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Calling all Contributors to Join the Pop Elul Project!

As we begin prepare for the Hebrew month of Elul, and the beginning of the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, which will be here before we know it, the Pop Elul Project is trying something new this year. We are calling all contributors to share your thoughts with the Pop Elul Project.

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The Pop Elul Project was started by Rabbi Jesse Olitzky in 2013 as a way of connecting pop culture to the themes of the High Holy Days. We invite you to join in this project with your own thoughts and submissions.

If you want to write for the Pop Elul Project:

Click on the tab above to “Contribute” and please fill out the form, including your name, email address, where you are from, what movie, television show, or song you will be writing about, and your submission (no more than 750 words.) You will be contacted if it becomes a part of the Pop Elul Project.

Thanks for adding your voice, your Torah, and your love of pop culture to this exciting project!

 

A Biblical Back to the Future

While Elul, and the High Holy Day season as a whole, have come and gone, there are still lessons to be found in our Torah that connect and relate to Pop Culture, including a Pop Culture reference that is over twenty-five years old, and yet still relevant today! Here is my take on Back to the Future and Parashat Lech Lecha.

For more “Torah To Go” check out Rabbi O’s blog here.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Returning is Not Hitting The Reset Button

While the month of Elul may be over, we still find great  meaning during these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, these Days of Repentance. This post about Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the Disney film Wreck-It Ralph is an example of whom we strive to become during these days. You can find the post here.

For more “Torah To Go” check out Rabbi O’s blog here.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Chodesh Tov! Happy Elul!

Today begins Rosh Chodesh Elul, as we spend the next Hebrew month preparing for the High Holy Days 5775. Tonight begins the first day of the month of Elul and with that, we again begin a month of daily reflections. Movies, Television, and Music aren’t just about what is trendy and popular. They are about faith and prayer, repentance and renewal, justice and change. I look forward to going on this journey of preparing for the High Holy Days together.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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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.

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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.

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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

Starting our Spiritual Journeys

MonstersUImagePopElulMonsters University is easily the most successful animated film of the summer (and arguably the most successful film of the summer!) The film has grossed over $650 million at the box office and Pixar did it again by creating their first ever prequel. What is so surprising about the success of the prequel and its link to Monsters Inc. is that Monsters Inc. premiered in theaters twelve years ago. Pixar has a unique way of telling a story in their animated films that keep parents interested, but no one can ignore the fact that their films (as are all of Disney’s animated movies) are geared towards an child-dominated viewership.

If Monsters Inc. arrived in theaters twelve years ago, then most of the children who were excited about seeing Monsters University never saw the first film in theaters. Still, they came in droves to watch the tale of Mike Wazowski (voiced again by Billy Crystal) and James “Sully” Sullivan (voiced again by John Goodman,) who begin as enemies in college, but end up becoming best friends and successful professional scarers at Monsters Inc.

Mike knows that he wants to work at Monsters Inc. one day as a professional scarer, so he studies hard. A “scare major” at Monsters U, Mike is short and small and becomes agitated by Sully’s God-given ability as a large blue furry monster to scare easily. Mike studies hard and succeeds while Sully takes his talents for granted and begins to falter.

[Spoiler Alert] Their teacher, Hardscrabble, fails them, not because of their talents, but instead because of their rivalry and doubt and disrespect towards each other. They are forced to work together in the Scare Games, both being forced to enter through a door into the human world and scare kids at summer camp in order to prove themselves. While they are temporarily expelled from the university, though they eventually re-enter the specialized scare program. The movie concludes with Mike and Sully, as new friends who have both proven themselves, working at Monsters Inc. Their successful employment eventually leads to the story line of the 2001 film.

Mike is determined and destined to scare, even if he is short in size and stature. He reminds as about the importance of having faith in ourselves. Sully, on the other hand, has the talents, but he does not work hard and is not determined. From Sully, we learn the important lesson that we are God’s partners in creation. We do not sit back and wait for things to happen; we make them happen. Ultimately, we learn that as long as we are determined and try hard, no one can stop us from continuing on our journey to achieve our dreams. We also learn that we cannot get there based on talent alone. We must be determined. We must have a passion. We must have true kavannah, true intention. The journey may not always be easy. The journey may not always lead us to where we thought we were going. We may end up at a different place entirely, but as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” We create our own journeys. Even if we choose to scare, what we do is sacred. As we approach the New Year, let all that we do be sacred and let us be courageous enough to start a new journey, filled with our talents and our kavannah. Where that journey will end, nobody knows.

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Please Note: Disney and Pixar’s “Monsters University” is Rated G and is acceptable for all audiences. 

 

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Making the Old New, Making the New Sacred

CupsImagePopElulEven actress and musician Anna Kendrick can’t really believe what is going on with her hit song Cups. Cups (Pitch Perfect’s When I’m Gone) was performed by Kendrick as part of a short scene in last year’s surprise hit Pitch Perfect. Pitch Perfect, the successful 2012 musical comedy directed by Jason Moore, follows the story of rival college a cappella groups. Main character Beca Mitchell (played by Kendrick) auditions for the Barden Bellas singing Cups, with the song getting its name from her unique ability to create rhythm and percussion for the song by tapping on and moving a small plastic cup on stage.

The movie was more successful than producers predicted and as a result, Universal Studios confirmed that they would release a sequel to the film in 2015. The music of the film was catchy and fun, like many a cappella performances are, and the soundtrack is the best selling soundtrack of 2013. Still, it is surprising that Kendrick’s Cups, which landed on the soundtrack after the buzz it created by movie-goers, is so successful. The film premiered almost one year ago in September of 2012. The soundtrack was digitally released the following month. Yet, for the past month and a half, Cups (Pitch Perfect’s When I’m Gone) has been sitting in the Top Ten of Billboard’s Top 100 Chart. Even Anna Kendrick herself can’t believe it!

While Cups is a popular song, with creative percussion, and even a fun music video, it is certainly not a new song. The song, with the tapping of the cups, was popularized by the band Lulu and the Lampshades in 2009, giving Kendrick inspiration for her character’s audition performance. However, the lyrics of the song were written by A.P. Carter and Luisa Gerstein and performed by the Carter Family in 1931. So not only is it remarkable that a song from last year’s hit movie is a hit this year, but it’s even more remarkable that this new hit song is actually over 80 years old.

The lyrics focus on not living in the moment and not appreciating what we have when we have it. The song, presumably about a lover who is leaving her significant other, is about missed opportunities. Such a notion is exemplified by the chorus:

When I’m gone (when I’m gone)

When I’m gone (when I’m gone)

You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone

You’re gonna miss me by my walk

You’ll miss me by my talk

You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone

This song reminds us that we must appreciate what we have in our lives now. It is easy for us to be so-called “Monday Morning Quarterbacks” and reflect back on moments in our lives after the fact. It’s common for us to think about how to do things better or consider whom or what we should’ve appreciated more at the time. Even the Hebrew calendar encourages us to reflect and look back. After all, the entire month of Elul is about reflecting on what we are proud of and what we should’ve done differently. Yet, looking back only matters if we are able to look forward, so that ultimately, we can appreciate the present. Elul sets us up for the New Year ahead, reflecting on the past in order to better appreciate the present as we are living in it. This song is a charge to us all: don’t wait until that which is holy to us is long gone to realize the sacred nature of that individual, that place, or that moment in time. Appreciate the kedushah, the holiness, of the moment. Live the holiness!

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of the State of Israel, taught that “the Old should be Renewed and the New shall be made Holy.” Anna Kendrick and the writers of Pitch Perfect took a sound that is over 80 years old (although it has been covered by many) and made it new again. She made the message relevant again and in doing so, she made it sacred to a new generation. Let us not worry about missing others when they are gone, for in the year ahead, let us focus on the here and now. Let us also be reminded that that which is old can become new once again, and as long as we appreciate God’s gifts in our lives, we make it holy as well. Let us all make the old new and make the new holy in the year ahead.

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Please Note: “Cups,” sung by Anna Kendrick currently sits in the Top Ten on Billboard’s Top 100 Chart. It appears on “Pitch Perfect: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack,” which is the best-selling soundtrack of 2013. The film “Pitch Perfect” is rated PG-13 for strong language, drug references, underage drinking, and sexual innuendos. 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Be Crazy, Make a Change

Steve Jobs’ story is an incredible journey about inspiration, innovation, and taking a chance. Two years ago, immediately following Steve Jobs’ passing, I spoke about him during Kol Nidre services, reflecting on how his presence, and his willingness to dream, forever changed our world. Having such an impact on this world, I was somewhat surprised that the film Jobs, which was released on August 16th, 2013 in the United States and distributed by Open Road Films, following a showing at Sundance Film Festival last winter, bombed in the box office.

JobsMovieImagePopElulThe Steve Jobs biopic only pulled in $6.7 million during its opening weekend and movie critic website Rotten Tomatoes gave it a score of 25% out of a 100. Many movie critics claim the film focused too much on Jobs’ role with Apple Computers instead of his own personal story of exploration and growth. Maybe the low revenue is due to the atypical casting of Ashton Kutcher as the genius Jobs. Kutcher, best known for silly comedies like Two and a Half Men, That 70’s Show, and Dude, Where’s My Car? was a surprising choice to play the tech icon. Maybe audiences are instead waiting to buy tickets for the Aaron Sorkin-penned Steve Jobs biopic currently in development.

Despite the negative reception, the film (and Jobs’ life in general) still can teach us an important lesson. The film mostly focuses on Jobs time with Apple, from his development of the first Apple 1 personal computer (with Steve Wozniak, played by Josh Gad) to his ousting from the company, concluding with his return to Apple Computers to save the company in the late 90’s.

The film concludes with Jobs’ plan to reinvent Apple computers, focusing on attractive typeface and sexy casing of the personal computer, culminating in the launch of Jobs’ Think Different campaign for Apple. The ad campaign featured history’s most influential figures, including Amelia Earhart, Mahatma Gandhi, Jim Henson, Jackie Robinson, Frank Sinatra, and Alfred Hitchcock. The text of the successful campaign serves as the final dialogue of the film:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

The text of this successful advertising campaign did more than just sell computers. It inspired us to dream. It inspired us to believe that we could make a change. Even after his passing, Steve Jobs’ words continue to do just that. During this month of Elul, we are reminded to make a change. We are charged to do things differently, to change our course and take a divergent path to become a change agent. We make a change for our own sake as well as the sake of others. Ultimately though, we make change for God’s sake and improve the world through such change. Through improving this world, we become closer to sharing God’s vision of a better world.

Let us not be afraid to be the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels. Let us embrace being round pegs in square holes. Let us think that we can change the world… and make that change a reality.

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Please Note: “Jobs” starring Ashton Kutcher is now in theaters. It is Rated PG-13 for some drug content and brief strong language.

 

 

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Elysium Reminds us that Justice is for All

ElysiumImagePopElulThe sci-fi action thriller of the summer, Elysium, that stars Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, helps us understand truly what Tzedakah means. The film is directed by Neil Blomkamp, who last directed the critically acclaimed District 9, which focused on issues of xenophobia and social segregation through a sci-fi alien invasion story. Elysium, also a futuristic tale, helps us understand that true justice is for all, not for a limited few. While the film takes place in the future, Director Blomkamp claims that it is not science-fiction at all. This is a story about issues we are facing in the real world. He is only using the backdrop of science-fiction to teach about contemporary issues.

Taking place over 125 years from now, this futuristic story tells about the two places where humanity lives. The space station known as Elysium, funded by the Armadyme Corporation, is a utopian society for the upper class where there is no disease, no poverty, and no war. Med-pods do regular cancer scans, healing the body of any cancerous disease and everyone there lives in peace and harmony. The opposite is the reality for those left on Earth.

With our current abuse of the planet and its resources, in the year 2154, Earth is a ruined place, a place left for the poor who do not have the same rights as the privileged living on Elysium. The plot of the movie follows ex-con Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) as he attempts to illegally infiltrate Elysium in order to receive the medical treatment for himself as well as for a friend’s daughter who is dying of Leukemia while in dystopian Los Angeles. Da Costa was exposed to lethal levels of radiation while working at the Armadyme plant and given only days to live. Jodie Foster plays Jessica Delacourt, the high-ranking government minister of Elysium who attempts to prevent any citizens of Earth from taking advantage of the privileges previously reserved for the upper class of the space station.

The movie has clear undertones focused on so-called political issues of immigration, health care, and class. However, the ultimate message of the film is justice. We do not pursue justice by hijacking a computer system that is wired to our minds and infiltrating a space station – at least, not in the year 2013. We pursue justice by being a voice for those who are silent, by standing up for those who are downtrodden. The High Holy Day liturgy reminds us that Tzedakah, true justice, allows us to have a clean slate, to be written and sealed in the Book of Life for the year ahead.

It is easy to stand up for justice for ourselves. It is easy to see how we are being mistreated and do something about it. It is even easier though to stay on the sidelines and keep to ourselves when injustice doesn’t directly impact us. Those are the injustices we need to end. That is the justice we need to pursue. We are commanded to help the underprivileged, even when it doesn’t effect us or impact us. That is the justice we pursue in the New Year. Let us not wait until the year 2154 when we are forced by such issues in a dystopian society. That us use the New Year as a spring board to stand up for justice for all.

moviepopelulimagePlease Note: “Elysium” is co-produced by Media Rights Capitol and TriStar Pictures and was released in theaters on August 9, 2013. This film starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster is Rated R for strong bloody violence and inappropriate language throughout the film. 

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky