Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies:The Lost City of Z

A friend of mine was recently given the opportunity to move to a better paying position in his company if he would relocate to the West Coast. He had just bought a home in Westchester and had planned to stay in the Northeast for the foreseeable future. But then this “once-in-a-lifetime” chance at improving his financial bottom line presented itself and for a few moments he was in a quandary.

His confused state did not last long. He told me that he decided to stay in his current job because it would give him more time with his wife and kids. Money and professional advancement were not his only goals. He wanted to be a good father and husband and those were his priorities. Percy Fawcett, the explorer hero of The Lost City of Z, does not see as clearly as my friend.

The story begins in 1905. Percy Fawcett, a young British officer, wants to advance himself as a soldier. When the Royal Geographic Society of England asks him to travel to Brazil and Bolivia to survey and map the country’s contiguous borders, he accepts the challenge. What drives him is a desire to restore the family’s good name, which has been blemished by his alcoholic father.

On his way to the Amazon forests, he is told to abort his mission, but Fawcett insists on continuing to advance his reputation as an explorer. He succeeds in this task and coincidently learns of a city in the jungle replete with riches and a high level of culture.

During his long explorations, he leaves his wife, Nina, who supports his exploration efforts, and his children as well. Regrettably he is not there when his second child is born. Upon his return, Fawcett is greeted as a hero, and he is challenged to return to Amazonia to further explore it. The trip is only partially successful and Fawcett returns to England where he lives in obscurity.

In 1923, interest in exploring the Amazon is high and John D. Rockefeller and a consortium of American newspapers fund an expedition to find the lost city of which Fawcett spoke. This expedition is led by Fawcett and his son Jack, who encounter hostile natives on this return trip. Their fate is unclear.

All during Fawcett’s career of exploration, his wife supports him. She even quotes the classic line of the poet, Robert Browning, who encouraged people to dream big: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Yet in spite of her outward support, she is inwardly lonely and longs for her husband’s companionship. Furthermore, his children resent their father’s prolonged absences from home.

Judaism encourages a balance between life and home, between spirituality and a quest for material success. The institution of the Sabbath epitomizes this: “six days shall you labor and do all your work and the seventh day is Sabbath unto the Lord your God on which you shall not do any work.” If one is devoted exclusively to work, it becomes a form of idolatry.

Moreover, Rabbi Elliot Dorff writes that one’s family should take precedence of one’s vocation. His proof text is the conversation that Moses has with the tribes of Reuven and Gad who stay on the eastern side of the Jordan rather than cross to the west with the other tribes. Their rationale: so that “we might build sheep pens for flocks and cities for our children.: The Rabbis comment that this statement, in which the flocks are mentioned before the children, reveals that these specific tribes were more worried about their possessions than they were about their children.

The Lost City of Z reminds us of the high cost of achieving one’s personal goals when one has a young family. Judaism wants us to strike a balance between personal aspirations and family responsibilities, always placing the latter first.

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
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