Herbert J. Cohen
Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Sound of Metal

I have ambivalence about reviewing Sound of Metal under the rubric of “kosher movies.” I define a “kosher movie” as one that has something valuable to say about the human condition and that might even help us navigate our own lives. Indeed, the film definitely offers some worthwhile wisdom, but it is given over with an abundance of profanity. There are no sex scenes nor is there nudity, but the overall ambience of the movie is far from the Torah world in which I live. I am telling you this because I feel Sound of Metal is a worthwhile cinematic experience, but not for everyone. If you are not already a moviegoer, I suggest you take a pass on this one.

Ruben Stone is a percussionist and part of a heavy metal duo called Blackgammon. His girlfriend Lou is the vocalist, and they travel across the country in their home away from home, an RV, to perform shows. In the midst of one show, Ruben suddenly begins to lose his hearing.

He goes to a pharmacist to try to find out what is his problem, and the pharmacist refers him to an audiologist who tests his hearing. He determines that Ruben can only hear about 20 percent of words, and that his hearing is rapidly deteriorating. Cochlear implants might help, but they are very expensive. The audiologist tells him to avoid exposure to all loud noise, but Ruben is in denial. In spite of this prognosis, Ruben continues to perform.

When Lou becomes aware of the gravity of Ruben’s condition, she wants him to stop performing. She also is concerned about his mental stability because Ruben is a recovering drug addict who may relapse. With the help of Hector, his narcotics rehab counselor, they locate a rural community facility for deaf recovering addicts led by Joe, a recovering alcoholic who lost his hearing in the war in Vietnam. Joe is patient with Ruben and a true mentor and guide. Knowing viscerally what is the mindset of an addict, he informs Ruben that a condition of his being accepted into his facility is that he be must be there alone, without his beloved Lou. Realizing that his entire future is at stake, Lou and Ruben painfully separate.

Slowly, Ruben acclimates to his new environment and new reality, but he still dreams about getting cochlear implants. In the interim, he learns sign language and follows Joe’s protocols for recovery and adjustment to his new condition.

When Ruben begins to connect with the children at the facility, things improve greatly. Ruben even gives the children drumming lessons. All this good work prompts Joe to offer Ruben the possibility of working permanently at the center, but Ruben is still fixated on getting implants and returning to his normal life.

By watching him coming to terms with deafness with his conflicting desire to leave the facility, one achieves a better understanding of how difficult it is for one to cope with a sudden loss of health that compels one to alter his lifestyle. He yearns to return to his former life, but Joe’s words reverberate in his mind. Joe, a sage advisor, declares that being deaf is not a handicap. It is not something to fix. In fact, implants are considered an affront to the deaf culture. The film presents these two conflicting approaches to deafness, without making a judgment.

Pam Moritz, a Jewish educator, makes some observations after experiencing her own sudden hearing loss. After trying a number of medications and having steroid injections directly into her ear while staying in the hospital, she experienced no improvement. What helped immensely was the concern exhibited by her caring friends. She was inundated by WhatsApp messages, phone calls wishing her well, and a constant stream of visitors.

Pam also began revisiting Torah texts and videos with uplifting messages. Rabbi Paysach Krohn gave her one memorable piece of wisdom. He reminded her that going through a particularly hard time such as a health crisis gives you an understanding that others may not have. This means that now you can truly give back to people. He observes: “When you’ve gone through a hardship and you reach out to others so that they don’t have to go through the same, or when you help alleviate the pain for those who are going through the same – that is a deep kindness that makes a world of difference.”

Hearing that, Pam focused more on the blessings in her life as she came to terms with her loss: She writes: “I thought of my friends and family. They hadn’t gone through the same experience but they certainly know what hardship feels like. They know that being alone can feel scary. With their constant WhatsApp messages, phone calls, visits, and unexpected gifts, I had a support system that reached half-way around the globe.” She understands that sudden hearing loss is certainly a loss, but life continues. By focusing on the positive, she comprehends that, from the aspect of eternity, her life is filled with blessings.

Ruben Stone in Sound of Metal does not yet achieve that epiphany, but he does commence coming to terms with his deafness when he begins to give back to the deaf children he teaches. At that watershed moment, he starts to let go of that which he cannot fix and he begins to appreciate stillness. His story reminds us, as one movie reviewer stated, that there are times in life when we must embrace and accept the inevitability of unpredictable change.

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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