A new beginning
by Rabbi Jesse Olitzky
We find comfort in the fictional worlds created by Hollywood. Whether we are actors, writers, producers, or simply fans, we escape in these fictionalized worlds, the fantasies we watch in movie theaters, the episodic narratives that we follow week-to-week on television, and the lyrical stories told through song. Escaping in these fictional worlds allows us to bury the challenges of reality, to ignore that which we must face in life.
However, these worlds that we immerse ourselves in, these worlds created by Hollywood, offer us important lessons in life as well. Jewish tradition teaches that during the Hebrew month of Elul, the month we are currently in, leading up to the High Holy Days and the Jewish New Year, we dedicate ourselves to reflection, repentance, and renewal through acts of justice and wrestling with the divine. We look for the good inside ourselves and accept those things we’ve done wrong, in hopes that we will change in the year ahead.
Film, television, and music are more than simply entertainment. Such pop culture offers insight into our lives and lessons to help us mold into a better version of ourselves. The Pop Elul Project uses themes found in movies, music, and television to reflect on who we are and who we want to be, and regardless of our faiths, find the good in ourselves and the good in the world.
‘Red Band Society’ teaches us to focus on what unites us, not what divides us
One of the most talked about new shows on broadcast television this fall season premiered last week on Fox, the comedy-drama Red Band Society. The show has only received mixed reviews from critics; the website Rotten Tomatoes has only given it a rating of 59%. As questionable and sometimes light-hearted as the show’s premise may be, the lesson of the show sticks with us.
The show, based on the Spanish series Polseres vermelles, focuses on a group of adolescents and teens living together and bonding together in a pediatric ward of Los Angeles’ fictional Ocean Park Hospital.
The show has some impressive stars serving as the caregivers who tend to these pediatric ward patients, including Oscar winner Octavia Spencer who stars as Nurse Jackson and Dave Annable of Brothers & Sisters who stars as Dr. McAndrew. What I enjoy most about the show though is that it reminds me of the 80’s classic The Breakfast Club.
In the John Hughes film from almost thirty years ago, five very different teens from different cliques with very different personalities (“The Criminal,” “The Athlete,” “The Basketcase,” “The Princess,” and “The Brain”) are forced to spend Saturday detention together. The film chronicles their day together becoming friends (and more!) in the process. At detention, they are all the same. There are no cliques. There are no societal separations. They are the same, and they come to realize that as well. The film never shows what happens Monday morning when they return to school, but that almost doesn’t matter because at that moment, in that space, during detention, they are united. They appreciate that they are all valued, sacred, and special.
Red Band Society offers a similar premise – thirty years later – taking the group of teens with different backgrounds and personalities out of Saturday detention and into the pediatric ward. However, the idea is the same: anywhere else, especially in the context of high school where there are way too many social divides, these adolescents would never speak to each other. Yet, in the content of the pediatric ward, they are the same, they are united. They appreciate each other’s sacredness. Even “mean girl” cheerleader Kara (played by Zoe Levin) begins the show by telling the other teens that if this was high school, she would never talk to them. The narrator Charlie (Griffin Gluck), who is a nine-year-old in a coma who can hear everything, even acknowledges that rebel Leo (Charlie Rowe) and know-it-all Emma (Ciara Bravo) would never be together, but in the pediatric ward, they find each other.
Real life isn’t high school. In the real world, we do not separate ourselves by cliques. However, too often we still separate ourselves. We stay close to those that look like us, act like us, or believe as we do. We distance ourselves from those who are different.
Yet, the lesson we learn from Red Band Society and The Breakfast Club is that we aren’t so different. We focus on our differences to divide us. Instead, let us embrace each other and that which unites us. As we seek to make this world a better place in the year ahead, let us do so together. Let us look out for all, embrace all as God’s creations, and understand that we are all sacred. Under different circumstances, maybe others would seek to divide us. However, our commitment to peace unites us. Our commitment to serving as God’s messengers, and making this world a better place, unites us.
In the year ahead, let us open our arms to all. Let us lower the barriers of the cliques and divisions that too often separate us from each other and let us unite as God’s peoples, God’s creation, fulfilling our promising to create a world in which the sanctity of each individual is realized and valued. We don’t need a red hospital band on our wrists to unite us. All we need is an open and pure heart.
Please note: Red Band Society premiered on Fox on September 17th. New episodes can be seen on Wednesdays at 9:00 PM EST. If you missed the series premiere, you can watch it here. The pilot episode was Rated TV-14 for some alcohol and drug use, some profanity, and serious medical situations.
This is where I need you
The weekend before the holiest days of the year for the Jewish community, the High Holy Days, a movie focused on one of the most sacred acts in the Jewish community hit theaters. Written by Jonathan Tropper (based on the book of the same name that he also wrote) and directed by Shawn Levy, This Is Where I Leave You has an all-star ensemble cast including Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shephard, and Jane Fonda.
In the film, the four Altman siblings, all struggling in different ways in life, come back together at their childhood home after their father dies. They spend the week together, fulfilling their father’s final wish and request, to sit shiva (the traditional Jewish week of mourning following a funeral) for him. Ironically, their father, who requested that his children sit shiva, was an avowed atheist. Was the family patriarch trying bring together his estranged family, even after he left this world? Or was he, even though he did not believe in God or ritual, asking his family to turn to ritual as we so often do, during times of mourning and loss? Maybe, he just knew the importance of coming together.
This premise is set up to bring the family back under one roof, so we can watch a story unfold about family dysfunction and the hilarity that ensues as a result.
The movie has only gotten lukewarm reviews but the film still offers us an important lesson about the importance of coming together. We may fight and argue. We may distance ourselves from our family, from those closest to us. Yet, it is at times of need, at times of loss, mourning, and grief when we must come together, when we need each other the most.
Community is truly defined by how we come together, for each other, at the high points and low points in life, how we celebrate together and how we mourn together. Jews, and those who have cast their lot with the Jewish people, throughout the world will gather together in synagogues in the coming days for the High Holy Days. We may not entirely connect with the liturgy. We may not understand the themes and messages found in the narrative of the Torah reading. We may not fully understand what our relationships with the Divine are or how we each struggle with those relationships. Still, we come together. For many, we also come together with extended family and deal with the dysfunction – the blessings and sometimes challenges – that come with extended family being under one roof, just as we witness in this film.
But the tension, the disagreements, and the dysfunction do not prevent us from coming together because if we don’t come together, then what’s the point? Judaism cannot survive on a deserted island. One can continue to believe. One can be alone and still have faith.
But without community, without coming together, Judaism – and faith in general – cannot survive. So we come together, in joy and in grief, and at this time of year, for holiday celebrations. We come together to celebrate a new year and as we celebrate, we let go of the past that has caused such dysfunction in the first place. We come together because we depend on each other. We come together because we need each other. So let us come together during this holiday season, as family, as friends, as community. Let us lean on each other. Let us raise each other up. Let us find renewed strength of body and soul together. Because this is where I need you.
Please note: “This Is Where I Leave You” stars Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shephard, and Jane Fonda, was directed by Shawn Levy, produced by Spring Creek Productions and 21 Laps Entertainment and distributed by Warner Bros. premiered on September 19, 2014 in the United States. The film is Rated R for language, sexual content, and some drug use. Viewer discretion advised.
‘New Girl’, New You
Tuesday night marked the beginning of season four – and the return – of the show that you can’t help, but fall in love with: Fox’s New Girl, starring Zooey Deschanel as titular new girl Jess. I love the show, not just because it is filled with oodles and oodles of Jewish references, mostly by Schmidt, played by the hysterical Max Greenfield, who throws down Jewish references weekly (“I’m like a Hebrew cheetah,” and “A Menorah – Judaism, Son,”) and attempts to educated his misinformed roommate Nick, played by Jake Johnson (“Tzatziki is what it’s called. It’s Jewish charity”). I love the quirkiness of the humor, the odd couple pairings of the different personalities living together in one Los Angeles apartment, including Coach (played by Damon Wayans Jr.) and Winston (played by Lamorne Morris).
But most of all, I love the premise: New Girl Jessica Day is a quirky, dorky, adorable middle school teacher in Los Angeles, California. In the pilot episode, she finds returns home to find her boyfriend with another woman. She quickly moves out, and with nowhere to go, she decides to answer an ad on Craigslist, moving in with three (which has now become four) male roommates. Jess was the new roommate, and the new girl. Jess seemed out of place, but this was the perfect opportunity for her to start over, to begin anew.
In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah, Folio 16b, there is a list of things an individual can do to change a decree against an individual, one of which is changing one’s place. From this teaching, comes the Hebrew proverb Mishaneh Makom, Mishaneh Mazal, meaning, “If you change your place, you change your luck.” Sometimes, it is our familiar surroundings that are so hard to let go of and leave, yet it is those familiar surroundings that truly prevent us from changing.
We often talk about nature vs. nurture. Nature – one’s genetic makeup – is something that we cannot necessarily change. But nurture, those who we surround ourselves with and associate with, is something that we very much have control over.
Hasidic tradition teaches that each individual has within us a Yetzer Tov and a Yetzer Rah, a good inclination and an evil inclination. In fact, tradition suggests that each even has the same amount, 50%, of each inclination. Thus, we have equal opportunity to do right or wrong, or in the case of new beginnings, to stay in neutral and remain the same or to shift gears, go in a new direction, and begin anew. What yetzer, what inclination we side with, the one in which we settle on negativity, or the one in which we push to change and be different, is influenced and determined by who we surround ourselves with and where we are, literally and figuratively.
In the year ahead, may we all change for the better. May we rid ourselves of those things that weigh us down, those people who prevent us from changing that which we truly need to change, and those places that prevent us from starting anew. May we settle into a new place. For some, that may mean literally moving, to a new house, a new job, a new city, or a new school. For others, that may be more figurative, a new state of mind, a new change in lifestyle, a new mindset. But either way, mishaneh makom, mishaneh mazal, may we change our place, figuratively or literally, and change our selves.
Please note: New Girl starring Zooey Deschanel, airs on Fox on Tuesdays at 9:00 PM. For those who missed the season four premiere, it is available on Hulu. Episodes are Rated TV-13 for sexual content, alcohol use, and inappropriate language.