Review of ‘Kosher Movies’ book by Rabbi Nachum Ansel

I began reading with great anticipation the volume Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema, and I was not disappointed. Rabbi Dr. Herbert Cohen has a well-earned reputation as a first-rate educator, and he combines his educational insights and personal warmth and knowledge of Jewish values, with an obvious affection for great Hollywood films. Having used this methodology professionally in the classroom for forty years myself, I was very curious how Dr. Cohen would harness this all-powerful medium to teach great Jewish lessons and understanding for today. Every page was literally a joy.

Rabbi Cohen analyzes each of 111 films, many of them classics, each in two pages. He usually begins with an anecdote from his personal life, then a brief synopsis of the film, and finally discusses which Jewish life lessons and sources he derived from each film, based on the particular movie and Rabbi Cohen’s life experiences. Because the Rabbis of long ago, even before movies were invented, understood human nature and stated that experiences seen, like film, are more powerful than experience heard or read (Midrash Mechilta Hachodesh 2), movies as a tool for learning and values have affected billions of people during the last hundred years. By sharing how movies of all kinds have affected him Jewishly, including classics as varied from “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off” to “Zelig” to “Rocky” to the more recent “the Hurt Locker,” Rabbi Cohen demonstrates that any moral issue experienced by any moviegoer can be used as a vehicle to discuss as a Jewish issue. Indeed, Judaism deals with daily moral scenarios and provides directions and a compass for any and every moral dilemma, which can be found in every one of the movies analyzed in this volume. Rabbi Cohen’s vast knowledge of sources along with his great knowledge of film, helps the reader better understand each movie, better understand each life issue faced in the films, and also better understand Judaism as a whole. No one will ever see movies in the same way again after reading this volume.

This author has also used films and television shows extensively in the classroom and in informal settings for the past forty years, having taught this methodology to thousands of teachers of all Jewish stripes. And though my methodology differs somewhat in specifically how to use the clips, concentrating more on the details of each issue, that is a mere difference of style. That fact that I do not always come to the same conclusion as Dr. Cohen in using a particular film, simply proves how powerful a tool film is as a trigger for discussion and Jewish learning, as any good educational trigger can be used in many different ways (I have used many of the films discussed in the book but often analyzed them differently or selected different dilemmas within in each film). I would have liked to see more Jewish sources brought on each issue as well as their origin. But that is a quibble of style and not of purpose.

Rabbi Dr. Cohen has done the Jewish and non-Jewish world a great service in producing this book and sharing his thoughts and insights, and Kosher Movies is an invaluable tool enabling us to view not just these 111 films in a Jewish way, but reminding us that all movies can always be seen with “Jewish” glasses. I await the sequel for Dr. Cohen’s analysis of his next 111 films.

Kosher Movies is available from Urim Publications

Rabbi Dr. Nachum Amsel received his doctorate (EdD) developing a curriculum for using trigger films in the classroom, and was the author of LAVE (Life and Values Education ) for the Orthodox Union for twenty two years, authoring hundreds of lesson plans using TV shows and films as a catalyst, developing a methodology teaching Jewish values in formal and informal settings. He has taught over 5,000 Jewish educators this methodology, which is being used on 5 continents today. He is currently the Educational Director of Rabbi Wein’s Destiny Foundation, using new techniques and films in teaching Jewish history, and has recently authored the recent “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values.”

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