Category Archives: Drama

The Adjustment Bureau (2011), directed by George Nolfi

adjustment bureauAs a rabbi, I have often been asked questions relating to destiny versus free will. Can we change our destiny by exercising our free will? It is a complicated question and, from a theological perspective, not easily answered. It seems, however, that Judaism has an approach to looking at the problem. Let me explain. I have been involved in cases where congregants have someone in their family facing death. One traditional response to such a dire situation is to change the name of the person in a life-threatening situation. By doing so, we create an alternative ending, namely, life instead of death. I asked one of my Torah teachers how this works, and this is what he told me.

In the divine scheme of things, John Doe is destined to die at a certain time. However, John and his friends and relatives want him to live. Therefore, they change his name to John Raphael (Raphael means “God heals” in Hebrew), to change his fate. No longer is he John Doe. He is now John Raphael Doe, a new man with a new name and, hence, a different destiny. Obviously, it is not a failsafe ritual. Only God is in charge of life and death matters, but there is a suggestion that free will can intervene to change one’s destiny. This is the premise of The Adjustment Bureau, a romantic thriller with a clever take on destiny versus free choice in the choice of a marriage partner.

Congressman David Norris, a Brooklyn Congressman running for the New York Senate in 2006, loses the race, but in the process meets Elise Sellas, who captures his attention and imagination. She gives him her phone number but he loses it, and for three years afterwards he tries to find her. Meanwhile, he launches his campaign for the 2010 Senate race. Then he serendipitously discovers her as she is walking along a downtown street, and emotion takes over.

But fate again intervenes through a group of men in suits known as the Adjustment Bureau. They confront David and inform him that his destiny to not to pursue a relationship with Elise according to the plans of the “chairman,” a person whose identity is ambiguous. They warn him that failure to abide by their suggestion or revealing the existence of the Adjustment Bureau will result in catastrophic consequences.

David resists their threats, deciding he has a right to choose his own destiny. He, therefore, continues pursuing Elise with whom he feels a natural rapport. The narrative details his attempts to connect with her in the face of obstacles placed in their way by the supernatural Adjustment Bureau, an entity which has the power to change the respective schedules of David and Elise, such as the time and places of their rendezvous, to prevent them from meeting.

Because of David’s erratic behavior and mysterious absences, Elise feels that the relationship is doomed and so she accepts a marriage proposal from an ex-boyfriend. When David hears of this, he is determined to intervene. Desperate to marry her, he frantically contacts her and reveals to her the intentions of the Adjustment Bureau. He begs her to trust him and follow him as he tries to elude the Bureau, which is pursuing him in light of his rejection of its pre-ordained plan.

Jewish wisdom clearly states that man has free will. Several times in the Bible, there is a reaffirmation of this notion. The Bible directly commands man to “choose life” because implicitly man has free choice. However, free choice does not mean that we can understand the divine intention or the divine plan. The Ethics of the Fathers openly remarks “Everything is forseen, yet freedom of choice is given.” The Adjustment Bureau reminds us that even though destiny plays a role in our lives, it is not the final arbiter.

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Baby Driver (2017), directed by Edgar Wright

 baby driverI remember hearing about the incident. I learned that two young boys were playing around with each other and one of them had a stick with a nail on the end of it. In the course of their “playing around,” the boy with the stick hit the other child in the eye. Blood gushed out and the boy was in great pain.

It was an accident. The boy with the stick never meant to do harm, but he did. The victim lost one of his eyes; but, thankfully, he was a boy of great inner strength and he went on to lead a relatively normal life and had professional success as a dentist as an adult.

From the Jewish perspective, the act of taking out the eye of another child may have been unintentional, but there is culpability. The fact that one does not intend to do harm does not free him from Divine accountability.

Baby, the central character in Baby Driver, an over-the-top heist film with an adrenalin rush and a strong musical motif, does some terrible things. Although he does not intend to hurt people either physically or financially, he does, and that makes him accountable to law enforcement authorities.

The story begins as Baby drives a getaway car for three robbers who rob a bank. His driving is extraordinary and he is able to evade the police chasing them. As he drives, he listens to loud music on his iPod. We learn that as a child he had an accident that left him with tinnitus, a constant humming in his ear, and listening to loud music drowns out the humming. Moreover, it inspires his driving skills.

Baby is a getaway driver because he owes money to Doc, a crime boss. It is Baby’s intention to quit the life of crime as soon as his debt to Doc is paid. The problem is that Doc needs Baby to continue driving for other heists he has planned.

When Doc threatens Baby with possible harm to Debora, Baby’s girlfriend, he is compelled to drive even though he knows that the thieves he is working with have no scruples and will murder anyone who gets in their way.

The next heist goes south when Bats, one of the robbers, kills a security guard. Baby, unnerved by Bat’s brutal behavior, figures out a way to leave his unsavory cohorts, but an intense cat and mouse game ensues between them and Baby, ending in explosive violence.

The police also pursue Baby and there is a moment of reckoning. Will Baby surrender to them in the hope that the authorities will understand that his sins were unintentional or will he continue to run?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the traditional Jewish approach to unintentional sin: “Unintentional sins stand midway between intentional sins (where you knew what you were doing was wrong) and involuntary action (ones, where you were not acting freely at all: it was a reflex action, or someone was pointing a gun at your head).” Such is the dilemma of Baby.

Yet, in Jewish law, even unintentional sins require atonement. Why? Rabbi Sacks, quoting several Jewish sages offers some answers. For example, Nachmanides, a medieval scholar, opines: “Sin, even without intention, defiles.” Moreover, “sins committed unwittingly produce a stain on our souls and constitute a blemish in it, and the soul is only worthy to be received by its Creator when it is pure of all sin.” A person cannot simply say, “I did not mean it” and expect God to forgive him. There has to be genuine contrition if there is to be forgiveness from on High.

Once he is apprehended, Baby’s response reflects his mature understanding that there must be consequences for a life of crime, even if all the bad stuff was not his fault. This recognition of past mistakes and accepting responsibility for them paves the way for a bright future in which his mistakes are forgiven. Baby Driver’s denouement is a reminder of the power of atonement and the corresponding power of forgiveness.

 

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First They Killed My Father (2017), directed by Angelina Jolie

first they killed my fatherI watched this film at a time when the US is in the midst of a major debate over its immigration program. One side views immigrants who came here illegally as potentially dangerous and argues for tighter border controls. The other side sees illegal immigrants as a positive force in the US who make important contributions to America and who simply want a better life for themselves and their children.

I have no political opinion on this very complex matter, but watching First They Killed My Father gave me a better understanding of the plight of refugee children who are caught in the crossfire of larger political currents. First They Killed My Father is a harrowing account, from a child’s perspective, of what it means to be compelled to leave your normal, comfortable family life and suddenly become a poor person seeking safety and basic human needs such as food and clothing.

The story takes place in 1975 in Cambodia, a “neutral” country geographically close to Vietnam, which is at war with the United States. When the country is taken over by the Khmer Rouge, Loung Ung’s family is at grave risk because her father served as a senior military official in the Cambodian government. He represents an ideology diametrically opposed to the fanatical communist ideology of the Khmer Rouge, who during their period of ascendency killed almost two million Cambodians by execution, starvation and forced labor.

Loung, together with her siblings, is placed in a forced labor camp and her parents are eventually separated from her. Outwardly, she learns how to be a child soldier and conforms to the rules of the camp, but inwardly she yearns to escape the oppressive soldiers and guards who are watching her constantly. It is a frightful experience for her and her entire family as we observe Loung , barely seven years old, trying to make sense of the incomprehensible happenings around her.

Jewish law and tradition emphasizes the importance of welcoming the stranger, the refugee in our midst, who has no protector. Nechama Leibowitz, a Biblical scholar, notes that the command to welcome the stranger appears in the Torah 36 times. We are frequently to remember how it felt when we were strangers in a foreign land.

Moreover, the Bible teaches us that all human beings are created in the image of God. Everyone possesses part of the Divine within and everyone has infinite potential. Rabbi Yitzchak Greenberg, a modern Orthodox thinker and educator, says that when we recognize these qualities within man, especially in a refugee population to whom we extend a helping hand, we are sanctifying God’s name.

Moses wanted to immortalize this national characteristic of helping the stranger and so he names his son Gershom, which comes from the Hebrew word for stranger, ger. The history of Moses’s people is bound up in understanding that Jews grew up as “strangers in a strange land.” Furthermore, The Ethics of the Fathers importunes us to look beyond the self: “If I am only for myself, what am I?”

Given the reality today that unrestricted entry in the United States has implications for the safety and security of our citizens, and welcoming the stranger is not so simple as it was many years ago, we still are bidden by our faith to aid the stranger whenever we can without endangering our own lives. When it is clear that the newcomer poses no threat to us, we must help. The child refugees depicted in First They Killed My Father represent that population that requires our aid without hesitation or restriction.

 

Jackie (2016), directed by Pablo Larrain

jackieEveryone my age remembers where they were when we heard the news that President Kennedy was shot and killed. I was in Mt. Vernon, New York, driving in the center of the town with my mother. The radio program to which we were listening abruptly stopped and they announced the president’s death. All the cars, including mine, halted. No one could move. My mother began crying. No one ever imagined such a tragedy happening. That fateful day and the days following are portrayed in Jackie, a thoughtful and eerie film that imagines the tragedy through the eyes and emotions of Jackie, the first lady.

The film begins with Jackie Kennedy being interviewed by a journalist a week after the assassination in late November, 1963. During the conversation, there are flashbacks to memorable moments of the Kennedy presidency, with particular focus on Jackie’s role as first lady. Her television tour of the White House, which attracted an audience of 56 million viewers, is one important highlight that reveals the public and private sides of Jackie. She is a person who does not like to be in the spotlight, but she understands her role as the president’s wife and does her best to enhance her husband’s image in the media.

The film eventually recreates the assassination in Dallas, and the scene brought back painful memories as I watched. It was the first time I experienced a sense of loss. Even though John Kennedy was not a relative, he was a father figure to many Americans, and his untimely death was embedded on our collective memory.

The tragedy prompts Jackie to think about presidents who died while in office, but she focuses on Lincoln who is remembered with great love and affection. She reads books on his funeral, which included a march through Washington, D.C., and wants to replicate the processional for her husband’s funeral. Moreover, she wants his burial plot to be at Arlington National Cemetery, a resting place befitting an American hero, rather than in the family plot.

To get through this difficult time, Jackie speaks to a priest to try to gain some understanding of God’s ways. He reminds her: “There comes a time in man’s search for meaning when one realizes that there are no answers. And when you come to that horrible, unavoidable realization, you accept it or you kill yourself. Or you simply stop searching… I have lived a blessed life. And yet every night, when I climb into bed, turn off the lights, and stare in to the dark, I wonder… Is this all there is? But then, when morning comes, we all wake up and make a pot of coffee.” It seems a simple response, but indeed it is a profound message for Jackie. We cannot understand God’s ways, but we need to endure in spite of pain and disappointment.

The priest’s words reveal a Jewish sensibility. After a relative dies, Jewish law requires shiva, a seven-day period of intense mourning in which one stays at home and is consoled by family and friends. At the end of the seven days, it is a custom to take a short walk around the block to remind ourselves that life goes on in the wake of tragedy. The memory of the loved one remains, but we continue with life.

Lori Palatnik, a Jewish educator, writes: “The concrete act of physically stepping outside, walking around the block, and coming back in, says that this house and our relationship with this house will now be renewed.” We do not remain mired in tragedy. Life beckons.

The movie affirms this notion as it concludes with the song “Camelot,” the optimistic lyrics of which personified for many the Kennedy presidency. Jackie’s struggle to come to terms with loss is palpable, but in the end she moves beyond the pain to a new life with her children, family, and friends.

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The Wizard of Lies (2017), directed by Barry Levinson

wizard of liesA number of years ago, I engaged a contractor to build an addition onto my home. Over the course of several months, he would ask me for an advance on his fee because he needed to buy supplies and pay his workers. I had no experience dealing with contractors and assumed everyone was honest, so whenever he asked for money I gave it to him.

And then one day when the addition was only half-completed, he disappeared. The shock of finding out that the man whom I had hired and trusted was a sociopath who, in essence, stole my money was deeply unsettling. It took some time before my wife and I came to terms with this financial debacle. It was an unnerving experience; and it forever changed the way I did business with home improvement contractors.

The moment of discovering that I lost a large amount of money that could not be recovered, when I felt an emptiness in the pit of my stomach, is a feeling shared by the victims of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, which is the subject of The Wizard of Lies. The film chronicles the events that led to the incarceration of Madoff after bilking billions of dollars from trusting investors.

What strikes the viewer is that Madoff never blames himself for destroying the lives of so many investors who trusted him. Among those investors were Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel and former LA Dodger pitching great Sandy Koufax.

The film plays like a Shakespearean tragedy. Madoff’s tragic flaw was his lack of moral conscience, which led to his hurting not only innocent investors but his own family as well. One son committed suicide and the other died of cancer several years after Madoff’s sentencing. His wife, Ruth, did not just lose her sons. She also lost her affluent lifestyle and now lives in Florida with only her social security check supporting her.

Although Madoff pleaded guilty to all charges against him, he never seems to grasp the gravity of his crimes. He thinks that his investors should have diversified their financial portfolios rather than place their entire savings with him. He considers them foolish and greedy.

I write this review during the Ten Days of Repentance before the holy day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In Hebrew, the word for repentance is teshuva, which literally means return. It is the day when we return to God and to our best selves. The Sages tell us that the day of Yom Kippur atones for sins between man and God, but not for sins between man and man. Gaining atonement for those sins requires mending the past, asking for forgiveness from one’s fellow man and restoring fractured relationships.

Repentance in its classic Jewish understanding specifically mandates acknowledging one’s mistake and truly regretting it, confessing it before God, and resolving not to commit the same mistake in the future. It is not a perfunctory ritual. It requires asking for forgiveness more than once if that is what is needed to restore a broken relationship. Jewish law even mentions the procedure to ask for forgiveness from someone no longer alive. It involves going to the cemetery with a group of men and asking for forgiveness at the gravesite.

Bernie Madoff is a sociopath, lacking empathy for those he wronged. In the traditional Jewish sense, he has not “returned” from his life of crime because he blames others for allowing the consequences of his unethical behavior to go undetected for so long a time. Indeed, the failure of federal and state oversight institutions did contribute to his crimes.

In the final analysis, the wizard of lies, Bernie Madoff, believed his own charisma and magical manipulation of money would keep him immune to discovery. His insincere repentance and lack of wholehearted recognition of his sins provides a negative role model for modern times.

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The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015), directed by Matt Brown

man who knew infinityWhen I was in fourth grade in elementary school, I encountered long division. Until then I never had a problem with mathematics, but I had a rude awakening. I had trouble mastering it, and my inability to attain instant success in the subject forever prejudiced my attitude towards math, so much so that when I entered college I chose my major field of study based upon the major not requiring any math courses. I realized as I went through high school that I had no gift for mathematics.

The Man Who Knew Infinity is about Srinivasa Ramanujan, a man who has a gift for mathematics. The year is 1910. Born in poverty in a small town in India, he works at a number of menial jobs. His boss notices that he is good at math and enlists his aid in the accounting section of his business. Soon his employer, college educated himself, discovers that Ramanujan has more than simple mathematical skills and encourages him to apply to Trinity College in Cambridge where he can receive the mentoring to further develop his mathematical abilities.

Ramanujan takes his suggestion and begins writing to university professors of mathematics. G.H. Hardy, an eminent mathematics professor, invites him to come to Cambridge.

Coming to Cambridge presents challenges to Ramanujan. He has to leave his young wife and attend a college in a country whose cultural landscape is much different from India. Moreover, he has to confront an establishment of theoretical mathematicians who are reluctant to accept Ramanujan into their elite circle of scholars. They view him as an outsider, a foreign and intuitive genius who cannot conform to the rigors of classic theoretical mathematics. While they recognize the originality of his work, they don’t see his intuitive approach to mathematics as worthy of study. It is too spontaneous for their taste.

Under G. H. Hardy’s influence and mentoring, Ramanujan eventually publishes one of his theories in a major journal. But this is only the beginning of an arduous process towards obtaining Ramanujan a fellowship at the college. It is a journey that is both tragic and inspirational.

Although my secular field of study is not mathematics but literature, I connected with the depiction of G.H. Hardy’s supportive mentoring role in Ramanujan’s academic journey. When I was a doctoral student at Georgia State University, I had a full-time job, a devoted wife, and a family of six children. Given those personal responsibilities, it was difficult for me to pass all of my doctoral examinations and the university suggested that I leave the program.

I was blessed to have a supportive mentor, Dr. William Sessions, who believed in me and encouraged me to persevere. As a result, the doctoral program that I began in 1972 finally reached a happy conclusion in 1984. The five-year program took me twelve years to complete. Mentors can truly make a difference.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, encourages us “to make for yourself a mentor.” One of the Sages points out that this means one must look for people who can guide you and give you an objective perspective on important matters of life. The person should not simply tell you what to do; rather he should encourage you to think for yourself and work through a challenging situation. Moreover, the mentor can support you and give you confidence during tough times, enabling you to persevere in the face of adversity. Having a mentor means you are not alone on the battlefield.

Ramanujan is not alone is his quest for excellence in theoretical mathematics. G. H. Hardy is by his side. Together, they make mathematical history. The Man Who Knew Infinity reminds us that mentorship can change the course of a person’s life and ultimately bring him professional success no matter what the obstacles.

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It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), directed by Frank Capra

It's a wonderful lifeMy wife and I recently had dinner with a family that warmly welcomed us to Israel seven years ago when we moved to Beit Shemesh. My friend’s wife asked me why we joined the synagogue of which they were members. I responded: “Because your husband smiled at me.” It seemed a superficial answer, but it really was not. The answer highlighted the impact of a small gesture that made a big difference in our lives.

And that is what happens oftentimes in life. We frequently do not realize the powerful effect of a kind gesture, how it can change what happens in the future even though the act itself seems minor at the time. This is the narrative arc of It’s a Wonderful Life, a classic film that considers the good that we do which has a ripple effect unto eternity even when we are not aware of the wisdom or generosity of our actions.

The film begins with a conversation between angels about the fate of George Bailey, a man on the verge of suicide. The angels decide to send one angel, Clarence, down to earth to convince George to live again and not let difficult circumstances overwhelm him.

George’s story is told via flashback. As a boy of twelve, he rescued his younger brother Harry from drowning on an ice-covered pond. We also see him save a pharmacist from making a major mistake by giving a customer poison instead of the proper medicine.

We later see George articulating his dreams. As a young man, he had thoughts of leaving his small hometown of Bedford Falls and becoming a builder in a large metropolitan area. But life is put on hold when George’s father suddenly dies and George is asked to manage his father’s savings and loan association. Instead of George going to college, his younger brother Harry goes and returns a married man with a job given to him by his father-in-law in another city. Later when World War II breaks out, Harry fights as a pilot and saves a transport ship carrying a boatload of soldiers. The rescue earns Harry the Congressional Medal of Honor.

George’s main business adversary in Bedford Falls is the greed-driven Henry Potter, who charges people exorbitant rents for his apartments and owns much of Bedford Falls. When the Great Depression arrives, George, now happily married to Mary Hatch, is hard pressed to loan his customers money to sustain them through the crisis. Potter, sensing George’s desperate plight, offers to buy George’s savings and loan. Miraculously, George weathers the financial storm and his business continues to grow and provide affordable housing for his community.

All is good until the day before Christmas when a bank auditor arrives to examine the bank’s finances. Unfortunately, he discovers a loss of $8000, and George is threatened with bankruptcy and possible prison time. After leading a life filled with good deeds, George is depressed and lashes out at those he loves. In the midst of this crisis, Potter again offers to buy out George and declares to George: ‘You’re worth more dead than alive.” This is the catalyst for George to contemplate suicide so that his heirs can inherit the life insurance money.

In the midst of his mental turmoil, Clarence, George’s guardian angel arrives and gives George an opportunity to reevaluate his life and reconsider his plan to kill himself. Clarence takes George on an imaginary journey looking at life in Bedford Falls as if George never existed, and subsequently viewing life as it actually happened. In that way, George understands that his life has been filled with good deeds and with blessings for himself, his family, and his friends. Clarence reminds him: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

The Talmud tells us that it is important to greet everyone with a smile. It seems simple, but the Sages are telling us a profound lesson. When we smile at others, they smile back at us, and so a community of friends is formed. The small kindnesses that we do today, whether we recall them or not, implicate many tomorrows. It’s a Wonderful Life reminds us to appreciate the blessings of everyday, to value our friendships, to be kind, and to know that good deeds have a ripple effect into the future.

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