Author Archives: herbert j. cohen

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.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016), directed by Raoul Peck

I was not much of a student in high school; but when I entered college at Yeshiva University, I had an intellectual awakening. Because I wanted to avoid math courses at all costs, I became a history major and serendipitously became exposed to cutting edge writers and thinkers whose opinions seemed to matter in any discussion of world affairs. One of those was James Baldwin.

Moreover, during the current pandemic quarantine, I read Chronicles, Volume One, an autobiographical account of the early creative years of Bob Dylan, one of the foremost singer/poets of the 20th century. Although not formally educated in college, Dylan had an insatiable curiosity for philosophy and literature in addition to his avid interest in folk music. Many of the songs, artists, and writers mentioned in his autobiography were familiar to me because I, like Dylan, experienced epiphanies of learning in the 1960s. We both lived in New York City at the time and read the same writers.

Although Dylan did not consider himself a prophet of protest, many of his lyrics spoke to the racial inequities of the time. I was, therefore, ripe to watch the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which is based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript entitled “Remember This House.” The book was intended to be a personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his dearest friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, none of whom lived to the age of 40. The film gives voice to the thirty pages of text that remained after Baldwin’s death in 1987.

All three men, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, had different approaches to correcting the systemic racism that they witnessed and experienced in America. What is particularly disturbing is the footage that portrays the prejudice against blacks in the United States. Some of it is archival and some of it is taken from the present day, indicating that old problems are still with us in spite of many people with good intentions who desire to write a new history for blacks in America. The film uses Baldwin’s own language, narrated effectively by Samuel L. Jackson.

What stands out is Baldwin’s use of visceral language to describe the cultural maladies of the day. He is clearly an exceptional chronicler of the American condition. To highlight the movie’s message, Raoul Peck, the filmmaker, employs powerful contrasting images to highlight the way blacks and whites experience America. For example, juxtaposed with the sweet image of a singing Doris Day is a scene of black men being lynched by a white mob. The impression left is that vast numbers of Americans are in denial of the cruel realities of racism, preferring to live in their bubbles of comfortable isolation rather than going out and addressing the lack of civil rights for the outsider that exist in the body politic.

Baldwin reminds people that the stranger, the one who is different from you, should not be dehumanized. It is one of his important observational truths worth pondering. Furthermore, his intellectuality makes him a foe of American consumerism, in which success is only measured in material wealth.

In a thoughtful article by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller, a Jewish educator, she quotes Lev Baruch Perlow, a black sergeant in the Israeli army who lived for many years in Chicago. Perlow offers advice about one way to help stamp out racism. He observes: “At the end of the day we’re people. We’re not more special than another person – we’re the same as you. We have the same rights, the same everything – just a different skin color. We should remember to be kind to the one who is different. Be sensitive. Don’t joke about other people’s differences or try to taunt them. Look at others as fully realized people, not simply as walking embodiments of the color of their skin. It’s pretty simple: treat a black person like you treat yourself, like you treat any other person.”

Perlow’s straight-forward advice resonates in these tumultuous times of racial tension and racial divide. I Am Not Your Negro presents the problem and the challenge. The next step to take is ours.

The African Doctor (2016), directed by Julien Rambaldi

During the Corona quarantine, we are living in Boca Raton with my daughter Chanie and her family. We reside in Beit Shemesh in Israel, but traveled here to spend Purim with her; we now have been her guests for over to three months.

Chanie homeschools her kids, and my wife and I have been the “scholars-in-residence” for the homeschool of our grandchildren. Last week I discussed the verse of Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first great African-American poets, with my granddaughter Sari. We focused on the poem “Sympathy,” the refrain of which is “I know why the caged bird sings.” That phrase is also the title of Maya Angelou’s famous autobiography, which describes the formative years of that American writer and poet who was known for her strong character and love of literature, both of which helped her to overcome racism.

Sari and I then discussed how being black can be an obstacle to being accepted into mainstream society and how it often prevented people from pursuing certain professions. Being a stranger, or outsider, created all sorts of obstacles. Based on a true story, The African Doctor depicts one real-life example of how prejudice towards strangers dramatically affected the arc of one person’s entire life.

Seyolo Zantoko, an African who has just graduated from a French medical school, turns down a job to be the personal physician of President Joseph-Desire Mobutu of Zaire because the country is known for its corruption. Instead, he applies for the position of a doctor in a small country town in France, far from the bustling business and fashion environment of Paris. The mayor hires him for his village of Marly-Gomont, but warns him that adjusting to his rural community will not be easy.

Once the family moves into the village, Seyolo’s wife Anne and his two children, Sivi and Kamini, are disappointed, having expected to dwell in a cosmopolitan environment. They did not comprehend that Seyolo’s ultimate goal in accepting this post was to give his children a superior education in France and to obtain French citizenship.

As their period of adjustment progresses, challenges emerge. The provincial town dwellers are suspect of newcomers, especially if they are black. HIs children are bullied at school, and almost no one comes to see him for medical services. Eventually, however, mutual understanding prevails, and there is rapprochement between Seyolo’s family and the townspeople.

Judaism has much to say about how to treat the stranger because Jews endured slavery in Egypt when they were strangers in the land (Exodus 23:9). Indeed, the more vulnerable the stranger, the greater is our obligation to help him. The stranger is bereft of family, friends, and the familiar, and he needs our support.

Jewish history is filled with stories of loners, strangers, who had to overcome prejudice to be accepted. Abraham was told that his descendants would be strangers in a strange land. Moses spent a good portion of his adult life as a stranger, an outsider, in Midian. The Jews spent years as outsiders in Europe; and every year at Passover, Jews recount the story of their marginal status in Egypt as a people without a homeland. It is the collective memory of being a stranger that eternally binds the Jewish people together.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks poetically writes: “You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. God tells us I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the color of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image, says God, they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.”

The African Doctor reminds us of the evils of prejudice and functions as a clarion call to help the strangers among us.

Jerry Seinfeld: “I’m Telling You for the Last Time (1998), directed by Marty Callner, and Jerry Before Seinfeld (2017), directed by Michael Bonfiglio

From 1988 to 1998, Seinfeld was one of the most successful sitcoms on television; but in the 80s and 90s, I was busy with life and never watched an episode of the popular show. A friend recently prevailed on me to watch two of his stand-up comedy concerts. One was produced soon after he ended his sitcom. The concert was entitled “I’m Telling You for the Last Time.” The second concert was entitled “Jerry Before Seinfeld” performed in 2017. Both performances impressed me. I had no desire to watch reruns of his old show, but Seinfeld’s contemporary humor delivered in his own inimitable, observational style resonated with me, especially since my roots are in New York City.

Here are some representative jokes from “I’m Telling You for the Last Time.”

On fear – “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy. ”

On stain removal commercials – “Now they show you how detergents take out bloodstains, a pretty violent image there. I think if you’ve got a T-shirt with a bloodstain all over it, maybe laundry isn’t your biggest problem. Maybe you should get rid of the body before you do the wash.”

On milk use-by date – “Have you ever had milk the day after the date? Scares the hell out of you, doesn’t it? The spoon is trembling as it comes out of the bowl. ‘It’s after the day! I’m taking a big chance! I smelled it, you smelled it, what is it supposed to smell like? It smelled like milk to me.’ I don’t know how they’re so definite, though. Maybe the cows tip them off when they’re milking them. ‘July 3rd.’”

On ‘best man’ title – “I was best man at a wedding one time and that was pretty good. Pretty good title, I thought … ‘Best man.’ I thought it was a bit much. I thought we had the groom and the ‘pretty good man.’ That’s more than enough. If I am the best man, why is she marrying him?”

“Jerry Before Seinfeld” is a stand-up gig delivered at The Comic Strip where Seinfeld’s career began. The set is punctuated by childhood home videos and interviews with the grown-up Seinfeld on the streets of New York. Here are some choice jokes from this show:

  1. “Eventually I brought (my parents to a show) and I was so nervous that night because I was showing them this whole side of myself. It was like my little gay closet moment. I had to say, ‘Hey, Mom, Dad, I don’t know how to tell you this — I’m a funny person and I don’t want to be ashamed of it anymore. I want to lead a funny lifestyle now.'”
  2. “I’m left-handed. Left-handed people do not like that the word ‘left’ is so often associated with negative things: Two left feet, left-handed compliments, ‘What are we having for dinner?’ ‘Leftovers.’  You go to a party, there’s nobody there. ‘Where’d they go?’ ‘They left.'”
  3. “I think the biggest step in relationships is when you have a kid. You get to a point where everyone you know has caught onto you, and you have to create a new person that doesn’t know anything about you.”

What impressed me about both concerts is that his humor does not depend on sexual references or foul language. It is, as one critic said, “observational humor” delivered with intelligence and wit.

Two other takeaways: First, Jerry kept a file of all the jokes that worked for him since the 1970s when he began his career. It reminded me of my own file box listing all the books I have read since I was 13 years old. I wanted to keep track of my literary growth and accomplishments, so I kept a list of the books I read. Second, Jerry is not concerned about whether people like him. What is important is whether they like his material. Success is not about him; it is about how audiences respond to his humor. Do they genuinely find his jokes funny?

Judaism looks favorably upon humor. D.B. Estrin, a Jewish educator and author, notes that the Talmud mentions several great teachers who began their classes with a joke to create a comfortable rapport with the students.

Moreover, there are studies that indicate that laughter has the power to heal. There are therapists who serve as “medical clowns” and volunteers known as “mitzvah clowns” who work in children’s wards and senior citizen facilities. Their labor can be viewed as a form of the good deed of “visiting the sick.”

Moreover, one of the patriarchs of the Jewish people is Isaac/ Yitzchok, which in Hebrew means “he will laugh.” It is a name that signifies the importance of laughter when we confront difficulty. Humor may not eliminate or minimize the problem, but it can help us see the problem as part of our larger human journey. In that way, it enhances our perspectives and understanding of life.

The Jerry Seinfeld concert movies remind us that life is more bearable and enjoyable if we cultivate a sense of humor. Laughter, indeed, helps us navigate the many challenges that life presents.

The Last Dance (2020), directed by Jason Hehir

As a teenager, my sport of choice was basketball. Not only could I play it with friends, but I could shoot hoops by myself if no one else was around. My most memorable Bar Mitzvah gift was a basketball given to me by my friends Kenny and Marilyn Beaman.

Because of my preoccupation with basketball, I asked my father to put up a backboard that would hang down from the roof of the garage in the back of my house, which he did. But there was one problem. The garage had glass windows close to the top of the garage door. With some regularity, windows were broken by an errant shot. It became more of a problem when the missed shot hit the glass of my neighbor’s garage door. But we persisted in playing.

I share this story to give you an idea of my long-standing interest in basketball and why I watched The Last Dance, a ten-part series on ESPN, documenting the six championship seasons of the Chicago Bulls, with specific emphasis on the trajectory of Michael Jordan’s career. I generally do not watch any series on TV because it is too time-consuming. My professional focus is on writing film reviews, which involve less of a time commitment. But watching Michael Jordan in his prime was a temptation I could not resist.

The Last Dance is a riveting documentary. It not only depicts the basketball prowess of Michael Jordan, but also portrays the thinking of management in dealing with a high profile athlete who is literally an icon to millions of fans. Moreover, I came away with a new appreciation for the other Bulls players who were a part of the Jordan years and who played important roles as supporting players. Scottie Pippen, Steve Kerr, and Dennis Rodman, each made meaningful contributions to the winning team. Additionally, Phil Jackson’s unusual out-of-the box coaching style was fascinating to observe, especially with the special farewell ritual he revealed at the close of the last championship season.

What was most impressive about the entire series was the complete focus of Michael Jordan on basketball. Nothing distracted him from his goal of winning a championship. He did not play to gain anyone’s approval. He worked hard at his craft simply because he wanted to be the best and he wanted his team to be successful. He set high standards for his teammates because he set a high bar for himself and he wanted his team to play at their absolute best.

In the world of Jewish learning, there are singular personalities who are known for their total focus on their mission as Torah scholars, as devout Jews, and as servants of Hashem. In my own experience, the figure of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein looms large. He was my Talmud teacher and the head of the Yeshiva University Kollel when I was a member of that august group in the late 1960s.

Rabbi Lichtenstein was a person from whom I gleaned many Torah values and insights about life. He was a living model of what a Torah personality should be, always studying, always a model of good behavior, and always conscious of the value of time. I would watch him walk quickly or run between classes or to the lunchroom, so as not to waste a moment. Even in the university cafeteria, he was not a schmoozer. He ate quickly and then returned hastily to the study hall. Every moment was precious.

Because of his single-minded focus on his studies, he was a giant role model. Students recognized his intellectual power and often posed questions to him outside of class to obtain his views on a variety of contemporary subjects.

I remember vividly a student asking him whether a particular budding Torah scholar in the Kollel should attend a Soviet Jewry rally. Rav Lichtenstein responded that for some students it was important to attend this worthwhile rally; but for this individual to develop his Torah learning skills to the maximum, he should not attend a rally that would take a substantial amount of time away from his Torah learning. The implicit message: to achieve greatness requires total focus.

Study of Torah demands this because study is a divine commandment, optimally done both day and night. Moreover, as Rav Lichtenstein writes: “First, study provides knowledge requisite to halakhic living, even as it deepens halakhic commitment. Second, since talmud Torah enables a person, within limits, to cleave unto God, it has moral, passional, and pietistic repercussions.” In the view of the Talmudic Sages, study of Torah is the equivalent of all other commandments; therefore, if one wants to achieve greatness in Torah learning, one must be completely focused on the task to the extent that he has the intellectual ability to do so.

In the world of sport, Michael was given the divine gift of a body that could be trained to enable him to be the ultimate basketball warrior. Because of his total focus and commitment to the game, we, the fans, can enjoy his athleticism on display in The Last Dance.

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