by Amos Lassen
It has been one hundred years since D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” was released and even though it was considered to be controversial (and remains so today because of its racism, it is an important milestone in the history of cinema in that it remains responsible for the movies to be the dominant and most influential medium of visual arts in the modern age. It revolutionized movie storytelling with its cast of hundreds and its nearly three-hour length. Because of the way it was received, we understand just how important it was culturally and socially. We later learned that the leaders in the film community were Jewish men who were working hard to raise an industry to become part of the cultural expression of this country.
Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Marcus Loew, William Fox and Irving Thalberg were among the principal founders of such important motion picture studios and production companies as Paramount Pictures, Fox and MGM. Because of these men, the film industry contained a significant Jewish element and it was interesting that the first film with sound was “The Jazz Singer”, the story of a traditional Jew who seeks fame and fortune as a popular entertainer and the tension of assimilation that is caused by this. The movie made the movie-going public aware of Jewish values that were to become mirrored by society at large. These values included overcoming adversity, the triumph of hope and the belief in second chances. These values were soon part of the American mind and this came about by the way there were seen on the screen.
In “Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema”, Rabbi Dr. Herbert Cohen looks at there values— the very same ones that have not changed with the movies and we come to realize that Jew and Gentile aspire to them. Rabbi Cohen goes a step further and looks at the peculiarity of the Modern Orthodox approach to engagement with popular culture and film as a way to glean from it “common experiences of life that can and should enhance an Orthodox expression and appreciation of the world, and humanity within it”.
“Kosher Movies” is a collection of short essays on movies that reinforce this Modern Orthodox ideal. The films are grouped together by themes (i.e. parenting, relationships, sports and adversity, ethics and self-improvement) and the essays themselves usually run about two pages in length. They look at the overarching leitmotifs and ideas that the films themselves convey to reach almost a “homiletical conclusion of some of what Orthodox Jews should garner from watching movies.
Rabbi Cohen’s book is not to be confused with other