Herbert J. Cohen
Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Watching movies, religiously

Courtesy of Pixar
Courtesy of Pixar

December 25th is a very special day for me. It is my birthday, and from my early childhood I have fond memories of my sister Martha taking me to the Paramount Theatre or Radio City Music Hall in New York City, where we would watch a new film that had just opened along with a stage show that included such luminaries as Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Johnny Ray. It was there that I became enamored of the movies. I still remember with what awe I watched the curtains part at Radio City Music Hall when it unveiled its first wide screen; and there I saw Shane, a landmark western that made me an Alan Ladd fan for years.

As I got older, I became an observant Jew, knowledgeable about Jewish law and tradition; and my attendance at movies became suspect, especially as the nature of movies changed over the decades. Still, my infatuation with film remained and I continued to watch them, but my tastes gradually changed. I began to look for meaning in film. I wanted them to be not only enjoyable, but I wanted to leave the theatre enriched with some kind of message.

In recent years in religious circles, there has been a reaction against contemporary film as destructive of family values and vacuous of meaning. I take a different view. I assume that that there are movies worth watching, that have something valuable to say about the human condition, and that we can take advantage of the good that films offer if we become discriminating consumers. I am convinced that films can be a tool for self-discovery, as we navigate the many challenges of life together with movie protagonists.

In my blog, I aim to marry ancient tradition with the modern cineplex. My review of Toy Story 3 illustrates my method.

Many years ago, I hired what I thought was a star teacher. He gave an excellent model lesson, had good references, and even played the guitar. Yet I soon discovered a serious flaw. He never wanted to deal with parents. It seems that, once long ago, he was abused verbally and emotionally by an insensitive school parent. The repercussions of that event still lingered and colored his approach to all parents. He was still angry with them, for they were the enemy. Ultimately, I had to let him go because our school welcomed parent engagement and did not see parents as adversaries.

The experience reminded me that sometimes we can let a bad experience define how we behave in the future. In truth, it is a great tragedy if we cannot move beyond a hurtful experience, if we permit anger and ill will towards others to dominate our lives.

Toy Story 3, an animated film that is a parable of human relationships, provides one classic example of this in the character of Lotso, the chief toy in a day care center full of dysfunctional and malevolent toys that lord over the new recruits who come to Sunnyside Day Care. Lotso has allowed a bad experience in his youth to forever taint his relationships with anyone he meets. The back story reveals that Lotso also was once a treasured toy, but his owner abandoned him, or so Lotso thought. In truth, she lost him and did not deliberately abandon him. Lotso, however, lived on the false myth of his abandonment and made that bad experience the seminal one in his life. Anger was what drove him and defined him.

Into Lotso’s monstrous world enter a group of naïve toys, who fear obsolescence when their owner, now grown up, departs for college. They fear abandonment, but take heart in the possibility of finding a warm and friendly environment of a local day care center. From a distance it looks attractive. But a closer look reveals that the ownerless day care toys are not only used but abused. The kids at the day care do not feel any emotional connection to the toys. The children play with the toys and then toss them away. In contrast, the new recruits, accustomed to an owner who had invested in a relationship with them, want in some way to replicate that situation. They want to feel valued, emotionally connected, and respected. The toys are truly us.

Their first impression of Lotso is positive. He is soft spoken and huggable on the outside, but they do not realize he is an angry monster on the inside. His past anger has determined his future.

Jewish tradition tells us that anger is one of the worst traits to possess. In fact, the Talmud compares it to idol worship. When one is angry, it is a manifestation of a lack of belief in God’s providential supervision of the universe. After all, how can one be angry if God is in charge of things? It is a Jewish mode of sensibility to presume that from the aspect of eternity, everything ultimately will make sense because God is orchestrating events in a hidden way which our finite minds cannot comprehend at the moment.

Lotso, whose life is defined by anger, reminds us not to allow negative memory tapes of the past to determine our present or future. It is a bad thing when anger lives rent-free in our brains and influences our present relationships.

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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