Herbert J. Cohen
Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: The Courier

In October of 1962, I was taking a Philosophy course at Yeshiva College with Professor Alexander Litman. He was an unconventional teacher whose lectures mesmerized his students. One week there was much discussion about the Cuban Missile crisis and how it might lead to a global nuclear war. Dr. Litman ended the class before the weekend with a line that I cannot forget. He said, “I’ll see you on Monday if there will be a Monday.” The comment epitomized the uncertainly of the world situation at that time and unsettled the students. The Courier deals with that tense moment in the history of the Cold War.

The narrative unfolds when MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, receives a letter from Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet military intelligence officer, expressing his concern about world safety and his anxiety about the possibility of nuclear war instigated by mercurial Head-of-State Nikita Krushchev. Emily Donavan, a CIA agent, contacts Dickie Franks, an MIA agent, to recruit British salesman Greville Wynne to be their spy to gain knowledge about Soviet missiles being transported to Cuba, an island close to the United States.

Wynne, a businessman, is reluctant to undertake the mission. His expertise is in sales, not secrets. MI6 convinces him that he possesses the perfect cover for gathering intelligence since he will purport to be visiting Russia for financial reasons, not for espionage. Once in Moscow, he will meet various financiers and businessmen with whom he will share business opportunities for them in the West, especially with regard to factories that manufacture Soviet necessities. This will give him continuous access to Oleg Penkovsky who will provide him with intelligence that may save the world from nuclear holocaust.

As the information sharing between Oleg and Greville increases, the risk grows as well putting the lives of both men in jeopardy. Their altruistic motives do not guarantee a happy resolution for all. Greville and Oleg have to live with uncertainty, often not knowing whether their sacrifices for country and for humanity will bear fruit. Greville faces incarceration in a Soviet prison and Oleg faces execution, and neither is aware whether the intelligence they provided is truly valuable and whether it will prevent nuclear war.

Emuna Braverman, a Jewish educator, writes about the challenges of living with uncertainty: “Whether it’s an innate character trait or not, we all need to learn to live with uncertainty. We can’t know the future. We don’t know how our decisions will play out. We aren’t told whether our actions will lead to success our failure, whether this relationship will last or fade. We want certainty because it offers up the illusion of control.” She then tells us that living in an age of insecurity compels us to realize that we are not in control, that ultimately God is in charge and we cannot change that. Life is filled with uncertainty, but the believing Jew knows that God loves us and will be with us in all our trials. We are not in charge of outcomes.

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks places the issue of uncertainty in a historical context: “The twenty-first century will one day be seen by historians as the Age of Insecurity. We, as Jews, are the world’s experts in insecurity, having lived with it for millennia.Faith is the ability to rejoice in the midst of instability and change, travelling through the wilderness of time toward an unknown destination.”

Oleg Penkovsky and Greville Wynne, in the final analysis, accept the risks of living with insecurity. Serving the greater good, creating a safer world, makes the risk acceptable.

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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