Herbert J. Cohen
Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

When I turned sixty, I realized that in spite of the fact that I felt at the top of my game in terms of the skill set I brought to Jewish high school education, I was no longer perceived as such by potential employers. They wanted younger people to assume positions as school heads. I was part of the past, not the future. This is one of the reasons why living in Israel has been exciting for me. Here I can recreate myself as a Jewish educator, not as a head of school but as a valuable piece of a larger educational entity. Here I can redefine my mission.

This is the essential narrative arc of all the characters in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, who have an emotional epiphany as they stay at a hotel “for the elderly and beautiful.” Marigold captures the pain of growing old, its challenges, and its possible joys if one approaches this time with a positive attitude, and focuses on what one can do, not on what one cannot do.

Old age is a time of loss but also a time of freedom and redefinition. All of the principals come to this picturesque hotel because of an attractive brochure; but, in fact, the hotel is in a state of disrepair and neglect. In a sense, the hotel is a mirror of its new guests who also are “elderly and beautiful.”

Evelyn, recently widowed, is forced to sell her home to cover her late husband’s huge debt and her vacation is a reprieve from the pressures she faces on the home front. Graham, a retired judge, has come to India to find a long lost lover. Jean and Doug come because it is an affordable vacation after giving their daughter most of their savings to start a business. Muriel, a retired housekeeper, comes because she can obtain a hip replacement in India at a fraction of the cost in England. Madge is seeking a husband, and Norman is seeking sexual adventure and companionship.

The intertwining stories, however, share a common thread: how do we come to terms with old age, with declining physical strength, and the knowledge that our life is coming to close? How do we deal with feeling marginalized or ignored?

All the characters in the story have an emotional awakening. Most are able to redefine their life. Some sadly cannot and remained paralyzed by yesterday’s perceptions. They see, as one character says, neither light nor joy and are unable to seize life’s new opportunities. There is a remarkable piece of wisdom, articulated at several points in the film, which suggests the proper approach for senior living. Sonny, the hotel manager, a young man with senior insight, offers the following perspective when things are not going well and the worst is expected: “everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end.”

This is a point of view expressed in the Talmud when the Sages tell us that whatever God does for us is for the good. It may not be apparent immediately because we see only a part of the picture. If we were to see everything from beginning to end, we would understand that, in the final analysis, from the aspect of eternity everything is good. A conversation between Muriel and Evelyn encapsulates this philosophy in a humorous way. Evelyn observes: “Nothing here has worked out quite as I expected,” to which Muriel responds: “Most things don’t. But sometimes what happens instead is the good stuff.”

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel reminds us that retirement does not have to mean the end of life as we know it. It can be a time of self-evaluation, a time for redefinition, and a time for the assumption of new and worthwhile tasks. In truth, in the Bible there is no word for retirement. Abraham doesn’t retire. He is productive until his last breath. Moses also does not retire. He is active until the final day of his life. They lead a life of purpose, in which every day has meaning. Their senior years are golden because they use them to clarify life’s goals and to implement a strategy for purposeful living.

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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