In 1976, I had a memorable hospital visit which I still remember vividly almost 40 years later. I was serving as a synagogue rabbi and was making the rounds visiting people in the Veterans Administration Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. It was there that I met 89 year-old Aaron R.
Aaron told me that he doesn’t mind dying, but the people at the hospital insisted on doing all they could do to keep him alive. He was impressed with their essential kindness. They saw to it that he was served no pork, even though he himself did not request kosher food. When I mentioned that today was Chanukah, the holiday in which we light candles for eight days to commemorate the miracle of the one-day supply of pure oil that lasted for eight, he broke down in tears. He thanked me for bringing this word to him from so long ago. Faced with mortality, religion and God became relevant.
Unstrung Heroes is a moving film about dying and how it changes one’s thinking about the world and about one’s relationships to both man and God. Selma Lidz is diagnosed with cancer and becomes increasingly weak. Her husband, Sid, an eccentric inventor who sees science as man’s salvation, cannot come to terms with Selma’s inevitable demise and is having trouble managing the home front, in particular, his son Steven. Realizing the stress at home, he permits Steven to live with his dysfunctional uncles, Arthur and Danny, who live in an extremely cluttered apartment in a dilapidated hotel. They introduce Steven to their idiosyncratic and unconventional lifestyle, and Steven thrives. He comes to understand that life is not determined by science alone and that there are mysteries that science cannot explain.
Religion becomes a meaningful part of his life, and his dying mother approves. His father sees religion as a crutch, one which he does not need, but his brothers see things differently. In one searing scene, Arthur reminds Sid that “a crutch isn’t bad if you need it,” to which Danny adds, “all of us are cripples in some way.” There is an essential humility in what they say, and it takes awhile for Sid to understand that life is more than numbers. Life, rather, is meaningful connection with other human beings, something that is not quantifiable.
The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, tells us to repent one day before your death. The Sages ask: how do you know when it is one day before you die? The answer: you don’t. Therefore, live each day as if it were your last. Fill it with meaning, with good deeds, with study of holy text, with fortifying family relationships. There is a quiet but emotionally charged scene in Unstrung Heroes, in which Selma kisses each of her children and then passionately kisses her husband. There is a premonition that this might be a final kiss; everyone thinks it and silently treasures that last embrace.
Judaism encourages a happy state of mind. Death should not always be uppermost in our minds. In truth, Jewish lore and law encourages us to smile, to spread happiness and cheer wherever we travel. At the same time, we are to be mindful that life’s end is unpredictable and we should value each and every moment. To live as a Jew is to live dialectically, to be joyful and serious, to be optimistic and realistic, to savor the moment, yet be aware of our eternal destiny. Unstrung Heroes reminds us of life’s complexity and of the need for a balanced response to the agony and ecstasy of human experience.