7500 deals with a post 9/11 scenario in which terrorists are able to hijack a plane in spite of all the security checks. It is a sober, yet frightening, depiction of people under extreme stress.

The film begins with an eerie shot of footage from surveillance cameras at the Berlin airport. We observe three people traversing the terminal visiting gift shops to purchase liquor and entering rest rooms, leaving with more hand luggage than when they entered. We then meet pilot Captain Michael Lutzman and his American co-pilot Tobias Ellis as they go through their initial flight checks before departing from Berlin to Paris.

Once the plane achieves cruising altitude, the terrorists take advantage of a flight attendant who opens the door to the cockpit bringing refreshments to the pilots. Tobias is stabbed in the arm, but manages to close the door, but not before Captain Lutzman is mortally wounded. Tobias informs air control of the hijacking and the plane is routed to Hanover, the nearest airport.

The terrorists continue to bang at the cockpit door but with no success. Ground control informs Tobias that under no conditions are the terrorists to be permitted into the cockpit, even when they threaten to execute a hostage if the cockpit door is not opened. A hostage is killed, and then Tobias announces to the passengers that the terrorists have no guns or knives and that they can be overcome by the passengers. Will they listen?

7500 is a realistic depiction of what a plane hijacking by Islamic terrorists might look like. Almost the entire length of the movie takes place in the cockpit, creating a sense of claustrophobic dread.

Tobias is confronted with a moral dilemma: to possibly save one hostage, he may have to make a decision that will threaten the lives of every other passenger. He will have to lose a life to save a life, and, indeed, he does not know with certainty that even one person will be saved once the terrorists enter the cockpit and take control of the plane. As the pilot, he knows that he ultimately is responsible for the passengers’ safety and he cannot place them at risk.

Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin presents the dilemma in stark terms. The Torah tells us not to stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Leviticus 19:16). In other words, if a friend is threatened with death, you should try to save him. But what happens if, in saving your friend, you condemn someone else or perhaps many others to death? The answer is not simple, since every human being, by being created in God’s image, is of infinite value.

Rabbi Yonason Goldson offers another perspective on what transpires in 7500. For him, the critical issue is the passengers’ response to Tobias’ plea for them to take action against the hijackers who have no real weapons. Will they follow his instructions to overpower them? Rabbi Goldson writes: “Nothing catalyzes us like crisis. When the ship is sinking, when the plane is going down, when the enemy is at the gates, we find ourselves motivated to set aside our egos and our petty differences and stand together for the sake of our own survival.” Furthermore, he observes: “With common purpose, we can accomplish virtually anything, as our ancestors did, when they stood before the Creator 3300 years ago and received their instructions and their mission, as one man, with one heart.”

7500 is a tense thriller, but it has lessons for dealing with all kinds of catastrophes. The behavior of Tobias Ellis teaches us that working together with others, maintaining your calm, and having faith in a positive outcome will help you to survive a crisis.

Watch this movie on Amazon.com.

The Little Dictator (2015), directed by Nurith Cohn

 In 1966-67, I spent the year in Israel studying at a Haredi/ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva. All the rabbis had beards and I decided to grow one as well. I wore a suit jacket every day to the Yeshiva even when it was very hot. It was a uniform in which I felt very comfortable.

When I returned to the States at the end of my year in Israel, I began to feel a dissonance between the way I looked and my religious environment in the US. My teachers in the US were devout and knowledgeable, but they did not have beards. I asked one of them why he did not have a beard. He told me that he felt he could fulfill his Torah teaching mission more easily in America if he were not bearded. A beard for him separated him from his students and he did not want that to happen. The Little Dictator, a short but compelling film, deals with the consequences of shaving off one’s beard. It is a simple tale, both humorous and possessing a profound message.

Yossi Kleinmann teaches history at a local university. His specialty is the study of totalitarian leaders. His students barely pay attention to his boring lectures. On the 90th birthday of his wife’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, he is asked to deliver a word of Torah at the Friday evening Sabbath meal.

His wife asks Yossi to shave his beard before the Sabbath, and he begins to shave with only a short window of time before dusk when Jewish law forbids shaving. Ultimately, he does not have enough time to finish and he is only partially shaven. What he looks like, I cannot say because the spoiler will ruin your enjoyment and appreciation of the film. Suffice it to say that appearances often determine how people react to people, and appearances matter the most to the individual who distinguishes himself by the way he looks.

Rabbi Berel Wein, historian, writes: “There is a long tradition in Judaism for men to have beards. This is based originally on the Torah prohibition against shaving facial hair with a straight razor. Because of this prohibition, it became customary for Jewish males to wear beards and in many circles to also allow their side locks -peyot – to grow uncut.”

A beard was considered by the Talmudic sages to be “the glory of one’s face.” It marked one as being Jewish in contrast to the Catholic clergy that was always clean-shaven. However, in modern times, many Orthodox Jews stopped wearing beards, first, because of the use of depilatory compounds that were available to remove facial hair and, later, because of the invention of the electric shaver. Still, many Jews had beards because it reflected their rejection of modernity in an ever- changing and morally ambiguous contemporary world.

In The Little Dictator, shaving off a beard is consequential, but not necessarily in the way one would think. Yossi Kleinmann gives us a new understanding of facial hair as he perceives it, as his loved ones and friends perceive it, and how his wife’s grandmother perceives it. For her, facial hair on a man’s face has a very particular meaning.

Although appearances do not necessarily telegraph who a person is on the inside, they often give us a clue as to a person’s essence. I now live in Israel. When I lived in the US, I would attend synagogue with a suit, tie, and black fedora. In Israel, in my synagogue, most of the men wear white shirts sans tie, suit, and hat. That does not make them less religious than those who wear a suit and tie. It just means that they express their religiosity differently. That is not a bad thing, for God created us all with the ability to be unique. We are created in His image, but that image does not make us all alike.

The Little Dictator, a brief 28-minute film, is worth watching and thinking about. It is available on YouTube for free.

Greyhound (2020), directed by Aaron Schneider

My father served in the Navy during World War I. As an immigrant from Russia, he felt a great debt of gratitude to the United States and took pride in serving his adopted country. I still have his uniform from those days. So I looked with anticipation to watching Greyhound, a thriller recounting one of the historic naval battles of World War II.

The battle centers around naval destroyers escorting a group of supply ships sailing between North America and England. The purpose of the supply ships: to bring needed materials to the troops fighting Germany. The mission of the escort ships: to protect these boats from attacks by German U-boats. Shore-based military planes protect the convoys when the boats are near the shore; but once in the mid-Atlantic, the only protection for the supply ships are designated military vessels. Greyhound focuses on the story of Ernest Krause, the commander of a naval destroyer codenamed Greyhound, who is charged with providing safe cover to a convoy of 37 Allied ships to Liverpool.

Soon after the airplanes depart from the convoy, sonar identifies U-boats in the vicinity, preparing to launch torpedoes. For Krause, this is his first command; and his actions dealing with this initial threat mean a lot to him, and even more to his crew that are looking to him for guidance and support. The outcome of this initial encounter with the enemy is favorable. The torpedo from the U-boat misses its target and the Greyhound fires a depth charge that destroys the enemy vessel.

Soon the Greyhound receives sonar reports that there are many U-boats in the area, traveling slowly but in its direction. At dusk the U-boats attack, but Krause decides not to engage them because he needs to rescue passengers from other convoy ships that were hit by torpedoes. During the following day, multiple attacks are launched by the U-boats, using up the Greyhound’s precious ammunition and increasing the pressure to move quickly to a place where the Greyhound can get aerial cover. There are casualties, but the mission proceeds.

Greyhound is not a conventional war movie. The narrative focus is entirely on Commander Krause, who must rise to the occasion without much battle experience. He is a religious man, recognizing how much is dependent on him; and he prays to God for help and wisdom. He cares deeply for his crewmembers, and wants to succeed for them as well as for himself.

The detail of managing a ship in such treacherous waters is painstakingly revealed. A good portion of the film takes place in the upper deck control room of the ship, making the viewer privy to the technical virtuosity and fortitude that must exist among the crew of a battleship.

The movie’s point of view is the captain’s, and it captures his essential loneliness as he realizes that the buck stops with him. Will his actions demonstrate a convergence of the right leader at the right time?

Rabbi Yaakov Salomon, a Jewish educator, observes that some people fear leadership because it may expose them as incompetent, unqualified, and uncaring. Indeed, Krause is concerned about how his actions are perceived. But that does not deter him from doing his best. Krause understands that the most important trait of a good leader is compassion, concern for others. He knows that you do not have to be perfect, but you have to care for those you lead.

Rabbi Salomon shares the story of Joseph, who became the great leader in Egypt, a position he never even dreamed about as a youth. He knew that he wanted to improve the lives of others. Being compassionate enabled him to weather the storm in spite of how turbulent it might be. Salomon writes: “After having been sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph finds himself incarcerated in Egypt: bereft and alone. But, the events that lead to his eventual release from prison and ultimate rise to power and reunion, all begin with Joseph’s startling compassionate initiative.

He had already been in jail for nine arduous years. The despair and resignation that swells in intolerable conditions such as those is, undoubtedly, unimaginable. And yet, Joseph meets up with two fellow prisoners and asks them a seemingly odd question.

Why do your faces seem depressed today? (Genesis. 40:7)

What does he expect to see on their faces, glee? Who inquires of inmates the reason for their foul mood? Only someone with unusual capacity for compassion. And his subsequent reward is a shocking promotion to a position of unparalleled leadership.”

Commander Krause is technically an able officer, but his connection to God and his genuine and compassionate concern for his crew makes him a leader for the ages.

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