Author Archives: herbert j. cohen

The Breakfast Club (1985) directed by John Hughes

breakfast clubI have learned over the years both as a parent and as a school principal that it is good to withhold judgment when forming an opinion about teenagers. They are works in progress and often what you see is only a brief snapshot in time that does not reflect who they really are.

A case in point. Daniel was a rebellious teenager. He challenged authority every day and made the lives of teachers very unpleasant. He was one of the few students I was happy to see graduate. Twenty years later, I received a phone call from Daniel in which he apologized for his behavior in high school and asked me to forgive him. He was now married with children and had a totally different perspective on life. As an adult, he was “born again” as a normal human being and a productive member of society.

In The Breakfast Club, five students in a public high school in Illinois in 1984 discover who they are as they reveal themselves to each other in the course of a nine-hour Saturday detention. The cohort of students include John Bender, “the criminal,” Claire Standish, “the princess,” Brian Johnson, “the brain,” Andy Clark, “the athlete,” and Allison Reynolds, “the basket case.” The students rarely socialize with one another at school, but now they interact with one another because there are no other people to talk to.

In the course of their tense and profanity-laden conversations, it becomes clear that they all have dysfunctional relationships with their parents. When they finally open up to one another, they realize they have more in common than they thought. They no longer see others in terms of stereotypes, which is the way adults often perceive them. Rather they see themselves as complex human beings with a variety of conflicting traits, all of which help define them as unique human beings.

Jewish tradition provides guidance for parents who want to stay connected and be relevant to their children during their teenage years, who want their children to develop into good citizens who achieve and who are respectful of others. Joanne Doades, a Jewish educator, reminds parents to be good role models of consistency, honesty, and clarity. Moreover, parents need to build mutual trust with their children. To do this, it is wise not to have unrealistic expectations of children, and to speak to them with respect, acknowledging and accepting their individuality. Furthermore, although one should chastise kids when they do something wrong, one should be sure the rebuke is a reflection of a parent’s love, not his anger.

Doades emphasizes that “positive interactions should outweigh negative ones.” She references the Torah and Talmud: “If parents are always chastising their teens about the more annoying aspects of teen behavior (messy room, inattention to schoolwork, issues about money, laziness, loud music, to name a few), there will be little opportunity to normalize the relationship. The Torah warns against being vengeful or bearing a grudge (Leviticus 19:18) because such behavior can cause us to continuously view another through an overly negative lens. The advice of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 107b) is to discipline with the left (weaker) hand and to reach out with the right (stronger), so that reconciliation is possible. Relationships between today’s parents and teens can deteriorate quite quickly unless parents deal with difficult issues and move forward in a constructive way.”

The key to successful parenting is to aim not for control but for consultation. You should not want to control your kids; you should want them to desire to consult you, to glean your parental wisdom, as they navigate life’s challenges.

The Breakfast Club was made in 1985. I viewed a DVD version billed as “the 30th anniversary edition” of the film. Frankly, I had forgotten about the movie until one of my Facebook fans asked me why I did not review what he considered an important film in the annals of “coming of age” movies. That motivated me to revisit this classic, which I now realized had timeless messages about parenting.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Advertisements

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

mission impossible - falloutAn 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.”

Phantom Thread (2017), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

phantom threadI know a woman who likes to shop. I am grateful not to be the person in the store who sells her things because she is always dissatisfied with her purchases. One example. I watched her shop for athletic shoes on one occasion. She took close to an hour trying on different pairs of shoes in different sizes. She finally decided on one pair and made the purchase. Two days later I happened to be picking up a tennis racket for a friend, and I saw her again. She was unhappy with the purchase and returned to the store looking for refund or for a different pair of shoes. The same obsessive behavior was observed when she bought a piece of jewelry or a hat.

That kind of monomania typifies the approach of famous fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock to his work and to his relationships with other people, especially women. His story unfolds in Phantom Thread.

The narrative begins in 1954 in London. The opening scenes reveal Woodcock’s obsession with detail and his controlling personality. On a rare visit to the countryside, he meets Alma, a waitress at a restaurant, and their friendship blossoms into a relationship in which Alma becomes Woodcock’s artistic inspiration and lover.

At first, the relationship is calm and refreshing for both Alma and Woodcock. Over time, however, Woodcock’s obsessive personality reasserts itself and they begin to argue with one another. He criticizes her for even attempting to disagree with him: “I cannot begin my day with a confrontation, please. I’m delivering the dress today, and I can’t take up space with confrontation. I simply don’t have time for confrontations.” He refuses to invest in human relationships that disturb his equilibrium.

Things come to a head when Woodcock excoriates Alma for preparing a romantic dinner for him that breaks his normal work routine, which to him is sacrosanct. Alma is repelled by Woodcock’s obsessive concern for his own needs, yet she still cares for him greatly for he is the gateway to a new and exciting life for her. Her challenge: finding a way to make Woodcock more a man of feeling, willing and ready to emotionally connect with other human beings. She embarks upon an unconventional strategy by which she will cause him to experience a sense of mortality. This will compel him to rely on other human beings and not live a life of emotional isolation.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first chief Ashkenazi Chief rabbi in Palestine appointed in 1921, wrote about the importance of both the mind and the heart in living a full life: “Man cannot live with intellect alone, nor with emotion alone; intellect and emotion must forever be joined together Only the quality of equilibrium, which balances intellect with emotion, can deliver him completely.”

Moreover, in Ecclesiastes written by King Solomon in the autumn of his life, it states there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh. A time to wail and a time to dance” (3:2-8). To live life fully, we must embrace life with all its varied and at times contradictory thoughts and emotions, especially when it comes to loving another person.

Erich Fromm, the psychoanalyst and humanistic philosopher, discusses the paradox of love: “Two beings become one and yet remain two.” Rabbi Maurice Lamm gives a Jewish twist to this notion. He writes: “The Torah, in requiring the end result of man and woman becoming one flesh requires ezer, an overcoming of loneliness, a mutual completion of the selves, and also ke’negdo, an opposite, independent person with whom one chooses to side at will.” Woodcock finally comes to this understanding when he experiences a near death experience. At that moment, he sees Alma both as an opposite and as one who gives his life a sense of emotional completion.

Lady Bird (2017), directed by Greta Gerwig

Lady birdFriends of mine have a daughter poised to enter her senior year in high school. Their relationship with her is challenging. She wants to attend an out-of-state Ivy League school, but they are not wealthy and prefer that she attend a more affordable state university. The daughter also feels that her local high school is intellectually claustrophobic, and she yearns for a more stimulating educational environment in college, one that will allow her to dream and think out-of-the-box.

Her parents asked me for advice. I had no simple answers and said I would think about their questions. I reminded them that parenting is a lifelong journey. Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems. What they were experiencing was a normal part of the real life struggle of teenagers to define themselves as adults, to attain a level of independence without becoming alienated from the adults who love them.

This struggle is at the center of Lady Bird, a coming of age comedy/drama about Christine McPherson, also known as Lady Bird. Lady Bird is enrolled in a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California, that she finds narrow-minded and repressive. She desires to attend a cosmopolitan university far away from her small town roots. She wants like-minded friends who are more intellectually sophisticated than her high school buddies.

Lady Bird’s mother, Marion, is not an ogre. She tries to be helpful in enabling her daughter to be successful in the world; but Lady Bird still sees her as lacking understanding of her creative spirit and not recognizing her for the unique person she is. In one interchange, Marion tells her that she wants Lady Bird to be the “very best version of yourself that you can be,” to which Lady Bird responds: “What if this is the best version?”

Lady Bird wants her mother’s approval and yearns for her praise. Marion, however, feels she must be honest in her comments to her even if it risks alienating her. For example, Lady Bird asks her: “Why can’t you say I look nice?” Marion answers: “Okay, I’m sorry. I was telling you the truth. Do you want me to lie to you?” Lady Bird needs affirmation. Marion needs honesty. Sometimes the two conflict and there is no reconciliation.

Marion shares life wisdom with Lady Bird, hoping to give her tools to navigate life. In one encounter, she states: “Money is not life’s report card. Being successful doesn’t mean anything in and of itself. It just means that you’re successful. But that doesn’t mean that you’re happy.”

Lady Bird hears her and is bright enough to appreciate her counsel. But it is not until she enters college that she acknowledges the profound influence of her parents. In a poignant phone call from college, she tells them: “Hi Mom and Dad, it’s me, Christine. It’s the name you gave me. It’s a good one. Dad, this is more for Mom. Hey, Mom, did you feel emotional the first time that you drove in Sacramento? I did and I wanted to tell you, but we weren’t really talking when it happened. All those bends I’ve known my whole life, and stores, and the whole thing. But I wanted to tell you I love you. Thank you.”

Adina Soclof, a social worker and Jewish educator, provides some tips to enhance communication between parents and teens, to preserve the ties that bind them since birth. She writes: “Teens are egocentric. They often only think about themselves because they’re experiencing so much inner turmoil. Their emotions overtake them; they are dealing with their hormones, school, peers and other pressures. They don’t have the experience and maturity to handle their problems on their own.” Therefore, “Try to overlook this behavior. It is critical to keep the lines of communication open. All your effort should be directed to this goal.”

Lady Bird is an unsettling view of a teenager’s coming of age. In the end, her story is hopeful because Lady Bird, in spite of her arguments with her mother, still keeps the wisdom of her parents in her mind as she navigates her adult life.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Seven Years in Tibet (1997), directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud

seven years in tibetI know people who are very busy in their professional careers, but who always find time for family, and especially their children. One rabbi friend of mine who works for a number of companies in the pension fund industry in order to make a living for his large family always finds time to study Torah with his children. It is a weekly commitment that he rarely misses, and I admire him greatly. That kind of devotion to family is absent in the life of Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer in Seven Years in Tibet, a picturesque drama that chronicles his life before, during, and after World War II.

Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer attempts to climb Nanga Parbat in British India to gain glory for his country and for himself. So driven is he to accomplish this goal that he leaves his wife, Ingrid, who is expecting their first child. Harrer is self-centered and cannot recognize the stresses under which his wife functions with a husband who is away for long stretches of time and is emotionally distant from her even when he is at home.

During their climb, World War II breaks out and Harrer and his fellow climbers are arrested and sent to a P.O.W. camp where they languish for several years, during which Harrer’s son, Rolf, is born. Harrer finally escapes and finds refuge in Lhasa, the holy city of Tibetan monks. There he befriends the very young Dalai Lama, whose curiosity about the world is satiated by Harrer’s worldly knowledge.

Although young is years, the Dalai Lama is old in wisdom, and Harrer learns from him as much if not more than what he teaches him. A wise Tibetan points out to Harrer the difference between his life’s philosophy and the Tibetan way of life: “You admire the man who pushes his way to the top in any walk of life, while we admire the man who abandons his ego.” Harrer’s ego is large and it takes much time for him to understand the importance of humility in shaping one’s character.

During Harrer’s long hiatus away from family, Ingrid sends him divorce papers, informing him of her desire to re-marry. The finality of the letter and his own increasing desire to see his son begin a process of repentance for Harrer. He becomes less self-centered and begins to think of how his actions are perceived by others. He is also troubled by the insensitivity he showed towards the suffering of his wife, who he essentially abandoned at a critical moment in her life.

The Tibetan experience teaches Harrer about the significance of family, which in Judaism is a primary value. Rabbi David Rosen connects the importance of family to the value of sanctity, a central theme in Judaism. Rosen writes: “It is thus not without significance that the Hebrew word for Jewish marriage (Kiddushin) means “holiness or sanctification”. Not only is the relationship of marital commitment itself seen as holy – indeed it is seen as the ideal state of adult life – but the family as the central institution and focus of Jewish life, is the key to the realization of the people’s raison d’etre, to be a holy nation.”

Rosen also notes that a hallmark of the family is the mutual dependency of husband and wife. If one partner is arrogant, that partner deludes himself into thinking he is self-sufficient, not needing anyone else. This describes the relationship between Harrer and his long-suffering wife Ingrid.

The Jewish marriage contract, the Ketubah, perhaps says it best. The language of the document indicates that the husband is responsible for his wife’s happiness. The Sages of the Talmud tell us that a man should love his wife as himself and honor her more than himself. Moreover, the Talmud states: “there is no blessing in one’s home without the wife’s honor.”

Heinrich Harrer comes to this realization too late to salvage his own marriage, but his Tibetan experience makes him a wiser man now ready to devote time to family. His encounter with the Dalai Lama has forever changed him. He is now obsessed with being a good father and does his utmost to share his son’s journey into manhood.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Manchester By the Sea (2016), directed by Kenneth Lonergan

manchester by the seaIn 1991, I read about the tragedy of famed rock musician Eric Clapton’s son, Conor. He was only four-years old when he fell out of a window on the 53rd floor of Clapton’s New York City high-rise. It was a calamity that could have been prevented, so the pain of Conor’s loss was especially intense.

Memories of that terrible tragedy came to mind as I watched Manchester By the Sea, a heart-wrenching story of a family coming to terms with a similar misfortune. Unlike conventional movie reviews, my “kosher movies” reviews sometimes contain “spoilers,” and Manchester By the Sea is one of those. Be forewarned.

Lee Chandler works as a janitor for a property management company in Boston. He is reclusive and does not enjoy small talk. We learn that his antisocial behavior has its origins in an incident that occurred in his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea a number of years earlier.

While Lee is drinking with friends at his home, his wife, Randi, asks Lee’s friends to leave because of the noise they are making, which prevents their three kids from sleeping. Lee, inebriated, builds a fire to warm up the house but forgets to place a screen in front of the fireplace. Lee then goes to the grocery store to pick up a few items. When he returns, he sees his house in flames. He is faced with overwhelming tragedy and guilt when he learns that all his children have perished in the fire.

Lee does not understand why he was not charged with a crime. In truth, the authorities see him as a tragic figure, who has suffered enormously. His kids are dead and he is responsible. To charge him with a crime seems pointless and so the authorities have few questions for him about how the fire started. Filled with guilt, he attempts to kill himself, but the police restrain him.

His marriage to Randi is now over. In time, he is able to find work, but daily life is devoid of meaning. He lives from one day to the next, but there is no joy in his life.

His mundane existence changes when his brother Joe, divorced from his alcoholic wife for many years, dies unexpectedly. Lee is appointed permanent guardian of Patrick, his 16-year-old son. Moreover, Lee is appointed trustee of Joe’s estate until Patrick comes of age.

Lee’s new responsibility as guardian is onerous and emotionally unsettling, for it requires Lee to move back to Manchester to take care of Patrick, a typical teenager who wants to live a typical teenage life without many boundaries. Moving back to Manchester also means that Lee will again see Randi, his ex-wife, who has moved on with her life, and be reminded daily of his negligence as a father who allowed his children to die in a fire.

In the cold light of day, Lee understands that he has to rise to the occasion and assume responsibility for his nephew Patrick. Their alliance is an uneasy one; but over a period of time, Lee finds meaning in helping Patrick become an adult. Lee finally accepts the reality that we have to move forward even when tragedies set us back.

Judaism views guilt as positive. However, even when we sin, the Sages tell us not to regard ourselves as sinners incapable of redemption. We make mistakes, but we can recover in some small ways and lead meaningful lives. Guilt should not paralyze us.

Rabbi Avi Shafran writes that we should regard guilt as an “engine of growth. To be sure, being consumed by guilt leaves a person paralyzed. But a modicum, or even a bit more, of facing our faults is a most salubrious thing. It’s essential to the process of true self-improvement.”

Shafran highlights one of the prayers that Jews say every morning upon awakening: “The soul that you placed in me is pure.” Shafran states that in spite of this purity, “our soul is easily stained. However, we would do well to try to restore it to its natural luster. And doing so, Maimonides informs us, first entails regret for actions, or inactions, we realize were wrong. There’s no way to take that initial step without confronting our misdeeds, and feeling guilty for them.”

Guilt can be redemptive if man comprehends its positive aspects. Indeed, guilt is good, but not when it overwhelms us. Manchester By the Sea reminds us that in the face of unspeakable tragedy and guilt, we still have to find a way forward to lead meaningful and productive lives.

 

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The Score (2001), directed by Frank Oz

scoreA friend of mine recently told me that, during his senior year at high school, he was caught by his History teacher for plagiarizing a term paper. It turns out that he copied the paper from his sister who, a number of years earlier, had submitted the paper to a different teacher at the same high school and she received an “A.”

Now here is the strange part. The teacher showed my friend the exact place where he discovered the plagiarism. The copied section was a verbatim quotation from the book jacket. Apparently, his sister had plagiarized as well and had gotten away with it.

The incident dramatized for me that to be a successful cheat you have to work at it. You cannot be lazy. You have to devote energy to achieve success as a criminal. This is what transpires in The Score, a thrilling heist caper in which crooks plan meticulously to rob from the Montreal Customs House a precious French scepter that will be sold on the black market for millions of dollars.

Master safecracker Nick Wells wants to retire from his life of crime and devote his time to managing his jazz club. However, he is persuaded to take on one last job due to the entreaties of Max, his longtime fence and friend. The job represents a payoff of four million dollars to Nick, enough money to enable him to forsake his life of crime for good.

The first challenge is to obtain schematics information about the building that houses the scepter. He also needs specific alarm bypass codes so that he can manipulate the alert protocols of the system as he breaks into the building.

The provider of this information is Jack Teller, a young, ambitious thief who poses as an intellectually disabled member of the maintenance staff to get access to the security information. The relationship between Jack and Nick is tense and filled with mistrust. However, since the payoff is great, they submerge egos in their quest for success in stealing the scepter. Nonetheless, Nick is concerned about Jack and excoriates him: “You’re smart, talented and you know a few things but talent means nothing in this game if you don’t make the right choices. There are plenty of talented people that never see the light of day anymore. This whole thing takes discipline because it’s one big long shot. And if you don’t have the discipline to stay away from the stupid move, then one day you will go down. It’s inevitable.”

Soon after seeing The Score, I read the outstanding biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe entitled, Rebbe, authored by Joseph Telushkin, in which he says that the Rebbe felt that ethical lessons could be learned from the world of business, from science, from sports, and even from thieves. In the book he has a section entitled “Learning from a Thief.” He quotes the saintly Rab Zusha who learned an approach to Divine service from observing the work ethic of a thief. He writes that a thief is modest, is prepared to endanger himself, labors with great exertion, works quickly, exhibits trust and hope, and does not give up after initial failure. The same qualities can be utilized for divine service, for living a holy life.

It is the attention to detail that characterizes the successful thief, and it is the attention to detail that is needed to be a successful Jew. The ideal Jew is modest and does not want to be noticed for what he does. He is prepared to encounter some risk in order to do a good deed. He labors hard to do the will of God, and he works with alacrity when the situation requires speed and timeliness. He is optimistic about the future, and does not give up hope even when things do not go his way. He understands that he has to fail forward after making mistakes, and there is always time for a mid-course correction.

The Score presents nefarious characters on the margins of society, but we can learn much from their work ethic and their careful attention to detail in accomplishing their unsavory ends. The Score reminds us that we can sometimes use the meticulous methods of the thief to accomplish worthwhile and holy goals.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com. 

%d bloggers like this: