Category Archives: Movie review

The First Grader (2010), directed by Justin Chadwick

I did not attend Jewish day schools as a child. It was only when I attended the JSP (Jewish Studies Program) at Yeshiva University in 1960 that I began to study Torah in earnest. The JSP Program, under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Besdin, was created for public school graduates who wanted to learn Bible, Talmud, Jewish law, and become more aware of what it means to be a Jew.

When I began the program, I had no thoughts about being a rabbi; but when I completed it in 1964, there was a clear possibility that I would enter the rabbinate. However, the reality was that I did not know enough to enter the ordination program at Yeshiva University.

The powers that be at the university were pleased with my progress in Judaic studies, as they were with the progress of a number of other students; and so they arranged for us – college grads—to attend a senior level high school class in Talmud to try and fill the many blanks in our Judaic knowledge background.

We were the old men in a class of youngsters, referred to by our teacher as the “senior citizens” of the class. Yet all of us felt comfortable in the class because of the sweetness of the boys and the charisma or our teacher, Rabbi Samuel Scheinberg. He was a teacher who not only taught us, he inspired us.

An inspiring teacher is at the heart of The First Grader, a film set in a mountain village of Kenya, that presents the story of a proud 84-year-old Mau Mau warrior, Maruge, who insists on seizing his last opportunity to learn to read and write. Although an old man, he joins a class of six-year-olds taught by Jane, the school’s principal, who is determined to give Maruge a chance to fulfill his academic dreams. She understands that, for Maruge, the ultimate goal of being a free man was to be educated.

The story opens in 2003 with a radio announcement that the Kenyan government is offering a free primary school education to everyone. Maruge hears the announcement and decides to enroll. He travels to the local school and tells Jane what he wants to accomplish. Jane tells him that the free primary school offer is intended for children, not for seniors. Moreover, the school has too many students already. After overcoming a number of bureaucratic obstacles, Maruge enrolls, and Jane, his inspiring teacher, seats him at the front of the class because his eyesight is poor.

Slowly, Maruge learns the alphabet and begins to connect with his classmates. However, the locals begin to resent Maruge because they feel he is a distraction to their children’s education. In spite of community pressure, Maruge resolves to continue even though there are people who want him to leave.

Ultimately, there is rapprochement between Maruge and the locals, and Maruge becomes the oldest person ever to attend primary school. A footnote: his iconic story impressed the world, and the United Nations invited him to speak about his determined quest for education.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about how much Judaism values education. “True freedom is experienced in a community’s ability to educate, to expand minds and perspectives, to tolerate opposing ideas rooted in truth, and to choose to be inspired to act according to truths learned when a community can inspire action through education. To truly be free, one must celebrate and strengthen the value of true education, the value of having a passion for truth; whether or not it conforms to our previously held notions, and allows us to have a conversation with people we disagree with based on a shared set of facts.”

The First Grader, an iconic narrative about an old man’s dream of learning to read and write, reminds us of the freedom that education can give us. Indeed, education opens the doors to freedom and personal fulfillment.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Somewhere in the Middle (2019), directed by Nathan Ives

My wife, Meryl, is a wonderful mixed-media artist, using a combination of black and white photography, hand-dyed silks, and acrylic paints to create beautiful portraits of nature. But she would like to sell her creations, and there’s the rub. Although monetary rewards are not her primary motivation, she, like all artists, seeks validation of her craft and selling her work is an expression of that affirmation. This is the core narrative of Somewhere in the Middle, an engaging look at five very talented artists who have succeeded in their own idiosyncratic way to make a living doing the things they love.

Nathan Ives, the director, does not think the true artist is seeking fame and financial success alone. Most artists, those in the middle, simply want personal satisfaction by following their occupational dream. The artists interviewed in the film include Jasika Nicole, an actress who has a recurring role in the TV series “The Good Doctor,” painter Dan McCaw, paper sculptor Jeff Nishinaka, guitarist Aaron Tap, and folk-rock musician Griffin House.

Griffin House shares an incident that implicitly reminded him of his “middle-of-the-road” predicament. He had played to a sold-out crowd of 300 people at the City Winery venue in New York City when a couple approached him after the show. They said: “We just love your music and we know you’re going to make it someday.” When House heard this, he realized that fans did not realize that he had been working as a musician for two decades. He remarks: “I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I’ve got two kids, a house in Nashville, and I support my family.”

Ives, the director, said that this observation of House’s “really got me thinking about what success means as an artist, and how the general public views success as an artist.” The artists in the movie are not celebrities in the conventional sense, but they are not starving artists either. They are somewhere in the middle.

As a Jewish educator, Shulman brings God into the discussion, asking yourself if God has a great plan for you, or what is my mission in this world? The journey to finding the answer to those questions begins with one step. Shulman writes: “When the Jews were trapped between the Egyptians and the Red Sea, one man – Nachshon Ben Aminadav – stepped into the sea and it split. To see the sea split in our own lives, we have to take that first step to implement the idea we believe in. By clarifying to ourselves what we are passionate about, we open channels of possibility. However, we only see change happen when we are willing to make that first uncomfortable step. Doing that one action – however inconsequential it may seem in achieving your dream – is what will help the sea split.”

Michael Shulman, a Jewish educator, writes about getting your dream job, a job that you truly enjoy and that enables you to make a living. He recalls his own confusing search for a vocation when he thought “If I am a unique individual, there must be some unique job that I am supposed to do. If I can get clarity on what I’m passionate about, perhaps my dream job will appear.” After some soul-searching, he concluded: “The limits of our belief in what we can do, limits the job we eventually find. When we dare to believe, we create our own job possibility.”

The artists featured in Somewhere in the Middle all made courageous decisions to take risks with regard to their vocational future. They did it because they did not define success in traditional terms, but in personal terms. When they came to the proverbial fork in the world, they took the less traveled path and that made all the difference in their lives.

The White Tiger (2021), directed by Ramin Bahrani

The longer I live in Israel, the more I feel it is the true homeland of the Jewish people. As a young student, I lived in New York City. As a professional, I worked and lived mostly in Atlanta, and I also resided in Columbus, Denver, and Dallas. I enjoyed living in all those cities. Moreover, my father, a Russian immigrant, was a World War I veteran, and I grew up in a very patriotic household, always celebrating the good fortune of being born and living in America. Nonetheless, the only place I feel truly at home is in Israel.

When I speak to friends and family, they express a desire to live in Israel, but still feel tied to the US for a variety of reasons such as family attachments and livelihood. I tell them that I understand why they do not come on aliyah now, but I remind them that Moses was not disappointed that he did not live in Brooklyn, Lakewood, or Baltimore. The great Moses knew that at some point in his life he would try his utmost to come to Israel, the holiest place in the world. That should be the destiny of every Jew, if not now, then at some future time.

In order to live the dream of an ideal future, one needs to free oneself from the shackles of the past and adopt a new mindset. This is the challenge facing entrepreneur Balram Halwai in the The White Tiger, an arresting story with some extremely coarse dialogue.

Balram narrates his story, beginning with an explanation of the “two Indias.” By this term, he refers to the caste system in the country in which one segment consists of an underclass trapped in a perpetual state of slavery, like “roosters in a chicken coop.”  The other segment is a wealthy upper class that lives in the urbanized coastal cities of India. Balram is born into the lower class and is fatalistic about his future, thinking it is his destiny forever to serve the wealthy elite.

His outlook begins to change when he becomes the private driver for Ashtok, a rich businessman, and his wife Pinky. Balram’s family is unhappy with his job choice, preferring him to work at his rural home. They view his job as a driver as being against family tradition, but they consent to it as long as Balram regularly sends them money, which he does. In his new job, Balram is treated with great courtesy and respect, and he begins to think of new possibilities for himself including achieving financial independence.

Society has trained Balram to be a servant, so it is hard for him to shake that negative self-perception. Initially, all he wants to do is make himself indispensable to his rich masters. However, on one fateful evening, he experiences betrayal by his affluent employers. He becomes aware of how corrupt they are, and he then plots to escape from the “rooster coop,” which for him represents a rigged and unequal system. He decides to be in control of his own destiny, thinking like a free entrepreneur, not like a slave.

Changing one’s mindset from thinking like a servant to thinking like someone in control of his fate is a near insurmountable task, and it is a major theme of Exodus. Many of the Torah commentators suggest that this is why it took the Jews forty years to complete the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. It was not only a physical journey but a psychic one as well.

The classic manifestation of this change of mindset occurred when God gave the slaves the commandment to establish a calendar. This implicitly meant that the Jews were now in control of their time and not subject to the whims and desires of their masters.

Bahram ultimately gains control of time and of his destiny, but how he does it is problematic. The White Tiger is a film about class inequality in society, an important topic, but Balram’s solution does not provide a model for resolving this problem.

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.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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.

The General (1926), directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton

My parents thought I would be a doctor or a lawyer when I grew up. But things changed as I progressed through my academic journey. I did not have lots of success in science and math courses, so I gravitated towards History and English as college majors.

 I remember sitting in the office of the college counselor who was helping me choose my major. I asked in what subject could I major where I would not have to take any math courses? He answered History and English, and so I chose an academic career in History and English because I knew I would experience rejection in the sciences. From the perspective of hindsight, I have realized that lack of success in one area does not determine lack of success in another. One just has to find one’s purpose in life, one’s mission in which you can make a singular contribution.

Another story. When I came to Israel in 2010, I wanted to work. I did not come here to retire. Fortunately, I found employment at two schools in Beit Shemesh, the town where I lived. One was a high school in which I prepared students for the Bagrut, the matriculation examination that Israelis take before going into university. The other was a charedi elementary school, in which I taught basic grammar and literature to eighth graders. Since I was past the official retirement age in Israel, the schools had to get special permission from the Ministry of Education for me to teach in those schools. This worked for five years, after which I was rejected by both schools since they could no longer secure permission for me to teach. My positions had to go to younger candidates.

For a brief moment, I was disappointed. Then I realized that this rejection presented me with an opportunity to redefine myself professionally, and I became a film critic.  I first wrote reviews in American newspapers and even had a cable TV show in the US produced and directed by my friend Steve Posen. The show, called “Kosher Movies,” copied the format of the venerated “Siskel and Ebert” show on public television.

I share these vignettes because they illustrate that rejection or failure in one area of life does not mean that rejection and failure will forever be your destiny from that point on. One door may close but another door may open. Rejection may simply mean that you will make a mark in some other area of life. This is what happens to Johnnie Gray in Buster Keaton’s silent film classic, The General.

Johnnie Gray loves trains and Annabelle Lee, the girl he wants to marry. During the Civil War, he is an engineer who drives a locomotive named The General. When the Union attacks Fort Sumter, Annabelle’s father and brother enlist and Johnnie wants to serve as well. He wants to be a soldier. However, the recruiters turn him down because they feel he is more valuable to the cause if he works as an engineer. Unfortunately, they do not tell him why they say no to him; and he leaves the recruitment office disappointed, rejected by the Army and by Annabelle who sees him as a coward.

A year later, we learn that the Union develops a plan to steal Johnnie’s engine and use it to burn supply bridges that are used to transport needed material to the battle front. They successfully hijack the train and kidnap Annabelle who is still on board.

Johnnie becomes aware of what has happened and attempts to thwart their plans. His goal is to rescue Annabelle and to prevent the Union attack on the Confederacy. His efforts entail a frantic race against time to save the Confederate soldiers. In the end, Johnnie saves the day.

In hindsight, we see that his initial rejection by the recruitment officer sets the stage for his being at the scene when the locomotive is being stolen; and so Johnnie becomes a hero, getting the train back and restoring his reputation in the eyes of his beloved Annabelle. Johnnie Gray has finally found his purpose.

Rabbi Dov Heller brings a unique Jewish twist to the notion of finding one’s purpose in life: “Each of us is here to make a unique contribution to better the world. In addition to our unique personal mission, we also have a universal mission of being a light unto the nations as being part of the Jewish people. Understanding our universal and unique personal mission engenders a sense of purpose and drive; it is one of the keys to living a meaningful, energized life.

There is only one you. When you’re gone, your mold will never be used again. Judaism maintains not only is it necessary for our wellbeing to know our unique purpose, but it is an obligation to find it and actualize it.”

Johnnie Gray in The General eventually understands that he has led a successful life, precisely because he did not regard rejection as terminal. Rather, he regarded it as a prelude to finding his true purpose.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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.

Crime After Crime (2011), directed by Yoav Potash

There is a non-profit in my neighborhood that has programs for seniors who are disabled or have Alzheimer’s. Every year we give donations to it, but it was not until a close friend had Alzheimer’s and began using the facility that we increased our charitable giving to this particular program. Once something becomes personal, your attitude towards it changes.

This is what happens in Crime After Crime, the dramatic story of the legal battle to free Debbie Peagler, an African-American woman, who is a victim of domestic violence. One of Debbie’s lawyers is Joshua Safran, whose own mother was a victim of domestic abuse. For him, the case is personal, and he is tenacious in fighting for Debbie.

In 1983, Debbie clearly was wrongly convicted of the murder of her abusive boyfriend, and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. This, in spite of the fact that her boyfriend regularly beat her and forced her into prostitution.

Her story in Crime After Crime takes place almost twenty years after her initial incarceration when two young lawyers, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran, whose expertise is in real estate, decide to take her case on a pro bono basis. Their commitment to Debbie is total; and in their investigations they uncover long-lost witnesses, relevant new testimony, and proof of perjury, all of which point to a travesty of justice. Their perseverance attracts worldwide attention to victims of wrongful incarceration and spousal abuse.

Debbie’s story is a disturbing example of a criminal justice system that is deeply flawed, allowing someone to remain in prison far beyond what her crime warranted. It is made evident that for her passive participation in her abusive boyfriend’s death, Debbie should have received a maximum sentence of six years, yet she was given a sentence of 25 years to life.

The film focuses on the investigative work of Costa and Safran, passionate attorneys who challenged her wrongful conviction. They were compassionate in listening to Debbie and in understanding her side of the story. Moreover, they were resolute in fighting the Los Angeles’ DA’s Office, which hid evidence that would have been favorable to her defense. Unfortunately, when Debbie’s case came before the court in 1983, the topics of domestic abuse and battered women were not part of the legal  landscape as they are nowadays, so there was little sympathy for Debbie.

In an article on the Aish HaTorah website, Rabbi Shraga Simmons writes about lawyer Joshua Safran’s Jewish journey. Joshua himself had been reared in an abusive home where his mother was a victim of domestic violence. As a child, he lived in an environment in which there were no rules, no father, and no stability. He was home-schooled for most of his elementary school years, and serendipitously discovered in a conversation with his mother that he was Jewish. Gradually, he began exploring what that meant and traveled on a Birthright trip to Israel. That was the beginning of his odyssey to becoming an observant Jew.

A watershed moment for him occurred at a yeshiva run by Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld, whose message was one of inclusion and not judging people by appearances or by their backgrounds. That approach spoke to Joshua’s heart.

When Joshua prays in the morning, he recites a daily prayer lauding God for “releasing those who are bound.” This serves as a mission statement for Joshua, who observes: “If someone is wrongfully imprisoned, we have an obligation to fight to free them, to liberate them.” Even though Debbie’s own freedom came many years too late, her story did create a sensitivity to the plight of battered women, a sensitivity that would lead to the development of laws and agencies that would better protect them in the future.

There is a non-profit in my neighborhood that has programs for seniors who are disabled or have Alzheimer’s. Every year we give donations to it, but it was not until a close friend had Alzheimer’s and began using the facility that we increased our charitable giving to this particular program. Once something becomes personal, your attitude towards it changes.

This is what happens in Crime After Crime, thedramatic story of the legal battle to free Debbie Peagler, an African-American woman, who is a victim of domestic violence. One of Debbie’s lawyers is Joshua Safran, whose own mother was a victim of domestic abuse. For him, the case is personal, and he is tenacious in fighting for Debbie.

In 1983, Debbie clearly was wrongly convicted of the murder of her abusive boyfriend, and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. This, in spite of the fact that her boyfriend regularly beat her and forced her into prostitution.

Her story in Crime After Crime takes place almost twenty years after her initial incarceration when two young lawyers, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran, whose expertise is in real estate, decide to take her case on a pro bono basis. Their commitment to Debbie is total; and in their investigations they uncover long-lost witnesses, relevant new testimony, and proof of perjury, all of which point to a travesty of justice. Their perseverance attracts worldwide attention to victims of wrongful incarceration and spousal abuse.

Debbie’s story is a disturbing example of a criminal justice system that is deeply flawed, allowing someone to remain in prison far beyond what her crime warranted. It is made evident that for her passive participation in her abusive boyfriend’s death, Debbie should have received a maximum sentence of six years, yet she was given a sentence of 25 years to life.

The film focuses on the investigative work of Costa and Safran, passionate attorneys who challenged her wrongful conviction. They were compassionate in listening to Debbie and in understanding her side of the story. Moreover, they were resolute in fighting the Los Angeles’ DA’s Office, which hid evidence that would have been favorable to her defense. Unfortunately, when Debbie’s case came before the court in 1983, the topics of domestic abuse and battered women were not part of the legal  landscape as they are nowadays, so there was little sympathy for Debbie.

In an article on the Aish HaTorah website, Rabbi Shraga Simmons writes about lawyer Joshua Safran’s Jewish journey. Joshua himself had been reared in an abusive home where his mother was a victim of domestic violence. As a child, he lived in an environment in which there were no rules, no father, and no stability. He was home-schooled for most of his elementary school years, and serendipitously discovered in a conversation with his mother that he was Jewish. Gradually, he began exploring what that meant and traveled on a Birthright trip to Israel. That was the beginning of his odyssey to becoming an observant Jew.

A watershed moment for him occurred at a yeshiva run by Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld, whose message was one of inclusion and not judging people by appearances or by their backgrounds. That approach spoke to Joshua’s heart.

When Joshua prays in the morning, he recites a daily prayer lauding God for “releasing those who are bound.” This serves as a mission statement for Joshua, who observes: “If someone is wrongfully imprisoned, we have an obligation to fight to free them, to liberate them.” Even though Debbie’s own freedom came many years too late, her story did create a sensitivity to the plight of battered women, a sensitivity that would lead to the development of laws and agencies that would better protect them in the future.

Watch this movie on Amazon.com.

Netflix vs. the World (2019), directed by Shawn Cauthen

I have been a moviegoer since childhood. Movies were pure escapism that allowed me to imaginatively travel to different places and different times to vicariously experience the larger world of which I was a citizen. I became an aficionado of Netflix in the early 2000s when I was living in Denver. I rarely went to a movie theatre, but became enthralled with the idea that movies could be delivered regularly to my home where I could keep them for several days before returning them in the mail. So it was with great interest that I watched Netflix vs. the World, which describes the company’s origins and its amazing financial trajectory into the 21st century.

Netflix’s initial niche strategy was to mail DVDs to your home, thus avoiding the trips and late fees associated with Blockbuster Video, a giant in the video rental business and their major competitor. Marc Randolph and Reed Hastings were the visionaries who transformed their little DVD rental company into the major player in the movie streaming business, which changed the way most people enjoyed the cinema experience. A good deal of the film describes the conflict between Netflix and Blockbuster, with Blockbuster eventually not surviving. To be privy to the executive thinking of top management of Blockbuster as it tried to stay afloat financially in the face of an aggressive and savvy competitor is a lesson in economics that is worth contemplating.

Once Netflix won the battle of dominance in the DVD rental arena, they became a financial powerhouse that could also dominate the next technological frontier in the entertainment industry:  digital streaming of movies and developing its own original content. The watershed moment was its successful production of House of Cards, a series that debuted in 2013.

Bob Diener, author of Biblical Secrets to Business Success and founder of Hotels.com, writes about entrepreneurship and the ingredients for starting a successful business, ingredients that were part of the management DNA of Netflix founders Randolph and Hastings. First, Diener recommends doing your homework. Make sure you understand all the issues and take nothing for granted. Second, have a high level of customer service. In Biblical terms, he says “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) refers to putting yourself in the shoes of the customers and treating them the way you desire to be treated. Super customer service almost inevitably leads to building a long-term customer base. Third, when making a mistake, admit it to your customers. Hiding a problem will lead to erosion of the customer’s belief in the company’s honesty and integrity.

These basic pillars of a quality company were evident in the way Netflix management dealt with problematic issues. For example, before launching their own DVD rental service, they did their homework. They investigated the Blockbuster operation to determine what they could do to challenge their dominance. One area that emerged was the large amount of movie choices that they could make available through the mail, not relying on brick and mortar stores. Another area that highlighted Blockbusters’ vulnerability was the issue of late fees, a major irritant to Blockbuster patrons. By sending DVDs through the mail and allowing customers to keep the DVDs for long periods of time, the major irritant of late fees was removed for Netflix users. Moreover, the convenience of home delivery of DVDs to one’s home mailbox was extremely attractive. No more trips to the store and waiting in line to check out.

What is impressive about the Netflix story is the total commitment of the founders and management to create a new paradigm for the consumption of mass entertainment. Indeed, a guiding light for them was the idea that they were providing people with enjoyable entertainment and that was a worthy goal. In many ways, there were ahead of the curve. Because of that, they were able to chart their own distinctive path rather than merely respond to the challenges of others.

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.

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