Category Archives: Family friendly

A Dog’s Purpose (2017), directed by Lasse Hallstrom

dog's purposeWhen I was around ten years old, my father took me to the office of a veterinarian and we came home with a dog. It had the face of Lassie, but it was mixed breed without a distinguished lineage.

Where the dog came from was irrelevant to me. I did not have lots of friends and the dog, named Shep, was the friend I had always wanted. He was always there to greet me at the end of the school day, overlooking all of my faults and giving me unconditional love no matter what stupid things I might have done during the day.

Regrettably, over a year or two, I did not take care of the dog as I should have and my mother gave the dog away. It was a sad day for me and I cried inconsolably.

A Dog’s Purpose is both a clever and touching film about the strong connections between dogs and their owners. It is told from the dog’s point of view over several generations as the dog is reincarnated into the pets of several owners and tries to discover his purpose in life.

His first owner is Ethan Montgomery, who, along with his mother, rescues him from a heated car where he is in danger of dehydration. Ethan names him Bailey, and over the course of several years affection grows between Ethan and Bailey. In high school, Ethan is his school’s starting quarterback and has a devoted girlfriend, Hannah, who will attend Michigan State on an academic scholarship while Ethan attends the same school on a football scholarship.

Tragedy strikes when Todd Logan, a student jealous of Ethan’s success, places a large firecracker in Ethan’s home starting a fire that almost kills him and his mother. Fortunately, Bailey comes to the rescue by alerting Ethan to the raging flames giving them time to escape.

In the second vignette, Bailey is reincarnated as Ellie, a female German shepherd working as a police dog in Chicago. His owner, Carlos, uses Ellie to track a girl who has been kidnapped. Using her super-sensitive ability to detect smells, Ellie successfully finds the girl and rescues her from near death as she almost drowns in the waters of a turbulent dam.

In the final section of the film, the dog wakes up as Buddy, a mixed breed St. Bernard puppy, who finds his way, after several reincarnations, to his former owner Ethan, now a middle-aged adult. Sensing Ethan’s existential loneliness, he miraculously orchestrates a reuniting of Ethan with his former love, Hannah.

Bailey sums up what he has learned over this reincarnation journey about a dog’s purpose in life: “So, in all my lives as a dog, here’s what I’ve learned. Have fun, obviously. Whenever possible, find someone to save, and save them. Lick the ones you love. Don’t get all sad-faced about what happened and scrunchy-faced about what could. Just be here now. That’s a dog’s purpose.” Although spoken by a dog, it also is a significant life lesson for humans. As humans, our purpose is to enjoy the world God gives us and be of help to others. Be positive about life. Love our fellowman as ourselves and be present in the lives of others.

Many Orthodox Jews own dogs, “man’s best friend.” But the Talmud reminds us that before acquiring an animal, you must be certain that you can properly care for it. King Solomon states: “a righteous person considers the life of his animal.”

Jewish tradition tells us we have to imitate our Creator, and so we must take care of the needs of our animals and alleviate their suffering. Provocatively, the Sages observe that dogs are sensitive to metaphysical matters that humans cannot understand.

A Dog’s Purpose, a heartwarming story of the love between humans and dogs, makes some important observations about how humans should relate to one another. The life of a dog functions as a metaphor for human interactions and there is much from which we can learn.

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Wonder (2017), directed by Stephen Chbosky

mv5byjfhowy0otgtndkzmc00ywjkltk1ngetywuxnjhmmmq5zjyyxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymjmxote0oda-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_When I was principal of an elementary school, I saw bullying for the first time. We had a black Jewish student, a very sensitive and gentle boy, enrolled at the school. He had trouble making friends, sensing he was different from the rest of the students.

On one fateful day, a number of his classmates lured him into the boy’s bathroom and beat him up. The boy’s parents were rightfully very incensed that such behavior could occur in a Jewish day school, but it did and I had to deal with it administratively. The entire event reminded me of the need to express to all students that everyone is created in the image of God and possesses infinite potential, no matter what their appearance.

Such is the dilemma facing facially disfigured Augie Pullman as he tries to adjust to a regular school in the fifth grade after being home schooled by his mother Isabel until then. Augie’s condition is a result of a genetic flaw and, after many surgeries, he is healthy but his face is deformed.

During his first several days at the new school, he is shunned by the other students who are put off by his strange looks. In time, some students do befriend him. However, Augie travels a rocky social road, and some of his supposed friends turn on him when it suits their own social needs for acceptance. Happily, there is reconciliation, and the sincere friendship of classmates combined with the consistent support and love of his parents enables Augie to cope with temporary adversities and enjoy normal school life.

Wonder is filled with wise sayings articulated by Augie, his parents, his teachers, and his school principal, Mr. Tushman. Many of these echo Torah perspectives on life. Here are some of them: “Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.”Top of Form “I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives.” “It’s not enough to be friendly. You have to be a friend.” “I wish every day could be Halloween. We could all wear masks all the time. Then we could walk around and get to know each other before we got to see what we looked like under the masks.” “It’s what you’ve done with your time, how you’ve chosen to spend your days, and whom you’ve touched this year. That, to me, is the greatest measure of success.”  “If you don’t like where you are, picture where you want to be.” “Who do I aspire to be?  That’s the question we should be asking ourselves all the time.” “When given the choice between being right or kind, choose kind.” “We all have marks on our face.  This is the map that shows where we’ve been and it’s never, ever ugly.” “Your deeds are your monuments.” “Greatness is not being strong but using strength to carry the most hearts.”

Perhaps the most powerful statement is the one that speaks of the absolute need to see people in their complexity and not simply to form judgments about people based only on how they look. Mr. Tushman tells his students at an assembly: “Auggie can’t change the way he looks.  Maybe we can change the way we see.”

Wonder is a one-of-a-kind movie, loaded with important statements about how we should lead our lives and how we should interact with the people we meet. It is both entertaining and enlightening. For me, it represents an ideal “kosher movie” for our times.


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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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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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