Category Archives: Sports

The Art of Racing in the Rain (2019), directed by Simon Curtis

A friend of mine has two dogs. What is unusual is that as a child, he was petrified of dogs. Yet now he is an adult and dogs are an integral part of his life. I am not sure why his attitude towards dogs changed, but it is clear every time I visit him that the dogs provide unconditional love for him, his wife, and his kids. Indeed, the dogs are a genuine part of his family.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is a dog story, but we know that every dog story is really a story about people. The title of the film is a term used by Denny, an auto racing teacher and a race driver, to describe the particular skill of controlling the car when the surface of the road is wet and unpredictable. The term is a metaphor for being able to manage the unpredictability of life. Denny says it best: “The best drivers only focus on the present.” They do not let the burdens of the past or the uncertainties of the future prevent them from moving forward.

The film opens as Enzo, an old Golden Retriever, is near death and is waiting for his owner, Denny, to come home. Denny arrives and carries Enzo out of the house. As he does so, the film’s narration begins as Enzo begins to tell the story of his life.

Denny buys Enzo as a pup and the two bond strongly. A year later, Denny marries Eve, and Enzo’s life is disrupted for a short time until he gets used to sharing Denny with his beloved Eve. Eve’s parents, Maxwell and Trish, express misgivings about Denny’s career choice, and worry when Denny and Eve start a family.

Their daughter, Zoe, gives great joy to Denny and Eve and to her parents as well. Denny, Eve, and Zoe lead idyllic lives until Eve develops brain cancer. Her love for Denny and Zoe enables her to survive for a short time, but then she succumbs to her illness.

Denny is at a crossroads. He has left his racing career to care for his cherished wife and now he has to care for his daughter. Eve’s parents go to court to gain custody of Zoe, feeling that Denny is often absent from home and unfit to take care of her. The custody battle turns ugly when Denny inadvertently knocks down Maxwell, his father-in-law, causing him to break a rib.

Throughout all of this family turmoil, Enzo stays with Denny, serving as his quiet and loyal friend. Although Enzo cannot talk, his presence is comforting to Denny, and Enzo looks forward to time after death when he thinks that he will be reincarnated as a human being.

Enzo’s thought processes are given expression in his very human observations of his owner and the world around Denny. Judaism generally considers dogs as not having a soul like that of a human being; but, according to some Kabbalistic sources, dogs do go to “heaven,” and live some kind of afterlife.

Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin, a noted Jewish educator, writes: “while they are different from humans, animals too have souls that live on and can be elevated. This idea presents us with an enormous responsibility in our interactions with the animal kingdom. After all, the animal’s elevation in the afterlife can be dependent upon our positive interactions with it.”

Enzo probably would have a great life in the hereafter because of his interactions with his loyal and kind owner Denny. Their easy rapport with one another underpins a deep relationship between human and dog, a relationship in which Enzo gives emotional support to his owner who has endured the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for dog is kelev, which is a contraction of the words kol lev, meaning “a full heart.” The good dog is the one who is loyal, serving us with a full heart, reducing our stress and supporting us through tough times.

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Ford v. Ferrari (2019), directed by James Mangold

A rabbinic colleague once confessed to me that he disliked one of his synagogue board members. Feeling that the board member was always out to get him, he had to control his anger whenever he spoke to him.

I cautioned my friend never to lose his cool when speaking with this person. In spite of his negative feelings for him, it was important to maintain cordial relations, not only because of the many Jewish sources frowning upon anger, but also because he may need his support in the future to accomplish the Torah goals of his rabbinate. I told him: do not antagonize people that can hurt you. In Ford v. Ferrari, Carroll Shelby, an American car designer, and Ken Miles, a superb race car driver, are tested in the crucible of life experience to maintain calm when everyone around them wants to interfere with their jobs.

Carroll Shelby, a professional racer, is compelled to retire early because of a heart condition. Realizing he no longer can race, he develops his other interest, designing race cars. In the course of his work, he meets Ken Miles, a race car driver and an exceptional mechanic who follows his own inclinations as he runs his car repair shop.

Customers admire Miles’ attention to detail, but bristle at his brusque demeanor. Customers dwindle and he finds himself unable to support his wife and child.

While all this is happening, Henry Ford II is struggling to improve Ford’s bottom line in the face of sagging sales. Lee Iacocca, a Ford executive, suggests that Ford field a race car at the celebrated 24-hour Le Mans race in France to change Ford’s image in the minds of the many young people ready to buy new cars.

Ford then hires Carroll Shelby to design and test cars for the race. Shelby asks Ken Miles to be his driver, and Miles accepts knowing that the corporate powers at Ford are worried about his unpredictability as a spokesman for Ford. Throughout the car’s development, Shelby and Miles are second-guessed by Ford management who view the entire initiative as a public relations project, not as a test to prove Ford’s racing dominance over Ferrari, the winner of Le Mans for many years. Ken is angry when his desire for excellence is countermanded by Ford’s desire for expediency and immediate results. Ken becomes so disillusioned with their interference that he wants to quit, but Shelby convinces him to stay the course, and not allow anger to control his responses to Ford’s interference.

The Talmud tells us, “The life of those who cannot control their anger is not a life (Pesachim 113b). Moreover, “when a person gets angry, if he is a sage, his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him (Pesachim 66b). The great Maimonides writes that when someone becomes angry, it is as if he worships idols (Hilchot Deot 2:3). The Sages caution us not to be angry, for when we are angry we do not see the consequences of our actions and often do things we regret later on. When it comes to the trait of anger, Maimonides says there is no middle way (Hilchot Deot 2:3). We should avoid it at all costs. It may be necessary to appear angry at times, but we should not actually be angry.

The Orchot Tzadikim, a 15th century ethicist, observes that anger destroys personal relationships. People do not like to be around angry people; therefore, angry people often end up isolated, apart from friends and even from family. Furthermore, anger often drives out positive emotions like forgiveness, compassion, empathy, and sensitivity.

Ken Miles in Ford v. Ferrari begins as a quick-tempered man, prone to anger. Through real life experience, he learns that by controlling his emotions and his responses to provocations, he can lead a more satisfying life.

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Resurrecting the Champ (2007), directed by Rod Lurie

resurrecting the champBeing a parent is challenging, but it often brings out one’s best self. Let me explain. One of my children once asked me a question of Jewish law. I felt it was a simple question and I responded quickly with an answer. Months later, I realized the answer I gave him was wrong. I apologized to my son and then I told him the correct answer.

The relationship with my son was strong and life moved on, but I was deeply troubled by the fact that I had given him an answer that was not accurate. The incident still haunts me thirty years later. I had wanted my son to feel he could always rely on me to give him the best advice, the most accurate information; and in my own mind, I had let him down. From then on, I resolved never to be quick when a question is posed to me. Lesson learned: Allow some time to think things through carefully.

I realized then and I realize now that we are always role models for our children, and we have to make good decisions not only for ourselves, but good decisions that will stand the test of scrutiny by our children. Such is one dilemma in Resurrecting the Champ, a story about a successful prizefighter who, in the twilight of his life, becomes a homeless person, living on the streets.

Erik Kernan Jr., a sports reporter for a major newspaper, is upset that his editor, Ralph Metz, buries his stories in the last pages of the paper. Metz tells Erik that his articles are boring and lack interest, and Erik begins to think of doing regular reporting rather than sports.

On one fateful night, Erik serendipitously encounters a homeless man who calls himself “Champ,” and discovers that he once was a professional boxer named Bob Satterfield, who had been in the ring with such boxing luminaries as Ezzard Charles and Jake LaMotta. In truth, Satterfield is a forgotten man and most boxing aficionados thought him dead. Erik sees Satterfield’s story as a ticket out of his current job and as a way to become a feature writer at a weekly sports magazine. He pitches the idea to the magazine editor, who is intrigued with what might be a major article about the rise and fall of a contender for boxing royalty.

In his quest for success as a writer, Erik becomes careless in fact-checking Satterfield’s story, and thereby hangs the moral crux of the narrative. Erik’s moral dilemma is highlighted in his relationship with his son, Teddy. Erik is separated from his wife, Joyce, and only sees Teddy periodically. To maintain his iconic status in his son’s eyes, he often tells him of his friendship with sports celebrities, but Erik does not really know them. He only covers their athletic events, and his relationships with them are superficial. Nonetheless, Teddy believes his father.

This belief is tested when his father is openly accused of lying to promote his professional career as a writer. How the Satterfield story is ultimately regarded and how Erik’s relationship with his son is resolved is the stuff of real life compromise. The resolution may not be neat, but it is emotionally satisfying.

Jewish tradition has much to say about how parents should serve as role models. The patriarchs of the Jewish people were mindful that they were role models for an entire people, not just their own families. The Bible states regarding Abraham: “For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him (Gen. 18: 19).”

A key aspect of the parental relationship is honesty. In depicting the relationship between fathers and sons, honesty emerges as a critical bond that unites the generations, a connection that is sacred between parent and child.

In truth, no one is perfect. All parents possess flaws, but Resurrecting The Champ suggests that we can still love and respect our parents in spite of any flaw. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks poetically describes the function of parents as role models: “Judaism, more than any other faith, sees parenthood as the highest challenge of all. Judaism takes what is natural and sanctifies it. What Darwin saw as the urge to reproduce, what Richard Dawkins calls ‘the selfish gene,’ is for Judaism high religious art, full of drama and beauty. Abraham the father, and Sarah the mother, are our enduring role models of parenthood as G-d’s gift and our highest vocation.”

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The Damned United (2009), directed by Tom Hooper

damned-unitedIn retrospect, I have had a wonderful career in Jewish education, the highlight of which was in Atlanta from 1970 through 1998. The school I led was Yeshiva High School of Atlanta and its enrollment grew from 36 to approximately 200 during my long and occasionally turbulent tenure.

I never for one moment thought that the success of the school was due to my efforts alone. That would be both arrogant and untrue. It succeeded because of many people: teachers, office staff, lay leaders, all of whom left an indelible mark on the school’s history.

For me, in particular, success resulted because of an extraordinary teaching staff that cared deeply for the students, that was extremely skilled, and that was dedicated to the welfare of the school and its students. Success was always measured by how well the students did academically and spiritually, not by increasing enrollment numbers alone. For the staff, the more important question was whether the students were touched and influenced by the ethos of the institution?

How to measure success in the arena of competitive sports is the subject of The Damned United, an unflinching look at the coaching tactics of Brian Clough, manager of an English soccer team. Although a professional sports team is different from a school, there are similarities. In both arenas, it is never one man that brings success; rather it is one man working with others that can change outcomes in an organization.

Brian Clough, manager of the lowly Second Division Derby soccer team aspires to coach a First Division team. When the chance comes to manage the highly successful Leeds United team, he jumps at the opportunity, leaving his long time assistant Peter Taylor behind.

Things, however, do not work out well for Brian in his new job. He immediately sabotages his relationship with his new players by berating them for their unsportsmanlike behavior in the past. Clough does this because of a long-standing antipathy for Leed’s former manager Don Revie, who ignored Clough when he came to Darby in 1967 to play Clough’s team. Clough, insulted by Revie’s slight of him, viewed the disrespect as intentional. This incident haunts him and often motivates his actions in the present.

Clough continues to alienate his players by constantly criticizing them and the team loses game after game until management fires him. After that sobering moment, Clough realizes his mistakes and seeks reconciliation with his former partner and best friend Peter Taylor. When the two friends finally hug and renew the loving ties that bound them when they first started working together, the relationship is restored.

The reconciliation comes about when Clough realizes that whatever success he has had is not due to his efforts alone, but to the efforts of Peter Taylor as well. Clough finally moves from arrogance to humility, ushering in a period of professional success where they again begin working with inexperienced players and enable them to win championships that far exceed past achievements.

Jewish tradition has much to say about arrogance and humility, polar opposites of human character. While self-confidence and self-esteem are praised, arrogance is viewed as a serious character flaw because the arrogant person assumes he knows it all. He does not allow room for the contribution of others, and so has a distorted view of reality. He is is so full of himself, there is no space either for God or other men to enter.

In contrast is the trait of humility, which presumes that man is imperfect, that he both fails and succeeds in life, and that God is ultimately in charge of the results of one’s actions. As the Sages caution in the Ethics of the Father, “be very, very humble.” The repetition of the word “very” suggests that one has to be overly concerned about succumbing to the aphrodisiac of arrogance.

Brian Clough’s journey from arrogance to humility in The Damned United reminds us that success in life in most cases requires one to be humble and acknowledge the contribution of others. It is only through the “one of us” that true success is achieved.

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Fastball (2016), directed by Jonathan Hock

fastball-posterOne of my Torah teachers, Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet, is an avid baseball fan. He sees baseball as particularly engaging for students of Talmud. His reasons? “Because it’s slow-moving and you can think,” he said. “Every play requires you to ponder what to do. How shall I react to the reality that I see on the playing field? What play are you going to use? In other sports, it’s quick; you don’t ponder what will happen next. Things move very fast in basketball and football. But in baseball you have questions. Is the pitcher or the batter a left-hander, a right-hander, will the fielders pull the infield in, push the outfield back, give up the run, worry about the bunt, go for the double play, the squeeze, should he steal, what do you do, put him in scoring position, hit away. There’s so much involved that you have time to think. To me, if you have that Talmudic mind, it’s one of the reasons you like baseball.”

The Talmudic mind is on display in Fastball, an intellectually engaging documentary about the fastest pitch in baseball, but also a trip down memory lane visiting the baseball greats of the past. The narration by Kevin Costner focuses on the confrontation between batter and pitcher that is fraught with tension and peril. The ball is thrown upwards of 100 miles per hour toward the batter’s head. The pitcher intimidates while the batter exhibits caution, vigilance, and nerves of steel. The film considers the extent to which the speed of the ball influences the success of the pitcher and the ultimate outcome of the game.

Tracing the origins of the fastball compels one to visit the evolutionary history of baseball by interviewing celebrated players from both the past and present. Moreover, there is a scientific/mathematical analysis of the speed of the ball from the pitcher’s mound to the batter’s box, which enables the viewer to understand fully the impact of speed on the ball’s rotation.

After considering which pitcher has the best fastball, there is a vignette about a pitcher who is no longer remembered by the vast majority of fans and players even though he was reputed to have the fastest pitch. Why is this? Because even though he had the fastest pitch, he lacked consistent control of the ball. Speed alone does not make winners; only when speed is harnessed to control does winning occur.

This sensibility of balancing speed with control and mastery existed in Jewish academies of learning in the past and exists today as well. In many of these post-high school institutions of learning, there are two categories of classes. One class moves with alacrity and covers lots of Talmudic ground, but does not go deeply into the text. The second, more advanced class, moves more slowly and spends lots of time analyzing the nuances of the text. The great scholars emerge out of the second group of classes, which not only covers ground, but enables students to attain mastery of a topic. Speed alone does not produce success.

Fastball ultimately informs us that Nolan Ryan had the fastest pitch along with the most control of the ball. Interestingly, he had a long baseball career pitching for a number of teams.

It is this mindset of being both fast and controlled that contributes to success in all areas of life. When we are energetic and quick and combine that with a thoughtful demeanor, we increase our chances for success in life. In the Ethics of the Fathers, we are told to rise like a lion and be as swift as a deer, but we are also cautioned to be deliberate in judgment. Speed unfettered by reason leads to accidents. Speed buttressed by the attribute of control leads to success.

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Goal! The Dream Begins (2005), directed by Danny Cannon

goal the dream begins posterI once heard a quotation that was reputed to be first said by Eddie Cantor, a celebrated comedian in the late 40s and 50s, which was “It takes twenty years to become an overnight sensation.” It was a piece of wisdom that caught my attention many years ago and that remains with me today. It is advice that I share with young people trying to make a mark in the world and who encounter setbacks, but I also tell myself and other seniors the same piece of advice. Let me explain why recently I have this adage on my mind.

For the past several years, I have taught in two schools in Israel. I enjoy teaching. I enjoy the fact that I am not totally anonymous as a senior citizen. I even enjoy parent-teacher meetings, which allow me to forge friendships with adults who are in the midst of defining themselves and shaping the lives of their children.

But there is one challenge. Frontal teaching is tiring, and I felt I needed to find other work that was less physically taxing. The question is what to do. After much thought, I concluded that since I enjoy writing and have had some success over the years in writing, I would try to develop an income stream around that skill. So it was with that in mind that I started to write film reviews, first in a blog, then in newspapers, and finally in a book entitled Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema.

 Speaking about the book in various communities both in US, in Europe, and in Capetown, SA, has led me to another goal: creating a cable TV program on “Kosher Movies’ patterned after the successful “Siskel and Ebert” show which ran for many years on public television in America. This vocational journey is still in progress and has taken almost five years so far, a journey that has reinforced my belief that success comes gradually and only after much hard work and effort.

This was a lesson I learned when I was a much younger man. However, it is lesson that still is with me today; and it is the crux of the inspiring movie Goal! The Dream Begins. Goal is the story of a soccer player who begins his path to success as a small child in Mexico who loves playing soccer, and whose story ends many years later in the soccer stadiums of England where he plays for the Newcastle professional team.

Santiago Muñez plays soccer in Los Angeles for a local Hispanic team. He has little hope to play professionally because he does not play in a college league and he comes from a very poor family. However, one day, he is spotted by Glen Foy, a former soccer player and scout, who encourages him to come to England to try out for a professional team.

Working in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant and in his father’s gardening business, Santiago gradually saves up money to make the trip to England. But a problem arises. His father, feeling his son’s soccer aspirations are unrealistic, surreptitiously takes his son’s hard-earned money and uses it to buy a truck which will allow him to build up his own gardening business and to provide a livelihood for his son. Santiago’s dream is shattered, but then his grandmother comes to his rescue and gives him the money for the trip.

Arriving in Newcastle, he tries out for the team, but does not perform well. Again, he is rescued by a friend, who pleads with the team management to give him another chance. As a result, Santiago is given a month’s trial. Santiago has more setbacks during this trial period, but he has many stellar moments as well. Over time the coach recognizes his extraordinary talent, paving the way for Santiago’s success as a professional player.

Judaism values perseverance, staying on task and showing commitment in the face of obstacles. The patriarchs of the Jewish people–Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–all exemplified this trait. Maimonides mentions Abraham specifically because of the ten tests he endured during his lifetime. Those tests included, among others, the experience of being exiled, the abduction of Sarah, his wife, the binding of his son, Isaac, and his battle with the four kings.

One of the commentators observes that he was able to overcome these challenges because his perseverance was rooted in hope, in a positive outcome after many years of struggle. Abraham believed that things would get better, and, therefore, he was able to withstand the obstacles.

Santiago Munez in Goal! The Dream Begins almost loses hope, but his innate sense of optimism and hope for the future enables him ultimately to triumph. For him, the impossible dream becomes possible.

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McFarland, USA (2015), directed by Niki Caro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purchase this movie on Amazon.com.

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