Join me in welcoming back an old friend! Rabbi Herbert J. Cohen, Ph.D., hasn’t come here in person, but his newest book is an appropriate and worthy stand-in.
Kosher Movies has recently been published by Urim in English, and is already available here in the United States through Amazon and other booksellers.
You might remember Rabbi Herb as an educator in Dallas, working with the Community Kollel and teaching at Yavneh Academy. He arrived here in 2006, then left in 2010 when he and wife Meryl made aliyah. Now he teaches English language and literature at two schools in Beit Shemesh, Israel.
The book’s subtitle explains much: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema.
In addition to his prime vocation, Rabbi Herb’s been a regular movie reviewer for a Canadian newspaper and a contributor to the religion section of the Huffington Post.
The big question now is, What makes a movie kosher? The author answers, “To me, a ‘kosher movie’ is a film that has something meaningful to say about life.” He’s found such meanings in some 120 movies reviewed in his new book.
“In recent years in religious circles, both Jewish and non-Jewish, there has been a reaction against contemporary film as destructive of core family values and vacuous of meaning,” he says. “This book assumes that there are movies worth watching, with 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. This book aims to marry ancient tradition with the modern cineplex.”
Films included are grouped into 10 sections, from ethics to sports, from parenting to self-improvement. Each is introduced with a very personal essay that provides valuable information about, and insights into, the thinking of the man who has written these reviews. Every essay begins with an “I” reference or experience before moving on to quickly identify and justify the broader human values the author has found in that movie.
For example, the piece on 1993’s Searching for Bobby Fischer begins with Rabbi Herb’s memory of watching that master play chess when he himself was a Yeshiva University undergraduate.
“It’s the conflict between being nice and being a winner that is the subtext for this film,” he says, concluding that “a fulfilling and meaningful life is a life with balance.”
Applying King Solomon’s “A good name is better than precious oil” to 2012’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the takeaway lesson is that integrity is better than wealth. From 1958’s The Nun’s Story, he distills this: “The desire to do good should not hinge on the approval of others. We should do good for God’s sake, not our own.”
How did a rabbi become so involved with film? Two essays that introduce the book itself track Rabbi Herb’s own path from a secular Jewish childhood (synagogue youth services on Saturday morning and a movie in the afternoon!) to his adult observant Judaism, when he “began to look for meaning in films. I wanted them to be not only enjoyable, but I wanted to leave the theatre enriched with some kind of message.”
Senator Joseph Lieberman praises Kosher Movies: “Rabbi Cohen’s insightful essays on a wide array of movies create a harmonious convergence of faith and art,” he writes. But the cover “blurb” from Vincent Coppola puts things most succinctly: This book is “like Chicken Soup for the Soul meets Roger Ebert.”
Kosher Movies is the fifth volume on Rabbi Herb’s growing bookshelf of his own works; predating it are The One of Us: A Life in Jewish Education; Walking in
Two Worlds: Visioning Torah Concepts Through Secular Studies; Kosher Parenting: A Guide for Raising Kids in a Complex World; and the one we locals may remember best: Texas Torah: The Interface of the Weekly Torah Portion with Everyday Life.
This article was originally published on Texas Jewish Post