Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Belfast

Considering the current volatile political climate in the United States, several of my friends who were comfortable with their homes and jobs in America are now revisiting their view of aliyah. Some feel it would provide a safer environment for their children, both spiritually and physically. Others are driven by ideological reasons, desiring to be part of the never-ending saga of Jewish history. Still others want to feel a sense of belonging. In Israel they can feel like an insider rather than an outsider.

I have one friend who is thinking seriously about aliyah, but he is rooted to his hometown in the United States. Moving from where his family and friends have lived for many years is difficult emotionally; but if he stays in America, he wonders what will the future look like for his children whose very lives may be in danger.

Belfast deals with a similar question, but is set in Northern Ireland during the time when Protestants and Catholics were ideologically at war with one another. The narrative depicts the life of a working class Protestant family as seen through the eyes of their nine-year-old son Buddy. Buddy’s father works in England while his family, including his mom, his elder brother Will, and his grandparents, Granny and Pop, reside in Belfast.

The film opens with a visceral depiction of the August 1969 riots, in which Protestant loyalists attack the homes and businesses of the Catholics on Buddy’s street. Their goal: to kick out all Catholics from the neighborhood. The residents, both Catholics and Protestants, who have lived together for years in peace, are now compelled by circumstance to set up a barricade at the end of their street to prevent further mob violence. Into this hotbed of religious antagonisms, Buddy’s father returns home from England to check up on how the family is weathering the crisis.

In the midst of this sectarian conflict, Buddy at times unintentionally places his life in danger. His family, recognizing that they are living in a dangerous situation where religious differences are fostering extremist positions and actions, consider whether they should stay or move elsewhere. The answer to that dilemma will have life-altering implications.

As one film critic observes, “It’s quite a family dilemma. How do you decide to pack up and leave the only town you’ve ever called home, and when do you make that decision? When does the danger and turmoil pose too much to risk for your kids?”

Decision-making is often very complicated. As Rabbi Noah Weinberg says, “Living is decision-making.” He encourages us to introspect and not make decisions on the spur of the moment. Buddy’s father and mother do exactly just that. To leave Belfast and their family and friends is difficult, and their final decision is postponed for months until both parents are in agreement about the future. They take time to figure out the next steps in their life’s journey.

Rabbi Weinberg writes: “Part of the difficulty is that many decisions do not have immediate consequences, or have consequences that we cannot perceive. When making a major decision, check that you’ve judged the long-term consequences no less than the short-term ones.” In the final analysis, living means growing, and making decisions is part of living. The progression of life and decision-making cannot be avoided. Even not making a decision is a decision.

Rabbi Weinberg describes responsible decision-making as a way to acquire wisdom. These are his recommendations:

  • The most important decision to make is: “What am I living for?”
  • Making decisions will make your life real.
  • The more informed you are, the better your decisions will be. Don’t make any decision you’re not qualified to make.
  • Evaluate fairly, not based on prejudices. Be a judge, not a lawyer.
  • To live rationally and meaningfully, be willing to admit when you don’t know.
  • Only you determine your life path. Anytime you want to change, it’s up to you.

In Belfast, Buddy’s family ultimately makes a decision based on these principles. By doing so, they chart a courageous course for the future. So can we. We can do what Moshe could not. Make aliyah and enter the Promised Land.

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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