Category Archives: Comedy

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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.

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