Author Archives: herbert j. cohen

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (2019), directed by Chiwetel Ejiofer

One of my earliest childhood memories was going to the library with my mother. She would bring me there regularly for story hour. I think it was there that I developed an appetite for reading. We would always take out several books and I eagerly anticipated reading them at home.

Those visits are remembered fondly because they were exciting and enjoyable, often introducing me to places and people far away from my provincial hometown. Books catapulted me to the world of imagination, a world that was nurtured throughout my academic career.

Moreover, my mother was an avid reader herself, and I remember that she bought a complete set of the works of Charles Dickens for the home. Raised in an environment where books were treasured, reading classic literature became an aspiration even at a young age.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells the true story of William Kamkwamba, a bright boy born in Malawi, Africa, for whom the library is a magical place where his curiosity about science can be explored and satisfied. William has his roots in a family of farmers. The family lives a meager life dependent upon crops that may or may not be harvested. The possibility of famine always exists because of the lack of rain or an abundance of rain, making their economic future always uncertain.

William has a hobby of repairing radios for his friends and spends time in junkyards looking for electrical components. While figuring out how things work, he discovers an idea whereby windmills can create energy to bring up water from underground wells.

But there is a problem. He is asked to leave the school because his parents cannot pay the tuition. Denied access to the school’s library, he privately asks a teacher for a key to the library. Indeed, he needs its resources in order to develop his windmill theory. He surmises that building an electric water pump will enable people to transport underground water to the surface.

After constructing a prototype, William wants to build a larger windmill. This requires cannibalizing moving parts from his father’s bicycle, which essentially will destroy the bicycle. Father and son love one another, but their love is tested when William requests his father to give him the bicycle, his only means of transportation. Both understand that it will not be returned to his father as William has found it.

The library is key to William’s acquisition of knowledge. It gives him access to books, which give him the know-how to build the water pump, thus avoiding famine and giving the gift of life to his family and his neighbors.

The library with its storehouse of books encourages problem-solving and curiosity. Moreover, in the view of educators, the school library is the center of the cultural and social life of the school, providing reading of all kinds, access to information, knowledge building, and opportunities for deep thinking.

Jews throughout the ages have understood the value of book learning and the supreme importance of the beit midrash, the communal study hall and library where books are stored and studied. Rabbi Benjamin Blech writes: “ We are known as the people of the book. We were the first people to mandate literacy for every child and lifelong study for every adult. Jews didn’t get the genius from their genes; they made study a central feature of their faith and passed on their love of learning to their children.”

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a testament to the value of book learning and what it can do to enhance the lives of those who use the acquisition of knowledge to improve society. The film reminds us that in the midst of despair, knowledge and wisdom can help us transcend an unpleasant reality.

 

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Captains Courageous (1996), directed by Michael Anderson

Herman, a student at the high school where I was the principal, was difficult to like. He viewed all school rules as unnecessary and constantly challenged my administrative decisions. He did not like the school’s dress code and he was unhappy when I required the basketball team to wear a kippah (head covering) when seated on the bench. Moreover, he arrived late to the school’s daily prayer services and exerted minimal effort in all his classes.

So it was with great surprise that I saw him many years later, wearing a kippah, fully observant, and interacting with me and others who knew him in high school with respect and sensitivity. What happened? In truth, I did not know. What I did know is that he matured in ways I could not have anticipated and the change in him was remarkable and greatly welcomed.

In Captains Courageous, Harvey Cheyne, Jr., an orphaned and extremely wealthy boy, undergoes a metamorphosis; but in his case we understand why it happened. Traveling on an ocean liner from America to England, he accidentally falls off the boat. He almost drowns but is saved by fishermen off the Great Banks of Newfoundland.

The fishing boat will be at sea for three months and cannot change course at the whim of a young boy. Harvey is not used to hard labor nor is he used to not having his way. He is angry when the captain of the boat tells him he cannot return to the port from which he departed. Moreover, the captain tells him that if he does not work like others on the boat, he will not eat.

After initially maintaining his attitude of privilege, Harvey, with the aid of the captain’s son, Dan, gradually learns to be a skillful fisherman and sailor. For the first time in his life, Harvey senses he has a true friend. Experiencing challenges together at sea, their friendship blossoms and both boys see one another as comrades for life. When Harvey finally returns to port, he is a changed person.

The main agent responsible for this change is his new-found friend Dan, who sees the potential for goodness within Harvey. With good will and patience, he watches as Harvey matures into a bright young man who is no longer concerned only with himself, but with significant others as well.

Everybody needs a friend. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes Moses’s need for friendship and support. Sacks observes that when Moses is feeling overwhelmed by what he has to do, God does not tell him to cheer up. Instead He tells him to do something: “Gather for Me seventy of the elders of Israel. I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.” In essence, God is advising Moses not to go it alone. Do not be isolated. Make friends.

Sacks writes: “at the moment of Moses’ maximum emotional vulnerability, God Himself speaks to Moses as a friend. This is fundamental to Judaism as a whole. For us God is not (merely) Creator of the universe, Lord of history, Sovereign, Lawgiver and Redeemer, the God of capital-letter nouns. He is also close, tender, loving: He heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds (Ps. 147:3). He is a friend and friends matter. They shape our lives.”

The Sages who authored The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, advise us to “acquire for yourself a friend.” It is not good for people to be alone. We all need companionship; we all need people who help us endure the vicissitudes of life.

Harvey Cheyne in Captains Courageous learns that through friendship his own life becomes more meaningful. Learning to think and care about others makes you a better human being.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLMsd1IsNJ0

FULL MOVIE AVAILABLE ONLINE ON YOUTUBE AND NETFLIX.

 

Heat (1995), directed by Michael Mann

We are blessed with many friends. Being in the synagogue rabbinate and serving as a school principal, we have always had many guests at our table and it has always been a joyous experience, for it afforded my family and me the opportunity to make many friends.

However, I have had few close friends. My immediate family has always been my best friend. They were the people with whom I wanted to spend my free time.

But once I made aliyah and redefined myself as a teacher, not the man in charge, our guest list in Israel shrank. Instead of inviting congregants, students, and their families, we now mostly invite friends. At first this was strange to me since I perceived myself as a community figure whose mission it was to connect with congregants, parents, and students and encourage them to move further along the path to religious observance. Now I just had to be a good friend. It was as simple as that.

My wife, Meryl, helped me make this transition when she reminded me that being a friend means more than having a person for dinner. It means developing a relationship, getting to know the other person well and sharing in his joys and sorrows. Friendship means connection in a deep sense.

I thought of this as I watched Heat, a crime thriller in which a career criminal, Neil McCauley, avoids connection. He does not want to foster any lasting relationships because they will make him vulnerable and perhaps get him killed. It is a sad, lonely, and solitary existence, but a necessary one for a criminal whose success thrives when people cannot identify him or know him well. Early in the narrative, he remarks to a confidante: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” McCauley leads a life of disconnectedness because attachments and friendships expose him to risk.

Pitted against McCauley and his team is Police Lieutenant Vincent Hanna who doggedly perseveres in hunting him down. Hanna also leads a solitary life because of his utter devotion to his job. His all-consuming goal is to catch his man, even if it is at the expense of taking time to nurture his relationship with his wife and step-daughter.

In one mesmerizing scene, McCauley and Hanna meet over a cup of coffee in a restaurant and commiserate about their respective and all-consuming occupations. Hanna shares his concern for his depressed stepdaughter and reveals how his third marriage is headed for disaster because of his obsession with work: “My life’s a disaster zone. I got a wife. We’re passing each other on the down-slope of a marriage – my third – because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block. That’s my life.” McCauley opens up how his relationship with his girlfriend is fraught with peril because at any moment he may have to leave her. The meeting concludes on an ominous note as both men acknowledge they may have to kill one another if the situation requires it.

Jewish tradition values connection with others. The Sages implore us not to separate from the larger community. Joining with the community affirms our connection with others; it stabilizes and nurtures us. In Hebrew the word for friend is chaver and the word for connection is chibur. Both words share the same root, which means staying connected. When man is by himself, it leads to self-centeredness, selfishness, and gratification of self. That is not the Jewish way, for it is through the crucible of relationships that our life is enriched and character is refined.

The obsession-driven characters in Heat remind us of the perils of being a loner. We may get what we want, but it is an empty victory when there is no one with whom we can share our happiness.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch this movie on Netflix.

Victoria and Abdul (2017), directed by Stephen Frears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch this series on Netflix.

Three Identical Strangers (2018), directed by Tim Wardie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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