Category Archives: Romance

Notes on Blindness (2016), directed by Peter Middleton and James Spinney

notes on blindnessA couple of years ago, I visited the Museum of the Blind in Holon, Israel. It was an immersive visit in a totally dark environment led by a blind guide who wants to give visitors a sense of what it is to be blind and what accommodations a blind person has to make to lead a relatively normal life. I left the museum extremely grateful for the gift of sight.

Notes on Blindness took that grateful feeling and made it deeper. The film is a true record of what happened to John Hull (1935-2015), a writer, theologian, and university professor in England, who totally lost his sight in 1983 after a number of operations on his failing eyes. The script of the film contains the exact words of his audio diary, which he kept to document his coming to terms with his blindness. They eventually became the basis for Hull’s book, Touching the Rock, and later the movie, Notes on Blindness.

Notes on Blindness is a film in a category of its own. Between segments of the film, the screen goes totally black for several seconds. Even as the story is told, much of it appears in dim lighting. Furthermore, the images are often out of focus, making it challenging for the viewer. Moreover, many of the scenes are shot with only parts of a person in focus. There are images of parts of faces, feet walking, and hands moving, as if to suggest impaired vision. As Hull narrates, we are given entrance to his dreams, his memory, and his imagination; and it is a fascinating journey.

As he comes to accept his blindness, he goes through various psychological stages. A particularly difficult time occurs when he returns to his native Australia to visit his aging parents. He remembers little of his visual life there and returns to England depressed.

It is at his home in England that his spirits are lifted. He emerges from “the shadowland of passivity” to a world with which he is familiar. He caresses his old furniture. He is pleased to find his desk and chair in their proper places, and he is happy to find his tape recorder in working condition.

What is amazing is the devotion of his wife who is by his side through all his adversity. We learn later that Hull and his wife, Marilyn, had five children, a profound testimony to their love and devotion to one another. Hull writes about her: “What I remember about you most vividly in those years was your amazing practicality. You never expressed regrets. You just got on with the next thing, step by step. The way you did that, I always thought was incredible.”

Hull does arrive at some kind of epiphany. He ultimately sees his blindness as a gift from God. It is not a gift he wants either for himself or his children; but now that he acknowledges this divine gift, he realizes that to complain about it is fruitless. What he must do is to decide how he will use this gift in a creative way for the rest of his days.

This perspective on life echoes the sentiment expressed in Milton’s poem “On His Blindness.” Here is the poem in its entirety:

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Milton, one of the great English poets, wrote this masterpiece when he was blind and coming to terms with his own personal affliction. One of my Torah teachers, in fact, said that this passage was a comfort to him when his father lost his sight. The essential message: we cannot know why God does what he does, but we can decide how we respond to adversity. That is the key to living a meaningful life.

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The Greatest Showman (2017), directed by Michael Gracey

greatest showmanIn the news recently was a story about a politician who announced that he was not going to seek re-election. He was successful in his career and made lots of money giving speeches across the country. Why was he retiring? He said it was because he did not want to be a “weekend dad” to his teenage children. He understood that his kids needed more face time with him, and he did not want to look back at his life and regret not spending more time with his children. Family was more important to him than fame or wealth. This dilemma in broad outline is at the heart of The Greatest Showman, the story of the rise of P.T. Barnum who makes choices between family and the pursuit of personal goals.

Phineas Taylor Barnum wants to make lots of money and be a celebrity. His wife is a polar opposite. She is content with little. For her, family is more important than fame or money. Phineas’ origins explain his perspective on life. Orphaned and poor, he is driven by his desire to succeed financially. Moreover, he possesses a creative and optimistic mind, ready to take on all kinds of challenges.

After losing his regular job in a trading company that goes bankrupt, he decides to open up a wax museum to support his family, a wife and two daughters, thinking that people will want to come to see his wax creations of famous people. It is a resounding failure.

He then launches a show introducing people who look weird, such as a woman who has grown a man’s beard and a midget. Others see his collection of oddities as a freak show, but he sees himself as giving these strange looking people a chance to celebrate their uniqueness. His motives, in truth, are a mixture of the altruistic and the pecuniary, and he is successful. His success enables him to tour all over the world, including America, and his family is left behind. Absence in this situation does not make the heart grow fonder. An emotional and psychological rift grows between husband and wife and it is only when tragedy strikes that Phineas rethinks his flamboyant lifestyle.

Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld, a veteran Jewish educator, writes regularly on sayings from the Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature. On the passage “Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot,” he comments: “Wealth does not ensure happiness. It is an important means towards many other things — comfort, self-sufficiency, tranquility, peace of mind. But if we make it an end — if its pursuit consumes us and occupies all our waking hours — we will find nothing but stress and anxiety.”

Rabbi Rosenfeld quotes his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan Zweig, who also shares his perspective on the acquisition of wealth: “People who claim they are pursuing their careers so doggedly in order to provide comfortably for their families are generally deluding themselves. It is simply not true. They do it for themselves — for their own fulfillment. The pursuit of wealth and career assumes a life of its own. Such people become consumed with a drive for prestige, achievement, fulfillment, or they don’t even really know what. But career becomes their life goal in and of itself.”

The Greatest Showman on one level is an entertaining musical with songs and dances that engage your mind and heart. More important, it alerts us to the negative effects of possessing too much wealth and focusing on career more than family. In the end, it is family that endures, not money.

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Dr. Strange (2016), directed by Scott Derrickson

dr. strangeA friend of mine scheduled hip replacement surgery. He and his wife visited the surgeon who had been recommended by many. After the meeting, my friend and his wife came away with different impressions. While both felt the surgeon was highly competent, the wife detected a streak of arrogance in the doctor, and it bothered her. She preferred a surgeon who radiated humility, not pride. The husband felt that, at the end of the day, God is the healer, not the surgeon, and the surgeon’s arrogant attitude was not a reason to choose another doctor.

An extremely competent but prideful physician is the main character in Dr. Strange, the origin story of Marvel comic book hero Stephen Strange, a gifted doctor who sees himself as a mini-god. The opening segment of the film depicts a tragic car accident that results in catastrophic injury to his hands. He can no longer work as a surgeon and feels life is over.

One day, however, he hears about a fellow who was paralyzed and who, without medical intervention, regained the use of his limbs. To do this, the man journeyed to a faraway place in Katmandu, Nepal, called Kamar-tal, where he learned to use his mind to overcome his physical paralysis.

Strange decides to travel to Kamar-tal. There he meets people proficient in the mystic arts including The Ancient One, and Mordo, a sorcerer. These practitioners of magic exist in an alternate reality, which strives to rescue the world from enemies existing in other dimensions.

Under their tutelage, Strange moves from being a self-centered egotist to a person genuinely concerned about the fate of others. Moreover, he now believes not only in science but accepts other sources of knowledge that do not function according to the rules of science. At the outset of his psychological journey, he states: “I do not believe in fairy tales about chakras or energy or the power of belief. There is no such thing as spirit! We are made of matter and nothing more. You’re just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.” At journey’s end, he comprehends that he is not the center of the universe; but, rather, some spiritual power is. Furthermore, his brush with death has made him value life more. The Ancient One tells him: “ Death is what gives life meaning.” That piece of wisdom resonates within Strange; life’s brevity makes him treasure each moment more.

These valuable life lessons are part of Jewish tradition. The Jewish belief system is built on the notion there is both a spiritual and material world and that what we do on this earth transcends the physical. Indeed, our earthly lives eventually morph into a purely spiritual existence on another plane where we are held accountable for the good and bad things we have done.

Moreover, the Sages in The Ethics of the Fathers remind us to repent one day before we die. Since we do not know when they day will arrive, we are to live with an awareness that each day might be our last. Therefore, each day should be filled with good deeds. Thinking about mortality is good because that thought will spur us on to a life of greater accomplishment.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange does not suddenly become a paragon of humility, but he does learn that life has other dimensions than the physical. Moreover, he learns that a mission-driven life can involve more than one mission, and that a person’s mission can change depending on the turnabouts in one’s own life. Indeed, Dr. Strange, a fictional comic book story, offers one model for cultivating humility and discovering our true destiny.

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The Fault In Our Stars (2014), directed by Josh Boone

fault in our starsI recently read a book by my son, Rabbi Daniel Cohen, entitled What Will They Say About You When You’re Gone: Creating a Life of Legacy. Drawing upon his synagogue experiences and officiating at hundreds of funerals, he poses the question of how we want to be remembered. Through personal anecdote and sharing interviews with movers and shapers in the worlds of business and art, he suggests ways to re-engineer your life so that when your life is over, you will be remembered for things that matter, not for how much you acquired.

The protagonists of The Fault In Our Stars, two teenagers afflicted with cancer, reflect on how they want to be remembered. Recognizing the likely brevity of their own lives gives the question a particular urgency for Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters.

Hazel and Augustus meet at a cancer support group. Hazel has stage-4 thyroid cancer and Augustus, in remission from bone cancer, has had his right leg amputated. They share their stories with one another and their literary interests, which deepen their relationship. Hazel’s favorite book is An Imperial Affliction written by Peter Van Houton. The novel ends in mid-sentence when the heroine dies, and Hazel is curious to know the after story of the characters in the book.

Hazel confesses that she has written hundreds of letters to the author asking him to tell her what happens next in the lives of the characters but to no avail. Happily, Van Houton’s assistant responds to Gus when he writes to Van Houton. This encourages Hazel to write Van Houton again and surprisingly he extends an invitation to her to visit him in Amsterdam. Frannie, Hazel’s mom, arranges for the Amsterdam trip for Hazel, Gus, and herself as chaperone.

The meeting with Van Houton does not go as expected. Van Houton is a misanthrope and only has negative things to say about life. Despite his cruel and insensitive outbursts, Gus and Hazel emerge stronger from his excoriations. They dismiss his pessimism and focus on the joy they feel for one another.

As the health of Gus and Hazel goes through peaks and valleys, they ruminate about the eulogy that each might say about the other. They begin to think about what is their legacy given the likelihood of short life spans. When Gus expresses his desire to lead an extraordinary life, Hazel reminds him that an extraordinary life is measured not in things accomplished but in the loving relationships you form on this earth. Hazel proclaims her love for Gus and tells him that her love and devotion to Gus will be remembered. That is the legacy that Gus will leave for Hazel.

Rabbi Daniel Cohen writes that one of the ways we create a legacy is to create memories and that is what Gus and Hazel do. They travel to Amsterdam, have dinner at an elegant restaurant, they discuss literature, and they share everyday experiences, all of which bond them together. Their shared memories animate their conversations as they navigate a precarious and uncertain life.

Rabbi Cohen cites two quotations that reflect the love and passion that Hazel and Gus have for one another. One is a popular quote whose source is unknown: “Life is not measured by the breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.” The other quote is by Bob Dylan: “If you want to keep your memories, you first have to live them.” The Fault In Our Stars is sad and tragic, but underpinning the narrative are life lessons about leading a meaningful life, no matter what the obstacles.

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Their Finest (2016), directed by Lone Scherfig

their finestWhen I was about to enter college in 1960, I thought I was going to be a high school teacher. Somewhere along the way, my Judaic studies at Yeshiva University became my academic focus and I resolved to be a pulpit rabbi. My professional career began in Atlanta, Georgia, where I was the assistant rabbi at a large Orthodox synagogue.

In 1976, I began searching for a rabbinical post where I would be the head rabbi. But God intervened in my career path. Even though I had no experience running a Jewish day high school, I was offered the position of principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta.

How and why that occurred is not the subject of this film review, but how one chooses a career is. What are the factors that make one choose a career for which one does not prepare?

Their Finest tells the story of Catrin Cole, who in 1940 is requested to interview with England’s Ministry of Information to write scripts for short documentary films about the war effort. While researching a story about twin sisters, Lily and Rose, who are reputed to have sailed their father’s boat to participate in the Dunkirk evacuation, she discovers that their boat had engine trouble and never reached Dunkirk.

Instead of abandoning the story, Catrin, together with co-script writers Tom Buckley and Raymond Parfitt, convince their superiors to continue with the movie as inspirational fiction rather than as a documentary. And so, Catrin finds herself as a scriptwriter not for documentaries but for major theatrical productions. She did not plan this career, but once given the opportunity to spread her intellectual wings, she soars above the rest of her scriptwriting colleagues.

As the shoot continues, Catrin and Tom develop affection for one another as they successfully produce a film that inspires the British nation who are suffering from war fatigue. Tragedy intervenes, however, in the relationship between Catrin and Tom, compelling her to rethink her newfound success as a scriptwriter, a vocation for which she did not prepare, but which ultimately gives meaning and direction to her life.

Rabbi Benjamin Rapaport, referencing Duties of the Heart written by Bachye Ibn Pakudei around 1040, provides some questions to help one find the right career. Here are four of them: Does it attract you? Does it match your resources? Are you willing to invest? Do you have a passion for it?

Catrin Cole at first does not affirmatively answer these questions, but after she is baptized in the crucible of scriptwriting as a career, she truly discovers her life’s calling. She senses her writing will enable her to make a better world, or in Jewish terms, to do tikun olam, to improve and fix the world.

There is another valuable life lesson that Catrin learns about her career. Sometimes your career choice requires you to see the world differently. In particular, working in the arts might force you to see truth not objectively, but as artistic truth. Tom Buckley explains this to Catrin: “Film is real life with the boring parts cut out. Don’t confuse facts with truth, and don’t let either of them get in the way of the story. Why do you think people like films? It’s because stories are structured, have a shape, a purpose, a meaning. And when things go bad, they’re still part of a plan. There’s point to them. Unlike life.”

Their Finest ends on an optimistic note. After personal tragedy, Catrin resolves never to write again. However, Ambrose Hilliard, a veteran actor, reminds her that if she turns her back on opportunities that come her way, even when she has suffered great loss, “wouldn’t that be giving death dominion over life? “ Catrin understands the power and significance of his words and returns to her chosen craft of scriptwriting, where she can continue to influence the world for good.

 

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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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Maudie (2016), directed by Aisling Walsh

maudieMy wife is an artist. She has perfected a technique called fabric fusion. She starts off with a gray scale photograph and then overlays it with acrylic paints and hand-dyed silks. She has had exhibits of her work at the Tel Aviv Opera House and at the Jerusalem Theatre, both prestigious locations to show art. She sells her work, but she primarily paints because it satisfies her creative urge.

What is important is not the money she earns through her art, but the creative experience of producing art that people can enjoy. She regards her artistic work as part of her divine mission.

Occasionally, she asks me to critique a painting, but I feel inadequate to the task. I very much feel that art is in the eye of the beholder. I cannot predict what someone will like.

In the final analysis, enduring art can spring from anywhere, even from a remote country village in Nova Scotia. This is what happens in Maudie, the true story of Maudie Dowley, a woman with severe arthritis who develops an iconic ability to paint flowers and birds that appeal to a broad cross-section of people that appreciate her simple but powerful expressions of nature’s beauty.

Rather than live with her highly judgmental Aunt Ida, Maudie decides to strike out on her own and find a job that will enable her to support herself and live independently. Serendipitously, she meets Everett Lewis, a coarse and laconic fish peddler who is seeking a cleaning lady for his home in return for providing room and board and a meager salary. Maudie applies for the job and Everett agrees to try her out.

While employed at his home, Maudie begins to paint parts of the house including shelves, walls, and windows with decorations of flowers and birds. One of Everett’s customers, Sandra, who lives in New York City, is fascinated by Maudie’s art and offers to pay her money for her cards and paintings. Her patronage of Maudie’s art leads to more and more commissions, eventually reaching the eyes of Richard Nixon, who purchases one of her works.

Eventually, Everett and Maudie marry and learn to love one another even though they have totally different temperaments and worldviews. Their marriage is stormy, but in the end it is satisfying to both. Maudie’s ability to see beauty in the ordinary cycle of nature sustains her as she manages her tumultuous relationship with Everett.

In the daily Jewish liturgy, God is described as renewing the creation every day. The message of the prayer is to understand that the beauty of nature manifests itself in ordinary days. It is not a special event. Each day is an opportunity to proclaim the significance of daily miracles, which inform our lives all day long. The challenge is to view nature with fresh eyes. Maudie is able to do this especially when she sees nature through a window. She reflects: “How I love a window. It’s always different. The whole of life. The whole of life already framed. Right there.”

The great medieval sage Maimonides viewed the natural world as a testament to God’s grandeur. In discussing the foundational principles of the Jewish faith, he writes that we can get close to God not only by studying holy words, but also by observing holy works, the everyday miracles that present themselves through natural phenomena. A mountain, a flower, a river, a tree can remind us of the inherent beauty in the world and bring us close to God.

Maudie, a simple soul, is able to transcend her physical limitations when she sees nature in a multi-faceted way. Nature for her is never random or chaotic. Rather it reflects a divine beauty hidden in the flora around us.

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