Category Archives: Family friendly

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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Life of Pi (2012), directed by Ang Lee

life of piI enjoy and respect the company of people of faith, as long as they are not functioning as missionaries. Let me give you an example. When I was principal of a Jewish high school, I learned that one of our very fine Jewish general studies instructors was living with someone other than his wife. It was a private matter until I discovered he was hiring our students as babysitters for his paramour. At that point, I asked myself: if I were a parent, would I want my child to be exposed to a situation which was contrary to my own value system by a teacher in a school that shared my value system. Flash forward to another teacher in the school, the Christian mother of five children who was an outstanding science teacher. In her spare time, she wrote poetry about the details of God’s creation and always emphasized the renewal of God’s sustaining powers on each day of a person’s life, a message very much consistent with the ethos of our Jewish day school.

I realized then as I do now that faith transcends religious boundaries. One can be a serious person of faith and that particular faith does not have to match yours. This is the thinking than permeates Pi Patel, the central character in The Life of Pi. Pi, an immigrant from India now living in Montreal, Canada, is approached by a local writer who has heard that Pi has an unusual life story that would make a great book, a story that will make him believe in God.

Pi’s religious faith is eclectic, developing over time. He begins life as a Hindu, then finds meaning in Christianity, and connects to Islam as a teenager. He even has an interest in the Jewish Kabbalah but has not yet embraced it as a personal doctrine. His religious faith is very much part of him as he moves through his unconventional childhood and adolescence.

We learn that his father owns a zoo, affording Pi an opportunity to feel comfortable with animals from early boyhood. In particular, he is fascinated with a tiger whose name is Richard Parker due to a clerical error when the animal was acquired. When his father decides to close the zoo and move to Canada where there are more financial opportunities, the family sets sail on a Japanese freighter. They bring the animals with them to sell them in North America. Tragically, they encounter a fierce storm which capsizes the ship and Pi’s family is killed.

Pi, who was on the deck when the storm erupted, is miraculously saved by being thrown into a lifeboat in which there is an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and the Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. How Pi manages this situation is an arresting survivalist adventure in which Pi’s strength, intelligence, and emotions are tested.

After many days at sea, Pi is rescued and insurance agents visit to get his account of what happened. When his initial story is dismissed as too hard to believe, he offers a second, more plausible account. When at the close of the conversation with the novelist, he asks him which story he believes is true, the writer cites the story with the tiger because it is a better story. Pi cryptically responds: “And so it is with God.”

It is a fitting end to a narrative that defies reality. In a profound sense, Life of Pi is about accepting God in one’s life. The specific religion to which one subscribes is not important. What is relevant is the overall acceptance that things happen with a divine providential hand. Pi wisely tells the writer that “faith is a house with many rooms with doubt on every floor.” Furthermore, “doubt is useful; it keeps faith a living thing. After all, you cannot know the strength of your faith until it is tested.”

When all seems lost, Pi still senses that God is watching over him. Pi observes in retrospect that “even when He seemed indifferent to my suffering, He was watching and when I was beyond all hope of saving, He gave me rest and gave me a sign to continue my journey.” Speaking as a sincere man of faith, he says in his moment of extremity: “God! I give myself to you. I am your vessel.” This is a Jewish sensibility: to try our best and then to acknowledge that the outcome is in God’s hands.

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The Parent Trap (1998), directed by Nancy Meyers

parent-trap-posterDivorce is often painful for husband and wife, but most certainly for children. It is an emotional upheaval, leaving many damaged souls in its wake. As a synagogue rabbi for a number of years, I generally encouraged people contemplating divorce to stay married, but they usually came to me after the die for divorce was cast.

I also served as a legal witness in many Jewish divorce proceedings. Invariably, they were sad events. A wedding that had started out with so much promise now came to a tragic conclusion. A relationship that began in love ended with acrimony. I recall divorce proceedings where neither spouse wanted to talk to the other, so bitter was their parting.

The Parent Trap is a domestic fantasy that starts with two people who are already divorced. The opening titles reveal a loving relationship between Nick Parker and Elizabeth James that begins on an ocean liner cruise. The story continues eleven years later at a camp in Maine, where we meet two girls, Hallie and Annie, who look exactly like each other. They discover they are actually twins, and their divorced parents have never told them about the existence of the other. Nick has raised Hallie in Napa Valley where he grows vintage wines and Elizabeth raises Annie in London as she builds a career as a successful wedding gown designer.

After Hallie and Annie discover that they are twins, they devise a plan to meet the parent they never knew. Each girl teaches the other to impersonate her, and they switch places at the end of their camp stay. Hallie travels to London and Annie to Napa Valley.

Their ruse works for a while, but eventually Nick and Elizabeth became aware of the elaborate charade orchestrated by their twin daughters. This leads them to rethinking their divorce, which occurred so many years ago, and what prompted the split. How this family conundrum is resolved is the stuff of romantic fantasy.

The Bible says that through marriage, man and woman become “one flesh.” The commentators say this means that each person in a marriage is like an actual limb of the other. Just as a person does not get upset at his limb when he has a pain in his arm or leg, so too should a person not be upset when a spouse occasionally causes him pain. That occasional discomfort is part of marriage, an arrangement that grows and becomes stronger in the crucible of life’s ups and downs.

A central Jewish concept is Shalom Bayit, peace in the home. When spouses get along with one another, God’s presence is felt in the home. Divorce is permissible in Jewish law, but it is a last resort. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 22a) tells us that when divorce occurs, the Temple altar metaphorically weeps as if to mourn the emotional tragedy of a marriage torn asunder.

The Parent Trap is a light entertainment with important messages. Firstly, when there is disagreement between husband and wife, one should act quickly to resolve issues and not allow them to fester. “Never go to bed angry” was a wise piece of advice I heard many years ago that has proved valuable during many years of marriage. The longer one waits to resolve a problem, the more difficult it is to resolve. Secondly, one should focus on the positives in a relationship and overlook the negatives as much as possible, especially when the welfare of children is at stake.

Nick and Elizabeth finally understand, after years of miscommunication, that there is more that binds them together than divides them. Their story reminds us to think twice before severing the ties that bind.

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A Little Princess (1995), directed by Alfonso Cuaron

little princess posterIn the 1960s, when I was an undergraduate student at Yeshiva University, one of my good friends told me about a student group that traveled once a week to the home of Rabbi Avigdor Miller, a celebrated Torah scholar and ethicist. Once there, the revered rabbi would speak for about ten to fifteen minutes about a particular character trait and then give the students an assignment that would help us integrate that character trait into our daily lives.

I vividly remember one assignment. After hearing a talk on the maxim in Ethics of the Fathers about greeting people with a smile, he told us that our assignment was to smile at everyone we met, even if we did not feel like smiling, even when we felt that our smile was insincere and was only a pretense. He told us that, regardless of our inner thoughts, our smile would evoke a smile in everyone we meet.

Smiling is contagious, and so we experimented the following week, and what he said was true. Everyone to whom we smiled responded to us with a smile. It reminded me that we can create positive energy and optimism just by having a pleasant countenance. We can make the world a happier place if we share a smile with another human being.

This actually happens in A Little Princess, the captivating story of Sara Crewe, a little girl whose mother has died and is placed in a girls’ boarding school in New York when her father, a wealthy aristocrat, volunteers to fight for the British in World War I. The head of the school is Miss Minchin, a harsh, cold-hearted woman who puts on a façade of warmth and caring to entice parents to enroll at her school. Once enrolled, the girls encounter a boring, rigid, and stifling educational experience.

During the beginning of the semester, Sara receives notification that her father has died in battle. When Miss Minchin realizes that she will no longer receive tuition, she makes Sara a scullery maid in the school. In truth, Sara’s father has not died, and the dead body was misidentified. In time, he will find his way back to Sara, but in the interim Sara is challenged to survive in an environment devoid of love and connection.

What enables Sara to handle the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” is her essential kindly nature, her lively imagination, and her contagious smile. Most of the girls gravitate to her because of her happy demeanor, which gives them some respite from the harsh milieu of school. Her simple and genuine smile lifts the girls’ spirits as they endure their dull and spiritless education.

Before he left for war, Captain Crewe, Sara’s father, left her with a parting comment that remained with her and inspired her as she came to terms with the reality of being a maid in the school where she once was a pupil. He told her that she was a princess, and that made her feel special even if the people around her did not treat her as a princess. Sara possessed a healthy self-esteem and that made all the difference. When the girls at the school were emotionally spent from the bad-tempered words of Miss Minchin, Sara reminded them that they all were princesses, and Miss Minchin’s acerbic temperament could not change that.

A Little Princess reminds all of us that a positive attitude and a smile can help us navigate life successfully. In the midst of trials, it is important to focus on positive outcomes and not allow temporary adversity to dampen our spirits. Sara Crewe’s smile beckons us to look for the good in whatever life brings us.

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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), directed by Tim Burton

charlie and the chocolate factoryMy parents were people of modest means. Moreover, they always considered the needs of their children before their own. I never felt deprived as a child even though I lived in a low-income neighborhood and did not go on fancy vacations to Disneyworld. Life was joyous because my parents, by example, found joy in the everyday, in spending time with their children, in working as volunteers on behalf of the local synagogue, and in regularly visiting our extended family and friends. I do not recall ever envying other kids because I was satisfied with my lot in life. I remember that my favorite Bar Mitzvah gift was a simple basketball given to me by my friends Kenny and Marilyn Beeman.

Being happy with one’s lot in life is the dramatic crux of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Willy Wonka owns the biggest, most successful chocolate factory in the world. One day he realizes that he is getting old and that he needs to plan for someone else to take over the company. He devises a plan to reveal the secret of his chocolate recipes to five lucky kids who will be invited to visit inside Wonka’s chocolate factory. Wonka will then choose one of the kids to be the heir to his chocolate kingdom. The five fortunate children are those who find golden tickets inside Wonka chocolate bars.

The winners of the tickets include Augustus Gloop, a gluttonous young man who cannot stop eating. Veruca Salt, a very spoiled young girl who demands and receives whatever she wants from her parents, Violet Beauregard, an extremely competitive girl who always thinks she will win any kind of competition, Mike Teevee, who is hooked on violent TV games, and, lastly, Charlie Bucket, a modest, poor boy from a loving family.

The factory tour is filled with surprises and Willy Wonka’s special inventions. When the kids interact with them, there are consequences that remove them from the competition. The only one left is Charlie Bucket, who refuses the prize of factory ownership when it entails living in the factory and leaving his family. Charlie admires Willy Wonka; but does not want to lead his kind of life, a disconnected life that was largely shaped by his dysfunctional relationship with his father. For Charlie, family is everything.

I recently read an autobiographical sketch of a Torah teacher of mine written when he was in his seventies. Much of what he wrote echoes Charlie’s take on what are the truly important things in life. He writes: “I grew up in a home wherein chocolate was very, very much a treat. This was a moral issue: we should have necessities, but we should not have so many luxuries.” The emphasis is on cherishing values, not things.

Charlie, accustomed to living humbly, does not feel he is missing anything. This coincides with the maxim of our Sages who say that the wealthy person is the one that is satisfied with his lot, who does not live for more acquisitions. Moreover, my teacher wrote: “If I had to point to a single success, I think, without a doubt, it is my family.” Charlie Bucket shares this perspective. He recognizes that Willy Wonka, the king of the chocolate kingdom who possesses all the accouterments of wealth one could ask for, is a lonely person alienated from family and friends in the real world. Charlie’s happiness, in contrast, is rooted in family connections with parents and grandparents who love him dearly. It is this kind of unconditional family love that gives Charlie a wisdom and contentment far beyond his years. It is worthy of emulation.

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McFarland, USA (2015), directed by Niki Caro

McFarland USA posterWhen I was a freshman at Yeshiva University, I thought I would try out for the basketball and wrestling teams. In high school I had never played on a school team, but I enjoyed the competition of organized sports. A freshman who befriended me was Bobby Podhurst, the tallest fellow I had ever known and I went with him to a practice one evening to see if my skill level in B-ball was up to college standards.

Since Yeshiva University had no gym of its own, we had to take a subway to Power Memorial High School for practice. I soon realized that I was not ready for prime time basketball after a long day of general and Judaic studies and then traveling for an hour on the subway for a late night practice. It was an exhausting experience, which clearly indicated that playing on a college athletic team was not for me. I lacked the skills and the stamina. However, I did learn one thing from placing myself in the shoes of college athletes for one evening. I gained a better understanding and appreciation of what a student commits to when he plays in organized athletic competition.

These thoughts raced through my mind as I watched McFarland, USA, a heartfelt sports story about an obscure school in a disadvantaged California community that emerges as a cross-country racing powerhouse.

The year is 1987, and football coach Jim White finds himself the assistant coach in McFarland, a small high school populated by Latino students with no plans to go to college. The future for them is arduous work picking crops on the field in the hot sun so that their families can survive economically. Jim observes that a number of boys do not even finish football practice because their parents pick them up to take them home to help them harvest crops.

Watching the boys run around the track during practice gives Jim the idea of starting a cross-country team of runners, mostly comprising those students who are cut from the football team.

The cross-country team initially does not have success, and Jim attributes it to his inexperienced coaching of the sport. He also learns about the personal challenges the boys face coming from a poor background. For them, attending college is an impossible dream.

One day Jim decides to join them in the fields to get an idea of what that work is. Only by standing in their shoes for the day will he understand the mighty challenges the boys face. For Jim it is an exhausting experience.

As the boys and Jim begin to know each other better, they find success on the running trails. They win competitions, and the townspeople buy uniforms and new running shoes for the team. One success follows another and the McFarland team eventually qualifies for participation in the state championships. The coda as the credits roll juxtaposes images of the actors with the real people they portrayed, and indicates what they did after high school. The ending of their individual stories is both surprising and inspiring.

Like many sports movies that depict a team’s rise from obscurity to fame, the story of McFarland is inspirational; but McFarland has another agenda as well. It considers the topic of prejudice as it depicts the team’s encounters with other schools, which have a negative view of Latinos. Moreover, Coach Jim White initially is himself guilty of prejudice. It is only when he joins the boys in the fields that he begins to understand what their life is like and begins to relate to them with genuine love and concern.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic Jewish work of ethical instruction, states: “Do not judge your fellow man until you have been in his position.” This is a maxim that Coach White takes to heart. Once he understands the challenges of his students, he is able to be a friend and mentor to them. They sense his sincerity and are ready to give him their very best. McFarland reminds us to refrain from judging people until we truly understand why they do what they do.

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Horton Hears a Who! (2008), directed by Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino

Horton Hears a Who posterA friend of mine believes in the efficacy of conventional medicine. No matter what ails him, he refuses to consider holistic medical practices. He recently was having severe leg pain and I suggested that he consider acupuncture or chiropractic. He rejected both approaches categorically and continued to suffer, looking forward to his appointment with an orthopedic physician.

I was not certain that alternate therapies would work for my friend’s leg problem, but I was disturbed that he ruled them out without seriously considering the possibility that they might help. This dogmatic approach to problem solving is reflected in Horton Hears a Who, in which members of society reject the possibility of seeing things from another’s perspective.

This is the narrative crux of Horton Hears a Who, an animated version of the famous Dr. Seuss story of Horton, an elephant who hears voices of little creatures that no one else can hear. Everyone in the jungle of Nool dismisses these small voices, but Horton does not. He sees things differently, shifts his paradigm, and takes these voices seriously. He understands that it is possible to see things from another vantage point.

Horton discovers that the small voices are the voices of the residents of Who-ville, microscopic beings living on a speck of dust. A Who-ville scientist, Dr. Larue, tells the Mayor that Who-ville is in danger of extinction unless Horton finds a safer home for its citizens. And so begins Horton’s journey to Mt. Nool to provide safe haven for the residents of Who-ville. Along the way, he is harassed by many, especially the Sour Kangaroo, who feel Horton is out of his mind and hallucinating. Moreover, they feel his insistence on the reality of a microscopic Who-ville is dangerous educationally for it suggests to the children the existence of an alternate reality different from their own. Horton perseveres, however, repeating his motto “A person is a person, no matter how small.” In other words, opinions can have merit even if they express a minority view.

As Horton travels to Mt. Nool, he encounters life-threatening dangers. He almost falls off a bamboo bridge into a roaring river and he is attacked by a ferocious buzzard named Vlad, who almost kills him. In spite of these challenges and a hostile population that regards him as a liar and rebel, Horton continues to work on behalf of the citizens of Who-ville, whose perspective counts and who are relevant in spite of their miniscule dimensions.

Things come to a crisis because no one but Horton actually hears the citizens of Who-ville. But then the Mayor encourages everyone to shout “we are here” in the hope of letting the outside world know of their existence. In spite of their diminutive size, they still exist and want to live, albeit in their tiny universe.

In Jewish tradition, debate is good. The Talmud is filled with arguments expressing alternate points of view. Jewish law is decided by the majority of the Sages, but the minority view is still valued and preserved in the text. Why is this so? The Bible tells us that everyone is created in God’s image. This does not refer to a physical image, but rather to matters of the mind and spirit. Just as God is unique, so too is every human being. There is respect for differences and there is no expectation that everyone will think alike or look alike.

That is the essential message of Horton Hears a Who. Horton lives in his own world, but does not deny the reality of other worlds. He may talk to himself but he hears the voices of others. It is good to fit in and be normal, but it is also good to listen to others, to understand that your perceptions of reality are not the exclusive ones. Listening to others, understanding their worlds makes you a more sensitive and complete human being.

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