Infinitely Polar Bear (2014), directed by Maya Forbes

infinitely-polar-bear-posterAs a child with a Downs Syndrome sister, I recall in the 1950s families with Downs Syndrome children often kept their kids in the proverbial closet. My mother and father thought differently. They felt Carol, their daughter, needed to be visible in the community and that the community should provide the resources for such kids to develop their potential to the fullest extent possible. That’s why my mother fought for the establishment for a school in Westchester County for the mentally retarded and, when Carol was older, for the establishment of a retarded children’s workshop in White Plains so that Carol could feel and be productive in her mature years.

Not all parents felt the same way. Some wanted to hide the disability, for they were uncomfortable saying they had a retarded child. I know of one specific instance where the parents decided not to take the child home from the hospital, consigning the baby to life in an institution.

Infinitely Polar Bear does not deal with mental retardation, but rather with a manic-depressive father and the family’s attempt to live a normal life, which is challenged every day by the erratic and outlandish behavior of the father.

It is Boston in the late 1970s. Cameron Stuart suffers from manic depression, sometimes referred to as bipolar disorder. The film begins with him being fired from his job and going into rehabilitation in a hospital setting. To manage the situation financially, his wife Maggie and their two young girls move into a small apartment while she does her best to support the family.

As Cameron’s mental health stabilizes, Maggie applies to graduate school for an M.B.A. so she can earn more money and send her girls to private school. Fortuitously, Columbia University grants her a scholarship. To attend, she asks Cameron to take care of their kids for 18 months, the time she needs to complete the degree, after which they can reunite as a family. Cameron agrees, but has his doubts about whether he can fulfill the mission.

Living with their father is a constant source of embarrassment for the girls. They love him dearly, but Cameron’s bizarre behavior tests them. He occasionally abandons them during the night, is overly friendly with neighbors whom he hardly knows, and begins many home improvement projects that are never finished, leaving the house in disarray. To complicate matters, Cameron does not take the meds needed to keep him calm, and the home life of the family is shattered with frequent emotional outbursts.

Infinitely Polar Bear raises the question of how much a child should tolerate the abusive behavior of a parent. The Talmud in the Tractate of Kiddushin (31a) is instructive. A story is recounted in which a prominent man wearing expensive garments was seated among Roman officials. His mother forced her way into the gathering and tore his garment, hit him on the head, and spat in front of him. In spite of this, he did not embarrass her. Another sage states that if the mother threw his wallet into the sea, the child should remain passive and not embarrass his parent.

Implicit in this Talmudic narrative is the notion that honoring parents does not depend on what parents did for you or whether they were good to you. Rather the commandment to honor parents is simply because they gave you life. As a result, you need to be nice to them even if they are not nice to you.

Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin, a clinical psychologist, considers the extent to which a child should honor a parent who is abusive. He makes a distinction between a parent who is mentally competent and one who is deranged. In the former, there is more latitude for the child to respond to abuse; in the latter case, there is less. When a parent, for example, has bipolar disorder or Alzheimer’s, the child is faced with a great challenge to keep his composure in the face of behavior that might otherwise be condemned.

Infinitely Polar Bear reminds us of the challenge of being respectful to parents even when they do not behave as parents. It also indicates that an abiding love for parents can often overcome the worst of parental provocations.

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99 Homes (2014), directed by Ramin Bahrani

ninety-nine-homes-posterA family member recently bought a foreclosure home in Florida. A foreclosure is a home owned by the bank because of the failure of the owner to pay his mortgage. From a distance, it looks great for the new purchaser who can acquire a home at a very favorable price; but, up close, a foreclosure has a dark side and can signify a very human tragedy. This is depicted in 99 Homes, an unsettling look at the consequences of foreclosure on decent people who, for a variety of reasons, can’t make ends meet.

The film opens as single father Dennis Nash has just been released from his construction job. His finances are in disarray and, as a result, he, together with his son Conner and his mother Lynn, are evicted from their Orlando, Florida home. In charge of the eviction is realtor Rick Carver who works with the police to enforce the eviction. When Nash pleads for more time to get the financing for his home which has been in the family for generations, Carver coldly tells him: “Don’t get emotional over real estate.”

Dennis is compelled to move to a shabby motel where he can provide at least some measure of protection for his mother and son. When he goes to Carver’s office to reclaim tools that were stolen from him by Carver’s workers, he impresses Carver with his willingness to act forcefully to retrieve them. Carver then decides to hire Dennis as a repairman for his properties.

Dennis, desperately needing the money, accepts the offer. Over time, however, Rick charges Dennis with helping with evictions, and so Dennis becomes a willing accomplice to all the nefarious schemes of Carver, which skirt the law and exploit the situation of homeowners struggling mightily to keep their houses.

As Dennis’ income grows, his conscience troubles him. He knows that he is becoming rich at the expense of those less fortunate who do not have the means to contest the evictions in court. His moral crisis comes to a head when Dennis has to evict a friend of his. Much is at stake.

The eviction of a large number of property owners in a particular neighborhood will give Carver access to lots of real estate deals totaling millions of dollars. But there is a dilemma for Dennis: he must deliver a false document to the court to substantiate Carver’s legal shenanigans to deprive people of getting justice in a court of law.

When we think of foreclosures, we first surmise that the people whose homes are foreclosed have been financially irresponsible. They are simply reaping the negative consequences of what they have sown over the years. However, the Talmud cautions us “not to judge people until you are standing in their place.” One cannot fully understand the trauma of losing a home or the reasons why one loses a home unless that person has experienced a similar crisis.

Moreover, the Ethics of the Fathers states: “The world is founded on loving kindness.” This means that in all of our interactions with people, we should be kind and empathetic. Even if we have to be the bearer of ill tidings, we should fulfill our mission with sensitivity and compassion. Dennis tries to do this, but Carver is only interested in the final financial outcome of a negotiation; inwardly, he does not care who he hurts. His cold, heartless demeanor is encapsulated in a speech he gives to Dennis: “Don’t be soft. America doesn’t bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners. By rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners.”

99 Homes is not an easy movie to watch as we observe simple folk coming face to face with financial, and in some cases emotional, ruin. It is a cautionary tale reminding us to be honest, to be kind, and never to trample on the rights of others.

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Elvis and Nixon (2016), directed by Liza Johnson

elvis-and-nixonAs a young teenager in Mt. Vernon, New York, I was an avid fan of Elvis Presley. I awaited the release of each new single and purchased the albums as they became available. I even combed my hair like Elvis and grew sideburns like him. I thought to look like him was cool; as a result, many of my fellow high school students viewed me as an enigma, not knowing if I was a sweet Jewish kid or a rock and roller ready to rumble.

Although I outgrew my fascination with Elvis as I matured, I still liked his music. I made a pilgrimage to Graceland, his famous Memphis home, during a Torah Umesorah Jewish educator’s convention in that city in the late 70s and then revisited it as an adult in the 1990s.

A friend of mine who knew of my early admiration of Elvis bought me a postcard depicting Elvis in Talis and Tefilin in front of the Western Wall with the caption “I saw Elvis Aaron Presley at the Western Wall.” So it was with great interest that I watched Elvis and Nixon, a fanciful recreation of a meeting between the “King,” Elvis, and President Nixon, which was immortalized in an iconic photo of the two, a photo that is the most requested picture in the National Archives.

The film opens on a December morning in 1970 when Elvis shows up at the White House requesting a meeting with President Nixon. The authorities at the gatehouse do not know what to make of his request. After a number of meetings with various White House aides, we learn that Elvis wants an audience with the President to let him know of his abiding concern for the youth of the country that is being seduced by the drug culture. Elvis wants to go undercover as a federal agent-at-large to infiltrate the drug gangs and bring them to justice. He also wants an official badge certifying his unique position within the law enforcement agency. He truly feels he has more access to the criminal element than an average Federal narcotics agent.

The bureaucracy of government does not know how to deal with Elvis’s request and Nixon has no interest in meeting him. All seems lost until one of Elvis’ traveling buddies, Jerry Schilling, is reminded of the power of Elvis on his female fans, the daughter of the president being no exception. With promises to her for an Elvis autograph and a photo of Elvis with her father, the White House staffers convince the President to meet with Elvis. The meeting goes well and lasts longer than anticipated. They part as friends and the iconic picture is taken.

What is gleaned from this comedy are some serious notions about fame, fortune, ego, and the desire to be admired and liked. Both Nixon and Elvis are famous, both came from poor backgrounds, and both are self-absorbed, thinking that the world revolves around them.

Jewish tradition encourages a totally opposite view of life, a life founded on humility. The giants of Jewish history were imbued with humility. Moses is known in the Bible as the most humble of all men (Numbers 12:3). Abraham saw himself as only “dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27). King Saul always wanted to avoid the limelight.

Moreover, there is a Hasidic story of a man who came to a holy and righteous man to ask for advice on how he should view fame. “All my life,” he said, “I have tried to follow the advice of the rabbis that one who runs away from fame will find that fame pursues him, and yet while I run away from fame, fame never seems to pursue me.” The holy man answered: “The trouble is that while you do run away from fame, you are always looking over your shoulder to see if fame is chasing after you.”

Watching Elvis and Nixon reminds us of the empty nature of fame. No matter how much you pursue it, it eludes you because of its essential evanescent nature. A special moment can be captured in a photo, but the real business of life transcends the ephemeral nature of fame.

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The Wrong Man (1956), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

wrong-man-posterWhen I taught Hamlet some years ago to a high school class in Atlanta, a student voiced surprise that Ophelia, a woman deeply in love with Hamlet, committed suicide. It prompted a class discussion about how friends experience great pain when they see a loved one suffering.

Such is the case of Rose Balestero in The Wrong Man directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who informs us at the beginning of the film that everything we are about to see is true.

Rose is the wife of Manny Balestero, a musician in the prestigious Stork Club in New York City. He enjoys his work, but is consistently in debt because of his small paycheck. When his wife needs money to have her wisdom teeth extracted, he goes to a life insurance company to borrow money against his wife’s policy. It is here that things fall apart. Several office workers identify Manny as the thief who robbed the life insurance company twice before. They summon the police and Manny is arrested on suspicion of robbery. In truth, their identification of Manny is faulty, but the witnesses claim they are sure that he is the robber.

Although the witnesses are not reliable, they cast aspersions on Manny. There is great emotional upheaval in the life of his family when Manny is incarcerated. Sadly, Rose eventually falls into deep depression because of the stress her husband is enduring. She feels his emotional pain so much that it causes her to lose touch with reality. Although Manny is eventually exonerated of the crime when the real perpetrator of the robbery is apprehended and clearly identified, Rose’s depression lingers for a number of years before she mentally recovers.

Having empathy for another human being is a classic Jewish sensibility, especially when dealing with the relationship between spouses. A great twentieth century sage and doer of good deeds, Rabbi Aryeh Levine, was known to be an exemplar of a person who truly cared about others and totally identified with their pain.

The Talmud tells us to love one’s wife as himself and honor and respect her more than himself. When Rabbi Levine’s wife felt pain her leg, they went to the doctor together. When the physician asked, “what can I do for you,” the rabbi responded: “my wife’s foot is hurting us.” He fully identified with his wife’s suffering because he viewed her as part of him. Our tradition tells us that a man’s wife is like part of his own body, and, therefore, husband and wife feel the distress of the other.

Empathy does not only relate to the relationship of one spouse to another. It is even a requirement in Jewish jurisprudence. Maimonides writes that only a person who has children can be appointed to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court, in order to insure a proper judgment. Maimonides felt that a judge must have the perspective of a parent, combining justice and mercy, if he is to judge wisely and compassionately.

Mendel Kalmenson, in an article on friendship, quotes the words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on what it means to be empathetic and a good friend: “A friend is someone in whose presence you can think aloud without worrying about being taken advantage of. A friend is someone who suffers with you when you are in pain and rejoices in your joy. A friend is someone who looks out for you, and always has your best interests in mind. In fact, a true friend is like an extension of yourself.” The Sages inform us that spouses are one’s best friends. Clearly Rose Balestero is her husband’s best friend for she acutely feels his pain.

Furthermore, Kalmenson observes: “Empathy is not to be confused with sympathy. Sympathy is feeling bad for someone else; empathy is feeling bad with someone else.” Rose Balestero feels the pain of Manny, her husband, and it is overwhelming.

Empathy is good when it does not overwhelm us. If we can feel the anguish of loved ones, and still maintain our emotional equilibrium, then ultimately, we will feel their joy.

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Fastball (2016), directed by Jonathan Hock

fastball-posterOne of my Torah teachers, Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet, is an avid baseball fan. He sees baseball as particularly engaging for students of Talmud. His reasons? “Because it’s slow-moving and you can think,” he said. “Every play requires you to ponder what to do. How shall I react to the reality that I see on the playing field? What play are you going to use? In other sports, it’s quick; you don’t ponder what will happen next. Things move very fast in basketball and football. But in baseball you have questions. Is the pitcher or the batter a left-hander, a right-hander, will the fielders pull the infield in, push the outfield back, give up the run, worry about the bunt, go for the double play, the squeeze, should he steal, what do you do, put him in scoring position, hit away. There’s so much involved that you have time to think. To me, if you have that Talmudic mind, it’s one of the reasons you like baseball.”

The Talmudic mind is on display in Fastball, an intellectually engaging documentary about the fastest pitch in baseball, but also a trip down memory lane visiting the baseball greats of the past. The narration by Kevin Costner focuses on the confrontation between batter and pitcher that is fraught with tension and peril. The ball is thrown upwards of 100 miles per hour toward the batter’s head. The pitcher intimidates while the batter exhibits caution, vigilance, and nerves of steel. The film considers the extent to which the speed of the ball influences the success of the pitcher and the ultimate outcome of the game.

Tracing the origins of the fastball compels one to visit the evolutionary history of baseball by interviewing celebrated players from both the past and present. Moreover, there is a scientific/mathematical analysis of the speed of the ball from the pitcher’s mound to the batter’s box, which enables the viewer to understand fully the impact of speed on the ball’s rotation.

After considering which pitcher has the best fastball, there is a vignette about a pitcher who is no longer remembered by the vast majority of fans and players even though he was reputed to have the fastest pitch. Why is this? Because even though he had the fastest pitch, he lacked consistent control of the ball. Speed alone does not make winners; only when speed is harnessed to control does winning occur.

This sensibility of balancing speed with control and mastery existed in Jewish academies of learning in the past and exists today as well. In many of these post-high school institutions of learning, there are two categories of classes. One class moves with alacrity and covers lots of Talmudic ground, but does not go deeply into the text. The second, more advanced class, moves more slowly and spends lots of time analyzing the nuances of the text. The great scholars emerge out of the second group of classes, which not only covers ground, but enables students to attain mastery of a topic. Speed alone does not produce success.

Fastball ultimately informs us that Nolan Ryan had the fastest pitch along with the most control of the ball. Interestingly, he had a long baseball career pitching for a number of teams.

It is this mindset of being both fast and controlled that contributes to success in all areas of life. When we are energetic and quick and combine that with a thoughtful demeanor, we increase our chances for success in life. In the Ethics of the Fathers, we are told to rise like a lion and be as swift as a deer, but we are also cautioned to be deliberate in judgment. Speed unfettered by reason leads to accidents. Speed buttressed by the attribute of control leads to success.

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The Giver (2014), directed by Phillip Noyce

giver-posterIn one of the Israeli schools in which I taught, the students in one particular seventh grade class were mostly interested in parroting back information. The typical question I received was “can I read the next paragraph” or “what was my grade on the last test?” It was rare to hear a question that reflected a thinking, active intellect.

At one point I even told the students that unless they began asking thoughtful questions, the class would become boring for me to teach. I told the students I needed them to respond to the literature I taught. I did not want them only to behave; I wanted them to feel the power of the poetic image or verse. I wanted them to consider the meaning of the works we read. I wanted my students not only to think but to feel.

The Giver, a story set in some future time after a nuclear war, describes a society that wants its citizens to think and not to feel. What is paramount is living in tranquility without strong emotions that potentially can corrupt society. Therefore, citizens have their memories wiped out to insure a stable and peaceful world in the future.

The narrative follows the life of teenager Jonas who, after the completion of high school, is assigned a specific vocation in the community together with other teens in the city. The matching of student and vocation takes place in a public ceremony, and Jonas’s mission is saved for last. Unlike his peers, Jonas is chosen to be the new Receiver of Memories because he possesses the four attributes of intelligence, integrity, courage, and an ability to look beyond the present moment. The person charged with instructing Jonas about the past before the cataclysmic destruction of society is the Giver, an old man who is a living repository of all past memories.

Memories of the past both enlighten Jonas and frighten him. In dreams he sees visions of happy scenes and images of violence and destruction. The Giver explains that Jonas’ confused emotional state will create problems for himself and society. In spite of this, Jonas begins to appreciate the role of emotion, which makes life a richer experience.

He shares his newfound wisdom with friends, but the Elders are worried that his actions will destroy the tranquility of their society. The conflict between the Elders’ desire to preserve the status quo and Jonas’ desire to reinsert emotion into the lives of the citizens leads to tension and conflict. Finding balance between emotion and reason in society and in one’s personal life is the theme of The Giver.

Traditional Judaism promotes balance between emotion and reason. It is good to think and it is also good to feel. For example, the Sages tell us that prayer should not only be cerebrally understood and recited; it should also express the heartfelt sentiments of the supplicant. In reciting the daily prayers, Rabbi Shimon says that one should not make his prayers routine; rather they should express the deep emotion of the person praying. One should try to feel God’s presence.

Moreover, God reveals Himself in the Book of Genesis by two Hebrew names: Elokim and Hashem. Our Sages tell us that Elokim refers to God acting as a God of stern judgment and reason; Hashem refers to a God acting with mercy and compassion. For the world to exist, there most be a combination of justice and mercy. Just as God possesses both attributes, so too should humans. Reason without emotion is unnatural and potentially harmful.

Jonas arrives at this truth as he learns from the Giver, who we discover is not simply a repository of past memories, but a person of feeling who wants future generations to be human in the fullest sense of the word. He reminds us that life is richer and more complete if we experience the agonies and ecstasies of the human experience.

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High Noon (1952), directed by Fred Zinnemann

high-noon-posterThere have been times in my rabbinic and educational career when I tried to enlist the aid of friends to move a particular project forward. I would speak to many acquaintances, all of whom gave me warm expressions of support. But when it was crunch time, they were with me in spirit only, but not in terms of giving me dollars for my project.

I realized then that I would have to go it alone, and I often applied to foundations for funding rather than solicit individuals within the community. The experience of not successfully fundraising for a project was disappointing, but it taught me a valuable lesson echoed in The Ethics of the Fathers. There it states: “In a place where there is no man, strive to be a man.” If there is a critical project that needs to be done, and no one steps forward to help, then you should be prepared to do it yourself.

Such is the predicament of Marshall Will Kane in the classic western High Noon. The film opens as three outlaws ride into Hadleyville to meet the noon train on which is riding Frank Miller, a notorious criminal whom Kane has arrested for murder and sent to prison several years before. Now Miller has been pardoned and he is traveling to Hadleyville to settle old scores with those responsible for his incarceration.

Serendipitously, Kane is getting married to pacifist Quaker Amy Fowler that same day in the morning. At his wife’s wishes, he is leaving his position as Marshall and looking forward to a quiet time in life. The community encourages him to leave town before Miller and his men arrive, and he does. But once on the open road, he turns his buckboard around. He feels that Miller will continue to hunt him wherever he is and the townspeople, without a new marshal in town, will be defenseless against Miller and his cronies.

Kane solicits the help of the townspeople, but to no avail. He walks to the local saloon to get volunteers and they reject his overtures. He then goes to the church, interrupting the sermon, to get help. The congregants are more civil, but again he comes up empty-handed. Slowly, it dawns on him that he will have to face Miller and his henchmen alone. With that sobering thought, Kane writes a will, which he leaves in his desk drawer, to be opened in the event of his death.

When it is high noon, the train arrives and Miller gets off to meet his gang. They walk into town looking for Kane. The camera shows Marshal Kane all by himself on the deserted street. It is an iconic scene, emblematic of the formidable challenge he has to meet: one lonely man against four very bad men who want to kill him.

Jewish history has within it models of reluctant heroism and leadership, the most famous of which is Moses. He does not thirst for glory. He does not want to be the center of attention, but he eventually understands that he is the only man to lead the Jews out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.

When he sees a slave being abused by an Egyptian, Moses looks “this way and that.” The Biblical commentators suggest that Moses was looking for help, for someone else to take action, but no one did. At that moment, he realized that it was up to him to act.

Will Kane in High Noon is tempted to leave town and save his own life, and he contemplates that course of action briefly. But in a moment of moral clarity, he decides to protect the community even though he must act alone. In the end, doing the right thing trumps personal considerations.

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