Category Archives: Documentary

Three Identical Strangers (2018), directed by Tim Wardie

As a school principal for many years, a number of adopted children have attended my school. At first I did not know they were adopted and simply assumed they were the natural progeny of their parents. Some of the kids even looked like their parents, and I regarded their parents as their true biological parents.

Later, when I became aware that these children were adopted, I occasionally saw a disconnect between parents and children, and it made me think about the age-old discussion of nature vs. nurture. Which is more important in a child’s development?

Three Identical Strangers is a documentary that considers the problem from a unique perspective. The true story concerns identical triplets, Bobby, Eddy, and David, born in 1961, who were separated at birth and adopted by three different families. Each remains oblivious of the other until they meet 19 years later as adults. They are outwardly carbon copies of one another and they bond quickly as brothers.

The triplets reunited in 1980 as a result of a chance encounter at college where one brother was confused with another because they looked alike. The discovery led to a viral response by the media, which led to numerous appearances on TV. Their celebrity grew, and at first they basked in the attention they were getting. As time passed, the individuality of each brother asserted itself, and we see that emotionally they were very different.

Serendipitously, it was discovered that their separation at birth from a single mother, and their subsequent placement in homes with different economic circumstances – one blue-collar, one middle-class, and one upper-class – was the result of a psychiatric experiment conducted by Dr. Peter Neubauer who was investigating whether nurture or nature was the determining factor in who a child turned out to be.

The brothers felt like rats used in an experiment. They understood that it may have been difficult for a couple to adopt three babies at once, but they were disturbed that no one at the adoption agency told the adopting parents that their one child was one of triplets.

Dr. Neubauer’s research came to a close when he died, and the study was abandoned. The answer to this age-old question of nature vs. nurture was not resolved, especially when one of the brothers, Eddy, committed suicide in 1995.

Rabbi Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox, a psychologist specializing in ADHD and learning disabilities, asks: “Are we in charge of our destinies? Are we shaped by our surroundings? Or are we a product of our genetic makeup? “ In truth, our actions are determined by a combination of our genes and our environment. Bobby, Eddy, and David clearly were genetically similar, but the Torah tells us that we all are created “in the image of God.” The corollary: every individual is unique. Outward likeness does not mean that the inner soul, the inner emotional make-up, of a person is the same.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that we are more than our DNA: “Our early character is determined partly by DNA – the genetic heritage of our parents and theirs – partly by our home and upbringing, partly by our friends, and partly by the surrounding culture. We are not born free. We have to work hard to achieve freedom.”

Sacks indicates that we can exercise our free will no matter our genetic or cultural background. Whether our future is determined by our genes or by the way we are educated is a question that cannot be answered. What is evident that both influence our destinies, and we still have free will to choose what direction in life we will take. We may possess biological tendencies to move in one direction, but we have the ability to make midcourse corrections that will enable us to have fulfilling lives.

Three Identical Strangers raises the question of how our future as adults is determined. The Jewish approach is to take what we are given, the God-given attributes with which God blesses us, and use them for good. Only by exercising our free will do we fulfill our cosmic destinies.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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The White Helmets (2016), directed by Orlando von Einsiedel

For the last several years, I have seen in the media a plethora of stories about the Syrian Civil War. Exactly who is fighting who and for what reasons is sometimes unclear to me. So I looked forward to viewing The White Helmets, an award-winning documentary about this cadre of volunteers, all of whom wear white helmets. Their mission: to rescue people caught in the crossfire of the conflict in Syria. I hoped the film would give me a better understanding of this ongoing conflict and it did.

The film is composed of raw footage of the bombings of populated areas, wounded adults and children, the rescue training of the volunteers, depictions of some of their actual rescue efforts, and interviews with some of its members, who are mission-driven to save lives.

The White Helmet organization began in 2014 to labor in the fields of medical evacuation, urban search and rescue, evacuation of civilians from dangerous locations, and general service delivery of life essentials. As of April 2018, the White Helmets claim to have saved 114,000 lives, and in the process 201 White Helmets have died. They claim not to be affiliated with any particular cause in the Syrian conflict. Nonetheless, they are targets of Russian and Syrian airstrikes, both of which see them as aligned with the terrorist opposition to Assad’s Syrian government.

Interestingly, in July of 2018, Israel opened the Golan Hieghts border to permit a UN rescue team to evacuate 422 people, 98 While Helmet members and their families, to Jordan because their lives were in danger. A Syrian government spokesman condemned the rescue as a “criminal operation” that supported a terrorist entity.

Observing the rescue work that the White Helmets do, it is hard to imagine the group is a terrorist entity. Interviews with three of the volunteers demonstrate their passionate desire to save lives as their sole motivation.

Similar motivations are expressed by Hatzalah, a Jewish volunteer rescue organization in America and Israel. No matter whether thay are professionals or day laborers, they drop what they are doing and travel at a moment’s notice to save a life. One Hatzaloh member observes: “We help our neighbors, friends, relatives, and complete strangers. We get their fast so that we can minimize the trauma and suffering of the patient. That is our job and that is why I love it. I get to help make the community I live in a better and safer place.”

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) states: “Whoever saves one life is considered as if he saved an entire world.” Aaron Kirschenbaum, Law Professor at Tel Aviv University, traces the origin of this Talmudic statement to Leviticus (19:16), which states: ”thou shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” The takeaway is that every human being has an obligation to help someone in distress. Maimonides in his Code of Jewish Law provides some specific guidelines. Most important, we must be able to save another. Stepping into a dangerous situation without the proper training can lead to more harm both to the victims of terror and the rescuers themselves. Moreover, a number of ancillary considerations come into play in rescue efforts, such as geographic proximity, mental awareness, creative thinking, and physical disposition.

The White Helmets reminds us not only of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, but also of the many everyday heroes who desire to alleviate the pain and suffering of innocents. Their altruistic spirit and their hope for a better future in the face of present adversity should be an inspiration to all of us.

Watch “The White Helmets” on Netflix.

Notes on Blindness (2016), directed by Peter Middleton and James Spinney

notes on blindnessA couple of years ago, I visited the Museum of the Blind in Holon, Israel. It was an immersive visit in a totally dark environment led by a blind guide who wants to give visitors a sense of what it is to be blind and what accommodations a blind person has to make to lead a relatively normal life. I left the museum extremely grateful for the gift of sight.

Notes on Blindness took that grateful feeling and made it deeper. The film is a true record of what happened to John Hull (1935-2015), a writer, theologian, and university professor in England, who totally lost his sight in 1983 after a number of operations on his failing eyes. The script of the film contains the exact words of his audio diary, which he kept to document his coming to terms with his blindness. They eventually became the basis for Hull’s book, Touching the Rock, and later the movie, Notes on Blindness.

Notes on Blindness is a film in a category of its own. Between segments of the film, the screen goes totally black for several seconds. Even as the story is told, much of it appears in dim lighting. Furthermore, the images are often out of focus, making it challenging for the viewer. Moreover, many of the scenes are shot with only parts of a person in focus. There are images of parts of faces, feet walking, and hands moving, as if to suggest impaired vision. As Hull narrates, we are given entrance to his dreams, his memory, and his imagination; and it is a fascinating journey.

As he comes to accept his blindness, he goes through various psychological stages. A particularly difficult time occurs when he returns to his native Australia to visit his aging parents. He remembers little of his visual life there and returns to England depressed.

It is at his home in England that his spirits are lifted. He emerges from “the shadowland of passivity” to a world with which he is familiar. He caresses his old furniture. He is pleased to find his desk and chair in their proper places, and he is happy to find his tape recorder in working condition.

What is amazing is the devotion of his wife who is by his side through all his adversity. We learn later that Hull and his wife, Marilyn, had five children, a profound testimony to their love and devotion to one another. Hull writes about her: “What I remember about you most vividly in those years was your amazing practicality. You never expressed regrets. You just got on with the next thing, step by step. The way you did that, I always thought was incredible.”

Hull does arrive at some kind of epiphany. He ultimately sees his blindness as a gift from God. It is not a gift he wants either for himself or his children; but now that he acknowledges this divine gift, he realizes that to complain about it is fruitless. What he must do is to decide how he will use this gift in a creative way for the rest of his days.

This perspective on life echoes the sentiment expressed in Milton’s poem “On His Blindness.” Here is the poem in its entirety:

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Milton, one of the great English poets, wrote this masterpiece when he was blind and coming to terms with his own personal affliction. One of my Torah teachers, in fact, said that this passage was a comfort to him when his father lost his sight. The essential message: we cannot know why God does what he does, but we can decide how we respond to adversity. That is the key to living a meaningful life.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

For the Love of Spock (2016), directed by Adam Nimoy

for the love of spockIn the late fifties and sixties, I was a rock and roll aficionado and some of my favorite songs were what became known as “one-hit wonders.” They were great songs done by artists who basically produced only one hit song. Some examples: “Sometimes When We Touch” by Dan Hill, “Sea Cruise” by Frankie Ford, and “The Book of Love” by the Monotones. They were classics, but the vocalists had a short shelf life.

Reflecting about their careers reminded me of a line uttered by Leonard Nimoy in For the Love of Spock, a loving biography of the actor directed by his son Adam. Nimoy says that before Star Trek, the longest acting experience he had lasted only two weeks. He was a “two-week wonder,” and this created a financial uncertainty that influenced his career decisions throughout much of his life.

As a young man, he became enamored of the theatre and, against the wishes of his parents, journeyed to California to further his career goal of becoming an actor. He got parts in films, did live theatre, and, serendipitously, landed the role of Spock, the Vulcan alien who became a fixture of the celebrated Star Trek series. Although the show only lasted three seasons, it turned into a cultural phenomenon through many years of syndication, and gave Nimoy the kind of job stability that he yearned for since his early acting years.

The only downside to Nimoy’s luminous career was his performance at home as a husband and father. So immersed was he in his own career that he was scarcely available to his children. A chasm developed with his son Adam, in particular, who was going through his own adolescent crisis. For many years the two did not speak to one another. Happily, before Nimoy died, his son reconciled with him so that Nimoy’s final years were emotionally rich and rewarding. What is especially touching is hearing a letter that Leonard Nimoy wrote to his adult son in which he apologizes for not being there for him at challenging moments of Adam’s life, when he truly needed his dad to support him through addiction problems and divorce.

Dr. Miriam Adahan, a psychotherapist living in Jerusalem, encourages parents to be present in their children’s lives to help them develop ego-strengths during their formative years. How do we do this? Give children a smile, or word of praise, or express gratitude for the good things they do. Value the smallest acts of self-discipline that a child shows. Remind them of the wisdom of King Solomon who said, “No one gets even half their heart’s desires fulfilled (Ecclesiastes 1:13).” The assumption is that God gives you everything you need. It may not be all that you want, but it is all you need to grow and prosper.

The portrait of Leonard Nimoy that we see in For the Love of Spock is complex. The film is not hagiography; rather it gives us a window into the life of an artist who was multi-talented and craved success. But there was a price he paid in terms of family connections.

In truth, Nimoy did not have a close relationship with his own father, and that lack of a role model influenced his own lackadaisical attitude towards parenting. Interestingly, in spite of having little meaningful interaction with his own father, Leonard Nimoy still remembered his childhood fondly.

One memory, in particular, stands out and was the basis of one aspect of Spock’s character, Nimoy’s fictional persona; namely, the Vulcan greeting. Nimoy recalls going to the synagogue as a child and watching the descendants of priests utter their holiday blessing to the congregants while forming a “V” with the fingers of their hands. This became the Vulcan greeting that accompanied the phrase ”live long and prosper.” This phrase expresses Nimoy’s personal mantra and his life. Indeed, Leonard Nimoy lived long and did prosper.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus (2013), directed by Steven Pressman

fifty childrenI recently read The Fortunate Ones, a novel by Ellen Umansky, about a child sent by her parents on a kinderstransport to England to escape the Nazi regime and its persecution of Jews. Fifty Children deals with an American couple from Philadelphia, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, who arranged for 50 children to travel from Vienna to the United States in 1939 to rescue them from almost certain death in German concentration camps.

Theirs was a mission against formidable odds. There was a wave of anti-Semitism in America, a general reluctance to allow foreigners into the country, and President Roosevelt who, while sympathetic to the cause, did not want to alter the number of immigrants allowed into the country. Even some Jews opposed the Kraus’ plan to enter Nazi Germany to extract the children, afraid that it would arouse more anti-Semitism.

What made it even more problematic was the cooperation between Austrian and German civilians, which did not auger well for the Jews of Vienna. The Nazi policy was to make Austria free of Jews, and the Austrians did not protest this decree. One child as an adult many years later hauntingly said about this particular moment in time. “ Everybody could get out. Nobody would let us in. Everyone could have been saved.”

In spite of these hurdles, Gilbert and Eleanor travel to Nazi-controlled Vienna and then to Berlin to secure safe passage for the children. The film is based upon the first person memoir of Eleanor Kraus whose granddaughter, Liz Perle, gave the manuscript to Steven Pressman, the filmmaker. The film uses archival footage as well as contemporary interviews with some of the children who were members of the 50 children group.

The Kraus’s strategy began with a meeting with Assistant Secretary of State George Messersmith, who was sympathetic to the Kraus’s request. Then they had to find a place to house the children in the United States until arrangements could be made for foster families to take them. Moreover, they had to collect 50 affidavits from American families willing to take in one of the children. Furthermore, they had to interview the children to determine to best candidates to take. This they did with the help of Dr. Robert Schless, their American physician, who spoke fluent German. Finally, they obtained 50 passports for the children to make the voyage to their new home.

50 Children raises the issue of rescue at what cost. How much risk should one take to save the life of another? In Jewish law, it is clear that one should come to the rescue of another even if it involves some minimal danger to life and spending one’s financial resources. The basic Torah source is the statement in Leviticus 19:16: “Thou shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Our Sages tell us that saving one life is tantamount to saving the world, a very meritorious deed.

Aaron Kirschenbaum, Professor of Jewish Law at Tel Aviv University, writes that, according to Jewish Law, one does not have to give up one’s life to save another. However, one should not focus only on protecting oneself when someone else’s life is at stake. Every case has to be evaluated on its singular merits. Speed is critical and to hesitate in helping may even be sinful.

Kirschenbaum cites the late Benjamin Cardozo, a legal scholar: “Danger invites rescue. The cry of distress is the summons to relief.” To help someone whose life is in danger is a manifestation of the Jewish spirit.

Furthermore, Kirschenbaum cites Maimonides who does not limit the obligation to rescue to actually finding someone in dire straits. Rather, he expands the requirement of rescue to include anyone who is simply aware of danger to somebody’s life. What is critical is determining whether one actually has the ability to successfully save another’s life.

Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus assume that they can rescue the 50 children in spite of the odds. Their optimism and willingness to take risks in the face of huge obstacles serves as an example of the good that can be done in times of crisis.

Life, Animated (2016), directed by Roger Ross Williams

life animatedAs a young married man, I do not recall ever praying to have a boy or a girl, but I do remember praying for a healthy child. My parents had a Downs Syndrome child and I understood viscerally what that means to parents. It changes their lives forever. Every decision made has to factor in what the consequences are for the special needs child. Life is no longer “business as usual.”

I was reminded of this as I watched Life, Animated, a fascinating look at Owen Suskind, an autistic child, and his parents Ron and Cornelia who confront a challenge when Owen develops autism at the age of three. Owen becomes anti-social, withdraws from human connection, and ceases to talk. The symptoms are ultimately diagnosed as a form of autism.

Faced with the prospect of having a child with whom they will be unable to communicate, Ron and Cornelia begin to lose hope for the future until one day they discover that Owen is learning about life and how to speak from watching animated Disney movies. It is an “aha” moment for the parents who suddenly see light at the end of the therapeutic tunnel.

Owen begins to speak, to read, and eventually to write by learning the dialogue in all of Disney’s animated movies. Watching the films even gives him a way to interpret the behavior of other people. He can deduce appropriate human responses to social situations by reading the visual cues present in the normal conversation of cartoon characters and, by extension, in real human beings. What becomes clear through therapy is that the stories and characters of Disney cartoon features stay the same, and this gives Owen a sense of security. Watching Disney movies is not a cure for autism; rather, it is one idiosyncratic avenue of therapy that works for Owen and perhaps others.

The notion that sameness and routine can be therapeutic is one way to view Jewish ritual. Beverly Jacobson, a special needs school head in London, writes: “Jewish ritual has a beneficial role to play in treating autism sufferers. The structure of the religion itself has a very powerful positive effect on children with autism. The rituals create a huge sense of security around them.”

Benay Josselson, a parent of an autistic child, decided to send her child to a Jewish day school, and in her instance, it worked out well. Part of the reason was the school’s positive attitude towards inclusion of its special needs population. Moreover, the school’s teaching of Jewish rituals provided a stable and comfortable environment for his learning. Daily prayer and observance of Jewish holy days also served to embed religious behaviors in its special needs students who appreciated the positive results of daily routines.

Life, Animated is an unusual film, giving the viewer a taste of what it is like to have a family member with autism. There are no easy panaceas, but the movie clearly indicates that solutions of some kind may be found within the confines of a loving family willing to think out of the box for answers.

Owen’s parents, Ron and Cornelia, never give up on Owen. They obtain the necessary help to navigate Owen’s life as a young man and they continue that support as he attains manhood. Sensing their own mortality and inability to support him when they are no longer here, they try their best to enable him to live independently.

That is the endgame of parenting for all parents who want to see their children thrive and manage life on their own. In their eyes, Owen leads a meaningful life, even it is not conventional. One of characters in the film asks: “who decides what a meaningful life is?” The answer is not the same for everyone. It depends on who we are, what are our God-given talents, and the support we have from family and friends.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The Last Play at Shea (2010), directed by Paul Crowder

last play at sheaIn the 1970s and beyond, Billy Joel was one of my favorite musical artists. At the start of his career, I had an opportunity to hear him in Atlanta, but I missed that chance. I finally saw him in concert at Madison Square Garden in New York in 2017; the show was one of those one-of-a-kind concerts that remains in your memory for a long time after. So it was with great anticipation that I watched The Last Play at the Shea, a 2010 documentary that recorded the 2008 Billy Joel concert that was the last concert at Shea Stadium, a huge sports venue that was scheduled for demolition the following year.

Primarily, Shea was known as the home of the New York Mets, so it was fitting that a native New Yorker like Joel was there to bid the stadium farewell. Interestingly, Paul McCartney of the Beatles makes a guest appearance at the end of the concert, which brings the history of the venue full circle. It was the Beatles who first appeared at Shea in 1965 soon after it opened; so when McCartney joins Joel for the concert finale, it poetically resonates.

The Last Play at the Shea is a blend of historical material, animation, and current footage of this landmark concert, interweaving the history of Shea, the Mets, and Billy Joel. New to me was the leadership of city planner Robert Moses, who was the engine behind the building of Shea and other city projects. In truth, Moses developed a master plan for the construction of the modern suburb in Long Island. He was ahead of his time when he began building the quintessential suburb in Queens. He comprehended that living in the city was cost prohibitive and that people would welcome the chance to work in the city but live in spacious, more affordable residences.

What impressed me were the comments of Joel as he tried to navigate his own career in a tumultuous time. He trusted people whom he regarded as friends and assumed they had his best interests at heart. Regrettably, some of these people swindled him and, at one point, he actually lost all his money. He felt compelled to tour relentlessly in order to rebuild his bank account, and this took a toll on his family life.

In spite of occasional disappointments, Joel maintains an overwhelming sense of gratitude for having the opportunity to perform before thousands who appreciate his music. His transparent sincerity endears him to his fans. He openly confesses: “If it weren’t for the Beatles, I wouldn’t do what I do.” His reuniting with Paul McCartney at the end of the film to sing the classic Beatles’ song “Let It Be” is a perfect ending to this nostalgic view of Shea, the Mets, and Billy Joel.

There is a powerful statement in The Ethics of the Fathers, by which Joel lives. The Sages say: “He who learns from his friend one chapter, one rule, one verse, even one letter, is obliged to treat him with respect.” Joel respects and appreciates the musical contributions of all who have gone before him. The Beatles were his muse, and their music changed him as well as the world. Joel understands that great rock music did not begin with him, but rather was an evolving art that expressed itself in a variety of ways over many years.

What stands out in The Last Play at the Shea is Joel’s honesty and sincere appreciation for those who helped him over the rough spots in his life. He is grateful for life, for the opportunity to do what he loves, and he is grateful to those people who inspired him along the way.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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