Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

In the early 1970s, my late wife and I would regularly visit The Great Southeast Music Hall, an inexpensive music emporium that showcased up and coming artists. One night as we exited, I looked at the billboard announcing next week’s artist. He had a new album called “Cold Spring Harbor,” but I decided to pass on this unknown talent. And so it was that I missed an opportunity to hear Billy Joel at the beginning of his celebrated career.

Flash forward to today and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an unusual narrative about a person who is born as an old man and grows progressively younger, compelling the viewer to think about time in unconventional ways. The narrator, Benjamin Button, observes that “our lives are defined by opportunities, even the ones we missed.”

Missing the Billy Joel concert did not define my life, but Benjamin Button reminded me of the special opportunities that all of us have in our life’s journey. Our sages tell us: “When an opportunity for a good deed comes to us, we should do it with alacrity.” There are moments in life when time and circumstance meet, when we have an opportunity for greatness, for success, or to simply change our life’s direction, an opportunity that may not ever come again. How do we capture those moments?

Benjamin Button offers suggestions. When Benjamin is abandoned as a baby, a young married black couple finds him on their doorstep. Queenie, the wife, decides that she will take care of this child of God. Since the woman has been unable to bear children, she sees finding Benjamin as an opportunity to be a mother. It is an opportunity she will not let pass.

Benjamin, himself, takes advantage of opportunities. His changing body daily reminds him of the fickle nature of time and circumstance, and when a tugboat captain is looking for volunteers, Benjamin signs on immediately. This leads to a series of maritime adventures in World War II, and to a life-long interest in travel and discovery. It also broadens his view of the world. Having been born and raised in New Orleans, he now feels comfortable in foreign lands.

The film’s central story is the love between Benjamin and Daisy, a girl whom he first met at a retirement home when she was visiting her grandmother. She thought him an old man but connected to him because of his boyish ways. Their relationship evolves over the course of time as Benjamin gets younger looking as she gets older, until they reach an interlude in time when both are about the same age and can relate to one another romantically. It is a moment of opportunity and they marry and have a child.

Benjamin Button asks us to contemplate how we capitalize on the moments of opportunity that arise in our lives. When I was 12, my synagogue rabbi gave my parents an opportunity to send me to a religious camp. They said yes, and so my life was forever changed. At first, it was isolating, but I soon found new friends who were on my wavelength and life was good, fulfilling and purposeful. My parents were wise; they saw that, as a teenager, I was coming to the proverbial fork in the road and they gave me the opportunity to take the less traveled road.

As a rabbi and educator, I witness many people failing to take advantage of a particular moment in time, and this affects the rest of their lives. Having missed one opportunity, sadly they miss many others. Benjamin Button reminds us to be aware of precious moments of opportunity, and to take advantage of them to enrich our lives.

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