Author Archives: herbert j. cohen

Hostiles (2017), directed by Scott Cooper

In my early years in the rabbinate, fresh out of rabbinical school, I tended to view Reform and Conservative Jews as the enemy of my pristine Orthodox ideology. When I saw a newspaper article that expressed what I felt to be erroneous ideology, I wrote to the letter’s author criticizing his remarks and informing him of my correct view of things. My behavior in retrospect was childish, and fortunately was corrected after a few months of immature and insensitive venting.

What changed? I asked myself: did my letters accomplish anything? The answer: Nothing, except create more ill will between people. The ability to let go of anger and begin a relationship anew is at the core of Hostiles, a western throwback to the John Wayne classic, The Searchers.

The story takes place in 1892. After years of fighting the Apache, Cheyenne, and Comanche Indians, the United States embarks upon a strategy of relocating the Indians to their ancestral home in Montana. Joseph Blocker, a war hero and US Calvary Captain, is ordered to escort Yellow Hawk, an Indian who has taken the lives of many white men and who is now suffering from cancer, to Montana. This is no easy task because Blocker despises Yellow Hawk. It is only when Colonel Biggs, Blocker’s superior, threatens him with the possible loss of his pension that Blocker agrees to escort Yellow Hawk and his family.

Along the way, they encounter Rosalie Quaid, who has just witnessed the death of her husband and her three children at the hands of savage Indians. Without a protector, Blocker decides to take her with his group. In the evening, the Indian women in the entourage, in a gesture of compassion for her loss, offer clean garments to her since Rosalie’s clothes are stained with the blood of her children.

Yellow Hawk warns Blocker that the Comanches will attack them, white and Indian alike, and it would be wise to unchain him and his son so they can help fight them. His warning is at first unheeded and when the Comanches attack later that day, several soldiers are killed. When Yellow Hawk and his family fight off some of the attackers, Blocker’s view of Yellow Hawk begins to change. He unchains Yellow Hawk and his son so they can help ward off future attacks.

As they continue on their journey, more raids come; and with each raid the white soldiers and their Indian charges rely more and more upon one another for safety. Slowly their ingrained hate for one another lessens, and they begin to understand that past hatred will get them nowhere.

After arriving in Montana, they are confronted by white men who do not want Indians on their land. That confrontation makes Blocker and Yellow Hawk realize their common humanity.

Jewish tradition encourages us to abandon our propensity to hate those who do us wrong. When people do us wrong, it is hurtful, but we do not always have to respond in kind. We should not allow hatred to determine our future actions.

Aaron, the brother of Moses is the archetypal model of good interpersonal behavior. In The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, Aaron is described as a lover and pursuer of peace. When he saw people responding to one another with ill will, he would be proactive and speak to each of the feuding parties, telling each that the other party was remorseful over the breakdown in communication with the other. His intervention in the service of peace was successful. The people loved his peacemaking efforts, and the Bible records that the children of Israel mourned more for Aaron than they did for Moses.

Blocker and Yellow Hawk ultimately understand that hate only breeds more hate. They arrive at this epiphany late in their lives, but this wisdom remains with them for the rest of their lives.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

 

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

In the Talmud there is a discussion of intention when it comes to the recitation of blessings. In pronouncing a blessing before partaking of food, for example, one must have in mind the particular fruit or cake one is about to eat. A problem arises when a person at the first part of the blessing has in mind the wrong food that fits the blessing, but when he recites the last part of blessing, he thinks of the correct food. The general conclusion of the Talmud is to consider the last part of blessing as its defining section. Therefore, the blessing is valid based upon the speaker’s intention while reciting the second half of the blessing.

In attempting to review The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a very unconventional western, which includes six stand-alone narratives, I thought of this Talmudic dictum and realized that my review of the film has to consider the last story as a coda explaining the other five.

The stories are framed within an imaginary novel of the 1870s. Within it are a host of literary conventions of the mythical West: the singing cowboy, the bank robber, the traveling showman, the man prospecting for gold, the pioneer heading to the frontier in search of a better life, and the stagecoach passengers.

All of the segments happen in beautiful outdoor settings except the last, which takes place almost entirely within the stagecoach. The travelers include an animal trapper, a blase Frenchman, and the very parochial wife of a clergyman. They have discussions about the nature of life, and it becomes clear that they are on a trip with a final destination from which there is no return. The essential takeaway from their conversation is that life is uncertain and unpredictable, and we never really know what is in another’s heart in spite of what we think might be there. It is a mournful view of the human experience.

The notion that life is unpredictable is underscored in the story entitled “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” Alice Longabaugh discusses a perspective on life with Billy Knapp, one of the leaders of the wagon train heading West. Speaking about her deceased brother, Gilbert, she observes: “He had fixed political beliefs. All of his beliefs were quite fixed. He would upbraid me for being wishy-washy. I never had his certainties. I suppose it is a defect.” Billy responds: “I don’t think it’s a defect at all. Oh no. Uncertainty. That is appropriate for matters of this world. Only regarding the next are we vouchsafed certainty. I believe certainty regarding that which we can see and touch. It is seldom justified, if ever. Down the ages, from our remote past, what certainties survive? And yet we hurry to fashion new ones. Wanting their comfort. Certainty is the easy path.”

The Jewish approach to life also posits an element of uncertainty; for, after all, how can finite man, whose very intellectual DNA is uncertain, comprehend the ways of the infinite, all knowing God? We humans can never understand why things happen. The only thing we can do is choose how we respond to life’s uncertainties and ambiguities.

The Sages tell us to envision every day as possibly one’s last. This is not to encourage a morbid mindset, but to spur us on to productive living, to make every day count. If today is my last day, then I should think about how I spend my time today. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs does not provide easy answers to life’s insoluble contradictions and uncertainties, but it does remind us that living with uncertainty is part of being human.

Watch this movie on Netflix.

 

The Old Man and the Gun (2018), directed by David Lowery

When I moved to Israel, I realized I could no longer be a synagogue rabbi or a school principal. Why? My command of Hebrew was only fair and I was in my 60s. Even though I felt I was at the top of my game, I was viewed by others as part of the past, not the future. So what to do?

For five years, I taught Anglos who were in Israeli schools, both middle school and high school. Most of the time, I prepared students to pass the matriculation examinations that they needed to get into college. I mixed in some poetry to make it more interesting for me as well as for the students. Every year I taught, the school had to get permission for me to teach since I was over the official retirement age.

After five years, the Ministry of Education ruled that they would no longer grant me permission to teach even though the school wanted me to continue. The bottom line: I had to find other employment outside of the school system, which brought me to “Kosher Movies.” I began writing film reviews in newspapers and on the Internet about movies that had something meaningful to say about life, movies that could help us navigate life no matter what our age.

Whenever I visit the States to visit family, I set up trips to synagogues, adult study groups, and schools to speak about the potentially positive influence of cinema on adults and teenagers. Watching The Old Man and the Gun reminded me of why I am now writing and lecturing on film. I simply wanted to be relevant, especially in a world, which, generally speaking, marginalizes the elderly.

The Old Man and the Gun is based on the true story of Forrest Tucker, a career criminal who escaped from San Quentin Prison at age 70. Once back in society, he commits a number of bank robberies that both mystify the police and fascinate the public. Trying to catch him is Detective John Hunt who is enthralled by Tucker’s soft spoken and gentle way of staging a heist.

Whenever Hunt investigates the crime, all the victims mention how polite and disarming Tucker was during the robbery. In one scene in which Tucker flees the crime in a cab with a mother and child aboard, he decides to stop the taxi so the mother and child can get off rather than be frightened by his fugitive status.

Forrest has a feeling of self-esteem when he is robbing banks. He sees himself as a good person who does not want to hurt others, but he desires to steal to reaffirm his lifelong talent for crime. Old age for him is not a time of retirement.

Indeed, old age is potentially a time of great blessing if one fills it with achievements. This is what the patriarch Abraham did as he advanced in years. Scripture states: “he grew old and came along in days.” The commentators interpret this to mean that in his senior years he continued to be productive and accomplish great things.

The question is how does one measure a life? Is one’s physical strength the only measure of a man’s ability to be productive in life? In truth, we know that physical strength wanes as we get older, but wisdom can grow.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe raises the question of a person’s value as he progresses through life. Is value only seen in terms of a person’s physical prowess or is it determined by the quality of one’s wisdom and insight. The Rebbe observes that behind the notion of retirement is the idea “that life is composed of productive and non-productive periods. The first 20-30 years of life are seen as a time of little or no achievement, as a person acquires knowledge and training in preparation for the productive period of life. The next 30-40 years are the time in which his or her creative energies are realized. Finally, as he enters his twilight years, he puts his period of real achievement behind him; he has worked hard all his life, so he now ought to settle down and enjoy the fruits of his labors. If the creative urge still agitates his aging body, he is advised to find some harmless hobby with which to fill his time. Indeed, time is now something to be filled and gotten over with as he whiles away his days on life’s sidelines, his knowledge and abilities filed away in the attic of old age.”

Furthermore, the Rebbe states: “Torah, however, recognizes no such distinction between life’s phases, for it sees productivity as the very essence of life: the words a non-productive life-period are an oxymoron. Retirement and the passive enjoyment of the fruits of one’s labor also have their time and place—in the World To Come. In the words of the Talmud, Today is the time to do; tomorrow, to reap the reward. The very fact that God has granted a person a single additional day of bodily life means that he has not yet concluded his mission in life, that there is still something for him to achieve in this world. “

Forrest Tucker chooses to break the law so that he can feel relevant at a time when elders are being pushed to the sidelines of life. The Old Man and the Gun reminds us that the drive for self-esteem and relevance remains with us all our lives, and is not limited by age.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Leave No Trace (2018), directed by Debra Granik

In the summer of 2010, in preparation for our move to Israel, I made a car trip from Dallas, where my wife and I were living, to New York with my son Ezra. Attached to my Toyota Corolla was a hitch upon which was loaded many of our possessions from our Dallas home.

In Salem, Virginia, my car started making strange noises and, within moments, died. I thought: In two days it will be the Sabbath. What do we do now?

Amazingly, Mike Fultcher, the accounts manager at the motel at which we are staying, miraculously located a 1999 Toyota engine for our vehicle and a super mechanic who could install it within 24 hours. Mike truly reinforced my belief in the kindness of strangers.

The kindness of strangers is displayed in Leave No Trace, a complex drama of a father, Will, and teenage daughter, Tom, living off the grid for many years in the forests of Oregon. When they are suddenly discovered by social services, the professionals at the agency want to integrate both Will and Tom into normal society. The challenge: Will, a single father and a war veteran with PTSD, needs the tranquility of the forests to maintain his mental equilibrium. Will he adjust to a new reality living in society with other people?

Will is uncomfortable with the battery of computer-generated questions that he has to answer at the social service agency, but Tom responds positively to the social worker tasked with evaluating her. In spite of Will’s reluctance to join conventional society, social services determine that he has been and is a loving and responsible parent who has educated his daughter well while living on public wilderness land.

The kindness of the social workers is evident when they locate an empty house for Will and Tom in which to live. They also find him a job. Tom meets local teens and finds their friendship pleasant. The neighborhood kids are not exploitative or cruel to the newcomer and they invite her to participate in local agricultural competitions.

A crisis occurs when Will decides to leave the home which social services has found for him and return to the woods. On the way to obtain provisions, Will falls badly injuring himself, and he requires medical attention. Again, locals come to his rescue and nurse him back to health. Over time, it becomes clear that the demons that afflict Will do not affect Tom, who wants to remain in society, not flee from it.

There are no villains in Leave No Trace, only good people who want to help others in distress. Their kindness is manifested in their good actions and from a life philosophy that encourages helping the stranger and those less fortunate than they. Their behavior reflects an internalization of concern for the stranger, an oft-repeated theme that appears frequently, in fact, 36 times, in Scripture.

Most of the exhortations to treat the stranger kindly are coupled with a reminder that we were strangers in Egypt and we should know what it feels like to be a stranger. God commands us to be empathetic, but being empathetic also is an outgrowth of our own slavery experience in Egypt.

Leave No Trace deals with the psychological scars left on servicemen who have seen battle. Emotionally, Will cannot forget the terrible memories of his wartime experiences. They affect his present and future interactions with people, and he cannot rid himself of this memory.

The film suggests that those close to such damaged souls need to recognize the pain of their loved ones, but cannot be limited by their close relationship with them. Tom comes to this epiphany when she decides to leave her beloved father who cannot escape the haunting recollections of the past. It is the kindness of strangers that enables both he and Tom to finally separate and go their individual ways.

 

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Mission Impossible – Fallout (2018), directed by Christopher McQuarrie

An essential challenge in the life of administrators is to decide issues based upon whether something is good for the many or only good for the few. I confronted this often as a school principal. In my early years on the job, I made exceptions to the general rule because I wanted to do what was best for the individual child, and also because I was interested in boosting enrollment for what was then an unknown and untested institution. Having a large enrollment was outwardly a sign of success and it meant more tuition dollars to support the school’s programs.

As I matured in my profession, I made less and less exceptions because every exception undermined the overall policies of the school. Once the enrollment stabilized, I could set higher behavioral and academic standards that, in the long run, made the school stronger educationally.

Ethan Hunt, leader of the Mission Impossible (MI6) team of heroes, faces similar challenges in Mission Impossible – Fallout, the latest installment in what has become one of the great action movie franchises in film history. In the course of his mission, Ethan frequently has to decide whether to save the world or an individual friend, who has time and again saved his life and the lives of others.

Ethan’s task in this story is to recover three plutonium cores that have found their way into the hands of terrorists. When he is about to take possession of the plutonium, he discovers that the villains have captured Luther Stickell, one of the members of Ethan’s group. Ethan has a choice: to take possession of the plutonium, which can be used for atomic weapons to destroy the world, or to save his friend Luther. He opts for the latter, and thus begins a worldwide search to find the plutonium and to eliminate the terrorists. His task takes him to Paris, Berlin, London, and an assortment of exotic locations in which Ethan fights for his life as well as for possession of the plutonium cores.

Mission Impossible is a movie in which we know the outcome. Even If Ethan makes a questionable decision, things will work out okay in the end and the world will be saved. Nonetheless, the film presents the dilemma of making a choice knowing that the result will most likely lead to an imperfect solution.

In The Ethics of the Fathers the Sages ask: “Who is wise?” They respond: “One who sees the future.” In truth, one cannot foresee the future, but one can predict a likely outcome. Rabbi Bernie Fox shares an innovative twist on how the Rabbis of the Talmud viewed a wise man: ”Our Sages did not regard a person as wise simply as a consequence of the accumulation of data. A wise person is an individual who is guided by wisdom. This means that the reality of ideas is as definite to the wise person as input received through the senses. The Sages characterized this quality by referring to seeing the future. The future, although only an idea, is as real as the present that is seen through the senses.”

Ethan Hunt is a wise man and knows the likely outcome of saving his friend rather than rescuing the world; but when it comes to saving human life, especially that of a friend, he is conflicted. He knows terrorists are bent on destroying world order and are prepared to eradicate anyone who stands in their way. In spite of this, Ethan does not abandon his humanity.

In the imaginary world of Mission Impossible – Fallout, Ethan understands the dire consequences of saving his friend over securing the plutonium. We, the audience, know that Ethan will save his friend and also save the world. He will destroy the enemy and, at the same time, affirm his concern for the value of one single life, and that is why we admire him. The Talmud expresses this message, embedded in the mind and heart of Ethan Hunt: “he who saves a single life saves the entire world.”

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The Intern (2015), directed by Nancy Meyers

Someone recently asked me why I am still teaching when I am way past conventional retirement years. The answer: I want to be relevant. Anonymity is good at times, but a senior citizen often wants to be noticed. Unfortunately, he is frequently invisible to those around him. He simply does not exist in their world by virtue of his age.

Indeed, it is a challenge to still make a difference in people’s lives when you are no longer young or working as a rabbi of a synagogue or school principal. So I feel fortunate to be teaching, still able to influence future generations, still able to share whatever wisdom or knowledge I may have.

The Intern is about a senior citizen who still wants to relevant. Ben Whittaker’s wife has died and he has retired from his full time executive-level job. He yearns to be productive and stumbles upon a poster advertising positions for senior interns at a dynamic start-up company called About the Fit.

The entrepreneur behind About the Fit is Jules Ostin, who in only 18 months has grown her online clothes retailing company from an obscure beginning in her kitchen to a financial juggernaut with over 200 employees. The key to her success has been good products plus sterling customer service.

Ben becomes her intern. At first he is given no work to do; but over time, his mature, helpful, and kind approach to all the employees who are much younger than him makes him an indispensable part of the company. Even Jules comes to depend on him for support in rough times. And Jules has her share of them.

Investors in About the Fit are concerned that the company is growing too fast and they want Jules to consider hiring a CEO with more experience. Moreover, she is stressed at home with a stay-at-home dad who feels neglected because of his wife’s total immersion in her growing business. At critical moments of decision, she looks to Ben, now her best and most trusted friend, for advice on navigating the major challenges she faces.

Jewish law and lore expresses great reverence for the elderly. In the Ethics of the Fathers, the elderly are compared to fine wine, which gets better as it ages. The senior years are years of blessing, for they are years when man is devoted more to spiritual affairs than material matters. The Bible describes Abraham, the great patriarch, as one who “grew old and came along in days.” The commentators observe that this expression refers to the fact that even though Abraham was old in years, he made each day count. Each day was filled with learning and achievement. He did not retire until God retired him.

The Talmud tells us “Today is the time to do; tomorrow to reap the reward. (Eruvin 22a).” The Sages explain that this means that while you have life, God is informing you that you have not yet completed your mission in life. Every day that you live presents an opportunity to do something positive for the world either on the micro or macro level. The challenge is to discover your mission at each stage of your life.

The Ethics of the Fathers outlines the mission of man throughout his life. The age of 30 may be the time of physical strength, but at the age of 80, spiritual strength asserts itself. Ben Whittaker discovers, as a senior citizen, that he can make a difference in the lives of many young men and women. It is wise when people seek the wisdom of such seniors.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

 

Midnight Run (1988), directed by Martin Brest

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, tells us that we should not judge a person by appearances. The classic text is “do not look at the container but at what is inside.” Yet this is what we often do.

I made a mistake many years ago when I initially judged a high school student to be a problem because his long hair flowed down to his shoulders and a scraggly beard adorned his young face. At the time, his appearance telegraphed a student who did not want to conform, a rebellious teenager who enjoyed breaking conventions and who was not interested in his studies.

In truth, I was 100 percent wrong. It turned out that once I engaged the young man in conversation, he emerged as sweet, witty, and academically serious.

The initial inability to see beyond surface appearances is at the core of Midnight Run, a buddy road comedy about a bounty hunter, Jack Walsh, played by Robert DeNiro, and an accountant, Jonathan Mardukas, played by Charles Grodin, who has embezzled 15 million dollars from the Mob.

Here is the set-up. Mardukas has jumped bail. His Los Angeles bail bondsman, Eddie Moscone, hires bounty hunter Jack Walsh to bring Mardukas back from New York, where he is hiding, to Los Angles by midnight Friday so that he will not forfeit $450,000 in bail money and face bankruptcy. To get the job done, he employs Walsh for $100,000 to bring him in on time.Competing with Walsh to bring in Mardukas is another bounty hunter and the FBI, led by Special Agent Alonzo Mosely. The FBI wants Mardukas because he can provide information about Jimmy Serrano, a mob boss involved in a plethora of illegal activities. Serrano also wants Mardukas, but he wants Mardukas dead so that he cannot testify against him.

Problems begin to occur after Walsh quickly captures Mardukas in Los Angeles. Mardukas is petrified of flying and causes a disturbance on the plane before take-off. The airline refuses to take him, leaving Walsh with the unenviable task of driving cross country with Mardukas to bring him into custody.

Their eventful trip, punctuated by constant life-threatening situations, brings the two adversaries together emotionally. Shared adversity breaks down barriers between them. The outcome: they become friends. Jonathan Mardukas learns why Walsh became a bounty hunter and why he left a post as a Chicago undercover policeman. Jack Walsh discovers why Mardukas stole the money from the mob and what he intended to do with it.

The Torah instructs us to judge our fellow man justly (Leviticus 19:15). This means giving other people the benefit of the doubt and interpreting their actions for the good. Moreover, the Talmud tells us: do not judge another man until we are in his position (Avot 2:4), until we understand the motive for their questionable actions. Jonathan and Jack ultimately do this. They give each other the benefit of the doubt and are not judgmental about the other.

Sara Yoheved Rigler, a Jewish educator, makes some helpful suggestions about how to judge people favorably taken from real-life situations: “Instead of faulting a friend for not calling you back when she said she would, you could think that she may have tried to call me back, but my line was busy, or she may have received an important call just when she was about to dial my number. Instead of faulting your spouse for being late (again!), you could think that I’m not time-challenged like he is. Instead of faulting a repairman for not coming when he said he would (leaving you sitting at home all afternoon waiting), you could think that his previous client may have had a more complicated job than expected, or that when he went to phone me that he’d be late, he couldn’t find my number or his cellphone battery was low.”

When we judge others fairly, Rigler continues, “We cultivate a positive, sympathetic attitude towards others. We do not jump to conclusions. We do not condemn people who may be suffering circumstances far beyond our ken.”

This epiphany of understanding comes to Jonathan and Jack who, through shared adversity, come to like and respect the other, foreshadowing a happy resolution that began as a tumultuous relationship. Midnight Run offers an example of people going beyond stereotypes and viewing people as they really are.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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