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Get Down with Your True Self

While Stranger Things has been getting all the love this summer, don’t forget to also check out Netflix’s new show, The Get Down. The Baz Luhrmann series takes place in the South Bronx in the 1970’s and uses the “Bronx is burning” backdrop to tell a story about the rise of hip-hop, disco, and punk music while the city was nearing bankruptcy. Like Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, this series is a musical, using well-known songs and original lyrics to tell the story of preacher’s daughter Mylene Cruz (played by Herizen Guardiola) who just wants to sing disco instead of gospel and orphan Zeke Figuero (played by breakout start Justice Smith), a smart student that writes poetry and is introduced to the brand-new world of DJ’s and MC’s. While the show received mixed reviews and the first episode is long and slow, it is enjoyable for anyone who appreciates the origins of hip-hop, especially the influence of pioneer Grandmaster Flash. Plus, I’ll watch anything that involves Jimmy Smits. 

The backdrop is over the top in typical Baz Luhrmann fashion. The first season had a reported budget of $120 million, unheard of for a television series. And while Luhrmann went to great lengths and spent a great deal of money to make this backdrop of 1970’s New York look authentic, the backdrop is secondary to what the story of this show is really about.

The Get Down uses the backdrop of the 1970’s New York underground music scene to tell the story that we all feel – the story of a person being pulled in multiple directions. Mylene Cruz is a religious girl, growing up in a religious family. She is the daughter of a preacher who wants to sing disco music and wrestles with the tension between her family who stresses modesty and building an insular community for her and her desire to venture out into the secular world to land a record deal. 

The main character, Zeke Figuero, finds a way to hone his craft of poetry when he is introduced to the early underground world of hip-hop and partners with Shaolin Fantastic (played by Shameik Moore). He becomes his wordsmith, the newly minted MC that partners with the aspiring DJ. But he is also pressured to conform. As a smart young man, he is given the opportunity to intern for the city of New York, a shining example as a student in the struggling South Bronx who commutes into Manhattan to work in the mostly white city offices. When he is late for his first day, he dismisses it, suggesting that he instead wants to focus on his rap career. But his high school teacher, who sees his potential, challenges him, destroying “the idea that, if you’re smart and educated, you ain’t down and cool.” 

Both protagonists are pulled in opposite directions, pressured to conform, to fit into a certain box of societal expectations, based on their looks, dress, educational background, or family structure. But we find with both characters an attempt to not conform. Mylene wants to be remain a part of her religious family and still be a disco star. She doesn’t want to have to choose between one or the other. Books — Zeke’s nickname — is committed to his internship and his rap career, highlighted by the end of season one when he goes back and forth from a rally for mayoral candidate Ed Koch to a rap battle blocks away. He doesn’t want to have to choose between fitting into a certain box, having to be one person or the other. He wants to be both. And that is the positive message of Elul that we should learn this show as well.

We constantly feel pressure to conform. We are expected to fit into a certain box, based on our race or religion or gender identity, based on our careers, where we live, or how much money we have. Yet, the most important message of Elul is to stop trying to be something we are not. When we look inside ourselves and do Chesbon HaNefesh, an accounting of the self, we come to terms with who are are and whom we strive to be. We stop trying to be someone else. The goal of Elul is not to compare ourselves to others. The goal of Elul is to compare where we currently are with where we want to be. We look back on the resolutions we made and goals we set for ourselves at this time last year and see how far we have come and how far we still have to go. We have an opportunity in the new year to be our true selves, our authentic selves. That means not conforming. That means being comfortable interning for the city of New York during the day and rapping with MC’s at night — metaphorically speaking. We spend Elul getting down with our true selves. Look within yourself. Be comfortable with who you are. And share yourself with the world. 

The Get Down premiered on August 12, 2016. All episodes of part one of season one are available to stream now on Netflix. 

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Stranger Inclinations

Spoiler alert: Stranger Things has a monster which comes from the “Upside Down”, an alternative universe that a sinister government agency gained access to. Spoiler alert: Stranger Things has a psychokinetic preteen who can move things with her mind. Spoiler alert: Stranger Things pays homage to 80’s era horror, thriller, and suspense films including adding Winona Ryder to the cast. Spoiler alert: Stranger Things is incredible!

If there is one show you binge watch next, it must be Stranger Things. The show is fun and filled with 80’s pop culture nostalgia. And while there are plenty of unanswered questions and things that don’t make sense, the story works in 1980’s small town Indiana in a way that it wouldn’t work in 2016. 

Stranger Things, the breakout Netflix show of the summer, created by the Duffer brothers, tells the story of a group of middle school friends who go searching for their friend Will when he mysteriously disappears while riding his bike home from a friend’s house after a game of Dungeons & Dragons. During that search, they meet a young girl named Eleven who has special powers. With Eleven’s help, they realize that Will is stuck in the parallel universe of the Upside Down. The Upside Down isn’t an alternative reality. The kids, who are big Dungeons & Dragons fans, refer to it is the Vale of Shadows. This is not a what-if reality. Rather, it is a reflection of reality — what the world looks like if it was consumed by darkness and evil. 

Jewish tradition teaches that we each have within us a good inclination, a yetzer tov, and an evil inclination, a yetzer rah. The Mishnah even teaches that we begin with only our evil inclination, with a general ability to do wrong. Mishnah says that we only acquire a yetzer tov upon turning thirteen, explaining why when one becomes a bar or bat mitzvah, one is finally responsible for one’s own actions. 

It’s fascinating that rabbinic literature treats our good inclination and evil inclination as equals. They are essentially two sides of the same coin. While we strive to do good, we can just as easily end up feeding our evil inclination. In fact, if we have equal amounts of yetzer tov and yetzer rah within us, then it is nurture, not nature, that causes us to do good or bad. It is those whom we surround ourselves with that influence our actions, that impact whom we are, what we become, and how bright or bleak the world is. The Upside Down is not just scary because of the tar-like jelly within the dimension or the monster (or monsters! — stay tuned for season two) that lurk within it. The Upside Down is scary because it is a reminder of just how quickly our current reality can be turned upside down. It is a reminder of how easy it is for us to stray from light towards darkness, how easy it is for us to choose evil over good, and how easy it is for others to influence us to do wrong. 

In season two of Stranger Things, the Duffer brothers promise to further explore the Upside Down. While that may keep us on the edge of our seats, my hope is that we avoid accessing the Upside Down in our own lives. During the month of Elul so focused on reflection, may we reflect on the decisions that we have made — the positive choices and the mistakes — in hopes that we will create a bright future for ourselves and for the world. May we avoid the metaphorical Vale of Darkness in the year to come.


Stranger Things premiered on July 15, 2016. All episodes of season one are available to stream now on Netflix. 

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

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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.

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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

 

 

Teshuvah is the New Black

Netflix redefined binge watching this summer. For the first time, the DVD Rental-by-mail and more recently, video streaming service, revolutionized television by producing their own television series. Unlike prime-time shows or cable network favorites, these serials did not premiere an episode at a time. The viewer was not forced to wait week after week to watch the next installment. The entire season premiered at once. As a result, I joined countless others by spending hours on the couch zipping through their series in a few short days.

OITNBOne series that stood out to me was the critically-acclaimed Orange is the New Black, the story of protagonist Piper Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling and based on the real-life experiences of Piper Kerman, which chronicles her year in a minimum security women’s prison. This comedy-drama series has a cast of characters to keep the viewer entertained, each in jail for a variety of reasons. Some believe their crimes were just (standing up to a rapist, participating in a political protest,) while others made a mistake or were at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The essence of the story is told through the eyes of the privileged Chapman who is struggling with the broken justice system and challenges of being at the bottom of the totem pole in the Department of Corrections. What fascinated me was that all of the inmates attempted to change, but for many, they were stuck in a vicious cycle. From the murderers to the thieves to the drug mules (like Chapman,) they each showed remorse during the first season and expressed a desire to start anew with a clean slate. Many inmates, referring to Chapman as “college” because of her liberal arts education, ask for her assistance in writing appeals letters, hoping to start over. Furthermore, while an outsider may assume that a prison full of criminals leads to violence, the women at the Litchfield, NY federal prison create a family, looking out for each other and caring about each other, even having veteran prisoners serving as “mothers” to new inmates. There is a clear desire among the prisoners to do teshuvah, to repent, and receive a second chance. What was so heartbreaking as a viewer was the realization of how hard that second chance is. Throughout the show prisoner after prisoner had their appeals denied.

[Spoiler Alert] The rare case in which an inmate won her appeal and was released early didn’t last for long. Taystee Jefferson’s (played by Danielle Brooks) release from prison was celebrated by all prisoners as a new day. She did teshuvah and was given a second chance. Only a few episodes later though she returned to Litchfield Penitentiary. She informed all the inmates how hard it is to actually change. She, like many, was stuck in a vicious cycle. In an odd way, prison gave her a routine, a community, and a purpose. As a free woman she felt alone versus the world.

This series reminds us that teshuvah is the easy part. As Jews, we are given the entire “holiday season,” the month of Elul and the High Holy Days to do teshuvah and repent. Repenting – acknowledging that we’ve done something wrong, saying we are sorry, and asking for forgiveness – is the easy part. It is the change that follows that is most difficult. All of us feel remorse, like the inmates in Orange is the New Black, when we are caught and must deal with the consequences. When we are stuck dealing with the punishment, we realize that we shouldn’t have done what we did to get us there. The real test of teshuvah is what we do with our second chance when it is given. Will we be brave enough, and strong enough, to start anew or when given a second chance, will we succumb to our old ways of making mistakes? The irony is that our fixed liturgy is prepared for us to continue to make mistakes. Even when we vow to change, we do wrong. After all, only minutes after we conclude the Neilah service, and thus, conclude Yom Kippur with a clean slate, we acknowledge that we have transgressed in the Amidah. We too are caught up in a vicious cycle. We cannot let our fear of returning to wrongdoings prevent us from repenting. Let us always shoot for a clean slate, and strive to be a better version of ourselves when given a second (or third, or fourth) chance. After all, when it comes to what is trendy, Teshuvah is the new Black.

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Please note: ‘Orange Is the New Black’ is available to stream for all Netflix customers and is for mature audiences. This dramedy set in a women’s prison includes strong language, sexual situations, violence, and the use of drugs.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky