Category Archives: Comedy

Shtisel (2013), created by Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky (A Netflix Series)

Shtisel (2013), created by Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky  (A Netflix Series)

Close to my neighborhood in Beit Shemesh, there is a haredi (ultraorthodox, for want of a better word) community. I attend prayer services three times a day; and when it is late at night and I have missed the prayer in my local synagogue, I travel to the haredi enclave where I can always find the requisite quorum for prayer no matter how late the hour.

Mostly everyone is dressed in Chassidic garb, and I stand out in my baseball hat, casual cargo pants, and colored shirt. I realize that I probably have little in common with them from a social perspective, but I know that we speak the same language of faith. We pray to the same God and utter the same prayers. Watching the Netflix series Shtisel reminds me that, in spite of our different dress and lifestyles, there is more that unites us than divides us.

Shtisel is the story of a haredi family living in Jerusalem. Its patriarch is Shulem Shtisel, a person of much wisdom and life experience, but who has trouble navigating parenthood when the outside world intrudes on the traditional lifestyle in which he was reared.

Challenges come and go in the Shtisel family, and I will only mention a few of them. The central plot line concerns Shulem Shtisel and Akiva, his son. Akiva likes to draw. Working as a teacher in a haredi school is not what he wants to do for the rest of his life. People who see some of his drawings recognize that he has artistic talent. But what will he do with it?

 Akiva respects his father greatly, but feels confined by a worldview that sees art as childish, not something a grown man would do to make a living. Akiva’s talent, however, is fortuitously recognized by the owner of a Jerusalem gallery, who arranges for Akiva to receive a stipend and to use a studio where he can continue to develop his artistic skill. Moreover, the owner sets up an exhibition of Akiva’s work with plans for a subsequent trip to the United States to meet the patron who is sponsoring his exhibition. This, as expected, creates tension in the father-son relationship.

Akiva’s sister, Gitti, has problems on the home front. Her husband leaves the family for work in a foreign country. While there, he shaves his beard and abandons his Chasidic lifestyle. Within a short time, he regrets his action and returns home. How his wife and family react to his return after abandoning them is a complex emotional question for everyone.

Shulem’s elderly mother finds relaxation by watching television, which is considered an anathema to haredi Jews. How her relatives handle this without hurting their mother is a challenge. They want to please her, but pleasing her means bringing her and parts of the family into an orbit of immorality and foolishness from the family’s perspective.

Many, though not all, of the family issues depicted in Shtisel deal with the conflict between modernity and the traditional haredi way of life. There are no simple answers offered to any of the questions that the show raises. Life turns out to be a mix of joy, sadness, contradiction, and satisfaction in a world that is changing both without and within.

Rabbi Mordechai and Nina Glick, veteran Jewish educators, discuss the lure of this one-of-a-kind television program: “Shtisel leaves us with the feeling that we are all the same. We might look different, but this series definitely instills in us the feeling that the same insecurities and doubts, happy moments and family dynamics exist everywhere. There is no perfect world, and for that reason we always speak of the need to continue striving to make it better.”

Watch this series on Netflix.

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Green Book (2018), directed by Peter Farrelly

I have seen many “road movies.” The basic plot concerns two characters who do not like one another, but who make a journey together. In the process of spending lots of time with each other, they learn to like each other and often discover a new insight about life.

Many, many years ago, I was a camp counselor and I recall that, at the beginning of the summer, certain kids in the bunk did not get along with one another; but forced to live with one another, they overcame their initial negativity about a particular camper and wound up being fast friends. This narrative arc is at the core of Green Book, a road movie featuring a white driver who, in 1962, must transport a black concert pianist for an eight-week concert tour in the Deep South.

Tony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, a bouncer at the prestigious Copacabana nightclub in New York City, is temporarily out of work when the club is forced to close for renovations. To make money during the two months the club will be closed, he looks for employment. An unusual offer comes his way: to drive Dr. Don Shirley, a black classical pianist, for a concert tour in the Deep South. Shirley wants a driver who can protect him in case they encounter trouble on the trip.

Tony accepts the job and is given The Negro Motorist Green Book, a listing of motels and hotels that will provide safe lodging in a part of the country that is racially segregated.

From the outset, Tony and Don clash. They have different lifestyles, different ways of speaking, and different goals in life. Things begin to change when, forced to stop on the road, they witness blacks working in cotton fields. Tony gazes at them and they gaze at him and his black passenger. It is an incongruous picture that blacks have never seen: a white man in the employ of a black man, and the white man is doing the work of a chauffer while the black man is dressed to the nines in a suit.

As they progress on their tour deeper into the South, they encounter problems. White men threaten Don’s life. Don experiences discrimination in restaurants and hotels, and he is assaulted by white patrons in a segregated bar. Tony rescues him repeatedly and grows to have a great respect for Don as a man of principle and as a brilliant musician. At the same time, Don admires Tony’s loyalty to family and his worldly experience.

Time spent together also gives them an opportunity to express their different views of the world. In one telling exchange, Don heatedly tells Tony that Tony is unwilling to better himself. Tony responds that Don always is making things worse by not being flexible and that Don, indeed, does not fit in anywhere. Don yells at Tony, revealing his sense of isolation in a white man’s world: “if I’m not black enough, and I’m not white enough, I’m not man enough, then what am I?” In spite of such emotional outbursts, they eventually realize that there is more that unites them than divides them, and the friendship begins to flower.

Jewish tradition has much to say about friendship. King Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes: “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labor; for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him that is alone when he falls, for he has not another to help him up (4:9-10).”

Rabbi Noah Weinberg defines friendship in an innovative way. It means having “the emotional pleasure of identifying virtues in another person,” looking for the good in another human being.

In Green Book, two disparate personalities come to understand the other traveler on a road trip that gives Tony and Don life lessons about friendship. They embody the words of Solomon, for each is there to lift up the other. Moreover, they personify Rabbi Weinberg’s definition of friendship, for each one finds good in the other. Together, they achieve an epiphany of understanding that can serve as a guide for navigating relationships with those who are different from us.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The Climb (2017), directed by Ludovic Bernard

When I entered Yeshiva University as an undergraduate, I thought I might join the basketball team since sports has always been an important part of my life. At the time, Yeshiva University had no gym of its own, so the practice was at a distant public high school. This required us to take a long subway ride before an intense practice. I journeyed to one practice and quickly realized that I was not ready to play college ball. I lacked the skills and the drive to make it a priority.

I then turned to wresting and I went to a few practices, which took place late in the evening. I was very tired and took caffeine tablets called No-Doze to stay awake. Here too, I soon realized that participating as a member of the wrestling team was beyond my level of competence.

I then decided to focus completely on my studies where my self-esteem was high and where I could define myself in a singular and satisfying way. The Climb describes a young man’s journey to find self-esteem through attempting a feat far beyond his level of competence, and we follow his arduous and sometimes frightening path to self-knowledge.

Samy Dhiakate has no job and lives in a low-income neighborhood in Paris. He falls in love with Nadia, a childhood friend, but Nadia refuses to date him because of his seemingly aimless life without clear goals and a plan for occupational success. In jest, Nadia tells Samy to climb Mt. Everest to prove his mettle and to convince her that he is capable of completing a task.

Samy takes her request seriously and finds sponsors to support his trek to the Himalayas. But there is a problem. Samy has no mountaineering experience. Samy cons Jeff, the tour leader, into thinking that he has hiked Kilimanjaro, and Jeff accepts him for the trip. Fortunately, Samy’s Sherpa Johnny, his mountain guide, teaches him how to climb in return for which Samy reads Johnny a romance novel that intrigues him.

One of Samy’s sponsors is a local radio station that broadcasts updates on Samy’s progress. Soon his journey attracts a national following in France, all of whom support Samy’s grand, and perhaps foolish, gesture of love.

The trek is filled with tension as Samy has breathing problems the higher he goes on the mountain. Moreover, the terrain is unstable in spots, and Samy is in danger of falling and perhaps dying. Everyone at home is both exhilarated and worried about Samy’s adventure and they want to see him safely home.

For Samy, the trek is his way of earning esteem in the eyes of others and building self-confidence. He tells his Sherpa guide before the final ascent that he has learned that self-esteem is the key to success in life: “What’s important is that before you love someone else, you first have to love yourself.”

Jewish educator Arye Ackerman writes: “What you believe about yourself and your abilities serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your self-image is not an objective reality. It is based on who you think you are and what you are like. It is based on messages you received from your parents, brothers, sisters, friends, classmates, teachers, neighbors, and everyone you met in your life.”

If, indeed, your self-image is not an objective reality, then what is important is how we think of ourselves in the present without the baggage of the past. If we think of ourselves as competent and as possessing infinite value, then we can develop healthy self-esteem. Ackerman suggests an innovative way to view self-esteem: “Think of self-esteem as the immune system of consciousness. If you have a healthy immune system, you might become ill, but you are less likely to; if you do become ill, you will likely recover faster, your resilience is greater.”

Samy, through accepting the task of summiting Mt. Everest, becomes the success he always dreamed he could be. The Climb is testimony to what one can achieve when one views himself as a winner.

Watch this movie on Netflix.

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.

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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