Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Quiz Show

As a parent, I am heavily invested in my children. When my kids were younger, I could guide them in a very direct way. Now that they are older, I parent differently because my children live in faraway places. I offer counsel by phone or email to continue my involvement in their respective destinies.

In truth, parenting older children is much harder than parenting young kids. Life is much more complicated for an adult than for a child; and adult children have a mind of their own, which may not always coincide with a parent’s point of view. Regardless, I still love my kids whether we always agree or not. I identify with them and share their joys and missteps as well. When they achieve, I feel joy within; and when they stumble, I am still standing by their side, which is why I understood the father-son dynamic in Quiz Show, an expose of the rigged TV quiz shows in the 1950s.

Quiz Show introduces us to Herbert Stempel, the reigning champion on Twenty One, one of the ubiquitous television game shows where contestants win money based upon their ability to answer questions from a wide range of knowledge areas. Behind the scenes, the corporate gurus are worried about flat ratings, and they ask Stempel to take a dive so that a new intellectual hero can emerge. That new hero is Charles Van Doren, the son of the celebrated academic, Mark Van Doren, a venerated English professor at Columbia University. The producers of the show offer to give Van Doren the answers, appealing to his pocketbook and to his ego. At first he refuses, sensing that he will compromise his name and his family’s reputation; but at the end he succumbs to temptation. In the week’s that follow, Charles Van Doren, intoxicated by money and fame, becomes a celebrity.

Dick Goodwin, a Harvard law graduate, begins to investigate the show, and uncovers that the fix is in. Both Stempel and Van Doren received the answers beforehand. A Congressional Committee convenes to ferret out the truth and it becomes clear that Van Doren will be implicated. At that moment, he visits his father and confesses his dishonesty. His father, shocked by his son’s revelation, in a heated interchange reminds his son that “your name is mine.” Charles has besmirched the family name and it is a painful realization.

In spite of Charles’ moral lapse, Mark Van Doren and his wife accompany their son to the Congressional hearing. He is a father, not only a mentor, and it is in this role that he looms large. He does not abandon Charles because of his mistake. He is invested in his son, who, like his father, is a PhD professor at Columbia. They share the same contextual framework at the professional level; and even at family picnics, they can finish the other’s literary quotations. He is disappointed by his son’s betrayal of the public trust, but he still sticks with him even when Charles is publicly humiliated.

Two messages emerge from Quiz Show, both of which are found within Jewish tradition. The Talmud tells us that more than erudition, more than wealth, more than status, a good name is man’s crowning achievement, and is more precious than money or fame. Furthermore, we should never give up on our children, even when they make mistakes. Our role model is the patriarch Jacob, whose sons gave him much him much grief. Simon and Levi attacked Shechem without asking for their father’s approval, and their action was a public relations gaffe of the highest order, recounts the Bible. And when Jacob finds out that the brothers have sold Joseph, he is at first astonished at their behavior. However, at no time does Jacob walk away from his children, no matter how egregious the fault. Jacob can be critical of them but he cannot desert them.

Our children should be taught the value of their good name and how their actions affect the public perception of their name. Furthermore, we should understand that while mistakes by our children may be painful, our love for them is unconditional.

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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