Category Archives: Comedy

Menashe (2017), directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein

menasheWhen my wife passed away over 25 years ago, my world fell apart. After a year of parenting my six children by myself, it became clear to me that I needed to remarry to provide a semblance of a normal home life for my kids. It would never be the same. The past could not be replaced; but in some meaningful way, my kids would have a sense of family restored.

Menashe is an unusual film in that most of the dialogue is in Yiddish with a few English words thrown in. The story is about a recently widowed Hasidic man who is struggling to parent without a wife and mother at home. He faces many trials in trying to rear his only son, Rievin.

In the Hasidic community in which he lives, a child must be reared in the home where there is a father and mother. Menashe faces social pressure to remarry as soon as possible. But there is a problem. Menashe’s first marriage was unhappy and he is not interested in remarrying quickly, even though he knows that this may mean that he will be separated from his son.

Menashe works in a grocery store where he is a cashier and occasional salesman. He earns a low wage and has little money for extras. Eizik, his late wife’s financially well-off brother, offers his home to Rievin until Menashe can remarry and get his life in order.

Menashe resents his take-charge attitude, even when he knows that Eizik’s home is more stable than his. He feels Eizik looks down on him and treats him with disrespect. Menashe consequently is unwilling to accept criticism from him. Low self-esteem plagues Menashe.

Things come to a head when the anniversary of the death of Menashe’s wife approaches. Eizik wants the memorial in his home; Menashe wants it in his apartment even though he knows it will be less aesthetically pleasing.

To make the memorial service and the ensuing meal special, Menashe decides to cook a potato kugel. Unfortunately, he allows it to burn and it is barely edible. What is instructive is the way the various guests respond to the burnt kugel. Most take a small bite and quietly express their disappointment at the kugel’s taste. The revered rabbi who is present praises the food and encourages everyone to eat. More important to the rabbi than food is not embarrassing someone who falls short of community expectations.

The rabbi’s comments linger in Menashe’s mind. In his comment, there is a profound implicit message; namely, that you have to focus on the positive. When life brings disappointments, you have to accept them and move forward. You cannot wallow in what could have been or what should have been. For Menashe, this means accepting responsibility for his behavior and deciding to find a wife, even if she is not perfect. It will be a journey of self-discovery for Menashe as he tries his best to lead a normal life.

At the end of the movie, Menashe immerses in a mikvah, a ritual bath. Jewish tradition tells us that this act is symbolic of being born again. It is often done before the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, days when we want to shake off the sins of the past and turn over a new leaf.

Menashe may not be the most punctilious in his religious observance, but he definitely defines himself as a religious Jew who takes the words of God and the instructions of his rabbis seriously. His story reminds us that even when life deals us a tragic blow, God wants us to pick ourselves up and make the best of what we have.

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War Machine (2017), directed by David Michod

war machineAfter serving in Jewish education for many years in America and teaching in two schools in Israel, I am no longer active in the field of education. However, I continue to read articles about the latest trends in Jewish education, particularly at the high school level where I spent most of my career.

What I find interesting is that while outwardly things change, especially due to technology, many things still remain the same. One example: Year in and year out, the subject of how to make prayer meaningful is discussed in Jewish schools.

Dr. Beth Hait, former assistant dean of students at Yeshiva University’s Stern College, in 2016 discusses three issues pertaining to prayer in Jewish day schools: attendance, decorum, and participation. These issues are the same ones I dealt with in the 1970s when I began my tenure as a high school principal. Hait insightfully writes: “If part of the goal of Jewish education is not only to impart knowledge but to build the foundation for a lifelong relationship with God, then understanding prayer should be a priority, and God should be an integral part of classroom conversation.”

Indeed, there are no easy answers to perennial questions. Nonetheless, we try our best to solve the problem. This essentially is what four-star General Glen McMahon does when he is called in 2009 to deal with the war in Afghanistan, a war that has been going on for many years without a successful resolution. No previous general has been able to deal effectively with the diplomatic quagmire in Afghanistan, and so McMahan is brought in; but the same problems that plagued his predecessor plague him. The realities on the ground have not changed.

McMahan wants President Obama to authorize a troop surge of 40,000 soldiers to end the war, but he runs into political opposition. Things get worse when Sean Cullen, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, pens an article critical of the general and his staff.

Cullen provides the voiceover narration for the film. He views McMahan with skeptical eyes, appreciating his energy and patriotism but questioning his judgment in matters where the general’s ego is involved. Cullen observes: “You could argue that the main reason certain generals like war so much is because only in war do they feel truly relevant. It’s only in war that they feel close to the center of power. Only in war do they feel the warm glow of other people’s attention.”

The problem depicted in War Machine is that America is involved in a war it cannot win. The locals don’t trust the Americans who may not be there to help them in the long run. At a press conference with McMahan, a German politician articulates the dilemma: “Your analysis of the insurgency there suggests to me that there is no monolithic Taliban. You are spread over the entire country. You are fighting 1,000 separate battles with locals whose principal ideological position would seem to be simply that they don’t want foreign soldiers in their village, and that, General, you must know, is a war you will never win.”

Jewish law considers the reasons why a nation has to go to war. Obviously, it can go to war to defend itself. Beyond that, things get complicated. Reuven Kimelman of Brandeis University, in an article on warfare and its restrictions in Judaism, tells us that the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court in ancient times, is the body that can authorize a discretionary war. Kimelman quotes Rabbi David Bleich: “Before granting authorization to wage war, the Sanhedrin must weigh the probable losses, consider the chances of success, and assess the will of the people. The Sanhedrin is charged with assessing the military, political and economic reality and determining whether a proposed war is indeed necessary and whether it will be successful in achieving its objectives.”

The Sanhedrin was composed of wise men, not politically motivated but concerned about the long term wellbeing of the people. The egos of generals were not part of their consideration. War Machine reminds us of the complexity of military decisions that affect not only soldiers, but also the locals who are affected by what nations do on the battlefield.

The Confirmation (2016), directed by Bob Nelson

confirmationOne of the important lessons I learned over my long career in education is that kids are works in progress. If a student seems like a loser in high school, that does not mean he will always be a loser. I have witnessed many a student who has undergone a metamorphosis academically and spiritually. In high school, they were incorrigible; as adults they were exemplary human beings. I recall one student in particular, Daniel, who gave me grief every day he came to school, yet I controlled my response to his negative behavior and never said anything to him I regretted. Many years later, I received a phone call from Daniel apologizing for his confrontational behavior in high school. He then gave the school a sizable donation.

Watching The Confirmation, a coming of age story about Anthony, an eight-year-old child of divorce, reminded me of the truth of my experience as a teacher and principal. Anthony is a very sweet boy and he is clearly a work in progress. His father, Walt, and mother, Bonnie, are good people, but each has a different vision of what kind of adult Anthony should be. His mother encourages him to go to church. His father does not oppose this, but he tells his son that being a devout Christian is not necessarily a sure bet to get into Heaven. Maybe what the Church tells him is right and maybe it is not. He can listen to all points of view as a child, but when he grows into adulthood, he will have the freedom to decide for himself what path to follow.

The opportunity for the extended discussion between father and son occurs when Bonnie departs for a Christian Couples Retreat with her new husband, Kyle. She leaves Anthony in the care of his father, warning him that if he imbibes alcohol, he will lose visitation rights to Anthony. Walt, in truth, is in recovery for his alcoholic problem, but a series of unfortunate events test him emotionally. First, his car breaks down, then he receives an eviction notice from his landlord, and finally someone steals his carpentry tools, which he needs for an upcoming job.

Spending the day together with his father, who is challenged by so many problems, gives Anthony a window into the complexity of adult life. He begins to realize how complicated decision-making can be when, instead of seeing situations only in black and white, the predominant color of real life is grey.

There are two confession scenes that bookend the story. At the beginning, Anthony, at the request of this mother, goes to the priest to make confession. When the priest asks him to enumerate his sins, Anthony cannot name any. Even when the priest prompts him by asking if he was disrespectful to his parents or had impure thoughts, Anthony, in his innocent state, can recall nothing.

Near the end of the film, one day after spending a day with his father, he returns to the confessional booth with a very different narrative. In truth, Anthony is the same innocent boy, but now he has a better understanding of the complexity of life after seeing what his father’s life is like. For example, Anthony knows that sometimes lying is acceptable if it preserves peace in the home.

The Talmud’s style of discourse is to record different opinions, not merely to recite Jewish law. Having studied it for many years, I am continually amazed at its intellectual rigor and honesty. Rarely is a topic seen solely in black and white terms. One line of reasoning is presented; then another rabbi disagrees and expresses doubt about the conclusions reached by the previous sage. A final opinion is offered, but only after much analysis and give and take argument. Anthony in The Confirmation, after seeing the challenges his father faces and the strange assortment of characters he meets, emerges as a wiser young man who, in all likelihood, will mature into a wise and competent adult able to evaluate life in all its complexity.

The Incredibles (2004), directed by Brad Bird

incredibles posterMy oldest son, Rabbi Daniel, has recently written a book entitled What Will They Say About You When You Are Gone: Creating a Life of Legacy. Much of the book emerges from eulogies that he has delivered during the past 25 years as a synagogue rabbi. A consistent theme over the years is the good that people do anonymously, without any recognition or fanfare. Such good deeds done, below the societal radar, testify to the essential goodness of the deceased. Doing good without being recognized for it is at the heart of The Incredibles, an imaginative animated film that deals with superheroes who want to do good without receiving accolades. They just want to be helpful and do the right thing.

The main superheroes in the film are Mr. Incredible, who possesses super strength, Elastigirl, who can stretch her body like flexible rubber, and Frozone, who has the ability to create ice instantly. The opening scenes depict the heroes in a series of events where they are called upon to use their superpowers to catch criminals. They are almost entirely successful except in one case when they are foiled by Buddy, an enthusiastic fan of Mr. Incredible, who wants to be his ward like Batman’s Robin. It is his interruption that prevents Mr. Incredible from capturing the culprit.

After the excitement, the superheroes return to their alter egos and lead normal lives. Mr. Incredible is Robert Parr, Elastigirl is is Helen Parr, Robert’s wife, and Frozone is Lucius Best, Parr’s close friend.

Their lives are turned upside down when an avalanche of lawsuits are filed against the superheroes because of civilian injuries and collateral damage. Eventually, the superheroes conclude that they have to turn in their super suits and live normal lives away from the limelight, and assume their secret identities permanently. The Superhero Relocation Program provides ex-superheroes with new jobs and homes and amnesty for past actions.

The narrative continues 15 years later with Robert working for an insurance company, leading a life focused on his wife and children. However, he still dreams of his superhero years when he saved many people from disaster.

Soon an opportunity arises for him to return to his calling as a superhero. For a hefty sum, he is asked by Mirage, a mysterious woman, to destroy a rogue robot who is wreaking havoc on the residents of a remote island. However, Mr. Incredible soon discovers that his job is a ruse simply to get him to the island where Mirage’s anonymous employer terminates the lives of all the existing superheroes. The race to save himself and other superheroes makes for a tense and exciting denouement, in which Elastigirl, Frozone, and Mr. Incredible’s children play key roles.

A character trait that stands out among all three superheroes is their lack of interest in public acclaim. None of them is seeking recognition of any kind. They only want to help other people. This is a Jewish sensibility. In The Ethics of the Fathers, Jews are instructed to serve God, to do the right thing, without any intention of receiving reward. Moreover, Maimonides, in describing the eight levels of charity, writes that giving anonymously is one of the highest forms of charity.

It is significant to note that Mr. Incredible’s adversary is motivated primarily by a strong desire for recognition. He purposely destabilizes the world so that he can arrive on the scene and put it back together again in front of a large audience. He is a villain who thrives on the aphrodisiac of fame. The Incredibles reminds us that doing good things is more enduring than transient fame.

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Captain Fantastic (21016), directed by Matt Ross

captain-fantasticAs an educator for many years, I have encountered parents who opt for home schooling instead of enrolling their children into a traditional school. Sometimes the motive of the parent is to save the cost of private school tuition; at other times parents truly feel that conventional schools are often inferior and do not sufficiently tap a child’s intellectual potential. For these parents, home schooling offers an alternative and parents begin enthusiastically to educate their own kids at home.

Problems with this arrangement arise as the child gets older and needs more specialized education. It is rare that parents are skilled enough to meet the child’s growing academic needs, and home schooling becomes very labor intensive. Academic requirements often exceed what the average parent can deliver.

Captain Fantastic tells the story of parents who opt for home schooling and do not give up as their six children mature and the demands of home schooling increase exponentially. They understand that home schooling is by its very nature unpredictable and idiosyncratic, and adversity does not lessen their enthusiasm for it.

Ben Cash and his wife Leslie live with their six children in the Pacific Northwest. They are principled people who reject the American capitalist way of life and, instead, create for their children a learning environment where independent, critical thought is valued. Ben and Leslie teach their kids to think out-of-the-box, to question everything, and to learn skills that will enable them to survive in all kinds of challenging environments.

Life changes when Leslie dies leaving Ben totally in charge of his children’s education. His sister Harper tries to convince him to enroll the kids in a traditional school, but to no avail. His in-laws suggest the same, but he refuses their suggestion and their aid.

As time goes on, the children begin to question their father’s philosophy and his parenting skills. One even accuses him of being complicit in his mother’s untimely death. Family unity begins to unravel until Ben finally has an epiphany that his parenting practices might lead the children to very dangerous places. He then understands the importance of balance in navigating between the real and academic worlds.

In Jewish tradition, the educational ideal is for a parent to be the child’s teacher. The Bibles adjures parents: “ And you shall teach your children.” Proverbs states: “Listen, my son to the ethical instruction of your father and to the Torah of your mother.” But then reality asserts itself when parents are not capable of imparting wisdom because their own knowledge is limited. The Talmud tells us that when this happened historically, the Sages established schools to take on the parental task of educating children. Ultimately, what resulted is a synergy between parent and school in which both educated children and shaped their adult identities. The key is balance; one influence should not cancel out the other. Both contribute to the development of the child’s total personality.

Captain Fantastic, which refers to the charismatic father sensitively played by Viggo Mortensen, is an appealing character. It is clear that he loves his children dearly and wants the best for them. He shares their pain and their joy, and his kids recognize the love that underpins every interaction between them and him. Problems, however, arise in the crucible of life experience when educational theory meets reality. It is then that their relationship is tested.

The film reminds us that sometimes the ideal has to be tempered with real life demands in order for people to navigate life intelligently. Living a life without compromise of any sort may be intellectually satisfying, but also may be emotionally draining and even dangerous. The key to successful parenting, in the Jewish view, is to encourage children to lead a balanced life.

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Infinitely Polar Bear (2014), directed by Maya Forbes

infinitely-polar-bear-posterAs a child with a Downs Syndrome sister, I recall in the 1950s families with Downs Syndrome children often kept their kids in the proverbial closet. My mother and father thought differently. They felt Carol, their daughter, needed to be visible in the community and that the community should provide the resources for such kids to develop their potential to the fullest extent possible. That’s why my mother fought for the establishment for a school in Westchester County for the mentally retarded and, when Carol was older, for the establishment of a retarded children’s workshop in White Plains so that Carol could feel and be productive in her mature years.

Not all parents felt the same way. Some wanted to hide the disability, for they were uncomfortable saying they had a retarded child. I know of one specific instance where the parents decided not to take the child home from the hospital, consigning the baby to life in an institution.

Infinitely Polar Bear does not deal with mental retardation, but rather with a manic-depressive father and the family’s attempt to live a normal life, which is challenged every day by the erratic and outlandish behavior of the father.

It is Boston in the late 1970s. Cameron Stuart suffers from manic depression, sometimes referred to as bipolar disorder. The film begins with him being fired from his job and going into rehabilitation in a hospital setting. To manage the situation financially, his wife Maggie and their two young girls move into a small apartment while she does her best to support the family.

As Cameron’s mental health stabilizes, Maggie applies to graduate school for an M.B.A. so she can earn more money and send her girls to private school. Fortuitously, Columbia University grants her a scholarship. To attend, she asks Cameron to take care of their kids for 18 months, the time she needs to complete the degree, after which they can reunite as a family. Cameron agrees, but has his doubts about whether he can fulfill the mission.

Living with their father is a constant source of embarrassment for the girls. They love him dearly, but Cameron’s bizarre behavior tests them. He occasionally abandons them during the night, is overly friendly with neighbors whom he hardly knows, and begins many home improvement projects that are never finished, leaving the house in disarray. To complicate matters, Cameron does not take the meds needed to keep him calm, and the home life of the family is shattered with frequent emotional outbursts.

Infinitely Polar Bear raises the question of how much a child should tolerate the abusive behavior of a parent. The Talmud in the Tractate of Kiddushin (31a) is instructive. A story is recounted in which a prominent man wearing expensive garments was seated among Roman officials. His mother forced her way into the gathering and tore his garment, hit him on the head, and spat in front of him. In spite of this, he did not embarrass her. Another sage states that if the mother threw his wallet into the sea, the child should remain passive and not embarrass his parent.

Implicit in this Talmudic narrative is the notion that honoring parents does not depend on what parents did for you or whether they were good to you. Rather the commandment to honor parents is simply because they gave you life. As a result, you need to be nice to them even if they are not nice to you.

Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin, a clinical psychologist, considers the extent to which a child should honor a parent who is abusive. He makes a distinction between a parent who is mentally competent and one who is deranged. In the former, there is more latitude for the child to respond to abuse; in the latter case, there is less. When a parent, for example, has bipolar disorder or Alzheimer’s, the child is faced with a great challenge to keep his composure in the face of behavior that might otherwise be condemned.

Infinitely Polar Bear reminds us of the challenge of being respectful to parents even when they do not behave as parents. It also indicates that an abiding love for parents can often overcome the worst of parental provocations.

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Elvis and Nixon (2016), directed by Liza Johnson

elvis-and-nixonAs a young teenager in Mt. Vernon, New York, I was an avid fan of Elvis Presley. I awaited the release of each new single and purchased the albums as they became available. I even combed my hair like Elvis and grew sideburns like him. I thought to look like him was cool; as a result, many of my fellow high school students viewed me as an enigma, not knowing if I was a sweet Jewish kid or a rock and roller ready to rumble.

Although I outgrew my fascination with Elvis as I matured, I still liked his music. I made a pilgrimage to Graceland, his famous Memphis home, during a Torah Umesorah Jewish educator’s convention in that city in the late 70s and then revisited it as an adult in the 1990s.

A friend of mine who knew of my early admiration of Elvis bought me a postcard depicting Elvis in Talis and Tefilin in front of the Western Wall with the caption “I saw Elvis Aaron Presley at the Western Wall.” So it was with great interest that I watched Elvis and Nixon, a fanciful recreation of a meeting between the “King,” Elvis, and President Nixon, which was immortalized in an iconic photo of the two, a photo that is the most requested picture in the National Archives.

The film opens on a December morning in 1970 when Elvis shows up at the White House requesting a meeting with President Nixon. The authorities at the gatehouse do not know what to make of his request. After a number of meetings with various White House aides, we learn that Elvis wants an audience with the President to let him know of his abiding concern for the youth of the country that is being seduced by the drug culture. Elvis wants to go undercover as a federal agent-at-large to infiltrate the drug gangs and bring them to justice. He also wants an official badge certifying his unique position within the law enforcement agency. He truly feels he has more access to the criminal element than an average Federal narcotics agent.

The bureaucracy of government does not know how to deal with Elvis’s request and Nixon has no interest in meeting him. All seems lost until one of Elvis’ traveling buddies, Jerry Schilling, is reminded of the power of Elvis on his female fans, the daughter of the president being no exception. With promises to her for an Elvis autograph and a photo of Elvis with her father, the White House staffers convince the President to meet with Elvis. The meeting goes well and lasts longer than anticipated. They part as friends and the iconic picture is taken.

What is gleaned from this comedy are some serious notions about fame, fortune, ego, and the desire to be admired and liked. Both Nixon and Elvis are famous, both came from poor backgrounds, and both are self-absorbed, thinking that the world revolves around them.

Jewish tradition encourages a totally opposite view of life, a life founded on humility. The giants of Jewish history were imbued with humility. Moses is known in the Bible as the most humble of all men (Numbers 12:3). Abraham saw himself as only “dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27). King Saul always wanted to avoid the limelight.

Moreover, there is a Hasidic story of a man who came to a holy and righteous man to ask for advice on how he should view fame. “All my life,” he said, “I have tried to follow the advice of the rabbis that one who runs away from fame will find that fame pursues him, and yet while I run away from fame, fame never seems to pursue me.” The holy man answered: “The trouble is that while you do run away from fame, you are always looking over your shoulder to see if fame is chasing after you.”

Watching Elvis and Nixon reminds us of the empty nature of fame. No matter how much you pursue it, it eludes you because of its essential evanescent nature. A special moment can be captured in a photo, but the real business of life transcends the ephemeral nature of fame.

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