Category Archives: Romance

La La Land (2016), directed by Damien Chazelle

la-la-land-posterI live life as it unfolds in the present moment. I do not recall saying to myself “What if I had done this rather than that.” Yet I have friends who continually ask themselves “what would my life be like if I had made this decision rather than that decision.” The reality is that we cannot turn back the clock and decisions we made years ago cannot be changed. Those decisions affect our lives many years later.

This dilemma is the subtext of La La Land, a one-of-a-kind musical in which the protagonists arrive at a moment when the past is all too present in their minds, but it is too late to make midcourse corrections.

The story takes place in Los Angeles and describes the efforts of two talented people to succeed in the entertainment industry. Mia is an actress working in a coffee shop while she goes to endless auditions looking for a part in a movie or play. Rejections for her are both routine and emotionally painful. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who wants to open his own jazz club. For him, jazz is exciting, unpredictable, and innovative. He revels in the great jazz musicians of the past and wants to continue their legacy of musical innovation. The problem, however, is that he has no money and barely survives financially.

Mia and Sebastian meet serendipitously over several months. They bicker, make jokes, and slowly begin developing a serious rapport with one another. As love blossoms, they share their professional aspirations with each other. Each is the other’s muse, and they inspire one another to fulfill their dreams. When Sebastian hears how demeaning the auditions are, he suggests that she write her own material and present herself as a writer as well as performer. Mia encourages him to open his own jazz venue.

What happens next is the stuff of fantasy. They watch the classic film, Rebel Without a Cause, with its pivotal scene at the Griffith Observatory, and then actually visit the site and dance among the stars at the planetarium.

Recognizing their strong affection for one another, they share their goals again, measuring how far they have come to actualizing them. Mia is in the midst of writing a one-woman show and Sebastian has been offered a job with a touring band that is led by his old friend, Keith. The job will provide him with financial stability. They both realize that the pursuit of their individual careers may not permit their love to continue.

Judaism believes that it is important to set goals, to have dreams. In fact, once a year on Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, Jewish law requires us to take inventory of our lives. What did we accomplish in the past year? How can I do better in the year ahead? What are my goals for the coming year? Azriel Hirsch Friedman, a Torah teacher and motivational lecturer in Jerusalem, writes: “Failure is the building block of success. Even with a promise of success from God, Moses failed miserably when he first tried to take the Jews from Egypt. To get out of the place you are stuck, you will unquestionably fail. Don’t worry. It’s often just God’s way of testing how much you believe in your own dreams, helping you to clarify, re-evaluate and perfect them. We are judged only on our effort and never on our success. Jewish success is to be able to know for yourself.”

Mia and Sebastian ultimately come to know themselves as they work to define their talents and strengths. That does not mean that the outcome will always be satisfying. La La Land reminds us that outcomes are not in our hands. Nonetheless, we still have to try our best as we navigate the challenges we face in our own lives.

Ushpizin (2004), directed by Gidi Dar

ushpizinA friend of mine and his wife occasionally have discussions about whom to invite for Friday night Sabbath dinners. She favors inviting old friends. He prefers inviting new faces because he wants to know those who are unknown. He prefers the unpredictability of new faces and feels that the good deed of inviting people to one’s home is better fulfilled when one does not know the guests beforehand.

Jewish tradition requires us to be hospitable, especially to those is need. Is this ethos of extending hospitality represented by inviting people we know or people we don’t know, or are there other criteria to keep in mind? The Israeli film Ushpizin, which means guests in English, suggests an approach to an answer.

It is the festival of Sukkot in Jerusalem in an ultra-orthodox neighborhood. The holidays require Jews to build a temporary shack and to live in it for seven days. There is also a commandment to wave a palm branch and a citron, together with a myrtle and willow, during the holiday liturgy. Moshe and Mali Bellanga, however, are impoverished and do not have money to buy a sukkah or to purchase the four species. And then “miracles” occur. A friend finds an abandoned sukkah for Moshe and an anonymous donor slips $1000 under their door.

These miracles, however, become tests. Moshe uses part of his money to purchase a citron at an extravagant price, upsetting his wife Mali, who wanted to use to money to pay off debts. Moshe knows that the truly happy person is the one who is content with little, yet he succumbs to his desire to acquire a citron far beyond his means when, in fact, he is not required to do so according to Jewish law.

Another test for them comes when two escaped convicts from Moshe’s past show up at this door. They apparently know Moshe from his previous life before he became religious, and Moshe and Mali debate whether they should welcome them as guests for the holiday. There are disadvantages. They are unsavory characters and their presence in the home may strain Moshe and Mali’s relationship. There will be no privacy and the guests may introduce a foreign lifestyle into their holy home. Moshe and Mali are people of deep faith, however, and they decide that these two men have been sent to them by God, creating a wonderful opportunity for Moshe and Mali to share the holidays with people less fortunate than them.

With each passing day of the holiday, the convicts bring more chaos into the Bellanga home, but Moshe and Mali continue to see each problem as a test of their religious faith. Their rabbi advises Moshe never to get angry, even when anger may seem justified. The life lesson that he imparts to him is to remain calm in the knowledge that all tests come from God. Facing a test and overcoming it refines our character and, by doing so, makes us better people.

Ushpizin depicts people living on the edge of poverty and not succumbing to negativity. Mali and Moshe do have arguments, but their different opinions do not shatter their abiding love for one another. They both recognize that whatever happens is ultimately the result of God orchestrating events from afar. Mali and Moshe always say “Thank God,” even when events seem to turn out badly. Moreover, they control their anger, allowing them to see things from the aspect of eternity. Their daily expressions of thanksgiving to God and their control of anger remind us of what it takes to truly be a holy person.

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The Age of Adaline (2015), directed by Lee Toland Kreiger

age-of-adalineI am 73 years old, and since coming to Israel six years ago, I am officially a vatik, a senior citizen entitled to discounts on the bus and to reduced admissions at sundry places. Some people actually offer me their seats on public transportation. It makes me uncomfortable to be the recipient of these kindnesses and to realize that, at least in the eyes of some, I am old. I always thought the other guy was old and I was not, but that illusion is now shattered.

When I immigrated to Israel in 2010, I was automatically enrolled in a 55-plus club, no longer considered a young man. In my conversations with other members of the group, no one ever expressed to me a desire to be young again. All my new friends desired was to be healthy and not be dependent on the kindness of others, even if they were one’s own children. Moreover, the married couples seemed to enjoy growing old together. It was a time in life free of posturing or acquiring more stuff and, instead, allowing love to flow freely between spouses and parents and children and to be satisfied with little. A perfect life was simply to grow old together in good health.

 The Age of Adaline presents a unique perspective on aging. Adaline Bowman was born in 1908, married, and had a daughter. No long after her husband died in a work-related accident while building the Golden Gate Bridge, she drives to her parents’ home. Snow begins to fall, making the road hazardous. Her car crashes and a freak electrical storm ensues, creating an unusual chain reaction that causes Adaline to remain 29 years old forever.

Adaline researches her condition but cannot find clues as to why she remains young as others grow old. After being accosted and frightened by local and federal authorities, she resolves to leave San Francisco and establish a new identity every decade.

All is calm until she meets Ellis Jones, a wealthy philanthropist, at a New Year’s Eve party. She at first rejects his advances. But Ellis persists pursuing her and finally convinces her to have a date with him. At the date, Ellis reveals much about himself, but Adaline reveals little of her past. Their relationship deepens and Ellis invites her to visit his parents on the occasion of their 40th wedding anniversary.

When Ellis’ father, William, sees her for the first time, he instinctively calls her Adaline, for she reminds him of a woman with whom he had a past relationship and to whom he intended to propose marriage. Although Adaline informs him that Adaline was her mother, William is still puzzled at her stark resemblance to the love of his life so many years ago. The unraveling of the mystery of Adaline’s past and present life with William and Ellis makes us ponder the meaning of aging in our youth and old age.

The Ethics of the Fathers makes some important observations about reaching various stages of our life. The Sages tell us that at 5 years old, we should begin our study of the Bible, at 10 we should begin study of Mishna, the Oral Law, at 13 we begin to perform the commandments, at 18 we marry, at 20 we find a vocation, at 30 we are at our peak of physical strength, at 40 we understand life at a deeper level, at 50 we can give advice, and so the Sages continue until 100. At different ages, we are ready to experience different things, to develop ourselves in different ways, and to make our own unique contributions to society depending on our strength, our talents and our wisdom.

Adaline’s dilemma is that she is stuck at age 29. Life is imperfect because it stays the same. Finally, when her dilemma is serendipitously resolved, she notices a grey hair and her immediate response is “perfect.” Now she can grow old with someone she loves and now life becomes more meaningful because she experiences the phenomenon of change.

The possibility of change makes the present more precious. When we sense that life is transient, every day is cherished. When Adaline’s finally ages, it reminds us that growing old is a good thing for it makes us treasure each moment. Life now can be perfect.

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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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All the Pretty Horses (2000), directed by Billy Bob Thornton

all the pretty horses posterOn rare occasions, I have been confronted with having to make a decision knowing that if I decide one way, I will hurt someone I care about; and if I decide differently, I will hurt someone else. Either way, I will wind up alienating a friend.

I recall that about 15 years ago, I was faced with such a dilemma and I decided to consult an older man with great knowledge of Torah and a deep understanding of human nature. He gave me a good perspective on my situation, enabling me to live with my decision without the burden of guilt. I continued to call him for advice until one fateful evening when I called his home, only to find out that his wife and family were in the midst of the week of mourning for my friend and mentor who had died only a few days before.

In the days that followed, I reflected on the time spent consulting with him. Although I could no longer speak with him, I learned much from the wisdom he shared with me, and I attempted to incorporate his perspectives in the way I viewed my own quandaries. Senior wisdom is priceless and I tried my utmost to take advantage of it whenever I could not come up with a satisfactory resolution to a problem. Such is what happens in All the Pretty Horses when John Grady Cole finds himself burdened by guilt by making good decisions that, regrettably, did not turn out well. Ultimately, he turns to a senior to put his own problems into perspective.

The year is 1949. John Grady Cole, a young cowboy raised in the wide-open spaces of a Texas ranch, is forced to find new means of employment when his grandfather dies and his heirs sell the property that was in his family for many years.

Together with his friend Lacey Rawlins, they journey south of the border to Mexico to find work. Along the way, they meet Jimmy Blevins, a savvy but unpredictable teenager, who wants to ride with them. Later they find employment with a wealthy rancher who needs help managing his exceptional prize horses. John and Lacey enjoy their work, but things get complicated when John falls in live with Alejandra, the rancher’s daughter.

Things change dramatically when both John and Lacey are arrested by the Mexican police. In jail, they again meet Blevins who is incarcerated for horse stealing and murder, and they learn that they are viewed as his accomplices. John and Lacey are sent to prison where they are surrounded by cutthroat prisoners who threaten their lives. They languish there until Alejandra’s aunt arranges to free them on condition that John never sees Alejandra again.

When John returns to Texas, he is arrested for horse stealing and appears in court to explain his side of the story. Surprisingly, the judge believes John and tells him that he is free to go. Never having encountered such fair play before, John visits the judge at his home, perhaps seeing him as a wise man and father figure. He confesses that he killed a man in prison and did not do enough to save his friend Blevins from being murdered.

The judge listens patiently and gently tells John that he could not have done anything to avoid those tragedies. Moreover, what John should do now is simply move on with his life, knowing that those tragic moments will be sorted out over time. The judge understands that John needs to share these secrets to assuage feelings of guilt. The judge intuits the wisdom of Ethics of the Fathers, which states that a person should not consider himself evil. When a person lacks self-esteem and views himself as a bad person, he may become emotionally paralyzed and give up trying to improve.

All the Pretty Horses depicts a rite of passage for a young man trying to make sense out of a life filled with contradictions. What enables him to survive is senior wisdom coupled with an abiding belief in God, which animates him every day. This sentiment is openly articulated by John at the film’s close: “I believe that God does watch over us, if he didn’t, I don’t see how we could get through each day.”

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The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), directed by Woody Allen

purple rose of cairoFrom my early childhood, I was an avid moviegoer. My mother took me regularly; and when I grew older, I continued to go frequently. Movies captivated me because they transported me to faraway places and to exciting adventures. I lived in a small town and movies were my ticket to Neverland. Although I enjoyed movies, I generally did not think of them as accurate descriptions of the real world. They were fantasies, pleasing entertainments, and that was it.

As an adult, I occasionally met people who were addicted to movies. For example, one of my former high school students had trouble separating fantasy from reality. He always assumed there would be the proverbial Hollywood ending to his scholastic endeavors no matter how little he prepared for class. Unfortunately for him, he never achieved his academic potential and remained a mediocre student throughout his high school and college careers. Movies distracted him, preventing him from doing the real work that is required for success in life.

In The Purple Rose of Cairo, there is a different take on moviegoing. Cecelia, a struggling waitress during the depression years of the 1930s, goes to the movies weekly to escape her abusive and unappreciative husband and finds cathartic release by watching what transpires on the screen. She is totally mesmerized by the world of celluloid, which enables her to survive her drab everyday life. But she still understands that what is on the screen is fiction, not real life.

Things take a confusing turn when Tom Baxter, a character in The Purple Rose of Cairo, a movie within a movie, steps out of the screen and convinces Cecelia to run off with him. He openly tells her: “I don’t get hurt or bleed, hair doesn’t muss; it’s one of the advantages of being imaginary.”

The two fall in love, but Cecelia is still skeptical. After all, Tom, by stepping out of the film, has left the other characters stranded. The movie cannot continue when all the players are not there. The action comes to an abrupt halt while the producer tries to find a solution before other characters walk out of the film as well and cause financial losses to the studio.

The producer enlists the real-life actor, Gil Shepherd, to help him convince the fictional Tom Baxter to return to the film. In the process, he meets Cecilia who enchants him. He also wants to marry her and Celia has to choose between the real Tom Baxter (Gil Shepherd), and his fictionalized counterpart. For a while, she is confused as she tells her friend: “I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything.”

The ability to separate fact from fiction is the mark of a mature sensibility. Children often confuse the two; but adults, generally speaking, can distinguish between them. Rachel Gordon in an insightful article on the power of the imagination in the world of Hollywood observes that here “ the fine edge between imagination and reality becomes hazy and indistinct. Indeed, this very fuzziness between real life and their fantasy worlds is the reason why, behind the scenes, many of Hollywood’s greatest stars suffer from the world’s most appalling psychological plagues.“ It is not good when one has difficulty separating fact from fiction, reality from fantasy, dreams from what happens in real life.

The classic example in Jewish tradition of sensibly combining imagination with reality is the image of Jacob’s ladder. It points heavenward suggesting infinite possibilities, but the ladder is firmly planted on the ground. It is good to dream. It can motivate one to accomplish great things. Dreaming can also help a person get through a dismal present reality.

In the final analysis, one lives in the real world and that is where we must endure the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Cecelia in The Purple Rose of Cairo ultimately understands the lesson of Jacob’s ladder and is able to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Moreover, she intuits that fantasy can help us cope with a painful present.

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City of Angels (1998), directed by Brad Silberling

city of angels posterThe Ethics of the Fathers tells us that one hour repenting and doing good deeds in this world is better than life in the world-to-come. Why? The Sages explain: we can only exercise our free will while we are alive. Therefore, we can choose to do good deeds only when we are alive. Doing good deeds is our mission on earth, so everything we do or don’t do influences our eternal destiny. That is why life in this world is so precious.

Once our life is over, we no longer have free will and our destiny in the world-to-come is fixed. This is the crux of Seth’s dilemma in City of Angels, a thought-provoking love story about an angel who wants to exercise free will in order to become human and share in the joys and pains of human life.

Seth is an angel whose job it is to observe mankind and be with them as they move from this world to the next. In some cases, he will protect them from harm; in others he will chaperone them to the world-to-come.

While observing a man about to die from cardiac surgery, Seth’s attention is captured by Dr. Maggie Rice, a surgeon, who valiantly tries to save the man’s life and is remorseful when her efforts do not succeed. Seth is genuinely touched by the beauty of her heart and soul, so much so that he wants her to physically see him.

Contrary to conventional angel protocol, he decides to become visible to her in some rudimentary way so that they can develop a friendship. In the physical presence of Seth, Maggie begins to inquire about his past. In spite of his evasive answers to Maggie’s basic questions such as where does he live and how he earns his living, their relationship blossoms.

Things take an unexpected turn for Seth when he meets Nathaniel Messenger, a patient of Maggie’s about to undergo surgery. Nathaniel can sense the presence of Seth because he, too, was once an angel who decided to become human to experience the joy of human relationships. Seth, after sharing his emotional turmoil with Nathaniel, considers the possibility of becoming human in order to actualize the love he feels for Maggie. The decision he makes will change his destiny forever.

In Jewish tradition, an angel is basically a messenger of God. They lack any will of their own, and they can only perform one task at the time. The Bible speaks of three angels who visited Abraham in the heat of the day when he was recuperating from his circumcision. Each angel had a specific mission. One was to inform Sarah that she would have a child. Another was to heal Abraham and save Lot, a mission of saving lives. The last angel was to inform Lot that Sodom would be destroyed.

In contrast to angels, humans have free will and can perform many missions. They can choose to do good or evil, and experience happiness and sadness in life. God gave his Torah, his book of instructions for mankind, to men, not to angels, because men, created in the Divine image, have free choice. It is in the arena of free choice that humans express their unique humanity.

The Hebrew word for Jewish law is halacha, which literally means “walking.” Choosing to follow God’s instructions for living is a dynamic journey fraught with perils, not simply a destination. It involves making many choices along the way; but where there is choice, there is great reward for choosing correctly. Seth, in The City of Angels, by deciding to become human, takes a risk that brings with it both the agonies and ecstasies of human existence.

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Belle (2013), directed by Amma Asante

belle_xlgGrowing up in the 50s and 60s, dating for marriage was a very straightforward process. You met, dated for several months, and then came the moment of truth. Do you propose marriage or move on to dating someone else?

Nowadays, the dating landscape is different, especially in very religious Orthodox Jewish circles. I have granddaughters who live in Orthodox communities in America; they tell me that they have to prepare resumes that are submitted to matchmakers, who then work on their behalf to find suitable matches. I do not know if the system works, but it is very different from my own experience many years ago.

Although good character is still the key factor in determining the suitability of a match, finances also play a role. Will the prospective parents of the groom and bride be able to support the couple for a few years while the boy continues his Torah studies before entering the work force and will the parents help with buying a home as the couple morphs into a family with children?

Arranged marriage figures prominently in Belle, the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, born in 1761, who was the natural daughter of Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman in the West Indies, and Captain John Lindsay, a British Royal Navy officer. When Belle’s mother dies, Captain Lindsay takes her to England in 1765 to live with his uncle William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice of England. Lord and Lady Mansfield raise Belle as a free gentlewoman.

As a mixed-race child in a white household, her marriage prospects are dim. That changes when Belle’s father dies and leaves her an inheritance of 2000 pounds a year. Suitors do not run to her door, but marriage now becomes possible. In truth, Belle is no fool and is not interested in marriage for its own sake. She understands that she has the money to remain independent. But a vicar’s son and apprentice to the profession of law, John Davinier, captures her attention with his sincerity and devotion to worthy causes.

Tension arises between Lord Mansfield and Davinier when Davinier pressures him to make a controversial ruling that would make moral sense but would put the nation at great economic risk. Belle becomes aware of the rift and works behind the scenes to help Davinier. She does this is spite of being torn between affection for Davinier and loyalty to her guardian Lord Mansfield. The story, a gripping footnote to black history in England, is the background for Belle’s efforts to marry for love rather than for financial convenience.

Judaism has much to say about arranged marriages. To be a matchmaker is a good thing, and parents were the primary matchmakers throughout much of Jewish history. To find the right marriage partner is God’s work, but parents were God’s surrogates in the quest for a suitable marriage mate.

The patriarchs of the Jewish people took a major role in finding the appropriate wife for their child. The Bible recounts in detail how Abraham appointed his trusted servant Eliezer with finding a spouse for Isaac. The focus was on the potential mate’s spiritual qualities and good character. Being wealthy was not one of the criteria they sought.

Belle provides a fascinating look at the marriage market in the eighteenth century. Considerations of wealth and political position were uppermost in the minds of parents looking to move up socially through the marriage of a daughter to a person of rank. However, sensitive parents were not immune to the entreaties of children who wanted to marry people of good character rather than people of prestige and economic power. Belle and Lord Murray ultimately see eye to eye on this most important of matters.

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Brooklyn (2015), directed by John Crowley

brooklyn posterI was born in Mt. Vernon, New York, a small bedroom community bordering the Bronx and only 25 minutes by train to Grand Central Station. To me Mt. Vernon was home. My family lived there as did many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins.

The next major move in my life came when I was married. My wife and I moved to New York City where we lived in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan near Yeshiva University. New York City was now my home. A number of years later we moved to Atlanta where I had accepted a job as a synagogue rabbi and later as a school principal. I stayed there for 27 years and felt that Atlanta was now my home.

How does one define a home? Is it simply a specific location or is home a place where your loved ones are? Brooklyn, the emotional odyssey of Ellis Lacey, a young woman who travels to America from Ireland in the 1950s to chart a new direction in her life, considers this question.

The film opens as Ellis prepares for her journey. The family is on the brink of poverty and Rose, Ellis’s sister, has contacted a priest in the United States who will sponsor Ellis as a new immigrant. As she leaves on a ship, her sister and mother tearfully bid her farewell.

On arriving to America after an arduous sea voyage, she takes up residence in a girls’ boarding house in Brooklyn and finds a job in a department store. These early days of her American experience are filled with homesickness and anxiety, but she eventually finds her stride and even enrolls in a bookkeeping class in night school at Brooklyn College.

At a dance in the neighborhood, Ellis meets Tony, an Italian-American, who is infatuated with Irish girls. Their relationship blossoms over time as they share their dreams with one another. She wants to become a bookkeeper and eventually an accountant; he is a plumber who wants to develop a thriving business.

Tony asks Ellis to marry him. Then tragedy strikes when she receives the news that her sister Rose has died, leaving no one to care for their mother. Ellis feels she must go home to be with her mother even for a short time. It is here that a dilemma develops. Does Ellis remain in Ireland, her family home, and build a life there or does she return to America and forge her destiny there with Tony?

Real estate agents utter the mantra of “location, location, location.” They refer to being in the right neighborhood, but in a metaphysical sense the phrase resonates in Judaism. The Ethics of the Fathers states that a person should live in place that is a place of Torah, a place where a person can grow spiritually. That is the key determinant of where one should live. If being in one’s parental hometown does not allow one to grow spiritually, then one should relocate. A home is not just where you live; it is a place where you grow.

Judaism has many recommendations about where to live and all of them relate to intellectual and spiritual growth, not to material surroundings or comfort alone. It is important to live with good neighbors in a moral environment, to place a mezuzah on the door to protect those who live there, to bring books of Jewish learning into the home, and to place a charity box in a prominent location in the home. All the above testifies to living in a home where one can grow emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually.

In Brooklyn Ellis is compelled to decide whether a familiar, comforting environment trumps the new opportunity for love, connection, and growth. Her decision makes us evaluate our own ideal of what home should be.

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Still Alice (2014), directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland

still alice posterA friend of mine in his seventies was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s several years ago. At first it was indicated by minor forgetfulness; but over time, the symptoms became more severe. His wife confessed to me after a couple of years that her husband was no longer the person he once was. He barely recognized her or the rest of his family. Indeed it was a sad and disturbing reality that the family confronted.

This mental decline is the subject of Still Alice, the unsettling narrative of Alice Howland, a top-flight professor of Linguistics at Columbia University, who discovers she has early onset Alzheimer’s when she is 50 years old.

At first we observe her forgetting little things, sometimes losing her train of thought while speaking. Later she loses her sense of direction and gets lost after an afternoon run. When she goes to a neurologist for help with her memory problems, the doctor, after giving Alice a number of tests, concludes that she has early onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

Although she is loved by her husband and children, both have difficulty dealing with the reality of a wife and mother whose memory is deteriorating each day. There is no cure. The crisis in the family brings some of its members closer together, but it is a strain. At the end of the day, they must accept a difficult and painful reality.

Although Still Alice is about how one woman deals with a terrible disease that takes away memory, the film indirectly informs us how important memories are. Near the beginning of her mental decline, Alice gives a powerful speech to an Alzheimer’s support group, which captures the dissonance between who she is now with who she once was: “All my life I’ve accumulated memories – they’ve become, in a way, my most precious possessions. The night I met my husband, the first time I held my textbook in my hands. Having children, making friends, traveling the world. Everything I accumulated in life, everything I’ve worked so hard for – now all that is being ripped away. But it gets worse. Who can take us seriously when we are so far from who we once were? Our strange behavior and fumbled sentences change other’s perception of us and our perception of ourselves. We become ridiculous, incapable, comic. My greatest wish is that my children, our children – the next generation – do not have to face what I am facing. But for the time being, I’m still alive. I know I’m alive. I have people I love dearly. I still have moments in the day of pure happiness and joy. And please do not think that I am suffering. I am not suffering. I am struggling. Struggling to be part of things, to stay connected to whom I was once.”

In the English class I teach, we recently discussed how biographies are different from autobiographies. The key difference is that the author of the autobiography relies heavily on memory to write his life’s story. I shared with my students the background behind my first book, The One of Us, which recounted my year in Israel as a student over thirty years ago. I was able to write about it only because I saved all the letters (aerograms, in those days) that I wrote and that my mother sent me, and they jogged my memory about events that took place during that year. Memory allowed me to re-experience the past and make it meaningful in the present.

Judaism values memory. Each year Jews experience a cycle of holy days that remind us to focus on past memories in order to appreciate and understand the present, and to navigate the future. Remembering the past is what makes us who we are today. Without memory, we are adrift spiritually and socially. Memory connects us to our history and to each other. Shared memories are an expression of our human connections which transcend time and space. Still Alice reminds us to treasure our memories and the human connections that matter along our life’s journey.

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