Author Archives: herbert j. cohen

Lawrence of Arabia (1962), directed by David Lean

lawrence of arabiaI first saw Lawrence of Arabia in 1962. It was a cinematic event, panoramic in scope and intellectually engaging. The central character, T. E. Lawrence, a brave and psychologically complex British lieutenant, was not a conventional movie hero and the story was complicated. I remember being impressed by the dramatic visuals, but I was not touched emotionally by the narrative.

The film begins with Lawrence dying in a motorcycle accident in 1935. At his funeral, mourners debate his greatness, and the viewer is taken back to his early years as an intelligence officer in Cairo in 1916 to observe the arc of his military career.

Because of his knowledge of Arab ways, he is sent to assess the efficacy of the Arab revolt against the Turks, who are allied with the Germans in World War I. Once in the desert, he does not follow his orders to simply obtain information. Instead, he decides to organize an army among the many disparate Arab tribes that will harass the Turks with raids, train explosions, and camel attacks. Indeed, Lawrence and his cohorts have military success and help the British destroy the Ottoman Empire.

Throughout his exploits, Lawrence is a conflicted man. At times he sees himself as a demi-god, at other times a mere mortal at the whim of fate. His sense of personal destiny enables him to accomplish the near impossible. It is his goal to give the Arabs freedom from the Turks and an opportunity to determine their own destiny.

Regrettably, the Arabs have no experience with setting up the rudiments of a conventional government. They cannot unify their often adversarial points of view; and, in the end, the Arabs surrender the cities they have conquered to the British. In spite of Lawrence’s military success, his dream of Arab unity is never realized.

Jewish tradition stresses the importance of unity whenever there is an important mission to be achieved. At the giving of the Torah at Sinai, Jews were of one heart and mind. Their unity is based on the notion that people should genuinely love one another and care for each other. The implication of that unity is that any action by one Jew affects another Jew. When one Jew does something good, it benefits the entire people; when a Jew does something bad, he hurts the body politic of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Noach Weinberg provides an unusual description of unity from the biological realm, but which has implications for relationships between humans as well: “If you are slicing a carrot and accidentally cut your finger, do you respond by taking the knife and deliberately slicing into your other hand in revenge? Of course not. Because your other hand is a part of you, too. Humanity is one unit. If we’re united, the Almighty’s with us. If we’re divided, we’re on our own.”

As I watched this cinema classic from the 1960s, before the Six Day War, I began to think about why the Arab population of the Middle East has not been able to move forward to establish a state. They are still functioning as tribal communities, unable to see beyond the present and unable to develop a cohesive world view that triumphs over sectarian interests.

Lawrence of Arabia may deal with a specific incident of the past, but it demonstrates the disastrous consequences of being unable to unify peoples who still hold tribal loyalties as more important than national goals. When people are enmeshed in their own personal worlds, they do not consider the negative results that mitigate against the greater good.

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Dr. Strange (2016), directed by Scott Derrickson

dr. strangeA friend of mine scheduled hip replacement surgery. He and his wife visited the surgeon who had been recommended by many. After the meeting, my friend and his wife came away with different impressions. While both felt the surgeon was highly competent, the wife detected a streak of arrogance in the doctor, and it bothered her. She preferred a surgeon who radiated humility, not pride. The husband felt that, at the end of the day, God is the healer, not the surgeon, and the surgeon’s arrogant attitude was not a reason to choose another doctor.

An extremely competent but prideful physician is the main character in Dr. Strange, the origin story of Marvel comic book hero Stephen Strange, a gifted doctor who sees himself as a mini-god. The opening segment of the film depicts a tragic car accident that results in catastrophic injury to his hands. He can no longer work as a surgeon and feels life is over.

One day, however, he hears about a fellow who was paralyzed and who, without medical intervention, regained the use of his limbs. To do this, the man journeyed to a faraway place in Katmandu, Nepal, called Kamar-tal, where he learned to use his mind to overcome his physical paralysis.

Strange decides to travel to Kamar-tal. There he meets people proficient in the mystic arts including The Ancient One, and Mordo, a sorcerer. These practitioners of magic exist in an alternate reality, which strives to rescue the world from enemies existing in other dimensions.

Under their tutelage, Strange moves from being a self-centered egotist to a person genuinely concerned about the fate of others. Moreover, he now believes not only in science but accepts other sources of knowledge that do not function according to the rules of science. At the outset of his psychological journey, he states: “I do not believe in fairy tales about chakras or energy or the power of belief. There is no such thing as spirit! We are made of matter and nothing more. You’re just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.” At journey’s end, he comprehends that he is not the center of the universe; but, rather, some spiritual power is. Furthermore, his brush with death has made him value life more. The Ancient One tells him: “ Death is what gives life meaning.” That piece of wisdom resonates within Strange; life’s brevity makes him treasure each moment more.

These valuable life lessons are part of Jewish tradition. The Jewish belief system is built on the notion there is both a spiritual and material world and that what we do on this earth transcends the physical. Indeed, our earthly lives eventually morph into a purely spiritual existence on another plane where we are held accountable for the good and bad things we have done.

Moreover, the Sages in The Ethics of the Fathers remind us to repent one day before we die. Since we do not know when they day will arrive, we are to live with an awareness that each day might be our last. Therefore, each day should be filled with good deeds. Thinking about mortality is good because that thought will spur us on to a life of greater accomplishment.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange does not suddenly become a paragon of humility, but he does learn that life has other dimensions than the physical. Moreover, he learns that a mission-driven life can involve more than one mission, and that a person’s mission can change depending on the turnabouts in one’s own life. Indeed, Dr. Strange, a fictional comic book story, offers one model for cultivating humility and discovering our true destiny.

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The Fault In Our Stars (2014), directed by Josh Boone

fault in our starsI recently read a book by my son, Rabbi Daniel Cohen, entitled What Will They Say About You When You’re Gone: Creating a Life of Legacy. Drawing upon his synagogue experiences and officiating at hundreds of funerals, he poses the question of how we want to be remembered. Through personal anecdote and sharing interviews with movers and shapers in the worlds of business and art, he suggests ways to re-engineer your life so that when your life is over, you will be remembered for things that matter, not for how much you acquired.

The protagonists of The Fault In Our Stars, two teenagers afflicted with cancer, reflect on how they want to be remembered. Recognizing the likely brevity of their own lives gives the question a particular urgency for Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters.

Hazel and Augustus meet at a cancer support group. Hazel has stage-4 thyroid cancer and Augustus, in remission from bone cancer, has had his right leg amputated. They share their stories with one another and their literary interests, which deepen their relationship. Hazel’s favorite book is An Imperial Affliction written by Peter Van Houton. The novel ends in mid-sentence when the heroine dies, and Hazel is curious to know the after story of the characters in the book.

Hazel confesses that she has written hundreds of letters to the author asking him to tell her what happens next in the lives of the characters but to no avail. Happily, Van Houton’s assistant responds to Gus when he writes to Van Houton. This encourages Hazel to write Van Houton again and surprisingly he extends an invitation to her to visit him in Amsterdam. Frannie, Hazel’s mom, arranges for the Amsterdam trip for Hazel, Gus, and herself as chaperone.

The meeting with Van Houton does not go as expected. Van Houton is a misanthrope and only has negative things to say about life. Despite his cruel and insensitive outbursts, Gus and Hazel emerge stronger from his excoriations. They dismiss his pessimism and focus on the joy they feel for one another.

As the health of Gus and Hazel goes through peaks and valleys, they ruminate about the eulogy that each might say about the other. They begin to think about what is their legacy given the likelihood of short life spans. When Gus expresses his desire to lead an extraordinary life, Hazel reminds him that an extraordinary life is measured not in things accomplished but in the loving relationships you form on this earth. Hazel proclaims her love for Gus and tells him that her love and devotion to Gus will be remembered. That is the legacy that Gus will leave for Hazel.

Rabbi Daniel Cohen writes that one of the ways we create a legacy is to create memories and that is what Gus and Hazel do. They travel to Amsterdam, have dinner at an elegant restaurant, they discuss literature, and they share everyday experiences, all of which bond them together. Their shared memories animate their conversations as they navigate a precarious and uncertain life.

Rabbi Cohen cites two quotations that reflect the love and passion that Hazel and Gus have for one another. One is a popular quote whose source is unknown: “Life is not measured by the breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.” The other quote is by Bob Dylan: “If you want to keep your memories, you first have to live them.” The Fault In Our Stars is sad and tragic, but underpinning the narrative are life lessons about leading a meaningful life, no matter what the obstacles.

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Their Finest (2016), directed by Lone Scherfig

their finestWhen I was about to enter college in 1960, I thought I was going to be a high school teacher. Somewhere along the way, my Judaic studies at Yeshiva University became my academic focus and I resolved to be a pulpit rabbi. My professional career began in Atlanta, Georgia, where I was the assistant rabbi at a large Orthodox synagogue.

In 1976, I began searching for a rabbinical post where I would be the head rabbi. But God intervened in my career path. Even though I had no experience running a Jewish day high school, I was offered the position of principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta.

How and why that occurred is not the subject of this film review, but how one chooses a career is. What are the factors that make one choose a career for which one does not prepare?

Their Finest tells the story of Catrin Cole, who in 1940 is requested to interview with England’s Ministry of Information to write scripts for short documentary films about the war effort. While researching a story about twin sisters, Lily and Rose, who are reputed to have sailed their father’s boat to participate in the Dunkirk evacuation, she discovers that their boat had engine trouble and never reached Dunkirk.

Instead of abandoning the story, Catrin, together with co-script writers Tom Buckley and Raymond Parfitt, convince their superiors to continue with the movie as inspirational fiction rather than as a documentary. And so, Catrin finds herself as a scriptwriter not for documentaries but for major theatrical productions. She did not plan this career, but once given the opportunity to spread her intellectual wings, she soars above the rest of her scriptwriting colleagues.

As the shoot continues, Catrin and Tom develop affection for one another as they successfully produce a film that inspires the British nation who are suffering from war fatigue. Tragedy intervenes, however, in the relationship between Catrin and Tom, compelling her to rethink her newfound success as a scriptwriter, a vocation for which she did not prepare, but which ultimately gives meaning and direction to her life.

Rabbi Benjamin Rapaport, referencing Duties of the Heart written by Bachye Ibn Pakudei around 1040, provides some questions to help one find the right career. Here are four of them: Does it attract you? Does it match your resources? Are you willing to invest? Do you have a passion for it?

Catrin Cole at first does not affirmatively answer these questions, but after she is baptized in the crucible of scriptwriting as a career, she truly discovers her life’s calling. She senses her writing will enable her to make a better world, or in Jewish terms, to do tikun olam, to improve and fix the world.

There is another valuable life lesson that Catrin learns about her career. Sometimes your career choice requires you to see the world differently. In particular, working in the arts might force you to see truth not objectively, but as artistic truth. Tom Buckley explains this to Catrin: “Film is real life with the boring parts cut out. Don’t confuse facts with truth, and don’t let either of them get in the way of the story. Why do you think people like films? It’s because stories are structured, have a shape, a purpose, a meaning. And when things go bad, they’re still part of a plan. There’s point to them. Unlike life.”

Their Finest ends on an optimistic note. After personal tragedy, Catrin resolves never to write again. However, Ambrose Hilliard, a veteran actor, reminds her that if she turns her back on opportunities that come her way, even when she has suffered great loss, “wouldn’t that be giving death dominion over life? “ Catrin understands the power and significance of his words and returns to her chosen craft of scriptwriting, where she can continue to influence the world for good.


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A Dog’s Purpose (2017), directed by Lasse Hallstrom

dog's purposeWhen I was around ten years old, my father took me to the office of a veterinarian and we came home with a dog. It had the face of Lassie, but it was mixed breed without a distinguished lineage.

Where the dog came from was irrelevant to me. I did not have lots of friends and the dog, named Shep, was the friend I had always wanted. He was always there to greet me at the end of the school day, overlooking all of my faults and giving me unconditional love no matter what stupid things I might have done during the day.

Regrettably, over a year or two, I did not take care of the dog as I should have and my mother gave the dog away. It was a sad day for me and I cried inconsolably.

A Dog’s Purpose is both a clever and touching film about the strong connections between dogs and their owners. It is told from the dog’s point of view over several generations as the dog is reincarnated into the pets of several owners and tries to discover his purpose in life.

His first owner is Ethan Montgomery, who, along with his mother, rescues him from a heated car where he is in danger of dehydration. Ethan names him Bailey, and over the course of several years affection grows between Ethan and Bailey. In high school, Ethan is his school’s starting quarterback and has a devoted girlfriend, Hannah, who will attend Michigan State on an academic scholarship while Ethan attends the same school on a football scholarship.

Tragedy strikes when Todd Logan, a student jealous of Ethan’s success, places a large firecracker in Ethan’s home starting a fire that almost kills him and his mother. Fortunately, Bailey comes to the rescue by alerting Ethan to the raging flames giving them time to escape.

In the second vignette, Bailey is reincarnated as Ellie, a female German shepherd working as a police dog in Chicago. His owner, Carlos, uses Ellie to track a girl who has been kidnapped. Using her super-sensitive ability to detect smells, Ellie successfully finds the girl and rescues her from near death as she almost drowns in the waters of a turbulent dam.

In the final section of the film, the dog wakes up as Buddy, a mixed breed St. Bernard puppy, who finds his way, after several reincarnations, to his former owner Ethan, now a middle-aged adult. Sensing Ethan’s existential loneliness, he miraculously orchestrates a reuniting of Ethan with his former love, Hannah.

Bailey sums up what he has learned over this reincarnation journey about a dog’s purpose in life: “So, in all my lives as a dog, here’s what I’ve learned. Have fun, obviously. Whenever possible, find someone to save, and save them. Lick the ones you love. Don’t get all sad-faced about what happened and scrunchy-faced about what could. Just be here now. That’s a dog’s purpose.” Although spoken by a dog, it also is a significant life lesson for humans. As humans, our purpose is to enjoy the world God gives us and be of help to others. Be positive about life. Love our fellowman as ourselves and be present in the lives of others.

Many Orthodox Jews own dogs, “man’s best friend.” But the Talmud reminds us that before acquiring an animal, you must be certain that you can properly care for it. King Solomon states: “a righteous person considers the life of his animal.”

Jewish tradition tells us we have to imitate our Creator, and so we must take care of the needs of our animals and alleviate their suffering. Provocatively, the Sages observe that dogs are sensitive to metaphysical matters that humans cannot understand.

A Dog’s Purpose, a heartwarming story of the love between humans and dogs, makes some important observations about how humans should relate to one another. The life of a dog functions as a metaphor for human interactions and there is much from which we can learn.

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Tombstone (1993), directed by George Cosmatos

tombstoneMy parents were not social butterflies. They had many friends because they were good friends to others. They were people who always kept their word and always were there to help relatives and friends during the hard times. For me, they were role models of reliability and champions of kindness. They were the friends upon whom you could count, and that notion of friendship was absorbed by me.

I remember one particular incident when I was in my teens that reflected my view of friendship. The rabbi of our local synagogue in Mt. Vernon, New York, would regularly invite people to his home for Friday night dinner and Torah study. We looked forward to it because we enjoyed the learning and the great meal that the rabbi’s wife prepared for us, especially the tasty desserts.

I made up with a friend of mine who lived in a different section of the city to meet him at a specific street and then we would walk together to the rabbi’s house. Early Friday evening it began to snow. I paid no attention to it because I was focused on meeting my friend. When I arrived at the designated meeting point, my friend was not there. I waited an hour for him expecting him to appear, but he didn’t. I eventually went to the rabbi’s home alone. It never occurred to me that the inclement weather would keep my friend away from dinner with the rabbi.

After the Sabbath, I contacted my friend and found out that he assumed that the bad weather meant our meeting was off. I told him that bad weather never influenced me to break my word to a friend. In a short time, I got over my disappointment and I understood my friend’s perspective. Our friendship survived this bump in the road. The incident, however, did reveal to me that people often have different definitions of friendship.

In Tombstone, there is a powerful example of a solid friendship in the relationship between lawman Wyatt Earp and his friend, Doc Holliday. The story begins after Wyatt has successfully cleaned up Dodge City and has relocated to Tombstone, Arizona, to quietly live as a regular citizen. However, a gang of outlaws, known as “the cowboys,” is terrorizing the community with random acts of violence. This eventually leads to the famous gunfight at the OK Corral. Doc Holliday joins Wyatt in the fight because Wyatt is his friend.

The gunfight on the OK Corral does not end the tyranny of the “cowboys.” There are more shoot-outs to come; and at each one, Doc stands by his friend Wyatt. Wyatt’s ultimate challenge comes from gunslinger Johnny Ringo who is faster on the draw than Wyatt. Here again, it is Doc Holliday who places himself in harm’s way to rescue his friend.

In Doc’s conversation with a friend, Jack Johnson, Jack wonders why Doc puts his own life on the line for Wyatt. Doc responds: “Wyatt Earp is my friend.” Jack then remarks:” Hell, I got lots of friends,” to which Doc answers: “I don’t.” Although this interchange reveals the existential loneliness of Holliday and his desire of human connection, the dialogue always indicates a Talmudic idea of friendship.

The Sages in The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic work of Jewish wisdom literature, tell us to “acquire a friend.” The commentators understand this to mean that we should acquire a friend by helping him, by doing things that make him feel indebted to us. It is not something based only on emotion. We should think of ways to concretize the friendship by doing things for one another that obligate one to the other.

On a purely visceral level, Tombstone is a violent example of the western movie genre. More important, through its depiction of the relationship of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, it provides an example of deep friendship, an illustration of how far friends should go to help one another.

Little Men (2016), directed by Ira Sachs

little menAs a young teenager, I had deep feelings. When I dated a girl in the innocent 1950s, I thought I was going to marry her. It was devastating for me when I discovered that she was dating another guy. It took me a long time to recover, but I did and life moved on.

As I got older, I realized that one disappointment in life does not determine the future. I can learn from my experiences and become more psychologically resilient. This lesson is embedded in Little Men, a gentle coming of age drama depicting two boys who are very good friends for a short time, and then drift apart as they grow up and begin to see life from a more mature perspective.

The story begins as the Jardine family, parents Brian and Kathy and 13-year-old son Jake, move into a Brooklyn apartment they inherited from Brian’s father. On the street floor, there is a dress shop run by Leonor Calvelli and her 13-year-old son Tony.

Jake and Tony are very different from one another. Jake is withdrawn and quiet while Tony is socially adept and gregarious. Jake spends his spare time drawing and painting. Tony goes to acting classes and aspires to go to a high school of performing arts.

The adults in the story see life from an adult perspective. The boys are not privy to what goes on in the minds of their parents. What becomes a central issue is the low rent that Brian’s father had been charging Leonor for her store. The Jardines do not want to evict the Cavellis. They only want to increase the rent to come closer to the fair market value of the rental in a neighborhood where rentals have skyrocketed.

When the Jardines explain their dilemma, Leonor rebuffs them. She recounts stories of how Brian’s father considered Leonor part of his family and wished to keep her as a tenant in spite of the fact that the rent he charged her was way below market value.

Things become more complicated for the Jardines and Calvellis because the boys are becoming fast friends while the parents are becoming more entrenched in their contrary negotiating positions. Each parent is happy that their son has found a good friend, but the financial confrontation between the families looms in the background.

Little Men does not show us how to resolve disputes that are irresolvable, but it does suggest to us that the best way out of a dilemma is simply to go through an experience, learn from it, and emerge stronger emotionally because of it. Rabbi Beryl Wein, a noted Jewish educator, writes: “One of the truly major challenges of life is dealing with disappointment. In my long decades of rabbinic experience I have noticed how children are disappointed in their parents, parents are disappointed in their children, and spouses are disappointed with each other. This even extends to synagogue members who are disappointed with their rabbi, rabbis disappointed with their congregations, in-laws disappointed with other in-laws – and the list is endless.”

The Sages in the Talmud remind us that no person leaves the world possessing even half of his desires fulfilled. The wise person understands that disappointment is a reality for all human beings. To minimize a sense of disappointment, it is wise, says Rabbi Wein, to approach life “with high optimism but also with minimal expectations.” Living a healthy life means not allowing the feeling of disappointment to overwhelm us.

This is the hallmark of Jewish history. In spite of all the setbacks such as the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem and the Holocaust, Jews as a people never gave in to disappointment. Hope in the future always triumphed.

Jake Jardine learns this valuable life lesson of not succumbing to disappointment. His friendship with Tony energizes and satisfies him. But when life intervenes and Tony and he go their separate ways, Jake and Tony are resilient young men who do not allow past disappointment to defeat them. The “little men” become big men through the crucible of life experience.

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