Category Archives: Drama

A Little Game (2014), directed by Evan Oppenheimer

I have always been fascinated by the game of chess, but I never learned to play. It seemed too complicated. If I wanted to chill out for a few moments, checkers seemed simpler and took less time. My son, Elie, however, took to the game and played on our high school team with great success. Indeed, our school team, coached by a parent whose son was a chess star, won many tournaments. Even though I did not play chess, the image of our school in the community rose because of our involvement in chess competition. Which is why I was captivated by A Little Game, a story about a young girl who learns how to play chess from a master.

Max is a very bright ten-year old girl living in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. Although happy in her present school, her parents want to give her the very best education, and so decide to enroll her in a prestigious all-girls private school on the Upper East Side even though it will be burdensome to them financially. Dad works as a building superintendent, and Mom is a chef at a neighborhood restaurant. Neither of them makes big salaries. 

Challenges arise in her new school. Friends do not easily connect with her, sensing she is from a lower social strata; and one, in particular, Isabella, is jealous of her academic success. Isabella even makes fun of the fact the Max does not know how to play chess, a game for intellectuals. Compounded with lack of friends is the sudden loss of her beloved grandmother who always shared with her pieces of wisdom gleaned over a lifetime.

Max’s teacher thinks Max possesses exceptional math skills and encourages her to play chess, which requires a similar kind of mathematical discipline. Every day Max walks home through Washington Square Park, and one day she comes upon one of the outdoor chess players who competes regularly against all comers. He is an elderly gentleman and his name is Norman. When Max asks Norman to teach her chess, he at first refuses. However, Max persists in asking him to teach her and eventually he agrees, but only if she learns the game from him and no other.

Norman is an unusual teacher. Instead of teaching her the rules of chess, he gives her clues that require her to be a keen observer of things in the city, and from these clues deduce chess strategy. The chessboard for Norman is not a game board. It is a metaphor for the city and each chess piece has within it a message for life. Over time, Max learns how to play chess, and, more important, she learns valuable life lessons.

Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo reflects about the Jewish fascination with chess. For many Jews, the chessboard is a microcosm of the world. To navigate chess and navigate life, one must know the rules. But knowing the rules is not enough. The rules are tools to discover new pathways of understanding that emerge only because of the “unbearable limitations” that govern the movements of the pieces. Rabbi Cardozo writes that playing chess “is mental torture, but it is the height of beauty as well. It is poetry to the game, as melody is to music — like one gentle brushstroke of Rembrandt on a colorful canvas, making everything look radically different; or like the genius musician playing her Stradivarius, re-creating the whole of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5. It transports the chess player to heaven.”

Rabbi Cardozo suggests that this sense of intellectual tension and contradiction is the reason why scholars of Talmud love the game of chess: “Chess reminds them, consciously or subconsciously, of the world of Talmudic halachic debate with all its intrigues, obstacles, and seemingly deliberate tendency to make life more difficult. For the true posek (halachic expert and decisor), the tension, challenge and delight involved in discovering an unprecedented solution is the ultimate simcha (joy).”

In the end, Max learns to play chess well and understands its parallels to the real world. Indeed, that “little game” opens up pathways for Max to better understand the big game of life itself.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

7500 (2019), directed by Patrick Vollrath

 There was a time many years ago, before 9/11, when I could arrive at the airport close to the time of the departure of my flight. I could leave my home an hour before the plane would take off and there was no problem getting from the check-in gate to the plane.

Those days are long gone. Now I always leave my home early in order to arrive at the airport at least two hours before departure to allow time for security checks. 7500 deals with a post 9/11 scenario in which terrorists are able to hijack a plane in spite of all the security checks. It is a sober, yet frightening, depiction of people under extreme stress.

The film begins with an eerie shot of footage from surveillance cameras at the Berlin airport. We observe three people traversing the terminal visiting gift shops to purchase liquor and entering rest rooms, leaving with more hand luggage than when they entered. We then meet pilot Captain Michael Lutzman and his American co-pilot Tobias Ellis as they go through their initial flight checks before departing from Berlin to Paris.

Once the plane achieves cruising altitude, the terrorists take advantage of a flight attendant who opens the door to the cockpit bringing refreshments to the pilots. Tobias is stabbed in the arm, but manages to close the door, but not before Captain Lutzman is mortally wounded. Tobias informs air control of the hijacking and the plane is routed to Hanover, the nearest airport.

The terrorists continue to bang at the cockpit door but with no success. Ground control informs Tobias that under no conditions are the terrorists to be permitted into the cockpit, even when they threaten to execute a hostage if the cockpit door is not opened. A hostage is killed, and then Tobias announces to the passengers that the terrorists have no guns or knives and that they can be overcome by the passengers. Will they listen?

7500 is a realistic depiction of what a plane hijacking by Islamic terrorists might look like. Almost the entire length of the movie takes place in the cockpit, creating a sense of claustrophobic dread.

Tobias is confronted with a moral dilemma: to possibly save one hostage, he may have to make a decision that will threaten the lives of every other passenger. He will have to lose a life to save a life, and, indeed, he does not know with certainty that even one person will be saved once the terrorists enter the cockpit and take control of the plane. As the pilot, he knows that he ultimately is responsible for the passengers’ safety and he cannot place them at risk.

Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin presents the dilemma in stark terms. The Torah tells us not to stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Leviticus 19:16). In other words, if a friend is threatened with death, you should try to save him. But what happens if, in saving your friend, you condemn someone else or perhaps many others to death? The answer is not simple, since every human being, by being created in God’s image, is of infinite value.

Rabbi Yonason Goldson offers another perspective on what transpires in 7500. For him, the critical issue is the passengers’ response to Tobias’ plea for them to take action against the hijackers who have no real weapons. Will they follow his instructions to overpower them? Rabbi Goldson writes: “Nothing catalyzes us like crisis. When the ship is sinking, when the plane is going down, when the enemy is at the gates, we find ourselves motivated to set aside our egos and our petty differences and stand together for the sake of our own survival.” Furthermore, he observes: “With common purpose, we can accomplish virtually anything, as our ancestors did, when they stood before the Creator 3300 years ago and received their instructions and their mission, as one man, with one heart.”

7500 is a tense thriller, but it has lessons for dealing with all kinds of catastrophes. The behavior of Tobias Ellis teaches us that working together with others, maintaining your calm, and having faith in a positive outcome will help you to survive a crisis.

Watch this movie on Amazon.com.

The Little Dictator (2015), directed by Nurith Cohn

 In 1966-67, I spent the year in Israel studying at a Haredi/ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva. All the rabbis had beards and I decided to grow one as well. I wore a suit jacket every day to the Yeshiva even when it was very hot. It was a uniform in which I felt very comfortable.

When I returned to the States at the end of my year in Israel, I began to feel a dissonance between the way I looked and my religious environment in the US. My teachers in the US were devout and knowledgeable, but they did not have beards. I asked one of them why he did not have a beard. He told me that he felt he could fulfill his Torah teaching mission more easily in America if he were not bearded. A beard for him separated him from his students and he did not want that to happen. The Little Dictator, a short but compelling film, deals with the consequences of shaving off one’s beard. It is a simple tale, both humorous and possessing a profound message.

Yossi Kleinmann teaches history at a local university. His specialty is the study of totalitarian leaders. His students barely pay attention to his boring lectures. On the 90th birthday of his wife’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, he is asked to deliver a word of Torah at the Friday evening Sabbath meal.

His wife asks Yossi to shave his beard before the Sabbath, and he begins to shave with only a short window of time before dusk when Jewish law forbids shaving. Ultimately, he does not have enough time to finish and he is only partially shaven. What he looks like, I cannot say because the spoiler will ruin your enjoyment and appreciation of the film. Suffice it to say that appearances often determine how people react to people, and appearances matter the most to the individual who distinguishes himself by the way he looks.

Rabbi Berel Wein, historian, writes: “There is a long tradition in Judaism for men to have beards. This is based originally on the Torah prohibition against shaving facial hair with a straight razor. Because of this prohibition, it became customary for Jewish males to wear beards and in many circles to also allow their side locks -peyot – to grow uncut.”

A beard was considered by the Talmudic sages to be “the glory of one’s face.” It marked one as being Jewish in contrast to the Catholic clergy that was always clean-shaven. However, in modern times, many Orthodox Jews stopped wearing beards, first, because of the use of depilatory compounds that were available to remove facial hair and, later, because of the invention of the electric shaver. Still, many Jews had beards because it reflected their rejection of modernity in an ever- changing and morally ambiguous contemporary world.

In The Little Dictator, shaving off a beard is consequential, but not necessarily in the way one would think. Yossi Kleinmann gives us a new understanding of facial hair as he perceives it, as his loved ones and friends perceive it, and how his wife’s grandmother perceives it. For her, facial hair on a man’s face has a very particular meaning.

Although appearances do not necessarily telegraph who a person is on the inside, they often give us a clue as to a person’s essence. I now live in Israel. When I lived in the US, I would attend synagogue with a suit, tie, and black fedora. In Israel, in my synagogue, most of the men wear white shirts sans tie, suit, and hat. That does not make them less religious than those who wear a suit and tie. It just means that they express their religiosity differently. That is not a bad thing, for God created us all with the ability to be unique. We are created in His image, but that image does not make us all alike.

The Little Dictator, a brief 28-minute film, is worth watching and thinking about. It is available on YouTube for free.

Greyhound (2020), directed by Aaron Schneider

My father served in the Navy during World War I. As an immigrant from Russia, he felt a great debt of gratitude to the United States and took pride in serving his adopted country. I still have his uniform from those days. So I looked with anticipation to watching Greyhound, a thriller recounting one of the historic naval battles of World War II.

The battle centers around naval destroyers escorting a group of supply ships sailing between North America and England. The purpose of the supply ships: to bring needed materials to the troops fighting Germany. The mission of the escort ships: to protect these boats from attacks by German U-boats. Shore-based military planes protect the convoys when the boats are near the shore; but once in the mid-Atlantic, the only protection for the supply ships are designated military vessels. Greyhound focuses on the story of Ernest Krause, the commander of a naval destroyer codenamed Greyhound, who is charged with providing safe cover to a convoy of 37 Allied ships to Liverpool.

Soon after the airplanes depart from the convoy, sonar identifies U-boats in the vicinity, preparing to launch torpedoes. For Krause, this is his first command; and his actions dealing with this initial threat mean a lot to him, and even more to his crew that are looking to him for guidance and support. The outcome of this initial encounter with the enemy is favorable. The torpedo from the U-boat misses its target and the Greyhound fires a depth charge that destroys the enemy vessel.

Soon the Greyhound receives sonar reports that there are many U-boats in the area, traveling slowly but in its direction. At dusk the U-boats attack, but Krause decides not to engage them because he needs to rescue passengers from other convoy ships that were hit by torpedoes. During the following day, multiple attacks are launched by the U-boats, using up the Greyhound’s precious ammunition and increasing the pressure to move quickly to a place where the Greyhound can get aerial cover. There are casualties, but the mission proceeds.

Greyhound is not a conventional war movie. The narrative focus is entirely on Commander Krause, who must rise to the occasion without much battle experience. He is a religious man, recognizing how much is dependent on him; and he prays to God for help and wisdom. He cares deeply for his crewmembers, and wants to succeed for them as well as for himself.

The detail of managing a ship in such treacherous waters is painstakingly revealed. A good portion of the film takes place in the upper deck control room of the ship, making the viewer privy to the technical virtuosity and fortitude that must exist among the crew of a battleship.

The movie’s point of view is the captain’s, and it captures his essential loneliness as he realizes that the buck stops with him. Will his actions demonstrate a convergence of the right leader at the right time?

Rabbi Yaakov Salomon, a Jewish educator, observes that some people fear leadership because it may expose them as incompetent, unqualified, and uncaring. Indeed, Krause is concerned about how his actions are perceived. But that does not deter him from doing his best. Krause understands that the most important trait of a good leader is compassion, concern for others. He knows that you do not have to be perfect, but you have to care for those you lead.

Rabbi Salomon shares the story of Joseph, who became the great leader in Egypt, a position he never even dreamed about as a youth. He knew that he wanted to improve the lives of others. Being compassionate enabled him to weather the storm in spite of how turbulent it might be. Salomon writes: “After having been sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph finds himself incarcerated in Egypt: bereft and alone. But, the events that lead to his eventual release from prison and ultimate rise to power and reunion, all begin with Joseph’s startling compassionate initiative.

He had already been in jail for nine arduous years. The despair and resignation that swells in intolerable conditions such as those is, undoubtedly, unimaginable. And yet, Joseph meets up with two fellow prisoners and asks them a seemingly odd question.

Why do your faces seem depressed today? (Genesis. 40:7)

What does he expect to see on their faces, glee? Who inquires of inmates the reason for their foul mood? Only someone with unusual capacity for compassion. And his subsequent reward is a shocking promotion to a position of unparalleled leadership.”

Commander Krause is technically an able officer, but his connection to God and his genuine and compassionate concern for his crew makes him a leader for the ages.

The African Doctor (2016), directed by Julien Rambaldi

During the Corona quarantine, we are living in Boca Raton with my daughter Chanie and her family. We reside in Beit Shemesh in Israel, but traveled here to spend Purim with her; we now have been her guests for over to three months.

Chanie homeschools her kids, and my wife and I have been the “scholars-in-residence” for the homeschool of our grandchildren. Last week I discussed the verse of Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first great African-American poets, with my granddaughter Sari. We focused on the poem “Sympathy,” the refrain of which is “I know why the caged bird sings.” That phrase is also the title of Maya Angelou’s famous autobiography, which describes the formative years of that American writer and poet who was known for her strong character and love of literature, both of which helped her to overcome racism.

Sari and I then discussed how being black can be an obstacle to being accepted into mainstream society and how it often prevented people from pursuing certain professions. Being a stranger, or outsider, created all sorts of obstacles. Based on a true story, The African Doctor depicts one real-life example of how prejudice towards strangers dramatically affected the arc of one person’s entire life.

Seyolo Zantoko, an African who has just graduated from a French medical school, turns down a job to be the personal physician of President Joseph-Desire Mobutu of Zaire because the country is known for its corruption. Instead, he applies for the position of a doctor in a small country town in France, far from the bustling business and fashion environment of Paris. The mayor hires him for his village of Marly-Gomont, but warns him that adjusting to his rural community will not be easy.

Once the family moves into the village, Seyolo’s wife Anne and his two children, Sivi and Kamini, are disappointed, having expected to dwell in a cosmopolitan environment. They did not comprehend that Seyolo’s ultimate goal in accepting this post was to give his children a superior education in France and to obtain French citizenship.

As their period of adjustment progresses, challenges emerge. The provincial town dwellers are suspect of newcomers, especially if they are black. HIs children are bullied at school, and almost no one comes to see him for medical services. Eventually, however, mutual understanding prevails, and there is rapprochement between Seyolo’s family and the townspeople.

Judaism has much to say about how to treat the stranger because Jews endured slavery in Egypt when they were strangers in the land (Exodus 23:9). Indeed, the more vulnerable the stranger, the greater is our obligation to help him. The stranger is bereft of family, friends, and the familiar, and he needs our support.

Jewish history is filled with stories of loners, strangers, who had to overcome prejudice to be accepted. Abraham was told that his descendants would be strangers in a strange land. Moses spent a good portion of his adult life as a stranger, an outsider, in Midian. The Jews spent years as outsiders in Europe; and every year at Passover, Jews recount the story of their marginal status in Egypt as a people without a homeland. It is the collective memory of being a stranger that eternally binds the Jewish people together.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks poetically writes: “You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. God tells us I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the color of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image, says God, they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.”

The African Doctor reminds us of the evils of prejudice and functions as a clarion call to help the strangers among us.

The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019), directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz

My sister Carol had Down Syndrome so I know a little about relating to people with that affliction. As a youngster, I would go with my mother and Carol to a Thursday night gathering for what was then referred to as “retarded” teenagers.

The event was called “Teen Town,” and there I met Carol’s friends, and, in particular, Carol’s boyfriend Sam. They were very warm and friendly and socially normal. I felt comfortable with them because their conversation was about the same things I talked and thought about. Topics included, among others, upcoming social events, sports, who was dating whom, and the movies they saw.

It was easy for me to relate to The Peanut Butter Falcon, a Huck Finn-type journey that two outsiders take, and who, in the course of their experience together, become better people in one way or another.

Zak is a 22-year-old with Down Syndrome, and an actor who actually has the Syndrome portrays him; thus, his portrayal resonates with authenticity as we observe him interacting with people of all types. He resides at an assisted living facility in North Carolina where he is cared for by Eleanor, a sensitive social worker. Zak dreams of becoming a professional wrestler, obsessively watching wrestling videos featuring his hero, Salt Water Redneck.

On one particular night, he escapes the facility with the help of Carl, an elderly resident, who feels Zak needs to be in the real world, not in an elder care environment with little stimulation of any kind. Overnight, Zak stows away on a small fishing boat belonging to Tyler, a hot-headed thief and crab fisherman, who hangs around with an assortment of lowlifes. In an argument with a couple of them, he decides to burn their fishing gear. As a result, they vengefully pursue him as he tries to elude them on his old motorboat.

Tyler does not realize that Zak is on board until they reach harbor, after which he instructs Zak to leave him. However, when Tyler witnesses a young boy taunting Zak to jump in deep water while Zak protests that he cannot swim, Tyler changes his mind about leaving Zak to fend for himself. Instead, he commits to taking Zak with him as he travels to his destination in Florida. It is an easy decision since Zak’s wrestling school destination is in the same direction.

Along the way, the pair encounters a variety of eccentric locals, one of whom baptizes Zak and gives them supplies for a rafting trip they take down a river. Throughout their journey, Tyler encourages Zak to have self-confidence, relating to him as a regular friend, not as a disabled person.

Robin A. Meltzer, parent of a Down Syndrome child, writes about the importance of relating to such a child as a person first, and as a disabled person later. Underlying her approach is the mantra: My daughter is a unique individual, not a diagnosis.

At the Passover Seder, there is the classic story of the “four sons,” all of whom can learn, but in different ways. “The son who does not know how to ask” may be emblematic of the Down Syndrome child who needs more attention than the others. The famous account of Rav Preida in the Talmud provides a vivid example of the extent to which a teacher has to extend himself for a student who has trouble comprehending things. The sage had a student who needed his lessons repeated 400 times. On one occasion, it took 800 repetitions, yet Rav Preida did not lose his patience. For such perseverance, God rewarded him with long life and life in the World-to-Come.

Moreover, it is recorded that one of the great Torah scholars of the twentieth century, the Chazon Ish, would rise in the presence of a person with Down Syndrome, considering such a person to possess an elevated soul.

Meltzer observes: “It is true that a person’s value is not determined by his or her capabilities, and that we need to appreciate the intrinsic worth of one’s soul. But at the same time, if we really valued people regardless of their limitations, we would do all we could to include those with Down Syndrome into community life. Because that is the Torah way.” The relationship between Tyler and Zak in The Peanut Butter Falcon reminds us that the friendship between the able and the disabled can be robust, satisfying, and enduring.

Purchase this movie on Amazon.com.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), directed by Steven Spielberg

Mt. Vernon, New York, was my home until I got married at age 22. I then moved to the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City and Manhattan became my home. I then moved to Atlanta in 1970 for my first real job and stayed there for 27 years. Atlanta became my home and I thought my moving days were over. But they were not. After Atlanta, I moved to Columbus, Denver, and Dallas for three to four years each, and then my wife and I moved to Israel where we wanted to arrive vertically.

After living here for a few months, my wife and I both felt that we had finally arrived at our life’s destination, the ultimate homeland of our people. As Jews we felt truly at home here. All the other places we lived were nice and we enjoyed living there, but we never felt truly at home until we took up abode in Israel.

The desire to come home is a central theme of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the story of an alien from a distant planet who finds himself lost on earth when the spaceship which brought him here precipitously departs and unintentionally leaves him here.

ET wanders through a suburban housing development and is discovered by Elliot, a young boy who, after initially being frightened of the unknown, befriends the creature from another planet. Sharing the secret of ET’s presence with Michael, his older brother, and Gertie, his younger sister, they resolve to help ET and promise to reveal his existence to no one else.

In a short time, they learn that ET has special powers, is highly intelligent, and can even communicate with them in English. This enables ET to enlist their aid in assisting him to find a way to return home. Under his guidance, they help him find materials to contact his compatriots from space.

Regrettably, ET’s health deteriorates, and there is a race against time to save ET before he dies or is too sick to take the voyage home. Parallel to their efforts is the pursuit of ET by a scientific governmental agency that wants to find him in order to further scientific research. The kids, truly concerned about his welfare, know that ET must return home to fulfill his own destiny. In spite of the fact that people on earth love him, they understand that ET belongs elsewhere.

The notion of going home to fulfill one’s purpose in life echoes the commandment given to Jews to live in the land of Israel. In spite of possessing creature comforts and friends in the Diaspora, the ultimate homeland is God’s chosen land, Israel, where His holy presence is more acutely felt. The Bible tells us that it is a commandment of God to live in Israel based on the verse in Numbers 33:53: “you shall possess the land and dwell in it.” Moreover, the Talmud tells us that the very air of Israel makes one wise. Merely living in a holy environment and walking on its holy soil connects us to our ancestors and to our history as a nation.

ET’s yearning to return home is a metaphor for everyone to return home to their historic roots. When we are away from our true home, we may be fascinated by our new surroundings and we may make good friends; but, in the final analysis, there is no place like home to nurture our souls and to fulfill our spiritual destinies.

Purchase this movie on Amazon.com.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019), directed by Marielle Heller

It is not easy to find a film that is “kosher” in the ultimate sense, but I think It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood qualifies. I define a “kosher movie” as one that has something meaningful to say about life, that can help us navigate our own lives; and this story of the friendship of celebrated children’s show host, Fred Rogers, with investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel has much Torah wisdom to offer.

The narrative begins as Mr. Rogers shows a photo of Lloyd Vogel with a bloody nose. He tells the audience that Lloyd has lots of anger and has much to learn about forgiveness. Lloyd’s backstory reveals that he and his wife Andrea have just had a baby and they plan to attend the wedding of Lloyd’s sister Lorraine.

Lloyd’s mood sours when he learns that his estranged father, Jerry, will be attending the wedding. At this special family celebration, Lloyd gets into an altercation with his father; and in the melee following the argument, someone punches Lloyd on his nose. This is the picture Mr. Rogers shows us at the beginning.

Lloyd’s editor, Ellen, asks him to write a profile of Mr. Rogers as part of a series on contemporary heroes. Lloyd regards it as a puff piece and is reluctant to do it, but he acquiesces. For the interview with Mr. Rogers, he travels to Pittsburgh to meet him on the set of his TV program.

Lloyd is taken aback by the kind demeanor of Mr. Rogers, who treats him with great respect. Inwardly, he wonders whether his kindness is just a show or is it genuine. As Lloyd interviews him, Mr. Rogers interrupts with questions of his own for Lloyd, in which he probes reasons for Lloyd’s black eye. Lloyd eventually tells him about his fight with his dad.

Soon after, Mr. Rogers invites Lloyd to spend a day with him when he will be in New York. Lloyd meets Fred’s wife, Joanne, who reinforces the notion that her husband is the real deal when it comes to being a person with great empathy and compassion for others. When Fred asks him questions about his childhood with his father and mother, Lloyd becomes uncomfortable, defensive, and abruptly leaves.

His dysfunctional relationship with his father, who abandoned his mother when she was ill, is too great a character failing for him to overlook. Lloyd’s anger towards his father does not abate and he allows it to live rent free in his head.

When his father suddenly has a heart attack, Lloyd is compelled to revaluate his relationship with his father. Mr. Rogers’ friendship during this period of emotional turmoil becomes a force for reconciliation.

Here are two pieces of wisdom that Mr. Rogers gives to Lloyd not by giving him direct advice, but by engaging Lloyd in conversation. When he and Lloyd are speaking on the phone, Fred asks him what is the most important thing in the world that I could be doing now? Lloyd has no answer but Fred does: “The most important thing I could be doing is talking to you.” The message for Lloyd: be present in the present. Do not allow yourself to be distracted when you are engaged with another human being. From a Torah perspective, this means to recognize the image of God in every man. If every man has divinity within him, then I must pay attention to the significant other that is speaking to me.

Another instance: When Jerry is dying, Mr. Rogers makes a private request of him. Lloyd wants to know the request. Fred tells him that he asked Jerry to pray for him. Why, asks Lloyd. Fred’s answer: “when a person is close to death, he is close to God.” This is a very Jewish response. The Sages in Ethics of the Fathers encourage us to think of death each day not in a morbid way, but to stimulate us to lead more meaningful lives. Experiencing crisis is often the catalyst to more focused use of our remaining time on earth and the rabbis want us to make every day a spiritual masterpiece.

These are only a small portion of the life lessons embedded in thoughtful narrative of It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. It is a “kosher movie” to savor and worth viewing more than once.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Knives Out (2019), directed by Rian Johnson

Telling the truth is a value that I grew up with. My parents did not use hyperbole in their speech. When they spoke, I knew I could rely on what they said and “take it to the bank.” Which is why, at the beginning of my educational career, I was very unsettled when a parent at the school of which I was principal confronted me with a lie. Let me elaborate.

A stellar teacher on my staff informed me that a student in her class had cheated on an examination and that she was going to give him an “F.” After seeing the incontrovertible evidence, I endorsed her action. The day after the student received the failing grade, I received a call from his mother asking for a meeting with me the following day. She informed me that her husband and her son would be attending the meeting.

The next day, the father opened the meeting with a line I cannot forget: “My son never lies.” I knew immediately that the meeting would “go south” from there on. From my years dealing with high school students, I knew that sometimes even good kids do very bad things. I initially surmised that the father was extremely naïve or extremely stupid. The teacher broke out in tears when she saw that the father believed the boy and not her. It was an affront to her professionally to be accused of fabricating the cheating episode. I obviously sided with the teacher and we did not change the failing grade.

Several weeks later, the father confessed to me that he knew his son cheated. Regrettably, he had been away from home on a business trip when the incident occurred; and he wanted his son to feel that his father unreservedly trusted him, no matter if the facts suggested otherwise. The entire event was very sad because he implicitly taught his son that lying for the protection of one’s image is justified. Truth was sacrificed.

In Knives Out, the key plot device that unravels the mystery behind the death of noted crime novelist Harlan Thrombey is the compulsive truth telling of Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s long time caregiver. Benoit Blanc, the sleuth who is charged with ferreting out the killer, tells Marta after she pukes when uttering a falsehood: “You have a regurgitative reaction to mistruths.” Marta cannot tell a lie, and so for her truth always prevails.

Here are the circumstances surrounding the murder. Harlan has just celebrated his 85th birthday, after which he is found dead at his home. It looks as though he has committed suicide by slitting his throat, but has he? Many stand to profit from his demise, specifically, his dysfunctional family members and people who have worked for him for many years.

The police investigate the case, and they are assisted by world renowned Detective Blanc, who has a reputation for solving the most impenetrable of crimes. By interviewing all family members and household employees, Blanc discovers they all have motives for murdering him. Marta Cabrera’s compulsion to tell the truth becomes the means by which Blanc finds out the identity of the real murderer.

Rabbi Shlomo Jarcaig writes about how critical is truth telling to the Jewish character. The Torah and Talmud tell us more than simply not to lie. There is a further commandment: “Distance oneself from a false word” (Exodus 23:7). This means we have to actively distance ourselves from falsehood.

Rabbi Jacaig makes a fascinating observation based upon the very shape and form of the Hebrew letters for truth. He writes: “When describing the difference between truth and falsehood, the Talmud (Shabbat 104a) notes that the three letters that spell the Hebrew word for truth, emes, are the first, middle, and last of the Hebrew alphabet, and all have two legs upon which to stand (like a capital A). The letters are far apart from each other because the truth is not easily found in this world; nevertheless, truth, like the letters that comprise its name, stands forever strong and unwavering.”

Knives Out is a riveting whodunit in the tradition of Agatha Christie mysteries. Beneath the surface theatrics is an important message about the value of truth in human discourse.

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Ad Astra (2019), directed by James Gray

As I write this review, the world is in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Many emails and much of the Internet are filled with important messages to take away from this world crisis. One of the most meaningful is an essay entitled “Coronavirus: Is It Good?” written by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo.

Here is an excerpt: “to our utmost dread, we have fallen into the hands of one tiny virus that forces us to our knees, causing us not only to be aware that we’ve lost our certainty, but to realize that we never had it to begin with!

And this wake-up call is actually an enormous blessing, enabling us to become genuine realists. This tiny virus forces us to admit that our self-assured sense of health is a farce, and that our certainty of being able to breathe, walk, speak and think, come what may, is all wishful thinking.”

Rabbi Cardozo goes on to remind us that the great sages of old composed blessings for almost every human experience, including eating food, seeing the beauties of God’s creation, and something as mundane as visiting the bathroom.

For the rabbis in the Talmud, nothing was taken for granted. They walked around in a state of “radical amazement” says Cardozo, appreciating all of God’s gifts. He continues: “All of this is in fact very liberating. It creates new space in our minds and souls and offers us opportunities that we forgot existed.

The mask has fallen, and reality has confronted us as never before.

What a marvelous opportunity to make a new start! We suddenly become aware that life is a gift that is unearned and it may be a little dangerous to feel too much at home in this world. We are offered the chance to make a distinction between the vital and the futile; the trivial and the important; what needs to inspire us (and we should cling to) and what to drop.”

I share Cardozo’s comments with you because they relate to the central theme of Ad Astra, a science fiction cerebral thriller that deals with the change of attitude one might adopt when confronted with mortality.

It is sometime in the near future, and the world is being hit by strange power surges, the origin of which is unknown. As the surges increase in frequency and intensity, the U.S. Space Command contacts Major Roy McBride, son of famed astronaut H. Clifford McBride, to inform him that the source of the surges is the “Lima Project,” an initiative begun 26 years earlier to search for intelligent life beyond earth, a mission led by his father.

Signals from the mission ceased 16 years before when the project was orbiting Neptune, and there is lingering suspicion that Clifford McBride is still alive. Roy’s task is to fly to Mars and from there to Neptune to establish contact with his father.

Once on Mars, he meets Helen Lantos, the director of the space station, who shares with Roy the classified videotapes that show the crew of the Lima Project mutinying against his father, Clifford McBride. The crew wants to return to earth and McBride wants to continue with the mission, regardless of the human cost. Roy now is faced with deciding whether to save civilization or his father if he cannot do both. The isolation of space provides the background for his soul-searching, which takes a toll on his normally dispassionate decision-making process.

When we first meet Roy at the outset of his journey, he articulates his mental state: “I am focused only on the essential, to the exclusion of all else. I will make only pragmatic decisions. I will not allow myself to be distracted. I will not allow my mind to linger on that which is unimportant. I will not rely on anyone or anything. I will not be vulnerable to mistakes.” That certainty ebbs away as Roy meditates on the human cost of his father’s devotion to science.

His isolation and the reality of his father’s all-consuming obsession with the pursuit of scientific inquiry compel Roy to reconsider how he is living his own life. He reflects: “So many times in my life I screwed up: I’ve talked when I should’ve listened, I’ve been harsh when I should’ve been tender.” His relationship with his wife suffered from his emotional detachment. He finally recognizes his aloneness and looks forward to the time when his solitude will end and he can return home.

At the end of his journey, he meditates on his current mental state and is ready to embrace human connection: “I’m steady, calm. I slept well, no bad dreams. I am active and engaged. I’m aware of my surroundings and those in my immediate sphere. I’m attentive. I am focused on the essentials, to the exclusion of all else. I’m unsure of the future but I’m not concerned. I will rely on those closest to me, and I will share their burdens, as they share mine. I will live and I will love.”

Our Sages tell us not to separate from the community. They understood that a life lived in isolation is not a life. To appreciate what we have means to live with others, in a community that shares its loves and losses. To paraphrase the Psalmist, when we experience the agonies and ecstasies of human experience together with others, we will rejoice in song together with the family of man.

 

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