Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Living

The motion picture Living is about living.

I have a friend who never wants to take a vacation, who never wants to veer from his everyday routines. But in recent years, he has a started to take a break from his repetitive daily rituals. At the suggestion of his wife, who is motivated by her husband’s and her own advancing age, she desires to travel now while they still are in good health. She knows that once they hit the mid-seventies, it may be difficult to travel; and so her husband bites the bullet, and they journey to far off places. Once abroad, he enjoys the trip even though he was not initially excited about the destination.

Rodney Williams, superbly played by Bill Nighy, is a senior London Parks Department bureaucrat in 1950s London. He lives a mundane life until a grim prognosis by his physician informs him that he may have only six months to live. This news awakens him from his bureaucratic stupor, causing him to rethink how he is spending his time. Is he really living?

Every day, Williams sits at his desk surrounded by mounds of paperwork, and seems bored. A group of women petition him to have a World War II bombsite redeveloped into a children’s playground. Williams sends one of his staff to walk with the ladies to other departments in the building to seek a resolution to their request, but no department is willing to help. The women return to Rodney’s office and he places their petition on top of his stack of paperwork, clearly not intending to act on it.

Once Williams receives his diagnosis, however, he is focused on doing something positive with his remaining days. He confesses to Margaret Harris, a female employee of his, who is full of natural joy and positivity, that he is terminally ill. Although much younger than himself, he enjoys spending time with her for it energizes him and motivates him to do something worthwhile to alleviate the frustration of those who petition him for assistance.

Rallying his staff to construct the children’s playground, he uncharacteristically stands up to his colleagues and superiors, personally supervising the project until it is completed.

What is noteworthy is that Rodney has no illusions that the project or his involvement in it will be remembered. In a letter written to Peter Wakeling, a relatively new hire, a letter read posthumously, Williams observes: “To speak plainly, we can not assume to have erected a lasting monument. Should there come days when it’s no longer clear to you to what end you are directing your daily efforts, when the sheer grind of it all threatens to reduce you to the kind of state in which I so long existed, I urge you then to recall our little playground and the modest satisfaction that became our due upon its completion.”

The Talmud tells us that the only things we take to the next world are our good deeds. None of our material possessions accompany us. Rodney Williams undergoes an epiphany in which he imbibes this notion that doing good deeds is our ultimate task in this world.

Bluma Gordon, a Jewish educator, discusses ten time-tested practices to help a person lead a fulfilling and purposeful life. They include the following:

  1. Map out your future
  2. Take responsibility for what’s in your control. Let go of everything else.

3. Say “Yes” to life.

4. Repair your mistakes.

5. Choose joy. Be thankful of everything.

6. Find a mentor.

7. Surround yourself with positive people.

8. Live by the words: “If I’m not for myself, who am I?” (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14) 

9. Live by the words: “If I’m just for myself, what am I?” (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14) 

10. Live by the words: If not now, when? (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14) 


Rodney Williams does not grasp these concepts until his life is close to ending. The film Living reminds us to truly live in the present.

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