Category Archives: Drama

Penguin Bloom (2020), directed by Glendyn Ivin

As I have gotten older, I am much more conscious of safety. Whenever I walk down stairs, I instinctively look for the banister. I know that if I am careless and fall, it could actually change my life and make it more difficult. The same fall at 20 years old may be inconsequential; but when I am in my 70s, recovery from a fall is not simple. Penguin Bloom does not tell a story of a senior citizen suffering an injury, but of a young mother, Sam Bloom, who has an accident that changes the arc of her life.

The film opens as the Bloom family is taking a vacation in Thailand. Husband Cameron, his wife Sam, and their boys, Noah, Reuben, and Oli are enjoying the trip, hiking and touring the land. On one fateful day, Sam accidentally falls off a high balcony and breaks her T6 thoracic vertebrae. The result: she is partially paralyzed.

Returning to their home in Australia, Sam, who is an avid surfer, has to adjust to life in a wheelchair. Her entire family supports her, but Sam’s redefinition of herself as a disabled person does not come easily. She is constantly frustrated as she attempts to do normal household chores.

Things begin to change when the three boys bring home an injured magpie chick that is unable to fly. They name the bird Penguin. Initially, Sam has no interest in the magpie, but she takes an interest once she realizes that bonding with the bird will help her connect with her son, Noah, who has grown distant from his mother since the accident. In truth, Noah feels overwhelming guilt because he was the one who encouraged his mother to go up on the balcony in Thailand.

As the magpie’s condition improves, so does Sam’s, especially after she starts kayaking lessons that give her a sense of mobility and self-esteem. Ultimately, there is a family reconciliation after Sam and Noah have a heart to heart conversation about who was responsible for the accident.

Feige Twerski, a Jewish educator, offers a unique perspective on dealing with an accident that changes your life. She was struck by a car and was involved in long-term rehabilitation after leg surgery. Normal life came to a halt, but she viewed her bad fortune as divinely orchestrated. She observes: “Slowing down was mandated by a wake-up call, a message sent by Divine providence. This unanticipated respite in the stream of my life provided necessary reflection and contemplation.” The life-altering accident led Twerski to think about lessons learned from adversity.

Here are some of her thoughts and insights: “Like it or not, my body for the most part was dictating the terms of my existence, and I had no choice but to comply. This was a rude awakening, but I took them as my marching orders from above. I had to let go of all other agendas and dedicate my work for this period of time to recovery. So the spiritual and physical merged and became one, a seamless, fused whole. God appointed us as custodians over a physical body that was intended to serve as an eager partner to our exalted souls.”

She continues: “After such an event, clichés become real. The vulnerability of the human being is of no surprise to anyone. However, when one experiences how dramatically life can change in a split second, the cliché describing the fragility of life takes on new meaning. Accidents and serious injuries become life-altering events. The myth of human control is shattered.”

Twerski felt comforted when she let go mentally and handed her ultimate recovery to God. She knew that, from the aspect of eternity, there was a divinely ordained plan that put her on the road less traveled. She now had a visceral sense of the unpredictability of life that made her appreciate the spectacular now more. In her essay, she quotes Einstein who said, “There are two ways to live your life, one is as if there are no miracles and the other is to live as if everything is a miracle.” Penguin Bloom reminds us that each day can be a miracle.

Little Women (2019), directed by Greta Gerwig

Parenting is never finished. As I get older, and I am now a grandfather, I still want to parent my children. The Talmud tells us that one of the obligations of a parent is to teach your child how to swim. Most of the commentators interpret to mean that parents should teach them how to swim through life, and kids sometimes need guidance even when they are older. From time to time, I have conversations with my older children in which I share experiences from my own life that I think may help them. Here is one example.

Several months ago, I had a restless sleep dreaming about a decision I made perhaps twenty years ago. I realized that I made the decision without consulting others because I felt I knew all the possible repercussions of that decision. But years later, I realized that my decision was okay but not the best one I could have made. I decided to share that experience with one of my children and, thereby, give him a useful tool for navigating his own life.

I told him that even when you get older and are successful, it is still prudent and wise to consult with people older and wiser than you to get their perspective on a situation. It is a mistake to think that you know it all and forget to take advantage of the wisdom of others. Always, if at all possible, seek out mentors and seek parental wisdom.

This happens in Little Women, the most recent film iteration of Louisa May Alcott’s classic about four sisters reared in Concord, Massachusetts. All of the sisters are very different from one another, but they are bound closely by strong feelings of familial love. Jo is a teacher and wants to be a published author in a male-dominated world. Amy’s interest is in painting, and she wants to be a great artist. Meg wants to be married, and Beth is enthralled by music as she plays the piano. Into this family enters Laurie, the grandson of their neighbor and very much a free spirit. Together, they discuss their hopes and aspirations for the future.

The real guiding light of the family is Marmee, the mother, who by example teaches them the important values of life. While her husband is serving with the Union army in the Civil War, she maintains the home front. Even when food is scarce, she encourages her daughters to give their meager breakfast to their poor neighbor Mrs. Hummel and her starving children. At moments of crisis, she unites with her children in prayer, stressing that one’s connection with the Almighty can enable one to survive adversities.

Moreover, Marmee gives her older girls good advice that is transformative at times. For example, Jo shares with her mother her disappointment with herself: “What is wrong with me? I’ve made so many resolutions and written sad notes and cried over my sins, but it just doesn’t seem to help. When I get in a passion I get so savage I could hurt anyone and I’d enjoy it.” Marmee’s response: “You remind me of myself. I’m angry nearly every day of my life. I’m not patient by nature, but with nearly forty years of effort I’m learning to not let it get the better of me.” Upon hearing Marmee’s honest appraisal of her own response to anger, Jo tells her, “I’ll do the same, then.” This serves as a classic example of good parenting. Marmee recognizes Jo’s feelings and does not deny them. She, instead, looks for a way in which to correct Jo constructively and sweetly so that she is better prepared to deal with adversity in the future.

Emuna Braverman, a Jewish educator, writes about good parenting fundamentals. Here are some of them: “The first is that we constantly need to pray. Parenting is a tough job. We need the Almighty’s help at every step of the way.

The second is that children are not blank slates or lumps of clay. They come with personalities and drives, with strengths and weaknesses. Our job is to help finely tune their qualities, to give them focus, to assist them in making the most of their strengths.”  

King Solomon tells us to “educate each child according to his way.” This aphorism reminds us that each child is different with different needs. There is no “one size fits all” parenting. We need to appreciate and respond to these differences.

Marmee in Little Women presents us with an example of good parenting. She is wise and self-effacing. She is modeling the kind of behavior that will enable her children to be successful adults, possessing both intelligence and good character. She is a person worth emulating.

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The Midnight Sky (2020), directed by George Clooney

An acquaintance of mine is a realtor. I have known him for many years. He is a very serious and industrious person. Although he began his career in his twenties strictly selling properties, he moved into securing mortgages for his customers, and now even does commercial property management. Periodically, I would suggest that he date, get married, and begin to start a family.

 I reminded him that when he gets older all these possibilities become more difficult. He is now in his late forties, still single, and totally immersed in his real estate business. He spoke to me recently about his existential loneliness, but I could not offer him any panacea. He had made his choices and now was bearing the consequences of his earlier life decisions. This is similar to what happens in The Midnight Sky, the story of Augustine Lofthouse, an ambitious scientist whose lifework is to find a habitable planet where humanity can grow. His work defines him as a man of intellectual power but he has little empathy for others.

Augustine is a loner. After giving a lecture on the potential for life on K-23, one of Jupiter’s moons, he meets Jean Sullivan and begins a romantic relationship, the consequences of which is the birth of a daughter. Augustine, however, is obsessed with his own scientific research and does not commit to marriage with Jean, refusing even to acknowledge his fatherhood.

In 2049, thirty years after the birth of his daughter, the earth experiences a catastrophic event in which most inhabitants are wiped out. Augustine, now laboring in a remote laboratory in the Arctic, is sick and knows that his days are numbered. However, he is imbued with a sense of mission and wants to contact any functioning spacecraft and inform its crew of what has happened on earth. His goal: tell them not to return to an inhospitable planet, but rather journey to find another planet on which to survive and create a new world.

Augustine discovers Aether, a spacecraft that is still functioning. It is now returning to earth from Jupiter where its crew has explored K-23 for possible future colonization. Augustine attempts to contact them. They are unaware of what has transpired on earth, but Augustine’s antenna is too weak to make contact with their ship. He travels, despite freezing temperatures and harsh winds, to another base in the Arctic wasteland where there is a stronger antenna and eventually makes contact with them.

Unforeseen calamities occur, resulting in damage to Aether’s radar and communication system, but the crew is able to fix it. Once the repairs are made, the crew of Aether is confronted with a decision: to return to the earth or not. Sully, one of the astronauts, speaks to Augustine informing him that members of the crew with family on earth want to return there in spite of the danger. In their heart to heart conversation, secrets of the past are revealed that give us an understanding of why he is driven to save the crew in the twilight of his own life.

Film critic Joseph Morgenstern frames the film’s message in an idiosyncratic way: “In the here and now, the film makes a dramatic case for planetary stewardship, and a stirring one for the connections we crave. In the course of those deep-space repairs the astronauts start to sing Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline.  ‘Hands, touching hands, reaching out, touching me, touching you.’ It sounds silly in the telling, but not in the singing. Whenever they can, reaching out and touching is what people do.”

Augustine lives in his own private world for the bulk of his life, disconnected to other human beings, not reaching out and touching other people. Dina Mensch, a Jewish educator, writes about the importance of living a life of balance between satisfying one’s own intellectual and occupational interests and allowing our inner selves, our souls, to grow and connect with others:The human being was created with a soul, which is a portion, or reflection, so to speak, of Godliness. This soul is what differentiates us from animals. If God created me, I must have a unique purpose in this world! Therefore, the point of my existence, and my self-worth, revolve around my moral choices, not my professional success.”

Mensch encourages us not to wait for crisis in our lives to make a self-evaluation. Augustine Lofthouse in The Midnight Sky waits too long to make a self-evaluation. When he realizes what he has missed in life, it is too late to make a mid-course correction.

Hillbilly Elegy (2020), directed by Ron Howard

Since Hillbilly Elegy started streaming on Netflix a few weeks ago, there have been a plethora of negative reviews. Generally, before I decide to watch a film I read a few lines from reviews. I do not want to read the entire review since it may tell me too much about the film and spoil my enjoyment of the movie.

After sampling the reviews, I check out the Internet Movie Database Parent Guide to determine why a film has a particular rating. I followed that dual-protocol with Hillbilly Elegy, and I was curious to see the film, in spite of the negative reviews, because I admire its director, Ron Howard.

The film is based on the bestselling memoir by J.D. Vance, which explores three generations of a poor family in middle-America, as recounted by its youngest member, J.D., who rises above his impoverished background to eventually graduate Yale Law School. His personal history reveals the many challenges J.D. experienced in growing up. He witnessed parents and grandparents lose their grip on leading a conventional existence. Verbal abuse, alcoholism, an unstable home life, and exposure to family members addicted to drugs could easily have thwarted his academic dreams. However, because of the determined efforts of his grandmother, Mamaw, he finally found a pathway to educational and professional success. This led to leaving his hometown, attending Ohio State University, and then Yale Law School.

One clear theme of the movie that resonates throughout is the notion of taking responsibility for your life if you want to be successful. J.D.’s mother, Bev, does not take responsibility for her actions. Once a nurse in a large city hospital, she now is addicted to opioids and her life is in ruins. Regrettably, even her closest relatives are complicit in her downfall. They do not fully comprehend that by not vigorously protesting her addictions, they enable her to persist in her self-destructive ways. They do not allow her to see the consequences of her reckless lifestyle.   

J.D. grows up fast when he sees the adult world around him crumbling. It is only due to his grandmother’s intervention that he begins to see the consequences of his mother’s addiction for the rest of the family. A particularly touching scene occurs when J.D., now living with Mamaw, observes her asking the Meals on Wheels worker to give her more food since she is now taking care of her grandson. When her one meal is delivered, she divides it into two and gives her grandson the larger portion. J.D., through the crucible of painful life experience, understands that he has to take responsibility for his actions if he is to be a success in life.

Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz writes about the concept of taking responsibility from a Jewish perspective: “Taking responsibility means working out what is right by studying, thinking and understanding. Figure out what you are living for and what your goals are and how you will achieve them, and understand the consequences of stupidity and impulsiveness. Taking responsibility means recognizing that up until now you have followed your impulses, never really choosing, letting your life simply unfold and being more of an observer than an active participant. It’s the realization that reality is passing you by and that it’s not going to wait for you. And if you don’t grow up and take responsibility now, you are going to miss it.”

Hillbilly Elegy may take place in rural America, but it has a universal message that transcends both time and place. When film critics deem it “inauthentic,” they miss the essential truth of the film; namely, that achieving success in life requires one to take responsibility for one’s behavior and to make choices that further your progress towards your life’s goal. In that sense, Hillbilly Elegy accomplishes its cinematic vision by reminding us not to let life just happen to us, but to take charge of our lives and make wise decisions that move us towards successful living.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), directed by Aaron Sorkin

In August of 1968, I was busy with my rabbinic studies, going for a master’s degree in English from Hunter College, and trying to be a good husband and father. I had little interest in the protests of the day, but kept abreast of them by reading the newspapers. Watching The Trial of the Chicago 7, a fascinating recreation of the characters and societal problems that played out in the media at that time, gave me a better understanding of the issues that were at stake during that tumultuous period in American history.

The country was experiencing many demonstrations against the Vietnam War. The anti-war faction felt that a peaceful protest at the Democratic National Convention would be a good place to make their views known and put pressure on the United States government to exit from a seemingly endless conflict. The plan was to challenge representatives of authority even if it might lead to a confrontation with police, which it did.

The film essentially begins with the trial after the Chicago riots, in which seven of the demonstrators are tried for conspiracy to cross state lines and start a riot. The seven demonstrators included Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Lee Weiner, and David Dellinger, most of whom did not know one another and had different motivations for participating in the protest.

The SDS, Students for a Democratic Society were led by Tom Hayden, a moderate group interested only in bringing an end to the War. The Yippies, led by Abbie Hoffman, was a militant group that challenged the entire social order. The defendants were represented in court by William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass. The judge in the case was Julius Hoffman.

The trial is filled with interruptions by the defendants, some of whom make fun of the judge and draw contempt of court citations. The outrageous antics of activists Hoffman and Rubin, in particular, undermine the defense strategy of Kunstler and Weinglass. In the end, both sides are given an opportunity to explain their motives, and the jury decides the verdict. As the credits come on, a coda tells us what happened after the verdict was handed down and what the defendants did with the rest of their lives.

Political dissent is the subject of The Trial of the Chicago 7. The film raises the question of how do we express dissent in a way that will accomplish our ends. America in the past four years has become more polarized with extreme positions on both sides of the political spectrum. Rabbi Efrem Goldberg writes about the need for tolerance of the views of others, reminding people that what unites us is far greater than what divides us. He cites the Talmud (Berachot 58a) that says. Just as the faces of people do not exactly resemble one another, so too their opinions do not exactly resemble one another. Rabbi Goldberg observes: “we should recognize that everyone’s opinions are the result of their being created differently and raised differently. Just as someone is entitled to look different, so too are they entitled to think differently and approach things differently without harsh disapproval or condemnation.”

Interestingly, he brings a proof for this perspective from the liturgical practice of taking three steps backward at the conclusion of the silent prayer known as the Amidah: “Jews take three steps backward at the conclusion of the Amidah, as the Talmud says, (Yoma 53) The one who prays must take three steps back and only then pray for peace. Rabbi Menachem BenZion Zaks explains that we cannot pray for, nor achieve, peace if we are not willing to step back a little and make room for others and their opinions, their tastes and personalities. After stepping back, we ask oseh shalom bimromav, God, please bring peace, and we then turn to the right and to the left. Explains Rabbi Zaks, achieving peace and harmony means bowing towards those on the right of us and those on the left of us, not just straight ahead on our path.”

This balanced, nuanced approach to how we interact with those whose opinions differ from ours is nowhere in evidence amongst the Chicago 7. Their comic antics may be entertaining, but there is little positive outcome from their mockery of established judicial institutions.

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.

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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.

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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.

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