Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Jeremiah Johnson

As a young father, vacations generally meant going to places like Disneyland or to resorts with a pool and kid-friendly activities. Once I became an empty nester, vacation destinations changed. National Parks were the place to visit. My first one was to Acadia National Park in Maine; and over a number of years, my wife and I visited many in the United States and Canada. Instead of going somewhere to be amused, we traveled far to contemplate and appreciate the beautiful world that God has given us. Spending time hiking, surveying breathtaking lookout points, and listening to the sounds of nature were rejuvenating. Which is why I greatly enjoyed a recent viewing of the Western classic, Jeremiah Johnson.

Jeremiah leaves civilization as he knows it and journeys to the mountains. He wants to become a mountain man, living away from the hustle-bustle and corruption of the busy city. He wants to be alone, and to discover the beauties of nature first-hand. There is a parallel here to a famous story told about Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century leader of German Jewry and Bible commentator, who near the end of his life resolved to visit the French Alps. His students tried to convince him not to go because of the risk to his health, whereupon he told them:”When I come before God, I will have to answer for many things. But what will I tell Him when He asks me, ‘Have you seen My Alps?'”

This thirst to see all of God’s resplendent world is a Jewish sensibility. The Talmud (Yerushalmi Tractate Kiddushin) explains that in the future God will hold us responsible if we do not enjoy the beautiful things He created in this world. It is a good thing to go out and see the trees, the mountains, the rivers, lakes and oceans. Seeing them reinforces our belief and appreciation for God who created all of it.

However, there is a dark side to being a mountain man. “Do not separate from the community,” say our Sages. Jeremiah learns that a life of isolation can be dangerous and unforgiving, and that there is a price to pay for solitude. For example, he has no back-up when things go awry.

One incident, in particular, brings this lesson home. Having married an Indian woman and found a modicum of happiness in the wilderness, he is asked by the US Calvary to lead a search party to bring food to a stranded wagon train. He is not anxious to leave his family, but he reluctantly agrees and leads them to the wagon train. Inwardly, however, he is agitated that the route takes him through a sacred Indian burial ground. The scene of traversing the burial ground is one that encapsulates both the allure and danger of nature. It is a grey day, snowing gently but relentlessly as the soldiers pass by skeletons of dead Indians, foreshadowing a tragedy that is to come. It is an image of both beauty and dread.

Left alone in a vast wilderness with savages all around, Jeremiah is forced to defend himself on countless occasions in order to survive. The Hobbesian notion that life is nasty, brutish, and short finds expression in the harsh life of Jeremiah Johnson. But in spite of it all, he emerges not as a bitter or angry person, but as one content with his lot, understanding that life is filled with contradictions, with happiness and sadness, with beauty and ugliness. It is a mature sensibility, worthy of emulation.

There is much to admire in Jeremiah Johnson. He is a man of few words, of deep feelings, of personal integrity, who, through age and experience, appreciates and values the beautiful world before him.

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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