Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: About Schmidt

Every Friday night my children bless their children. They look them in the eye and ask God to protect them and shine His face upon them, and give them peace. It is a special moment when parents and children affirm their love for one another. My parents certainly loved me, but did not practice this tradition of blessing their children on the Sabbath. Instead, I observed the different custom of blessing my kids once a year on Yom Kipper, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

One of the few regrets I have about my parenting is that I did not bless my kids every Friday night. I think affirming my love weekly for my children with holy words and a hug would have enhanced my communication with my kids when they became adults.

There is a scene in About Schmidt, the sad and humorous story of a man entering his retirement years, that encapsulates the consequences of not affirming your love for your children on a regular basis. Warren Schmidt is not happy about his daughter’s choice of a husband and implores her to break off the engagement. His daughter, Jeannie, responds: “All of a sudden you’re taking an interest in what I do? You have an opinion about my life now? Okay, you listen to me. I am getting married the day after tomorrow and you are going to come to my wedding and you are going to sit there and enjoy it and support me or else you can just turn right around right now and go back to Omaha.” It is a letdown for Warren, who finds himself unable to influence her in spite of his enduring love for her.

Warren Schmidt is an actuary recently retired, but unsure about what he will do with this life without the routine of a regular job that gave him a sense of daily accomplishment. His wife, Helen, has visions of travel and adventure, but Warren is not excited. Moreover, when he realizes that he is no longer valued by the company for which he has worked so many years, his malaise deepens.

A bright spot occurs after he sends a donation to an African relief fund helping orphans. He learns the name of the boy, Njudu, who will receive his gift, and begins to write him, revealing much of his personal background and angst at this turning point in his life.

When Warren’s wife suddenly dies, he is forced to rethink how he will spend his time alone. He reconnects with his daughter, hoping she will be there for him during his period of adjustment to being a widower. But Jeannie is emotionally unavailable to him, and this hurts Warren deeply.

After a series of disappointments, he reflects that his life has not made a difference to anybody. But news of Njudo at the orphanage is uplifting and Warren realizes that he has, indeed, made a difference in at least one person’s life.

In Jewish tradition there is a story told that a baby comes into the world with its fist clenched to represent the idea that in our youth we want to hold onto things, to acquire possessions. When we leave the world, our hands are not clenched but open, symbolizing the reality that at the end of our lives we can take nothing with us except our good deeds.

Warren Schmidt experiences that epiphany. Near the end of his life, he understands that the kindness that he extended to Njudu represents the legacy that will live on after him. The ripple effect of a good deed extends into eternity.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at
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