Blog Archives

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

Getting the Train back on Track

Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, directed by Judd Apatow, was really everything I expected it to be – and more. As a fan of Apatow’s previous films and Schumer’s Comedy Central show, I anticipated the crude and vulgar humor. Still, the movie had heart. The film was truly laugh-out-loud funny and yet, I even got a little teary-eyed at the end. The film, the first that Apatow directed that he did not write himself, stars Schumer as a magazine columnist and Bill Hader – who brilliantly transitions from sidekick to leading man – as a sports physician. Schumer’s character profiles Hader’s Aaron — and the career-saving knee surgery he performs for athletes — for the stereotypical men’s magazine that she writes for. Amy sleeps with Aaron, but unexpectedly ends up falling for him.

TrainwreckAmy is the titular trainwreck. Following a speech from her father (played by Colin Quinn) who tells his children that monogamy is impossible, she grows up to drink a lot and sleep around. Not only does she think that true love is impossible, she focuses on “one night stands” because she doesn’t want to get too close to anyone. She worries about what will happen if she lets her guard down and lets other people into her life. If she never lets anyone in, then she will never get hurt.

Aaron refuses to let their relationship be a one night stand and has her stay the night, calls her the next day, and wants to see her again. She doesn’t know what to do. Amy begins to let her guard down, but having never cared for another, she still waits for them to breakup, eventually causing the breakup herself. The film concludes [spoiler alert] as so many romantic comedies do, with her realizing that she loves Aaron and works to reunite with him and get back together. She comes to understand that no relationship is easy or perfect, but she is still willing to try to make it work and attempts to change her ways.

As we prepare for the High Holy Days, one thing stood out to me – besides the brilliant comedic turns of John Cena and LeBron James: how others can help us change. Amy refuses to change, but it is only once Aaron enters her life that she realizes, because of him, that change is possible. The Hebrew month of Elul is focused change. This is our opportunity to do teshuvah, to let go of the past and change our ways. This is our opportunity to have a fresh start and be better in the year ahead. However, we often focus on self-reflection during this time of year. We are taught to do Cheshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of the soul, and focus on how we can change ourselves. Yet, we forget the impact that our actions have on others.

We are taught that we can’t control others; we can only control ourselves, so we should focus on ourselves. But we live in a world of interconnectivity, a world where we touch each other’s lives, a world where every interaction has consequences. As we seek to change, we have the ability to help others change. Every conversation, every interaction, every moment we experience with another –  those who we are closest to and those who are complete strangers – may influence us, and those we interact with, for the better.

Never underestimate your power to change and never underestimate your power to help others change as well.

moviepopelulimageTrainwreck, written by Amy Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow, was released in the United States by Universal Pictures on July 17, 2015. The film has already grossed over $100 million in North America and its opening weekend was the second biggest debut for Apatow. The film is Rated R for sexual content, partial nudity, and language. Viewer discretion advised.  

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

A Clean Slate Means A Transparent Self

The most talked about show of the fall tv season emphasizes the themes of the Jewish New Year, most notably, how we redefine ourselves and begin anew. You won’t find this buzzworthy show on a major network. You won’t even find it on a cable channels responsible for some of television’s most recent hits, like FX or AMC. Netflix hit the jackpot a year ago when they began introducing original scripted programming, including the award-winning Orange Is The New Black and House Of Cards.

Amazon has since tried to keep up and respond with their own original programming. They have finally succeeded with this fall’s new series, Transparent, created by the incredible Jill Soloway. The entire season will be available to stream on Amazon Prime on September 26th, but the pilot episode is available to stream now for free here. Vulture already called it the best pilot they’ve seen in years. Stop everything you are doing and watch it. You won’t regret it.

TransparentThe series follows the interconnected lives of a Los Angeles Jewish family after discovering that the patriarch, Mort (an award-worthy performance by Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor), is transgender. The title is a play on words. Mort is the titular “trans parent.” However, the title gives greater insight to the questioning identities of all characters. Sarah is a married mother and wonders if her life is too boring, ordinary, and settled. Josh navigates from one fling to the next, being lonely without having a true partner. Ali feels like (and is viewed as) a failure, even if she hasn’t yet figured herself out.

While Jeffrey Tambor’s main role as Mort/Maura is a groundbreaking moment in Hollywood for the transgender community, offering dramatic and humorous insight into the world of gender identity, the other characters also, in their own ways, must come to terms with the transparent version of themselves as well. The version of themselves that they portray for the world to see is not necessarily who they are deep down inside. It is not how they feel. They too need to be true to themselves.

We do the same thing. It is human nature to try to conform and fit in, to try and be what society expects us to be. When we do that though, we do ignore the truest versions of ourselves.

The beauty of the Hebrew month of Elul and of the Jewish New Year is that we have the opportunity to start over. Teshuvah, repentance, rids us of past burdens. Elul allows us to let go of that which held us down, and allows us to start over. We are given the unique opportunity to begin again. We are given the opportunity to redefine ourselves and be the person we always knew we were and knew we wanted to be. We become our true selves. We are no longer burdened by how we conformed, by how others expected us to act, or by what others expected us to do. We do not hide who we truly are. We reveal our transparent selves to God and to community. That is what beginning anew is all about.

May we have the courage to be our true and transparent selves, to be whom we are supposed to be – because that is exactly who God created us to be.

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Please Note: “Transparent” starring Jeffrey Tambor, Melora Hardin, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, and Gaby Hoffmann, is available to stream in its entirely on Amazon Prime on September 26th. Episodes are Rated TV-MA for nudity, profanity, sexual content, and occasional drug use.

 

 

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

Walking Together

EWWalkingDeadMy latest binge watching experience on Netflix is AMC’s The Walking Dead. I must admit: I wasn’t so interested in checking out a television show that seemed like an episodic horror movie. However, after traveling through Atlanta this summer and seeing the show being filmed, I figured I had to give it a try. With stars of the hit show appearing on last week’s cover of Entertainment Weekly, I knew I made the right decision making The Walking Dead my latest show of choice. 

My binge watching hasn’t progressed as fast as I would like though, so I won’t be revealing any spoilers here. In fact, I had to put the issue of Entertainment Weekly aside. I couldn’t read a preview of Season Five of the hit tv show until I was all caught up to speed with previous episodes. 

The show is eerie, suspenseful, and fun. The beginning of the show had me hooked immediately. After Sheriff’s DeputyTheWalkingDead Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln) wakes up from a coma in an abandoned hospital, he quickly comes to terms with the fact that the zombie apocalypse has arrived. He heads to Atlanta where he was told that the government set up a safe and protected compound. He was told wrong. Rick ends up causing a swarm of zombies to surround the mall where he and other scavengers were searching for resources. Determined to clean up the mess he made and get the group of survivors out of the city safely, Rick recruits Glenn and together, they smother themselves in zombie guts in order to walk the Atlanta streets undetected by the undead. They all return back to the encampment safely, all except for racist redneck Merle Dixon). After getting into a scuffle with T-Dog, Rick took charge and handcuffed Merle to pipes on the roof. That is where they left him. 

Most of the group was not disappointed. Merle Dixon was a racist and a bigot. He criticized decisions made by the group of survivors. He selfishly took advantage of limited resources instead of sharing them with the group. They didn’t mind that Merle was left behind, but Merle’s brother Daryl was determined to go back and find him. Even T-Dog, who was physically and emotionally beaten by Dixon, acknowledged that Dixon was alive and it was “on” them to save him. He felt guilty for dropping the handcuff key. Rick, on the other hand, was prepared to return to Atlanta because he believed that no one should be left behind. Even after being reunited with his son and wife whom he thought were gone and dead, he was prepared to leave again to save someone he left behind. Rick takes charge as the new de facto leader and leads by example, explaining that the group has a responsibility to look after all. 

This lesson is a lesson that all communities need to be reminded of. I hope that all communities draw a hard line in the sand, understanding that there is no place for the bigotry and hatred that the character Merle Dixon exudes in holy spaces and holy communities. That being said, this lesson reminds us that many different people and many different types of people make up a holy community. We all don’t come all the time and we all don’t come for the same reasons. We have different beliefs, different ideologies, and different ways of connecting to community and connecting with the Divine. True community creates entry points for each of us and allows for each of us to feel at home. True community, like the survivors in The Walking Dead, looks for the talents of all individuals and is concerned about the well-being of all individuals. We at Congregation Beth El are committed to welcoming all those interested in becoming a part of our community, regardless of observance, faith, ethnicity, background, sexual orientation, or gender identity. A true community walks together and ensures that there is a place for each individual.

Rick’s goal is not to love everyone in their makeshift community. He doesn’t even like many of them. But he looks out for all of them. And when they fight the zombie epidemic that has taken the vast majority of humanity, when they fight the walking dead, they walk together.

In just a matter of weeks, Jews all over the world will gather in synagogues to celebrate the Jewish New Year and the High Holy Days, the holiest and most sacred days on the Hebrew calendar. We gather together for worship and greet so many new and familiar faces. We do not pray alone. We do not celebrate alone. We come together because community is what strengthens our Jewish identities and keeps us connected to faith. But community only thrives if we ensure that everyone feels like they belong in our communities. Community is only successful if we make sure we don’t leave anyone behind. 

As we open up the doors — figuratively and literally — to many of our communal houses of worship in the weeks ahead and we walk on a path towards the New Year, let us make sure that there is room on this journey for us all. As we walk on this journey, let us walk together. 

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Please Note: “The Walking Dead” starring Andrew Lincoln, Sarah Wayne Callies, and Jon Bernthal can be seen on on Sunday nights on AMC. The fifth season premieres on October 12th. Various episodes of this show are Rated TV-14 and TV-MA for excessive violence, profanity, and sexual content. Viewer Discretion Advised.  

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky