Lights, Camera, Hanukkah

The mission and vision of the Pop Elul Project continues throughout the Hanukkah season. I am excited to share that the Hollywood Journal has asked me to write a Hanukkah column for their “Holy Wood” section. The column, “Lights, Camera, Hanukkah,” focuses on the gifts of Hanukkah.


Instead of focusing on the material gifts that one gives and receives, “Lights, Camera, Hanukkah” magnifies the true gifts of the holiday that we are grateful. With each night of Hanukkah, we light another candle on the Menorah, and celebrate another gift.  Like the Pop Elul Project, this also shares the messages of our faith and tradition through the lens of Pop Culture. I invite you to check out the first night’s gift: The gift of light in the darkness, with a little help from Thor: The Dark World and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You can view it on the Hollywood Journal’s website here. Check back each night of Hanukkah for an additional gift.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Life is a House of Cards

I began the Pop Elul Project reflecting on one of Netflix’s top shows of the summer, Orange is the New Black. I figured that it was only appropriate to conclude the month of Elul reflecting on Netflix’s other binge-worthy show, House of CardsHouse of Cards, based on the BBC miniseries of the same name, tells the tale of corrupt Washington politics. The story centers around House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey, who was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for this role,) a democrat from South Carolina who abuses his power by using individuals and taking advantage of others.

HouseofCardsImagePopElulThe essence of the story though is a story of revenge. At the beginning of the series, we learn that Underwood gets overlooked for the Secretary of State position that he believed he was a shoe-in for. He keeps a smile on his face and the viewer is led to believe that he is a man who puts government first and country first. We are supposed to believe that he will not get caught up with the small stuff. As the season progresses though, we learn that his smile and southern charm is all just a part of his strategy.

Frank plays the long game, plotting and planning a revenge to get more than he wanted in the first place. In a carefully staged plot (which the viewer does not even realize was part of his plan until the conclusion of the season) Underwood’s plot comes to fruition. [MAJOR SPOILER ALERT] Frank uses his knowledge of a Pennsylvanian congressman’s addiction to drugs and sex to use that congressman to run for the vacant Pennsylvania Governorship. He then forces the congressman to relapse, essentially knocking him out of the race and forcing him to an emotional point of no return, thus convincing the Vice President (and former Pennsylvania Governor) to step back in his role for the sake of the state. He then makes a bee line for the vacant Vice Presidency, and sets himself up perfectly to be the second most powerful man in the world.

This is a story about power, the struggle for power, and the great lengths one will go to in order to gain power, even at another’s expense. Yet, the essence of the show is still revenge. He uses his power to get revenge. The essence of the show is Frank Underwood’s willingness to ruin other people’s lives to get wanted he wanted, to get revenge. The problem isn’t the trickery. The problem isn’t the lying or cheating. Unfortunately, we have come to expect that as the norm in the District. The problem is revenge.

When we are scorned, when we are insulted, or when we are hurt, we want to retaliate. We want to hurt another in the same way that we’ve been hurt. Taking the Bible’s “eye for an eye” command literally, we seek vengeance. Ultimately though, vengeance is what holds us back. Vengeance is what prevents us from moving on. We have spent so much time during the month of Elul repenting. We do Teshuvah, we repent, and ask for forgiveness from others and from God. We attempt to right our wrongs. Yet, we are often our own greatest barriers to true repentance. We must also be willing to forgive as well as ask for forgiveness. We must also be willing to forget. We must be willing to move on.

Life is a house of cards. When we get caught up in a world of lies, and specifically a world of vengeance, life will come tumbling down around us. That is, unless we are willing to not just hope for a clean slate for ourselves, but give those that have wronged us a clean slate as well.




Please Note: “House of Cards” starring Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, and Kate Mara is available to live stream on Netflix. The Emmy-nominated show is Rated TV-MA for profanity, sex, nudity, illegal drug use, and violence.


- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky



The Blasts Wake Me Up!

I admit that I do not have the best sleeping habits. I often stay up late, either catching up on work, or winding down from a long day by watching whatever is recorded on my DVR. For this reason, I set my alarm clock a wee bit earlier than I need to in order to ensure that I don’t oversleep at all. Many mornings, I’ll set my alarm a full forty-five minutes to an hour before I actually plan on waking up in the morning because I love pressing the snooze button. It is almost like a game I play between my groggy self still half asleep and dreaming and the alarm clock to see if I can fall back asleep and continue dreaming for the next nine minutes until the alarm goes off again and I, in turn, once again hit snooze. I find joy and satisfaction in knowing that when the alarm goes off I can sleep a little bit later, even if my wife doesn’t find joy in my alarm waking her up! I find joy in knowing that I don’t have to wake up. I appreciate staying in my dream world. However, I also know that this is not reality.

I find a similar message in Swedish disc jockey Avicii’s self-described 2013 “summer anthem,” Wake Me Up! This song suggests that when we are younger, we live in a dream world. We are content not dealing with real life or real life struggles. We feel invincible. The lyrics reveal such a message:

So wake me up when it’s all over

When I’m wiser and I’m older

All this time I was finding myself

And I didn’t know I was lost

WakeMeUpImagePopElulThe conclusion to the chorus, and to the song, is telling: I didn’t know that I was lost. The lyrics suggest that this is a realization not only limited our youth. Also as adults, we are lost and don’t even realize it. Sometimes, we think life is fine and we continue on the course we are on. However, it is only after “the alarm” goes off that we become aware to the fact that we must make a change. We do not always know where the journey will take us, but we realize that we are going in the wrong direction. To accept this takes a lot of strength and courage. To hear the alarm, the wake up call, takes even greater awareness.

During the Hebrew month of Elul, which we are about to conclude, Jewish tradition instructs us to blow the shofar, the ram’s horn, every morning. While the shofar is blown one hundred times on Rosh Hashanah, participating in this ritual during this month would suggest that hearing it on the New Year would not be a new thing; the staccato blasts would not surprise us, for we heard the same sound every morning this past month. The reason we are taught to hear such a powerful cry each morning is because the shofar, like my alarm, and like this summer anthem, is meant to be our wake up call. It is meant to help us realize that something is not right in this world and something is not right with ourselves. Once we are awake and aware, we can change. Rosh Hashanah is not about becoming awake and aware. That is what this month leading up to the New Year and new beginning has been for. Now that we are awake and aware, as the New Year begins, let us no longer be lost. Let us be willing to change our paths.

We each could use a wake up call. We could each benefit from waking up from our personal and collective slumber, being aware of where we are and where we need to be. Let the sounds of the shofar, the long blasts, the short cries, and the broken staccato, be our alarm. Let us be aware enough to no longer press the snooze button. As we approach the New Year and we become a little bit older, let us also feel wiser. No longer feeling lost, let us find ourselves.

musicpopelulimagePlease Note: “Wake Me Up!” by Avicii was released in the United States in June 2013. It has peaked at #1 in twenty-two countries including, Australia, Hungary, the United Kingdom, and Israel. The song peaked at #7 in the United States while soaring to #1 on Billboard’s Dance/Mix Show Airplay Chart. 



- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Out of My League

TheLeagueImagePopElulThe League is meant to be the perfect sitcom for guys who hate typical sitcoms. The show focuses around a group of friends in a fantasy football league and prides itself on raunchy inappropriate humor. While I hate to make gender-stereotype assumptions, statistics prove that the show attracts mostly a male audience, although my wife is embarrassed to admit that she enjoys watching the show with me (even if the humor makes her uncomfortable and she doesn’t understand any of the football references.) The show has a sort of cult following, with it already renewed for a sixth season, even though the fifth season hasn’t even premiered yet. The League (along with other shows for a more mature audience, like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Legit) will be a part of Fox’s new network, FXX, for the upcoming season, which premieres September 4th of this week. The premiere of the show is on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the first night of the Jewish New Year. This of course means I’ll be DVR’ing the season premiere, but I think there is a greater connection between this show and goals for the Jewish New Year than just sharing a date on the calendar.

The show is all about winning. The goal of each character is to win their fantasy football league. Please don’t misunderstand me: I am all for winning. I am a huge sports fan and very competitive and emotional when watching my favorite teams. I also play fantasy football, although the others in my league will be the first to tell you that I don’t play well! What is troubling about this show (although I also understand that it is intentionally ridiculous) is not the competition, but rather the extreme limits that one will go to for the sake of competition. The league members aren’t just interested in winning. They are interested in crushing their competition. They trash talk. They mock. They embarrass. They make fun. They shame the loser and celebrate at the other’s expense.

Such acts made me realize: do we laugh at people or with people? Do we enjoy the failures of others? Is our success determined by another’s failure? So many of us work in a world where we can only succeed if others fail. Yet, such a cutthroat lifestyle isn’t healthy. If we truly strive to live in a world of peace and harmony, then why must some of us succeed while others fail? Why can’t we work towards success while simultaneously supporting the success of others? Imagine if we all supported each other. Imagine if generosity took over jealousy.

As a child at Jewish summer camp, I used to joke with my peers about the camp’s slogan, “everybody wins.” It’s unrealistic, I thought. Camp is just setting us up to fail. Yet, there is something beautiful about this message, a message that encourages unity and brotherhood, a message that encourages supporting one another instead of destroying one another.

As we conclude the month of Elul and prepare to enter the New Year, let us each take the time to think about the possibility of peace. A big picture vision of world peace may seem impossible and out of our reach, but true peace begins at home. Peace begins with us, when we stop competing and stop always trying to win. Peace does not come from beating the other. Peace comes from helping the other.

I knew by the seventh round of my fantasy football draft that I wasn’t going to win this year. I still laughed and I joked and I had a good time. Life isn’t about winning. Life is about growing. Life is about becoming the best version of ourselves, and doing so as others do the same, instead of doing so at the expense of others. Maybe Jewish summer camp got it right with a vision of “everybody wins.” That is the vision that I will certainly be carrying with me in the year ahead, just maybe not when it comes to fantasy football.

tvpopelulimagePlease Note: “The League,” starring Mark Duplass, Stephen Rannazzisi, Nick Kroll, Paul Scheer, Jon Lajoie, and Katie Aselton, will begin its fifth season on the new network, FXX, on September 4th at 10:30 PM EST. The show is Rated TV-M for sexual encounters, strong language, and drinking, drugs, and smoking. 



- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Safe and Sound with God

There are those who strive to enter a room, a meeting, or a party fashionably late – not too late to miss out on all the fun, but just late enough to give off the impression that one is so busy doing other things that he or she got delayed. How does a band arrive fashionably late to the music scene? Well for starters, they release a single digitally and then wait two and a half years for it to blow up on radio stations everywhere! Yes, you read that correctly – two and a half years! Capital Cities, the American indie pop pair based out of Los Angeles, California, digitally released their single, Safe and Sound, in February 2011 yet somehow two and a half years later, it finally got air play during the summer of 2013.

CapitalCitiesImagePopElulThis fashionably late arrival to the music scene may be because the song is included on the duo’s debut studio album, In a Tidal Wave of Mystery, which was released in June at the beginning of summer, thus reintroducing the song to the music world for a second time. Finally, it was included as a track on the Now That’s What I Call Music! Volume 45, the definition of having made it in pop music. So, here they are, two in a half years later and Capital Cities’ Safe and Sound is getting daily airplay on the radio.


While the theater performance style of the music video is a little odd (and probably intentionally so,) the song itself, like many pop anthems, is love poetry. The lyrics speak to that love that one has for another:

I could lift you up

I could show you what you wanna see

And take you where you wanna be

You could be my luck

Even if the sky is falling down

I know that we’ll be safe and sound

While some may think that the lyrics of this song are an example of silly puppy love, I see a spiritual statement for I choose to read these lyrics not as a promise between two lovers, but rather as a testament of faith between man and God.

Jewish thought and ritual has a tendency to link romantic symbols and text with God’s relationship to humanity. For example, rabbinic commentary interprets the love poetry of the biblical Song of Songs as speaking of the love between God and the People of Israel. Furthermore, on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which is observed only weeks from now, we participate in many of the traditional Jewish wedding rituals (wearing white, fasting, saying the liturgical confessional) as if we are renewing our vows to the divine.

Many of us grew up in our respective Houses of Worship being taught that God is our Heavenly Parent, watching over us, rewarding us when we do good and punishing us when we do wrong. Not only is such an explanation of our relationship with the divine theologically problematic, it also is not the right analogy of that relationship. I believe that our relationship with whatever our understanding of God is should be defined as a partnership, a spousal relationship, and a mutual commitment to each other. We often turn to God specifically in our time of need, following heartache, illness, or hardship. We are disappointed if we think that God doesn’t answer our prayers or even hear our call. Yet, at the same time, God is also calling out to us, searching for us.

Even at the darkest of moments I prefer to find the light of God. With an understanding and appreciation of the divine, I know that “even if the sky is falling down, I know that we’ll be safe and sound.” This is a statement of faith I make in God, but also a statement of faith that God makes in us.

One of the most revered thinkers and theologians of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, published one of his many works of theology in 1955. The title was not Man in Search of God. Rather, it was more appropriately titled, God in Search of Man. We search for each other in our attempt to have personal revelatory experiences. Even in our darkest moments, we will be safe and sound, comforted in God’s eternal presence. We emphasize this belief in the Psalm for the Season of Repentance, Psalm 27, during this Hebrew month of Elul:

God will hide me in God’s shrine, safe from peril.

The Lord will shelter me beyond the reach of disaster.

Throughout the Season of Repentance, and all year, we turn to God and hope that God turns to us, knowing that with faith in God, and belief that God is by our side, even during the most tumultuous moments of our lives, we will be safe and sound. During these days leading up to the Jewish New Year and High Holy Days, we focus on prayer, Tefillah in Hebrew. The Hebrew verb ‘to pray’ is L’Hitpalel, a reflexive verb, suggesting that to truly find God, we must find ourselves. As the New Year approaches, let us find God and find ourselves.

musicpopelulimagePlease Note: Capital Cities hit single, “Safe and Sound” appears on their debut album, “In a Tidal Wave of Mystery.” released this summer under Capitol Records. As of August, the single has sold over a million copies in the United States.




- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

The Spectacular Future

TheSpectacularNowImagePopElulThe Spectacular Now, starring Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley has been the “indie favorite” of the summer for movie critics. It was warmly received earlier in the year at the 2013 Sundance  Film Festival. I’m not sure what classifies it as “indie.” It may be because Woodley is the film’s biggest star (although she was praised for her role in The Descendants, most wouldn’t consider her headliner material just yet.) It may be that after over a month in limited release, the film still hasn’t even outgrossed its minuscule $2.5 million budget.

Either way, the film has gained much praise from critics and movie-goers, rated 93% out of 100 on the Rotten Tomatoes film review website. Adapted from Tim Tharp’s novel, the comedy-drama begins with a character typical of any teenage story. Teller plays Sutter Keely, a high school senior who loves to party and always seems to be the life of the party. After being dumped by his girlfriend, he parties a little too hard, passes out on a lawn, awoken by Aimee Finecky (played superbly by Woodley) figuring out who he is, what he is doing, and if he is okay.

Aimee is the complete opposite of Sutter and the girls that Sutter has previously been romantically involved with. Sutter is the typical example of the “YOLO” culture of milennials. He lives in the now, the spectacular now as the title suggests, and does not worry about the future. He enjoys the present, instead of worrying about college, a career, and a life ahead of him. Aimee meanwhile is a quiet nice girl who spends your time with science fiction books. They attend the same school and he had never noticed her before. Yet, he takes a notice now, and she ends up as the party animal’s ‘rebound’ girlfriend.

Viewers might be confused by the partnership, with one focused on the present and the other dreaming of the future, yet it works. I am sure many of the film waited for the moment that Sutter would break lovable Aimee’s heart, as is typical in many teenage romance dramas. This coming of age story though teaches us an important lesson. As adult, we often need to remind ourselves that we cannot dwell in the past and we cannot only focus on the future because we will miss the present, we will miss experiencing life as we are living it. Yet this film reminds us of the unfortunate reality of only living in the present and not worrying about tomorrow.

To not worry about tomorrow is to not worry about others and not worry about how our actions impact others. While we learn that actions of others (and his challenging relationship with family) has led Teller’s character to only live in the now, he forgets that his own actions have consequences. Aimee helps him realize that and think about the path that he wishes to create for himself.

Late Saturday night, we listened to the equally awe-inspiring and chilling melodies of the Selichot service. This service recited late night on the Saturday night prior to Rosh Hashanah, is our introduction to liturgy of forgiveness and prayers of a better future. We cannot only live in the now because the now is based on the past. Who we are now and how we act now is a direct result of previous action or inaction. Furthermore, our actions now lead us to who we want to be in the future. So, we reflect and ask ourselves: who do we want to be? What do we want to do? Where do we want to go? The path to get us there must start somewhere. That path begins now.

As we reflect on the future, on the year ahead, and what we want that year to look like, may we also focus on the now, for ultimately, the future begins with now. Now is when we begin to change. Now is when we strive to be the best version of ourselves. We focus on the now not because we do not care about the future. We focus on the now specifically because we care about the future. A spectacular now leads to a spectacular future.

moviepopelulimagePlease Note: “The Spectacular Now” stars Shailene Woodley, Miles teller, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Kyle Chandler. Following rave reviews at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, the film was produced by 21 Laps Entertainment and distributed by A24. The film is Rated R, for alcohol use, language, and some sexuality, all by teens. 

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Zombies for Peace

This was the summer to end the world. While the Mayans incorrectly predicted that 2012 would bring the apocalypse, it seems that Hollywood decided that Summer 2013 was the time to tell their end of the world tales. This is true for comedy, with the Simon Pegg-penned The World’s End recently released in theaters and the Seth Rogen comedy, This is the End, having a successful run throughout the summer. The most talked about ‘end of the world‘ film of the summer though was the zombie blockbuster headlined by Brad Pitt, World War Z. 

WorldWarZImagePopElulWorld War Z was one of the most hyped films going into the summer, but not necessarily for the right reasons. The troubled production stories, reshoots, and plot changes had become legendary in the entertainment world. Brad Pitt produced the film and acquired the movie rights from the author of the book of the same name (authored by Max Brooks, son of comedian Mel Brooks.) The film’s release date was pushed back and an additional seven weeks of shooting in Budapest were added to the schedule, pushing the estimated $125 million budget way over! Additionally, the script had several different rewrites along the way. Still, the film, released at the beginning of the summer was a success, grossing over $500 million on a $190 million budget. Pitt had initially planned on producing a sequel, but those hopes were scrapped because of the challenging production schedule. Due to the Box Office success of the film however, a sequel is now in development.

The apocalyptic tale centers around Pitt’s character Gerry Lane as a former United Nations investigator who is brought back in to help stop a zombie virus that has spread across the world. He is reluctant to help, but agrees when the United Nations promises to keep his wife Karin (played by Mireille Enos) and his children safe in the safe zone set up on US Naval Vessels off the coast of Manhattan.

A turning point in the film comes when Lane visits Jerusalem because he hears that Israeli Mossad had set up a safe zone before the break out. He quickly learns that as a result of the calamities that have stricken the Jewish people throughout history, Israel is always prepared with a “Plan B” just in case. A magical moment happens while in the holy land. Other countries of the world closed off their borders, doing whatever they could to prevent the potentially infected from coming in. Yet, Israel had opened its doors, allowing any survivors – Israeli or Palestinian or other – to seek refuge in its land. Together, the survivors joined hands, put their arms around each other and began to sing.

I have to admit, I did not expect to get teary-eyed while watching a zombie flick (especially watching the action in 3D.) Yet, I couldn’t help myself when I saw Orthodox Jewish men with black hats and payos swaying with their arms around young teenagers wearing kafiyas singing the words of the popular Hebrew/Arabic song, Salaam (Arabic for ‘peace.’) The words, Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu, meaning “again peace will come upon us,” rang true and despite a zombie pandemic, peace was finally achieved between nations.

I know this fictional cinematic peace was short-lived as they all ended up being attacked by the zombies anyway, but the moment of song and celebration was a vision of what can be in this world. Unfortunately, It is only when we are in dire straits that we actually turn to our neighbors and reach out for them, embracing the words of the Psalmist, Hinei Mah Tov Umah Na’iym, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad, “How lovely is it when brothers and sisters can sit together in unity.”

During this month of reflection and repentance, we ask forgiveness to the individuals that we have wronged. Yet, how does one repent even to those that one does not know? We repent to those that are different from us, which we had previously feared as a result. We repent to those who we made assumptions about, simply because of class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion. We repent to those that we have wronged through ignorance.

We dream of a New Year, a clean slate. In this New Year, a year of possibilities, I pray that we are all able to extend our hands, to hug those who we have turned away from in the past and see everyone as our brothers and sisters. Only then will the words of the song ring true: Peace will come upon us. I just hope we don’t have to wait for a zombie attack for this to happen.

moviepopelulimagePlease Note: “World War Z”, produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, has grossed over $500 million during its summer release. It is Rated PG-13 for intense frightening zombie sequences, violence, and disturbing images. 

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

The Butler Did It

TheButlerImagePopElulEarly Oscar buzz has led to Lee Daniels’ The Butler leaping to #1 at the box office for the second straight week, crossing the $50 million mark in that span. According to USA Today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said, “The Butler received the most enthusiastic reaction to any screening this year.” Oscar talk for main stars Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey and critical reviews helped lead the way. However, the main force for its success is word of mouth.

Due to a law suit with Warner Bros. for the title The Butler, The Weinstein Co. was forced to remove advertisements and movie posters and change the name to Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Still, word of mouth about the powerful message worked! At a time on Hollywood’s calendar when the Summer Blockbuster season has come to a close and the Fall movie season has not yet kicked into high gear, Lee Daniels’ The Butler snuck in there and made a statement with a powerful story about how we make history, and how history makes us.

The film tells the story of Cecil Gaines (played by Whitaker) who spends over 30 years as a butler in the White House, working under many presidents. Based loosely on the life of Eugene Allen, Gaines is a witness to many historical events in the 20th century. He begins as a worker on a cotton plantation in Georgia, but ends up three decades later working in the White House during President Eisenhower’s administration and continues to serve in the White House under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan. The film concludes with the retired African-American butler preparing to meet the first African-American President at Obama’s inauguration.

The movie shares history through the eyes of a single person, and interprets how history impacts and is impacted by a single person. The greatest example in the film is when [SPOILER ALERT] Cecil Gaines’ son Louis decides to join a peaceful student group while at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. With this student group, Louis participates in sit-ins at segregated public places and travels on the freedom bus rides. While on the freedom rides, Louis, along with others, is attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Gaines is informed of his son’s attack by President Kennedy and according to the historical fiction of the film, Kennedy having a personal connection to one of the freedom riders that was attacked leads him to deliver a national address proposing the Civil Rights Act.

There is a well-known aggadah, a tale in Jewish tradition, based on the teaching of Rabbi Bunim of P’shiskha. He teaches:

Everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On the first, it should be written: I am but dust and ashes, and on the other: The world was created for me. From time to time we must reach into one pocket, or the other. The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each. 

Sometimes we think our life is the only life that matters. Sometimes we selfishly think the world revolves around us. Sometimes we are reminded that we are just a spec in the universe, but that every moment of life has the opportunity to be a historic moment. Sometimes we need to be praised and remember the divine spark within us. Sometimes we need to be humbled.

Unlike Rabbi Bunim of P’Shiksha, I believe that the the secret of living isn’t about knowing when to take out each slip of paper. Rather, it is about figuring out a way to combine these two inspirational messages about life together. While we are just a blip on the screen of history, we are also made in God’s image. We may think that our actions do not matter and have little consequence in the grand scheme of things. Yet, we forget that this world was created for our sake and thus, our action or inaction has a direct impact on the curves and turns of life’s highway. One small act by us may lead to a monumental shift by humanity. We are only dust and ashes. Yet this world was created for each of our sakes.

The actions of Cecil Gaines and his family in the film seemed small juxtaposed to the monumental events of history throughout the 20th century. Yet, the movie suggests that in a small way, much like the Butterfly Effect theory, Gaines actions and presence influenced and impacted many of these monumental events. While we think our actions don’t matter, they do! They matter to us. They matter to those we interact with. They matter to the world. As we approach the Jewish New Year and consider our own actions and inactions of the past, let us strive to make sure our actions of the future are ones that will impact the world for the better.

moviepopelulimagePlease Note: “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is currently the #1 movie at the Box Office. Produced by The Weinstein Co. and starring an ensemble cast, including Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Vanessa Redgrave, John Cusack, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard, and Robin Williams. The movie is Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual references, thematic elements, and smoking.  


- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Breaking Good

BreakingBadImagePopElulThis summer was the first time I saw an episode of Breaking Bad. My Twitter feed and Facebook newsfeed were consumed by comments about Jesse Pinkman and Walt White! Based on the 140 character posts, I quickly learned that this was Breaking Bad’s final season. The show would end its run with 16 season five episodes and with each episode, according to social media reaction, fans were sitting on the edge of their seats, hoping that the twists and turns of the dark plot would be resolved. I had no interest in the show; it was too dark for me. There is plenty of darkness in the world so I immediately crossed a show about drug lords and violence off my list.

Yet, with all the Twitter and Facebook excitement, and with a little help from Netflix, I gave in and started watching AMC’s hit show. What I found was a disturbing story — brilliantly acted — about love, obligation, and support. What I saw surely justified all the Emmy nominations (and victories) and the critical acclaim the show has received, some going as far as to say it is the best show on television and one of the greatest shows of all time.

The show’s central figure is Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston,) a high school chemistry teacher living in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his pregnant wife and his teenage son who has cerebral palsy. He even works in a carwash after school hours to earn extra money, to financially prepare for his new child on the way.

The show begins with White being informed that he has inoperable lung cancer. Struck with the realization that life is finite and that he has a terminal illness, he approaches a former student, Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul,) to help him make methamphetamine.  Their meth lab on wheels ends up producing a potent form of the drug, leading the previously honest and selfless chemistry teacher down a path of violence, murder, and lies.

The irony is that Mr. White begins this life of crime because of his love and concern for his family. He does not initially tell his wife about his illness, instead being elusive about his drug business, hoping to stabilize his family’s financial future for the long haul. He does not want his family to worry about putting food on the table or keeping a roof over their heads when he dies. He wants to make sure that, in a way, he is looking after them and supporting them, even when he passes away.

Such an action begs the question: is sinning acceptable if it is a selfless act to benefit others? Much in the same vein as Robin Hood who was a thief, but donated the stolen money to the impoverished, White is a drug dealer, but only out of love for his family. When is doing bad really an act of doing good? Maybe one does wrong with good intentions, but that doesn’t change the evil that one does. Walt White eventually gets caught up in a slippery slope of evil. His good intentions led him down a dark path, with his wife that he was trying to support, [SPOILER ALERT] eventually leaving him because of his involvement in the drug world.

However, we have a choice: we can acknowledge the darkness around us and become lost in that darkness or try to find the sliver of light in the darkness. I am an optimist. I choose to find the sliver of light in each situation and in each individual. Despite this dark and sinful path, White’s intentions were good. They were rooted in benevolence. Our goal is not to look at such an individual and scorn him. Our goal is to remove the blinds and let the sliver of light, the sliver of righteousness that exists somewhere within him, radiate so that we can leave behind a life full of darkness and immorality.

As we examine ourselves in preparation for the New Year, let us all remember that there is no such thing as a “lost cause.” Those of us who make mistakes, sin, and do wrong (which is certainly all of us to some extent,) have compassion, kindness, and righteousness within us. Let us find the good within all of us, especially at times when we are only consumed with that which is bad, so that our path in the New Year will be one guided by our Yetzer HaTov, our intention to do good. The root of the Hebrew word Teshuvah, repentance, means to ‘return.’ We spend the month of Elul striving to return to our ways, to only do good. In the face of evil, let us all return to a path of righteousness.


Please Note: AMC’s “Breaking Bad” is rated TV-MA for strong language, violence, sexual behavior and illicit drug use. It has won four Primetime Emmy Awards, including awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, and has been nominated for Outstanding Drama Series.

- Rabbi Jesse M. Oltizky

An Important Reminder of Our Roots

In the world of Twitter, we do not judge a show, a speech, or a performance by viewership or critical reviews. Instead, we judge by spur of the moment reactionary thoughts that are 140 characters or less. That was certainly the case with Sunday night’s MTV Video Music Awards. Many had plenty to say about the performance of Miley Cyrus as well as Katy Perry’s finale underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Yet, much of the twitter hype leading up to the event was about the supposed *NSYNC reunion.

JJTImagePopElulustin Timberlake was to receive the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award, MTV’s version of the “Lifetime Achievement Award.” It’s pretty impressive that Timberlake is only 32 years old and is already being awarded with the lifetime achievement moon man.

Rumors began to spread last week that the former *NSYNC members would join Timberlake at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn as part of his medley performance when a picture was taken of the former boy band members together at the Justin Timberlake/Jay Z concert in Miami. The band members denied this possibility, but in the end, it seems that this was just to throw us all off, much like what happened with the Destiny’s Child reunion this past year during Beyonce’s halftime show performance.

There is no reason they shouldn’t have joined JT on stage. If anything, it was an opportunity for them to return to the limelight. While Justin went on to become the new king of pop, other members of *NSYNC did little following the band’s break-up. JC Chasez tried to go solo as well and had one successful single, Blowin’ Me Up, from the Drumline soundtrack. He continued his “stardom” as a judge on MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew until it was cancelled. Joey Fatone tried to make it in Hollywood, appearing in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, before eventually finding success in reality television, as a runner-up on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars, a host of NBC’s The Singing Bee, and currently the announcer on the syndicated Family Feud. Lance Bass is less known for his post-*NSYNC musical work and more known for his attempt at becoming an astronaut, as well as revealing that he is gay in a People magazine cover story. I am pretty sure that Chris Kirkpatrick hasn’t done anything since the boy band’s break-up.

The crowd at the VMA’s went crazy as, in the middle of Timberlake’s performance, he was joined on stage by his fourNSYNCImagePopElul former bandmates for a brief rendition of Girlfriend and Bye, Bye, Bye. Performing on stage together for the first time in over a decade, *NSYNC’s slide step, jump, and hand wave dance moves seemed rusty. Timberlake is only 32, but the five of them together seemed old. Still, the crowd (and the twitterverse) appreciated the nostalgia. Rumors immediately spread that *NSYNC would soon launch a reunion tour (similar to New Kids On The Block and Backstreet Boys.)

What stood out to me was Justin Timberlake’s acknowledgement of his fellow *NSYNC members in his acceptance speech. He made it clear that he owed his entire career to them and that half of the Video Music Awards that he won as a musician were with the boy band. How appropriate that in celebrating Justin Timberlake as an individual, he acknowledged his friends, his musical family, his community that led him to stardom.

So too, no matter who we are, or who we become, we cannot forget that we are shaped by our friends, by our family, by our community. As we prepare for the New Year, we reflect on who we are. Who we are as individuals is a result of who nurtured us; we are who we are because of those who molded us along the way. In Judaism, our Hebrew names are announced as ben or bat, son of or daughter of, followed by our parents Hebrew names. We identify not just with our first and middle names, with our individual selfs, but also with our parents names, with our roots, with those who shaped us and made us who we are today.

As we re-examine who we are and who we want to be, let us not forget those who shaped us. I am who I am because of my mother, my father, my brother, my friends, my community, my wife, and even my toddler. I am unique. I am made in God’s image. Yet, they all shaped me and made me who I am. As we reflect on our own unique selfs, let us also reflect on all those who made us who we are today.

musicpopelulimagePlease Note: Justin Timberlake’s current album “The 20/20 Experience” sold between 900,000 – 950,000 records in its first week of release and debuted atop the Billboard 200 Albums chart. His continuation of this album, “The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2” will be released at the end of September. The boy band *NSYNC, one of the most successful pop groups of the late 90s and early 2000s set a new standard with their “No Strings Attached” album. This album sold a record 2.42 million copies in its first week and was the best-selling record of the decade.


Here is a taste of Justin Timberlake and his roots, during his *NSYNC days:

- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


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