Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (1997), directed by John Madden

mrs-brownWhen I was in eighth grade, I invited Dolly, a girl I knew through my local JCC, to my junior high school. I wanted to show her the building in which I took great pride. I had nothing in mind other than to show her my classrooms, but my visit after the school’s regular hours caught the attention of the school janitor who reported my unconventional visit to the principal. The next day I was summoned to his office and given a reprimand for escorting Dolly by myself after school. What I did was give the appearance of impropriety, and the incident gave me a visceral awareness of how appearances can often telegraph the wrong message about a person or event.

Mrs. Brown deals with the consequences of not considering how things look and, instead, just doing something because you want to do it. The film opens with information about Queen Victoria, who mourns her deceased husband, Prince Albert, long after he has died. Prince Albert spent lots of time with his servant John Brown, and the Queen’s advisors summon Brown to court to spend some time with the Queen and hopefully convince her to return to public life.

Things do not as planned, however, when Brown becomes an important man in the eyes of the Queen, who perceives him as a good friend and loyal subject who wants only to protect her. As a result, Brown foments tension at the court between himself and the royal family and the Queen’s long-time advisors. Even members of the public, the press, and politicians begin to resent Brown’s influence over the Queen. Soon rumors abound that Brown and the Queen are having an affair, all of which are unsubstantiated.

As the Queen’s popularity drops, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli encourages Brown to persuade the Queen to return to her public duties, arguing that this will please the people and be good for the monarchy in England. Brown reluctantly acquiesces to Disraeli’s request, but the Queen views his suggestion as a personal betrayal. As a result, their relationship begins to fracture, but their abiding friendship for each other weathers the storm.

Jewish tradition and Jewish law is very much concerned about the appearance of impropriety. The classic Biblical case is the woman suspected of adultery. If the husband warns his wife not to be alone with a certain man and she goes against his will, there is a suspicion that during the time that they are alone, they have been intimate with one another. This suspicion generates a ritual in which the woman has to drink a certain mixture of waters to determine her guilt. It is a trial by ordeal.

Another example of the Bible’s concern for impropriety is the discussion that Moses has with the tribes of Reuben and Gad who want to remain on the eastern side of the Jordan instead of entering the Promised Land. Moses permits them to do so as long as they join in war to conquer the Land of Israel. If they do that, then they will be “cleared before God and before Israel.” The Talmud derives from this a general principle that one has to consider not only how God, who knows all, sees an action, but how an act will be seen by people as well.

The story of Queen Victoria’s friendship with John Brown illustrates the consequences of impropriety, especially in the arena of public life. Being in the public eye creates enormous social pressure to be above suspicion of any kind. The implicit message of Mrs. Brown is to be sensitive to how one’s actions can convey mistaken impressions no matter what one’s station in life.

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Captain Fantastic (21016), directed by Matt Ross

captain-fantasticAs an educator for many years, I have encountered parents who opt for home schooling instead of enrolling their children into a traditional school. Sometimes the motive of the parent is to save the cost of private school tuition; at other times parents truly feel that conventional schools are often inferior and do not sufficiently tap a child’s intellectual potential. For these parents, home schooling offers an alternative and parents begin enthusiastically to educate their own kids at home.

Problems with this arrangement arise as the child gets older and needs more specialized education. It is rare that parents are skilled enough to meet the child’s growing academic needs, and home schooling becomes very labor intensive. Academic requirements often exceed what the average parent can deliver.

Captain Fantastic tells the story of parents who opt for home schooling and do not give up as their six children mature and the demands of home schooling increase exponentially. They understand that home schooling is by its very nature unpredictable and idiosyncratic, and adversity does not lessen their enthusiasm for it.

Ben Cash and his wife Leslie live with their six children in the Pacific Northwest. They are principled people who reject the American capitalist way of life and, instead, create for their children a learning environment where independent, critical thought is valued. Ben and Leslie teach their kids to think out-of-the-box, to question everything, and to learn skills that will enable them to survive in all kinds of challenging environments.

Life changes when Leslie dies leaving Ben totally in charge of his children’s education. His sister Harper tries to convince him to enroll the kids in a traditional school, but to no avail. His in-laws suggest the same, but he refuses their suggestion and their aid.

As time goes on, the children begin to question their father’s philosophy and his parenting skills. One even accuses him of being complicit in his mother’s untimely death. Family unity begins to unravel until Ben finally has an epiphany that his parenting practices might lead the children to very dangerous places. He then understands the importance of balance in navigating between the real and academic worlds.

In Jewish tradition, the educational ideal is for a parent to be the child’s teacher. The Bibles adjures parents: “ And you shall teach your children.” Proverbs states: “Listen, my son to the ethical instruction of your father and to the Torah of your mother.” But then reality asserts itself when parents are not capable of imparting wisdom because their own knowledge is limited. The Talmud tells us that when this happened historically, the Sages established schools to take on the parental task of educating children. Ultimately, what resulted is a synergy between parent and school in which both educated children and shaped their adult identities. The key is balance; one influence should not cancel out the other. Both contribute to the development of the child’s total personality.

Captain Fantastic, which refers to the charismatic father sensitively played by Viggo Mortensen, is an appealing character. It is clear that he loves his children dearly and wants the best for them. He shares their pain and their joy, and his kids recognize the love that underpins every interaction between them and him. Problems, however, arise in the crucible of life experience when educational theory meets reality. It is then that their relationship is tested.

The film reminds us that sometimes the ideal has to be tempered with real life demands in order for people to navigate life intelligently. Living a life without compromise of any sort may be intellectually satisfying, but also may be emotionally draining and even dangerous. The key to successful parenting, in the Jewish view, is to encourage children to lead a balanced life.

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Room (2015), directed by Lenny Abrahamson

room-posterThere is a story in the Talmud about a sage, Rabbi Elazar, who made disparaging remarks about an ugly man, whereupon the ugly man said that he was created ugly by God and that was his lot through no fault of his own. The sage regretted the unkind words he said and an overwhelming sense of remorse plagued him. The sage died soon thereafter.

The takeaway lesson learned is that one should not be critical or judgmental about a person who suffers indignity through no fault of his own. On the contrary, one should try to embrace such a person and make him feel a valued member of the community. The tragic story of Ma in Room illustrates one of the consequences of holding someone accountable over events over which one has no control.

The film begins with Jack, a five-year old, saying hello to all the things in his room. He shares the room with his mother who plays with him and does exercises with him. We learn that Old Nick provides food to them and basic toiletries but does not permit them to leave the room, locking it with a padlock code. The cubicle is soundproof and has no windows except for a skylight. They have a TV, but it is on a closed circuit with limited programming. Jack thinks of the people on the screen as aliens. In spite of these limitations, Ma teaches Jack, educating him as best as she can.

We soon learn that at age 17 a man told her he had a sick dog that he wanted her to see. The man then abducted her and kept her locked up in a room. She had a child, Jack, with him and has been trapped in the room for seven years. Jack knows nothing of the real world outside, and has trouble conceptualizing information about the real world that his mother is giving him now on his fifth birthday.

Desperate to escape, Ma hatches a plan, which involves Jacob being rolled in rug and pretending he is dead. Then Ma asks Old Nick to bury him outside in the real world. The scene of Jacob traveling in the truck bed and seeing the real world with leaves and trees for the first time is a powerful emotional awakening for Jacob, one that the viewer viscerally experiences. It is a magic cinematic moment.

Ma and Jack’s release from years of forced confinement is not the end of story. The narrative continues with their adjustment to freedom and trying to lead a normal life. Jack gets vaccinated for the first time and has to wear a mask and sunscreen while he builds up his immunity to the environment. His grandfather and grandmother embrace their long lost daughter, but her grandfather has difficulty looking at his grandson, the result of his daughter being raped by her abductor.

This brief but disturbing interchange between father and daughter depresses Ma because she feels her forced incarceration, which occurred through no fault of her own, has stigmatized her and her son. It is an unsettling reality, which she now has to endure.

Judaism has a different approach to the victim of rape. Yoni Lavie, a contemporary Orthodox rabbi, observes that it is important to reassure a rape victim that there is nothing wrong with her and she should feel no guilt. She does not have to repent for she is still “pure, pristine and righteous.”

Room is a difficult film to watch because it portrays people in extremely dire straits. However, ultimately it reminds us that no matter how bad our situation may have been in the past, we can, with patience and kindness, still move beyond the most horrible of realities.

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Infinitely Polar Bear (2014), directed by Maya Forbes

infinitely-polar-bear-posterAs a child with a Downs Syndrome sister, I recall in the 1950s families with Downs Syndrome children often kept their kids in the proverbial closet. My mother and father thought differently. They felt Carol, their daughter, needed to be visible in the community and that the community should provide the resources for such kids to develop their potential to the fullest extent possible. That’s why my mother fought for the establishment for a school in Westchester County for the mentally retarded and, when Carol was older, for the establishment of a retarded children’s workshop in White Plains so that Carol could feel and be productive in her mature years.

Not all parents felt the same way. Some wanted to hide the disability, for they were uncomfortable saying they had a retarded child. I know of one specific instance where the parents decided not to take the child home from the hospital, consigning the baby to life in an institution.

Infinitely Polar Bear does not deal with mental retardation, but rather with a manic-depressive father and the family’s attempt to live a normal life, which is challenged every day by the erratic and outlandish behavior of the father.

It is Boston in the late 1970s. Cameron Stuart suffers from manic depression, sometimes referred to as bipolar disorder. The film begins with him being fired from his job and going into rehabilitation in a hospital setting. To manage the situation financially, his wife Maggie and their two young girls move into a small apartment while she does her best to support the family.

As Cameron’s mental health stabilizes, Maggie applies to graduate school for an M.B.A. so she can earn more money and send her girls to private school. Fortuitously, Columbia University grants her a scholarship. To attend, she asks Cameron to take care of their kids for 18 months, the time she needs to complete the degree, after which they can reunite as a family. Cameron agrees, but has his doubts about whether he can fulfill the mission.

Living with their father is a constant source of embarrassment for the girls. They love him dearly, but Cameron’s bizarre behavior tests them. He occasionally abandons them during the night, is overly friendly with neighbors whom he hardly knows, and begins many home improvement projects that are never finished, leaving the house in disarray. To complicate matters, Cameron does not take the meds needed to keep him calm, and the home life of the family is shattered with frequent emotional outbursts.

Infinitely Polar Bear raises the question of how much a child should tolerate the abusive behavior of a parent. The Talmud in the Tractate of Kiddushin (31a) is instructive. A story is recounted in which a prominent man wearing expensive garments was seated among Roman officials. His mother forced her way into the gathering and tore his garment, hit him on the head, and spat in front of him. In spite of this, he did not embarrass her. Another sage states that if the mother threw his wallet into the sea, the child should remain passive and not embarrass his parent.

Implicit in this Talmudic narrative is the notion that honoring parents does not depend on what parents did for you or whether they were good to you. Rather the commandment to honor parents is simply because they gave you life. As a result, you need to be nice to them even if they are not nice to you.

Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin, a clinical psychologist, considers the extent to which a child should honor a parent who is abusive. He makes a distinction between a parent who is mentally competent and one who is deranged. In the former, there is more latitude for the child to respond to abuse; in the latter case, there is less. When a parent, for example, has bipolar disorder or Alzheimer’s, the child is faced with a great challenge to keep his composure in the face of behavior that might otherwise be condemned.

Infinitely Polar Bear reminds us of the challenge of being respectful to parents even when they do not behave as parents. It also indicates that an abiding love for parents can often overcome the worst of parental provocations.

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Steve Jobs (2015), directed by Danny Boyle

steve-jobs-posterDuring my entire professional career, I used a PC both at home and the office. The Apple computer seemed geared for geeks and not suitable for an office environment. But as it happens with all machines, eventually they break and it was time to buy a new computer. I consulted my son, Benyamin, and he encouraged me to buy the iMac. Now that I was not working in a school office and had more flexible work hours, I decided to seriously consider the Apple. After several months of indecision, I finally bought one.

There was a steep learning curve, but Benyamin helped me navigate it successfully. My Apple experience sparked my curiosity about the CEO and founder of the company, Steve Jobs, who went against the prevailing notion of what a computer should look like and how it should function when he developed the Apple.

Steve Jobs traces his career by focusing on three product launches that defined the company. Watching him overcome technical challenges and keep his eye perpetually focused on his goal is a lesson in management worth considering.

The film opens with old news footage of famed science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke talking about how personal computers will be an essential part of the future. It then shifts to California in 1984 on the eve of the Macintosh computer launch. The Macintosh is a financial bust. In 1998, Steve launches NeXT, a computer workstation for schools. Even though its cube shape looks sleek and cool, it also is a financial disaster. In 1998, Steve launces the IMac computer and it is a resounding success both in terms of its design and its user-friendly interface.

Although Steve Jobs in presented in an unflattering way as an egotistical genius of marketing who fails to recognize the achievements of techies who built the IMac, he, nevertheless, impresses us a person totally focused on achieving his vision of success: he wants the ultimate consumer experience for the Apple user. Failure along the way does not intimidate him. Rather it energizes him for future innovation, for Steve Jobs always fails forward.

The Bible provides many examples of people who persevered in the face of adversity. Rabbi Jonathan Saks cites the example of Joseph who survived a plot to kill him, who was sold as a slave, who withstood the calumny of Potiphar’s wife, who spent time in prison, but who eventually became a chief administrator in the court of Pharoah, enabling his own family to survive during a time of worldwide famine. The history of the Jewish people is replete with similar stories of heroes who overcame challenges that would have deterred lesser men from achieving their goals.

Indeed, Steve Job’s journey from anonymity to fame is punctuated by a series of obstacles that did not deter him from continuing to work towards his goals. He did not abandon hope. During his rise to fame, he was fired from Apple and diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Yet these setbacks did not curb his enthusiasm for life and accomplishment.

Saks concludes his article on Joseph with a telling quotation from Winston Churchill: “success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” This echoes the Jewish mantra that “seven times the righteous will fall, and yet they will rise again.” Failure is a part of life, but our tradition reminds us that failure does not have to be terminal. The life of Steve Jobs is a clarion call to persist in the face of adversity and not give in to despair.

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House of Sand and Fog (2003), directed by Vadim Perelman

house-of-sand-and-fogHouse of Sand and Fog may be the saddest film I have ever seen. It demonstrates the tragic consequences of failed communication, when two people are, metaphorically speaking, on opposite sides of the table unable to find a compromise middle ground before it is too late to avoid catastrophe.

There is a well-known story in the Talmud (Gittin 55b) explaining the origins of the destruction of the Holy Second Temple in Jerusalem. A man wanted to invite all his friends to a big party. He sent an invitation to his friend Kamtza, but his servant mistakenly delivered the invite to his enemy Bar Kamtza.

When Bar Kamtza showed up at the feast, he was told to leave. Rather than be embarrassed, Bar Kamtza offered to pay for the entire feast. In spite of this generous offer, Bar Kamtza was ejected from the festivities. The rabbis who were present and witnessed this exchange said nothing, and Bar Kamtza assumed they were complicit in causing his embarrassment. In anger, he went to the Roman authorities and said the Jews were disloyal to Rome. The Romans took this slander as truth and proceeded to attack and destroy both the Jews and their Temple. Self-absorption, misunderstanding, an inability to see things from another’s perspective led to this tragedy. This is the essential narrative crux of House of Sand and Fog.

Kathy Nicolo is depressed. Her husband has left her months ago. She lives alone in small house near San Francisco Bay. Because of her failure to respond to eviction notices for non-payment of county fees, her home is sold at auction to Massoud Amir Behrani, a former Iranian Army Colonel who fled Iran when the Ayatollah assumed control of the country. For Behrani, the purchase of the home represents his final opportunity to gain respect for himself, for his wife, Naderah, and for his son, Esmail. His goal is to fix up the dilapidated house and sell it for four times the purchase price in order to provide a comfortable life for this wife and for a college education for his son.

Kathy feels the county has illegally has sold her home and enlists the aid of a lawyer and Deputy Sherriff Lester Burden to help her reclaim her house. And so begins an acerbic relationship between Kathy and Behrani, both of whom assume they are in the right.

Kathy willfully destroys the lives of others in her quest to get her house back, while Behrani does not understand the desperate straits that motivate her actions. Things reach a breaking point when Lester, posing as another policeman, threatens Behrani with deportation of his family back to Iran where certain death awaits them. Behrani, who is a bonafide American citizen, discovers that he is the victim of extortion and reports Lester’s misrepresentation to the internal affairs department of the police department, further driving a wedge between Kathy and Behrani.

Tensions escalate until an unspeakable tragedy suddenly awakens sympathy for the other. Calamity has the power to take a person out of his own malaise and makes him aware of the troubles of other human beings. It is a painful way to learn.

Jewish law and lore places a high priority on harmonious relations between people. Knowing that everyone is created in the image of God means that everyone is important, everyone is unique and has infinite potential. Therefore, one cannot be dismissive of anyone, for everyone deserves respect, even if they do not agree with you.

Our Sages tell us not to hold grudges or be vengeful. Rather, anytime we encounter friction, we need to try and work it out. We need to ask ourselves if we are at fault for miscommunication. Once we recognize our own faults and correct them, we can bring the ultimate redemption of mankind one step closer. Kathy Nicola learns this lesson too late.

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Pawn Sacrifice (2014), directed by Edward Zwick

pawn-sacrifice-posterI once employed a teacher who wanted very much to succeed in the classroom. The model lesson that he gave before being hired was superb and I thought he would be a great asset to the school.

Things went well in the first year of his employment, but then problems emerged. He did not take criticism well and blamed others for his own shortcomings. Either the students were not cooperative or the parents were conspiring against him, deliberately sabotaging his teaching efforts. Eventually I had to release him because of his constant complaining, which bordered on paranoia. I felt that there was a danger that he might infect the kids with his overwhelming negativity and inability to respond to criticism constructively.

This notion that talented people are sometimes sabotaged in life because of their own self-induced psychological issues underpins the sad narrative of Bobby Fischer, the chess genius. Fischer vanquished Russian Boris Spassky in the chess match of the century, yet suffered serious mental issues that, at the end of his life, left him a vagrant and alone, espousing conspiracy theories to anyone who would listen.

The film, which begins with Bobby as a child, depicts him being exposed to conspiracy theories by his mother, a Russian immigrant, who fears a possible social revolution in the United States, in which ordinary citizens are spied upon. A loner as a young boy, Bobby learns to play chess on his own, and it soon becomes his obsession. His mentor, a local chessmaster, creates opportunities that lead Bobby to the arena of professional chess championships.

After he becomes the youngest grand master ever, Bobby senses that the Russians are out to get him and responds with vitriolic outbursts that surprise even his fans. He seems unhinged mentally when he decides to leave the professional world of chess because of suspicions that the Russians are trying to isolate him and make it impossible for him to win.

Sensing that it is important for an American to win the World Chess Championship in the era of the Cold War, an American lawyer volunteers his services to Fischer to enable him to modify the tournament rules so that he will have a fair chance to win future competitions. Bobby then turns to William Lombardy, a former World Junior Chess Champion, to be his second, a man who will encourage Bobby to mitigate his excessive demands and return to winning tournaments. Bobby then re-enters the world of professional chess.

Although Bobby projects confidence and invincibility, we sense insecurity and mental psychosis because of the pressure to win every match. His first match with Russian Boris Spassky, the reigning World Chess Champion, ends in defeat; but Bobby and Spassky eventually meet again in Reykjavik, Iceland, for a historic match to determine who, indeed, is the world’s greatest chess player. It is a sporting event like no other and it captures the excitement of chess fans all over the world.

Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish thinker, promotes the golden path in life, avoiding extremes in lifestyle and character traits. Moreover, the Sages of the Talmud always espouse living a live of balance. They especially discouraged a life motivated by jealousy and a life in which the desire for honor and recognition dominates.

Bobby Fischer does not lead a balanced life. He is a troubled child who grows up to be a troubled adult. Focused on chess alone, he turns inward and divorces himself from the real world. His inability to see things from the perspective of the other does not allow him to appreciate the contributions of those around him. All he sees are people who want to take advantage of his celebrity. Such a narrow, extreme view of life leads to paranoia and emotional instability.

Bobby Fischer’s narrative in Pawn Sacrifice is a cautionary tale of what can happen when you lead a life without balance, when you are concerned only with your own welfare and no one else’s.

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