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Let Our Own Actions Define Us

I enjoy binge-watching shows. Instead of waiting from week-to-week for the latest installment, binge-watching allows a viewer to appreciate the whole arc of a storyline all at once. My young daughter has a very different view on what binge-watching means. As a preschooler, the shows and movies she watches are limited so instead of binge-watching a season, she instead opts to watch the same thing over and over and over again.

Her latest obsession is Disney’s Descendants, a Disney Channel Original Movie that we stumbled upon while searching the On-Demand menu for some of her favorite cartoons. She was excited about the premise, as it focused on the children of her favorite fairy tale Disney characters, and the concept was cute, even if it continued to reinforce Disney’s hetero-normative culture.

DescendantsDescendants is a musical about how the children of Disney royalty — the son of Belle and Beast, the daughter of Aurora and Philip, the son of Cinderella and Charming, and even Dopey’s son — interact with the children of Disney villians — the children of Malificent, the Evil Queen, Jafar, and Cruella de Vil — at a prep school. It’s the cheesiness of High School Musical meets the Magic Kingdom. And yet, my daughter loves it, and insists on watching it again and again. While it may be that these Disney Channel show tunes are stuck in my head from watching the television movie so many times, I have to admit that some of the songs are even catchy.

The story takes place in the fictional United States of Auradon. Following the marriage of Belle to the Beast, they united all kingdoms and were elected Queen and King of this united kingdom. They sent all villains and their henchmen to the Isle of the Lost, an island ghetto where they wouldn’t be able to practice their evil magic. In turn, the royalty of Auradon seemed to be at peace and didn’t have to interact with the villains or their families. When Ben, Belle and Beast’s teenage son, is about to be crowned king, he decides that his first proclamation is to allow the children of villains to return to Auradon, believing that they shouldn’t suffer for their parents crimes. The children are tasked by their parents, led by Malificent (played by Kristin Chenoweth) with stealing Fairy Godmother’s wand in order to get the villains off the island so that they can take control of Auradon. The story is a “will they or won’t they” with an always-predictable Disney ending. Instead of following in their parents’ footsteps, they decide that they want to be good and do good. They don’t want to be defined by their parents. They want to be their own selves.

While the outcome is predictable — and the ending remains the same no matter how many times my daughter and I watch it — the lesson is important. We shouldn’t be judged based on the actions of another. We are often referred to as someone’s child, sibling, or spouse. But we are not them. While our parents and families certainly nurture us and guide us, that does not mean we need to be defined by them. We strive to hold on to the blessings that family gives us and teaches us, but we cannot carry the burden of their past mistakes. The yoke of their errors is too heavy to carry. Whom they are, how they act, and what they believe is not necessarily whom we are. The Torah reaffirms such an idea. We learn in Deuteronomy 24:16 that a parent should not be punished for the transgressions of a child and a child should not be punished for the transgressions of a parent.

We spend these days leading up to the High Holy Days by letting go of our burdens. We let go of our pasts, but most importantly, we need to let go of the pasts of others that we hold on to and carry with us. Their pasts are not our pasts. We need to be our true selves and not worry about who others are.

As we begin the new year with a clean slate, may we be proud to be ourselves instead of worrying about being viewed as somebody else. May we judge all solely based on their own actions and not based on anyone else’s. After all, even the child of an evil villain can become Disney royalty.

tvpopelulimageDescendants premiered on the Disney Channel on July 21, 2015 and is available to watch on the Disney Channel or On-Demand. 

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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

Stop Trying to be The Millers!

were-the-millersiamgepopelulI saw We’re The Millers this week, the current comedy now in theaters produced by Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema. While overall, I found the movie to be pretty funny, I warn you that the humor of this R-rated film was raunchy and inappropriate for children. The film centers around a small town hapless drug dealer (Jason Sudeikis) who, in order to settle a debt, agrees to be a drug smuggler, bringing a “smidge and a half” of Marijuana across the Mexican-US border. Concerned that he looks too much like a smuggler and would get stopped at the border, and fearing he’d subsequently be thrown in prison for eternity for such an illegal act, he recruits a band of misfits for help. This drug dealer is joined by an exotic dancer (Jennifer Aniston,) a homeless girl living on the streets (Emma Roberts,) and a teenage boy with nothing better to do (Will Poulter,) as they transform into the All-American “perfect family,” the Millers.

Traveling over the border in an RV, the belief was that this perfect family of four would never be stopped by the Border Police. Little did they know that this “smidge and a half” of Marijuana was actually an RV full of pot. Furthermore, they were not drug smugglers. Instead, they were drug thieves, actually stealing the drugs from Mexican drug lord Pablo Chacon (played by Tomer Sisley.)

While I don’t want to spoil the ending, I think we can all assume a happily ever after conclusion to this comedy. I cannot promise that they change their ways and stop their illegal activity. However, these characters realize how much they each have been missing, living life alone. They realize how fortunate they are for this family, even if it is a fake family full of oddballs and rebels.

Throughout the movie, as they continue to be the fake Miller family, they realize that they desire familial love. Fake father David and fake mother Rose are actually concerned about their fake children, and actually learn to love each other after loathing each other as apartment building neighbors for years. Fake siblings Casey and Kenny look out for each other and stick up for one another.

They realize though that being “the Millers” is no happily ever after fairytale either. They accept that there is no such thing as a perfect family. They are much better off being themselves, instead of trying to be someone else. So many of us try to be “the Millers.” We try to be the perfect family and we try to present an ideal image to the public, but every family has its challenges. Ultimately, it is those challenges that define us, that strengthen us, that make us who we are. No family is “perfect.” Yet, each family is perfect! There is no definition of what is perfect. There is no such thing as ideal. Instead, there are family units who love each other, who deal with the trials and tribulations of everyday life, and whose love only increases because of these trials and tribulations.

As the New Year approaches, let us spend less time focusing on who we think we are supposed to be, concerned with how others view us. Instead, let us focus on the love we have for each other and celebrate that love. Let us celebrate our family, no matter what that family looks like. Let’s stop trying to be “the Millers” and instead, just be ourselves.

moviepopelulimagePlease Note: “We’re the Millers” was released by Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema on August 7th, 2013 in the United States and has already grossed close to $50 million at the box office. The movie is rated R for crude sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, and brief graphic nudity. The film continues a lot of swearing and inappropriate situations.


– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky