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
more classical film reference works (those of famous movie critics Leonard Maltin or Roger Ebert”. Rabbi Cohen’s essays are not reviews and they usually look at how they relate to Judaism. The caliber of the acting, plot etc. are not important. These essays say less about the movies that they describe and more about the intellectual and personal development of the author. This book can be considered to be something of an autobiography via the movies that the rabbi has seen and relates to. He uses films as touchstones to significant characters and events in his development and this makes this book very personal and very, very engaging. It is through his essays that we learn of some of the important moments of his life including the time he was taught by Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik or his relationships with other important and scholarly rabbis, the birth of his children, the shocking loss of his first wife, his remarriage, his teaching career in Canada, his aliyah and his new life in Israel. We see Rabbi Cohen as a man truly committed to the essential elements of Modern Orthodoxy who is totally aware of the tension between Torah culture and that of the rest of the world regarding God’s creation. By using his own personal life and the movies, he is able to give us new “divrei Torah” from what others might consider to be frivolous entertainment. Yes, it is through his love of both Torah and film that Rabbi Cohen comforts us by saying that both religion and popular culture are relatable.
Rabbi Cohen succeeds in promoting some ideals that in many quarters have been considered passé and specifically this is the effective synergy of the devotion to Torah and the careful application of popular culture. Coming of age at Yeshiva University in the 1960s when these ideas were coming into force, Rabbi Cohen rejects the contemporary notion that the Modern Orthodox approach is intrinsically flawed and does not work (those are those who see the word modern as “verboten” when it refers to Judaism). On the other hand, Rabbi Cohen says that we do not only learn about God thorough his words; we also learn about God through his works. He states that his job as a teacher (of whatever) means giving his students the tools that are necessary to understand and in this we sense his love of the movies but we also sense his love of Torah. He advocates watching films through a specific lens of Torah.
American culture and society has changed a great deal since the first feature film and so has Modern Orthodoxy yet even with those changes, it is still possible to live in a world of both Torah and the movies. As the rabbi matured and became an observant Jew who is knowledgeable about Jewish law and tradition, his going to the movies became suspect (by others), especially with regards to how much the movies have changed recently. His tastes changed as well and he began to look for meaning in the movies he saw. He wanted to be entertained and he also wanted he movies to have a message.
Of late in both Jewish and non-Jewish circles, there has been a reaction against contemporary film as destructive of core family values and without meaning. Rabbi Cohen sees this differently. He assumes 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 moviegoers. We must hold an appreciation of meaningful movies of the past and with this we can appreciate what they can teach all of us. Films can be a wonderful tool for self-discovery and therefore we can define those that do as “kosher movies”, Rabbi Cohen says a movie as kosher if it has something meaningful to say about life.
A Rabbi and a movie critic is an interesting combination. This book is a survey of films that span many genres and he brings us films as a way to engage in self-discovery and to navigate the challenges of life. Cohen shares “inspiring personal anecdotes about self-growth, relationships, parenting, aging, dealing with adversity, and more”.
While many critics summarize a film, focus on the amount of profanity and nudity it contains, and decide whether it’s worthwhile to watch, Rabbi Cohen takes a different tactic and views films as life lessons. The collection of meaningful films in this book come together with inspiring and emotional stories that help understand the plight of others, provides new ways to approach self-growth. Here are 120 standout movies from the past 30 years along with inspiring personal anecdotes. It is quite a fascinating read.
Let me close with a personal rabbi/movie experience. When I lived in Arkansas, I went to see Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in the film for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress. As the movie began, there was a great deal of noise in the row behind us and my friend turned around to ask the moviegoers to be quiet. It was not until the end of the movie when the lights came up that I saw it was my rabbi and his wife who had been speaking loudly. The incident was never mentioned again.