Category Archives: Documentary

Crime After Crime (2011), directed by Yoav Potash

There is a non-profit in my neighborhood that has programs for seniors who are disabled or have Alzheimer’s. Every year we give donations to it, but it was not until a close friend had Alzheimer’s and began using the facility that we increased our charitable giving to this particular program. Once something becomes personal, your attitude towards it changes.

This is what happens in Crime After Crime, the dramatic story of the legal battle to free Debbie Peagler, an African-American woman, who is a victim of domestic violence. One of Debbie’s lawyers is Joshua Safran, whose own mother was a victim of domestic abuse. For him, the case is personal, and he is tenacious in fighting for Debbie.

In 1983, Debbie clearly was wrongly convicted of the murder of her abusive boyfriend, and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. This, in spite of the fact that her boyfriend regularly beat her and forced her into prostitution.

Her story in Crime After Crime takes place almost twenty years after her initial incarceration when two young lawyers, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran, whose expertise is in real estate, decide to take her case on a pro bono basis. Their commitment to Debbie is total; and in their investigations they uncover long-lost witnesses, relevant new testimony, and proof of perjury, all of which point to a travesty of justice. Their perseverance attracts worldwide attention to victims of wrongful incarceration and spousal abuse.

Debbie’s story is a disturbing example of a criminal justice system that is deeply flawed, allowing someone to remain in prison far beyond what her crime warranted. It is made evident that for her passive participation in her abusive boyfriend’s death, Debbie should have received a maximum sentence of six years, yet she was given a sentence of 25 years to life.

The film focuses on the investigative work of Costa and Safran, passionate attorneys who challenged her wrongful conviction. They were compassionate in listening to Debbie and in understanding her side of the story. Moreover, they were resolute in fighting the Los Angeles’ DA’s Office, which hid evidence that would have been favorable to her defense. Unfortunately, when Debbie’s case came before the court in 1983, the topics of domestic abuse and battered women were not part of the legal  landscape as they are nowadays, so there was little sympathy for Debbie.

In an article on the Aish HaTorah website, Rabbi Shraga Simmons writes about lawyer Joshua Safran’s Jewish journey. Joshua himself had been reared in an abusive home where his mother was a victim of domestic violence. As a child, he lived in an environment in which there were no rules, no father, and no stability. He was home-schooled for most of his elementary school years, and serendipitously discovered in a conversation with his mother that he was Jewish. Gradually, he began exploring what that meant and traveled on a Birthright trip to Israel. That was the beginning of his odyssey to becoming an observant Jew.

A watershed moment for him occurred at a yeshiva run by Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld, whose message was one of inclusion and not judging people by appearances or by their backgrounds. That approach spoke to Joshua’s heart.

When Joshua prays in the morning, he recites a daily prayer lauding God for “releasing those who are bound.” This serves as a mission statement for Joshua, who observes: “If someone is wrongfully imprisoned, we have an obligation to fight to free them, to liberate them.” Even though Debbie’s own freedom came many years too late, her story did create a sensitivity to the plight of battered women, a sensitivity that would lead to the development of laws and agencies that would better protect them in the future.

There is a non-profit in my neighborhood that has programs for seniors who are disabled or have Alzheimer’s. Every year we give donations to it, but it was not until a close friend had Alzheimer’s and began using the facility that we increased our charitable giving to this particular program. Once something becomes personal, your attitude towards it changes.

This is what happens in Crime After Crime, thedramatic story of the legal battle to free Debbie Peagler, an African-American woman, who is a victim of domestic violence. One of Debbie’s lawyers is Joshua Safran, whose own mother was a victim of domestic abuse. For him, the case is personal, and he is tenacious in fighting for Debbie.

In 1983, Debbie clearly was wrongly convicted of the murder of her abusive boyfriend, and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. This, in spite of the fact that her boyfriend regularly beat her and forced her into prostitution.

Her story in Crime After Crime takes place almost twenty years after her initial incarceration when two young lawyers, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran, whose expertise is in real estate, decide to take her case on a pro bono basis. Their commitment to Debbie is total; and in their investigations they uncover long-lost witnesses, relevant new testimony, and proof of perjury, all of which point to a travesty of justice. Their perseverance attracts worldwide attention to victims of wrongful incarceration and spousal abuse.

Debbie’s story is a disturbing example of a criminal justice system that is deeply flawed, allowing someone to remain in prison far beyond what her crime warranted. It is made evident that for her passive participation in her abusive boyfriend’s death, Debbie should have received a maximum sentence of six years, yet she was given a sentence of 25 years to life.

The film focuses on the investigative work of Costa and Safran, passionate attorneys who challenged her wrongful conviction. They were compassionate in listening to Debbie and in understanding her side of the story. Moreover, they were resolute in fighting the Los Angeles’ DA’s Office, which hid evidence that would have been favorable to her defense. Unfortunately, when Debbie’s case came before the court in 1983, the topics of domestic abuse and battered women were not part of the legal  landscape as they are nowadays, so there was little sympathy for Debbie.

In an article on the Aish HaTorah website, Rabbi Shraga Simmons writes about lawyer Joshua Safran’s Jewish journey. Joshua himself had been reared in an abusive home where his mother was a victim of domestic violence. As a child, he lived in an environment in which there were no rules, no father, and no stability. He was home-schooled for most of his elementary school years, and serendipitously discovered in a conversation with his mother that he was Jewish. Gradually, he began exploring what that meant and traveled on a Birthright trip to Israel. That was the beginning of his odyssey to becoming an observant Jew.

A watershed moment for him occurred at a yeshiva run by Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld, whose message was one of inclusion and not judging people by appearances or by their backgrounds. That approach spoke to Joshua’s heart.

When Joshua prays in the morning, he recites a daily prayer lauding God for “releasing those who are bound.” This serves as a mission statement for Joshua, who observes: “If someone is wrongfully imprisoned, we have an obligation to fight to free them, to liberate them.” Even though Debbie’s own freedom came many years too late, her story did create a sensitivity to the plight of battered women, a sensitivity that would lead to the development of laws and agencies that would better protect them in the future.

Watch this movie on Amazon.com.

Netflix vs. the World (2019), directed by Shawn Cauthen

I have been a moviegoer since childhood. Movies were pure escapism that allowed me to imaginatively travel to different places and different times to vicariously experience the larger world of which I was a citizen. I became an aficionado of Netflix in the early 2000s when I was living in Denver. I rarely went to a movie theatre, but became enthralled with the idea that movies could be delivered regularly to my home where I could keep them for several days before returning them in the mail. So it was with great interest that I watched Netflix vs. the World, which describes the company’s origins and its amazing financial trajectory into the 21st century.

Netflix’s initial niche strategy was to mail DVDs to your home, thus avoiding the trips and late fees associated with Blockbuster Video, a giant in the video rental business and their major competitor. Marc Randolph and Reed Hastings were the visionaries who transformed their little DVD rental company into the major player in the movie streaming business, which changed the way most people enjoyed the cinema experience. A good deal of the film describes the conflict between Netflix and Blockbuster, with Blockbuster eventually not surviving. To be privy to the executive thinking of top management of Blockbuster as it tried to stay afloat financially in the face of an aggressive and savvy competitor is a lesson in economics that is worth contemplating.

Once Netflix won the battle of dominance in the DVD rental arena, they became a financial powerhouse that could also dominate the next technological frontier in the entertainment industry:  digital streaming of movies and developing its own original content. The watershed moment was its successful production of House of Cards, a series that debuted in 2013.

Bob Diener, author of Biblical Secrets to Business Success and founder of Hotels.com, writes about entrepreneurship and the ingredients for starting a successful business, ingredients that were part of the management DNA of Netflix founders Randolph and Hastings. First, Diener recommends doing your homework. Make sure you understand all the issues and take nothing for granted. Second, have a high level of customer service. In Biblical terms, he says “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) refers to putting yourself in the shoes of the customers and treating them the way you desire to be treated. Super customer service almost inevitably leads to building a long-term customer base. Third, when making a mistake, admit it to your customers. Hiding a problem will lead to erosion of the customer’s belief in the company’s honesty and integrity.

These basic pillars of a quality company were evident in the way Netflix management dealt with problematic issues. For example, before launching their own DVD rental service, they did their homework. They investigated the Blockbuster operation to determine what they could do to challenge their dominance. One area that emerged was the large amount of movie choices that they could make available through the mail, not relying on brick and mortar stores. Another area that highlighted Blockbusters’ vulnerability was the issue of late fees, a major irritant to Blockbuster patrons. By sending DVDs through the mail and allowing customers to keep the DVDs for long periods of time, the major irritant of late fees was removed for Netflix users. Moreover, the convenience of home delivery of DVDs to one’s home mailbox was extremely attractive. No more trips to the store and waiting in line to check out.

What is impressive about the Netflix story is the total commitment of the founders and management to create a new paradigm for the consumption of mass entertainment. Indeed, a guiding light for them was the idea that they were providing people with enjoyable entertainment and that was a worthy goal. In many ways, there were ahead of the curve. Because of that, they were able to chart their own distinctive path rather than merely respond to the challenges of others.

On the Map (2016), directed by Dani Menkin

When we moved from New York to Atlanta for my first rabbinical post, we were always happy when our parents came down to visit. It was a special event filled with love, and we enjoyed it immensely because their presence validated what we were doing with our lives. The approval of parents then and now was an important piece of maintaining our psychic health and happiness, especially when we were separated by long distances.

On the Map is a basketball story about the come-from-behind triumph of the Maccabi Tel Aviv team in the 1977 European Championship. But there is one vignette in the narrative that lingers in my mind.

Only a few days before the championship game, the captain of the team, Tal Brody, receives a call informing him that his father has had a heart attack and is in the ICU unit of a hospital in America. Tal decides to go immediately to his dad in spite of the fact that this means his lifelong dream to play, and perhaps win, the European basketball championship will vanish. As Tal says: “A father is a father,” and that desire to be with his dad at a time of crisis prevails.

The European basketball championship took place after a tumultuous time in the history of Israel. In 1972 the Munich massacre at the Olympic Games forever changed the nature of international sports. The 1973 Yom Kippur War dramatically diminished the sense of euphoria that existed after the Six Day War, and the 1976 hijacking of an Air France plane in Entebbe, Africa, left Israel with a sense of its own international fragility. In the midst of these events and domestic turmoil in Israel’s government, as well as the tensions of the Cold War, the distraction of sports was a welcome reprieve from the chaotic world situation.

The central figure in this renaissance of basketball was Tal Brody, an American who played college ball at the University of Illinois and was drafted into the NBA. Moshe Dayan saw him play at the Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv, and encouraged Tal to come to Israel and join the Maccabi team. It is a mark of the man that Tal passed on the fame and wealth of being on an NBA team to play with the country of his heritage. His presence on the team encouraged other American players to join Maccabi. Their mission was to win the European League Championship.

The journey of the team to win that accolade is fraught with challenges and obstacles, which manifest themselves as the team faces imposing adversaries such as Russia. It is a joy to watch the players coalesce and improve as the season progresses.

Tal Brody is the man of the hour, and it is an inspiration to see him make the correct Jewish decision when his father has a medical emergency. He focuses on honoring a parent, not winning a game, and this focus on family is an affirmation of his Jewish values.

Rabbi Shraga Simmons writes about the importance of this mitzvah: “It’s one of the Ten Commandments – right up there with belief in God and don’t murder. What’s so special about the mitzvah to honor parents?

Many people think that honoring parents is some kind of payback for all those years of changing diapers and paying for college.

In truth, this mitzvah of honoring parents does not depend on what your parents did for you, or even whether they were good parents. Rather, we honor parents simply because they gave us the gift of life.

By honoring those who brought us into existence, we learn not to take things for granted and develop an appreciation for the kindness of others.”

Rabbi Simmons mentions several ways we fulfill this commandment. We take care of them, especially when they are older. We take them to the doctor, we bring them food, we help them manage their financial affairs. We phone them often. We do not make them feel that they are a burden to us. In the end, the Torah tells us that the reward for honoring parents is long life so it is wise to fulfill this commandment diligently.

Tal Brody, by rushing off to the States to be with his ailing father at a time when he stands to gain immensely if he stays in Europe, reminds us that loyalty and service to parents is more important than transient fame or financial reward. Honoring parents trumps everything.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound (2019), directed by Midge Costin

 In 1965, an uncle of mine, a serious audiophile, gave us a wedding gift of a high fidelity sound system with stereo speakers. After listening to music on monotone speakers for much of my life, the surround sound effect of this new technology was amazing. I could hear sounds not just in front of me but emanating from the sides of the room as well. It truly was an enveloping experience. Which is why I was fascinated by the documentary Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound.

The film is an engaging history of the power of sound in movies. Telling the story are the sound engineers who create the film’s soundtrack and the famous directors with whom they collaborate to bring the audience the best of immersive film experiences. The narrative begins with archival footage of silent movies and takes a nostalgic look at early cinema before moving gradually into the era of sound. Through film clips and interviews with legendary directors and sound designers, the creative process behind this often overlooked part of moviemaking is revealed.

Directors interviewed include, among others, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, David Lynch, and Ang Lee. All of them discuss their collaboration with their sound designers and how it made their movies better. Steven Spielberg tries to frame their contribution with the following observation: “Our ears lead our eyes to where the story lives.”

Particularly engaging is Barbra Streisand’s request to record her voice live for A Star is Born to create a more heartfelt rendition of a song rather than dubbing the voice after the scene is shot. Steven Spielberg’s discussion of the opening of Saving Private Ryan is instructive. He details the cacophony of the sounds of battle as heard from the perspective of the soldiers at the Normandy beach landing. The percussive noise of bullets and bombs gives the viewer a sense of being in the middle of a life and death conflict. Spielberg’s analysis of the integration of sight and sound gives one a sense of how valuable is the work of the sound mixer and editor.

The movie considers sound from three perspectives: music, sound effects, and voice. These three elements are then subdivided into smaller units creating what the film’s narrator calls a “circle of talent” that will give the viewer an immersive cinematic experience. The ability of sound to create a total visceral experience for the listener is embedded in the Jewish tradition of sounding the shofar on Rosh HaShanah.

In Exodus (20:15), it says: “And all the people saw the sounds and the flames, the sound of the Shofar and the mountain smoking, and the people saw and shuddered and stood at a distance.” Rabbi Avigdor Bonchek cites Rashi, the pre-eminent Torah commentator, who writes: “They saw that which is ordinarily heard, that which is impossible to see otherwise.” Rabbi Bonchek explains: “Rashi is telling us to take the word see (in Hebrew ‘ro’im’) literally. They literally could see the sound waves of the voice of God as He spoke. In modern psychology, this is called synesthesia, when the sense experience crosses over to another psychological space. Seeing the sounds becomes a miraculous event.”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe amplifies this idea. He observes that seeing enables us to gain a clear perception of the physical world. However, hearing has an advantage over seeing in the sense that it enables us to relate to ideas, abstract concepts and spiritual feelings. These cannot be understood by sight but rather by hearing.

Rabbi Doniel Baron relates this to the sound of the shofar: “The sound of the shofar begins with a simple breath, and ends with a note, broken or straight, depending on the required sound. In describing those sounds, the Talmud uses metaphors of crying — a protracted sighing cry and uncontrollable broken weeping. That primal cry of the shofar reveals its secret. Mystical sources explain that the shofar spiritually expresses places in a person that words cannot reach. It penetrates the core of a Jew’s existence, and taps into the essence of the Jew. It is the primal cry of the soul, an existential scream.”

Making Waves reminds us that sounds convey a message that goes beyond mere words. It allows us to experience the world on multiple levels, and we emerge from the film appreciating the technicians who enable the movies to touch our hearts as well as our heads.

Watch this movie on Amazon.com.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016), directed by Raoul Peck

I was not much of a student in high school; but when I entered college at Yeshiva University, I had an intellectual awakening. Because I wanted to avoid math courses at all costs, I became a history major and serendipitously became exposed to cutting edge writers and thinkers whose opinions seemed to matter in any discussion of world affairs. One of those was James Baldwin.

Moreover, during the current pandemic quarantine, I read Chronicles, Volume One, an autobiographical account of the early creative years of Bob Dylan, one of the foremost singer/poets of the 20th century. Although not formally educated in college, Dylan had an insatiable curiosity for philosophy and literature in addition to his avid interest in folk music. Many of the songs, artists, and writers mentioned in his autobiography were familiar to me because I, like Dylan, experienced epiphanies of learning in the 1960s. We both lived in New York City at the time and read the same writers.

Although Dylan did not consider himself a prophet of protest, many of his lyrics spoke to the racial inequities of the time. I was, therefore, ripe to watch the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which is based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript entitled “Remember This House.” The book was intended to be a personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his dearest friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, none of whom lived to the age of 40. The film gives voice to the thirty pages of text that remained after Baldwin’s death in 1987.

All three men, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, had different approaches to correcting the systemic racism that they witnessed and experienced in America. What is particularly disturbing is the footage that portrays the prejudice against blacks in the United States. Some of it is archival and some of it is taken from the present day, indicating that old problems are still with us in spite of many people with good intentions who desire to write a new history for blacks in America. The film uses Baldwin’s own language, narrated effectively by Samuel L. Jackson.

What stands out is Baldwin’s use of visceral language to describe the cultural maladies of the day. He is clearly an exceptional chronicler of the American condition. To highlight the movie’s message, Raoul Peck, the filmmaker, employs powerful contrasting images to highlight the way blacks and whites experience America. For example, juxtaposed with the sweet image of a singing Doris Day is a scene of black men being lynched by a white mob. The impression left is that vast numbers of Americans are in denial of the cruel realities of racism, preferring to live in their bubbles of comfortable isolation rather than going out and addressing the lack of civil rights for the outsider that exist in the body politic.

Baldwin reminds people that the stranger, the one who is different from you, should not be dehumanized. It is one of his important observational truths worth pondering. Furthermore, his intellectuality makes him a foe of American consumerism, in which success is only measured in material wealth.

In a thoughtful article by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller, a Jewish educator, she quotes Lev Baruch Perlow, a black sergeant in the Israeli army who lived for many years in Chicago. Perlow offers advice about one way to help stamp out racism. He observes: “At the end of the day we’re people. We’re not more special than another person – we’re the same as you. We have the same rights, the same everything – just a different skin color. We should remember to be kind to the one who is different. Be sensitive. Don’t joke about other people’s differences or try to taunt them. Look at others as fully realized people, not simply as walking embodiments of the color of their skin. It’s pretty simple: treat a black person like you treat yourself, like you treat any other person.”

Perlow’s straight-forward advice resonates in these tumultuous times of racial tension and racial divide. I Am Not Your Negro presents the problem and the challenge. The next step to take is ours.

Jerry Seinfeld: “I’m Telling You for the Last Time (1998), directed by Marty Callner, and Jerry Before Seinfeld (2017), directed by Michael Bonfiglio

From 1988 to 1998, Seinfeld was one of the most successful sitcoms on television; but in the 80s and 90s, I was busy with life and never watched an episode of the popular show. A friend recently prevailed on me to watch two of his stand-up comedy concerts. One was produced soon after he ended his sitcom. The concert was entitled “I’m Telling You for the Last Time.” The second concert was entitled “Jerry Before Seinfeld” performed in 2017. Both performances impressed me. I had no desire to watch reruns of his old show, but Seinfeld’s contemporary humor delivered in his own inimitable, observational style resonated with me, especially since my roots are in New York City.

Here are some representative jokes from “I’m Telling You for the Last Time.”

On fear – “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy. ”

On stain removal commercials – “Now they show you how detergents take out bloodstains, a pretty violent image there. I think if you’ve got a T-shirt with a bloodstain all over it, maybe laundry isn’t your biggest problem. Maybe you should get rid of the body before you do the wash.”

On milk use-by date – “Have you ever had milk the day after the date? Scares the hell out of you, doesn’t it? The spoon is trembling as it comes out of the bowl. ‘It’s after the day! I’m taking a big chance! I smelled it, you smelled it, what is it supposed to smell like? It smelled like milk to me.’ I don’t know how they’re so definite, though. Maybe the cows tip them off when they’re milking them. ‘July 3rd.’”

On ‘best man’ title – “I was best man at a wedding one time and that was pretty good. Pretty good title, I thought … ‘Best man.’ I thought it was a bit much. I thought we had the groom and the ‘pretty good man.’ That’s more than enough. If I am the best man, why is she marrying him?”

“Jerry Before Seinfeld” is a stand-up gig delivered at The Comic Strip where Seinfeld’s career began. The set is punctuated by childhood home videos and interviews with the grown-up Seinfeld on the streets of New York. Here are some choice jokes from this show:

  1. “Eventually I brought (my parents to a show) and I was so nervous that night because I was showing them this whole side of myself. It was like my little gay closet moment. I had to say, ‘Hey, Mom, Dad, I don’t know how to tell you this — I’m a funny person and I don’t want to be ashamed of it anymore. I want to lead a funny lifestyle now.'”
  2. “I’m left-handed. Left-handed people do not like that the word ‘left’ is so often associated with negative things: Two left feet, left-handed compliments, ‘What are we having for dinner?’ ‘Leftovers.’  You go to a party, there’s nobody there. ‘Where’d they go?’ ‘They left.'”
  3. “I think the biggest step in relationships is when you have a kid. You get to a point where everyone you know has caught onto you, and you have to create a new person that doesn’t know anything about you.”

What impressed me about both concerts is that his humor does not depend on sexual references or foul language. It is, as one critic said, “observational humor” delivered with intelligence and wit.

Two other takeaways: First, Jerry kept a file of all the jokes that worked for him since the 1970s when he began his career. It reminded me of my own file box listing all the books I have read since I was 13 years old. I wanted to keep track of my literary growth and accomplishments, so I kept a list of the books I read. Second, Jerry is not concerned about whether people like him. What is important is whether they like his material. Success is not about him; it is about how audiences respond to his humor. Do they genuinely find his jokes funny?

Judaism looks favorably upon humor. D.B. Estrin, a Jewish educator and author, notes that the Talmud mentions several great teachers who began their classes with a joke to create a comfortable rapport with the students.

Moreover, there are studies that indicate that laughter has the power to heal. There are therapists who serve as “medical clowns” and volunteers known as “mitzvah clowns” who work in children’s wards and senior citizen facilities. Their labor can be viewed as a form of the good deed of “visiting the sick.”

Moreover, one of the patriarchs of the Jewish people is Isaac/ Yitzchok, which in Hebrew means “he will laugh.” It is a name that signifies the importance of laughter when we confront difficulty. Humor may not eliminate or minimize the problem, but it can help us see the problem as part of our larger human journey. In that way, it enhances our perspectives and understanding of life.

The Jerry Seinfeld concert movies remind us that life is more bearable and enjoyable if we cultivate a sense of humor. Laughter, indeed, helps us navigate the many challenges that life presents.

The Last Dance (2020), directed by Jason Hehir

As a teenager, my sport of choice was basketball. Not only could I play it with friends, but I could shoot hoops by myself if no one else was around. My most memorable Bar Mitzvah gift was a basketball given to me by my friends Kenny and Marilyn Beaman.

Because of my preoccupation with basketball, I asked my father to put up a backboard that would hang down from the roof of the garage in the back of my house, which he did. But there was one problem. The garage had glass windows close to the top of the garage door. With some regularity, windows were broken by an errant shot. It became more of a problem when the missed shot hit the glass of my neighbor’s garage door. But we persisted in playing.

I share this story to give you an idea of my long-standing interest in basketball and why I watched The Last Dance, a ten-part series on ESPN, documenting the six championship seasons of the Chicago Bulls, with specific emphasis on the trajectory of Michael Jordan’s career. I generally do not watch any series on TV because it is too time-consuming. My professional focus is on writing film reviews, which involve less of a time commitment. But watching Michael Jordan in his prime was a temptation I could not resist.

The Last Dance is a riveting documentary. It not only depicts the basketball prowess of Michael Jordan, but also portrays the thinking of management in dealing with a high profile athlete who is literally an icon to millions of fans. Moreover, I came away with a new appreciation for the other Bulls players who were a part of the Jordan years and who played important roles as supporting players. Scottie Pippen, Steve Kerr, and Dennis Rodman, each made meaningful contributions to the winning team. Additionally, Phil Jackson’s unusual out-of-the box coaching style was fascinating to observe, especially with the special farewell ritual he revealed at the close of the last championship season.

What was most impressive about the entire series was the complete focus of Michael Jordan on basketball. Nothing distracted him from his goal of winning a championship. He did not play to gain anyone’s approval. He worked hard at his craft simply because he wanted to be the best and he wanted his team to be successful. He set high standards for his teammates because he set a high bar for himself and he wanted his team to play at their absolute best.

In the world of Jewish learning, there are singular personalities who are known for their total focus on their mission as Torah scholars, as devout Jews, and as servants of Hashem. In my own experience, the figure of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein looms large. He was my Talmud teacher and the head of the Yeshiva University Kollel when I was a member of that august group in the late 1960s.

Rabbi Lichtenstein was a person from whom I gleaned many Torah values and insights about life. He was a living model of what a Torah personality should be, always studying, always a model of good behavior, and always conscious of the value of time. I would watch him walk quickly or run between classes or to the lunchroom, so as not to waste a moment. Even in the university cafeteria, he was not a schmoozer. He ate quickly and then returned hastily to the study hall. Every moment was precious.

Because of his single-minded focus on his studies, he was a giant role model. Students recognized his intellectual power and often posed questions to him outside of class to obtain his views on a variety of contemporary subjects.

I remember vividly a student asking him whether a particular budding Torah scholar in the Kollel should attend a Soviet Jewry rally. Rav Lichtenstein responded that for some students it was important to attend this worthwhile rally; but for this individual to develop his Torah learning skills to the maximum, he should not attend a rally that would take a substantial amount of time away from his Torah learning. The implicit message: to achieve greatness requires total focus.

Study of Torah demands this because study is a divine commandment, optimally done both day and night. Moreover, as Rav Lichtenstein writes: “First, study provides knowledge requisite to halakhic living, even as it deepens halakhic commitment. Second, since talmud Torah enables a person, within limits, to cleave unto God, it has moral, passional, and pietistic repercussions.” In the view of the Talmudic Sages, study of Torah is the equivalent of all other commandments; therefore, if one wants to achieve greatness in Torah learning, one must be completely focused on the task to the extent that he has the intellectual ability to do so.

In the world of sport, Michael was given the divine gift of a body that could be trained to enable him to be the ultimate basketball warrior. Because of his total focus and commitment to the game, we, the fans, can enjoy his athleticism on display in The Last Dance.

The Biggest Little Farm (2018), directed by John Chester

p15996893_v_v8_abJewish law requires one to recite a blessing before eating. But it is not the same blessing for all foods. Each food has a unique blessing reflecting the reality that God created an abundant variety of foods to eat, not just one type of food. Indeed, we appreciate God more when we realize that He provides more than just nourishment for his creations. He also provides variety, and that is a testament to the divine complexity within nature. The Biggest Little Farm is a fascinating documentary that highlights this message.

John and Molly Chester make a decision to move out of the city and purchase 200 acres in the foothills of Ventura County, one hour north of Los Angeles. They plan naively to build a farm in harmony with nature, where they can grow a large diversity of crops and raise a wide range of farm animals.

Their initial problem: the land they bought is devoid of nutrients and suffering the effects of a long-term drought. The Chesters, however, are optimists; and, in spite of the challenging reality they face, they plant 10,000 orchard trees, over 300 different kinds of plants, and provide a home for an assortment of animals.

As time moves on and the ecosystem begins to reawaken, they realize that they need more knowledge to achieve their utopian vision. The teacher of that wisdom is Alan York, a guru of plant biodiversity, who teaches them that nature is cyclical. His message: what seems destructive today will, over time, be positive and enhance the harmony within nature.

Under his guidance, the land comes back to life. However, the Chesters’ experience of living in their self-made utopia comes to a standstill two years into their project. The rude awakening came in the form of pests. Birds eat fruit, causing a huge loss in farm revenue, snails eat tree trunks, gophers attack tree roots, and coyotes prey on chickens. Much of the farm labor spends time cleaning up the mess that is left, thus reducing time for crop tending and harvesting. When the Chesters begin questioning the practicality of their project, guru York is there advising patience, informing them that the ecosystem, like life, is cyclical and will eventually find its balance. York terms it “the rhythm of things.”

When York dies of cancer in the middle of the Chesters’ idealistic initiative, the Chesters have to figure out for themselves how to deal with the unpredictable vicissitudes of farming. Rain and wind do not come gently into farming life, and sometimes the consequences of rain and wind create major problems for harvesting crops. Over the long haul, however, their dreams are realized, perhaps not in the total way they envisioned; but their dream is basically actualized in the real world of sustainable, regenerative farming.

In The Biggest Little Farm, there are many life lessons. All the well known patriarchs of Judaism, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the greatest prophet of all, Moses, experienced failure of one sort or another in their lives, yet failure was not terminal for them. They learned from these mistakes, and grew to be better leaders because of them. So, too, is it with farming. Failure is a teacher, not the end of learning and growing and realizing one’s goal.

There is a lot to learn from farming failures. At the end of the day, the Chesters leave a legacy for the future for children, born and yet unborn. Here are some of the messages implicitly articulated for the next generation. There is a dance of co-existence in nature. For example, coyotes kill chickens, which seems to be a bad thing, yet when coyotes kill gophers, it seems to be a good thing. The key in nature is balance, which expresses a complicated web of life, representing a divinely ordained diversity measured over a very long period of time. Our planet and its ecosystem work with a comfortable level of disharmony, which creates a complex world with infinite possibilities.

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The Accountant of Auschwitz (2018), directed by Matthew Shoychet

Every summer, the Jewish people observe three weeks of mourning. The three weeks begin from the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz until the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, during which time traditional Jews commemorate and think about the destruction of the First and Second Temples and why those catastrophes occurred. This time period in the yearly Hebrew calendar is devoted to remembering those past calamities and those holy souls whose lives ended prematurely in the cauldrons of anti-Semitic violence. The Accountant of Auschwitz raises the important question of how long we should remember these kinds of events.

Oskar Groning was one of the last living members of the SS to be implicated in Nazi crimes against humanity. He was known as the “Accountant of Auschwitz.” In 2005, he appeared in a BBC documentary about the Holocaust. On that program he spoke matter-of-factly about his duties as a member of the SS who served at Auschwitz.

His responsibilities at the concentration camp included counting and sorting the money taken from prisoners and being in charge of the personal property of arriving prisoners. On a few occasions, he witnessed the procedures of mass killing in the camp and the indiscriminate killing of babies. He admitted to seeing an SS soldier grab a crying baby by the legs and smashing its head against the iron side of a truck until the baby was silent.

Groning was discomforted by such viciousness; but, after a while, such horrific actions became routine to him, especially when his superiors reminded him of the pernicious influence of the Jews who were considered enemies of the German people.

The television program on which he appeared brought him to the attention of the German judiciary, who decided to charge him with the killing of 300,000 Jews. His trial in 2015, when he was 94 years old, made worldwide headlines.

There was much controversy about his trial. One segment of the population felt that he was a witness, and, therefore, complicit in the crimes. Another segment thought it was pointless to target a frail man in the twilight of his life.

Interestingly, Groning decided to go public on television with his story because he was incensed by Holocaust deniers who claimed the Holocaust never happened. Groning was there at Auschwitz and he felt obligated to speak the truth, in spite of incriminating himself.

On July 15, 2015, he was found guilty of being an accessory to the crime of murder of 3000,000 Jews. Ironically, he died before serving one day in prison.

Survivors who testified at the trial felt it was important for the world to remember the atrocities of the Holocaust. There should be no statute of limitations when it involves prosecuting someone for murder. One survivor reflected on the historical significance of keeping memories alive: “Without history, there is no memory. Without memory, there is no future if we do not learn from the mistakes of the past.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Britain, writes: “We are what we remember.” He suggests that three basic questions of life relate to memory: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? These questions compel us to revisit the past in order to chart a future life path. It involves using our individual and collective memories to shape our personal and group identities. Our collective memory of the Holocaust reminds us of the unpredictability of life and the evil of which men are capable. Accepting that reality prepares us better to deal with life as we travel through it.

As survivors pass away, it becomes even more important to conserve the legacy of memories that they leave us. The Accountant of Auschwitz reminds us that bringing Oskar Groning to trial was important because it means we never totally forget the past.

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Apollo 11 (2019), directed by Todd Douglas Miller

To achieve any lofty goal requires great attention to detail. When I first became a principal, the school of which I was the head was in survival mode. It barely had the funds for payroll and enrollment was low. It was the first Jewish day high school in the city and did not have much community support. My job in part was to keep it afloat and help it grow. Thank God, the school grew numerically and financially and fulfilled our dreams.

There was another level of excellence that the school experienced. To compete with an array of exemplary private high schools, we had to go through an accreditation process. All the details of the school’s operation were scrutinized. Visiting members of the accreditation committee looked at our mission statement, our course descriptions, our teacher profiles, our student acceptance rate into college, and sundry other items.

After a thorough examination, we became accredited by our regional accreditation agency, which helped with our recruitment of new students. The overall results were very good, and we accomplished our goal because we buttressed all of our observations and reports with details that far exceeded what was required.

It is this kind of attention to detail that characterized the work of those laboring on the “man on the moon” project in 1969, which enabled the United States to successfully place a man on the moon. This event is celebrated in the fascinating documentary Apollo 11.

Apollo 11 tells the story of NASA’s historic lunar landing mission. Produced from newly discovered film footage, it depicts the days leading up to the launch, the launch itself, and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon in which he declared that, by placing one small step on the moon, he was making a giant leap for mankind. The movie concludes with the return of the lunar module to earth’s atmosphere, and its landing in the ocean.

The central characters are the three astronauts: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. But the supporting players at Mission Control also play a key role in the achievement. These employees provided the detailed information necessary for the astronauts to be successful.

The film devotes equal time to them sitting behind their computer monitors, analyzing real-time data, and relaying radio transmissions. The detail is mind-boggling. In order for the lunar module to reach the moon, it requires 7.6 million pounds of thrust to leave the earth and it has to attain a speed of 23,000 mph to break free of the orbit around the earth. These numbers are impossible to comprehend.

This commitment to an overall goal and to the details required to achieve it evoke comparisons to Judaism’s approach to leading a holy life. For example, Rabbi David Wolkenfeld discusses the admonition “you shall be holy” that appears in the Bible. Wolkenfeld remarks: “It is a brief statement that can fit on a billboard, that can even fit on a bumper-sticker.” That succinct line is the mission statement of the Jewish people.

But what does it mean? The Sages tell us that to be holy requires observance of a whole host of commandments that touch every aspect of human life: determining what we can eat, how we pray, performing an array of rituals related to the Jewish holidays, and carefully evaluating how to interact with our fellow man. In all, there are 613 commandments, not just ten. God is truly in the details of how we lead our lives.

Apollo 11 reminds us that to achieve a worthy goal requires more than just sincere resolve. Rather, it involves a commitment to details and using them to support a worthy goal, bringing it from idea to reality.

 

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