Kosher Movies: Citizen Kane

I am in awe of Amazon, the behemoth of retail Internet sales. When I lived in America, I rarely used the Internet to shop; but now that I live in Israel, I use the Internet regularly. I order stuff and send it to one of my kids in the States; and when I visit them during the summer, I have a whole bunch of stuff waiting for me. Once, however, I ordered the same item twice because I forgot an earlier order. It was a subtle wake-up call reminding me that the desire for acquire more and more stuff is a desire that has to be watched and often moderated. That is something Charles Foster Kane does not do in the classic film Citizen Kane.

The narrative opens with Kane’s death in 1941. His last word was “rosebud,” and the story unfolds as the press tries to figure out the significance of the last words of one of the wealthiest men of the world.

Through flashbacks we learn that Kane was sent away by his mother at a young age to keep him safe from his abusive father. Inheriting a vast sum of money when he turned 21, Kane did not have to work for living. To him, money gave him an opportunity to play at work, to test society’s conventions, and to advance his own political aspirations.

Using a good deal of his cash to run a tabloid newspaper, he gains notoriety and financial success. Kane has a thirst for things and he spends much of his life accumulating the accouterments of wealth, including a wide collection of paintings and sculptures. He builds a castle, Xanadu, to house all the art and spends much of his spare time there alone with his treasures.

Kane is very self-centered. Although he sees himself as a savior of the weak and downtrodden, he is often psychologically brutal in his treatment of others. His ex-wives see him as cold and abusive; competitors see him as coarse, manipulative, and driven by a desire to be loved by the masses. The problem: Kane loves only himself and is incapable of loving others.

The press’s search to understand the meaning of the word rosebud continues and its significance is revealed in the final frame of the film. Since this film is a classic, first shown in 1941, I am not reluctant to share a spoiler since rosebud is so much a part of our cultural lexicon.

As the workers labor to clean up Xanadu, one of them throws a sled into a fire where all the trash is being consumed. As it burns, we see the name “Rosebud” emblazoned on the sled. It is the same sled that appeared at the beginning of the story when Kane’s family first receives word of their vast inheritance. Charlie is outside in the snow playing with the sled, which functions as a symbol of his lost childhood, his lost innocence.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, praises labor. Work elevates man. The Talmud mentions many Sages who spent much time in the study hall, but who also worked in the community to support their families. The ideal was to combine study of sacred text with purposeful living. Kane works not to elevate himself but to subdue others.

Furthermore, the Sages tell us “according to the pain is the reward.” When one is given money without working for it, where there is no pain or adversity in accumulating riches, what one achieves is worth little. Charles Foster Kane uses people as he uses money, as commodities, not as reflections of the Divine. Ultimately, his success is evanescent because he has left a wake of broken souls in his path. He has forgotten that true wealth comes when you invest in people, not things.

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 rabbihjco@msn.com.
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