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Watch these movies before Yom Kippur!

How to prepare yourself -- spiritually and cinematically -- for the High Holy Days. Jeff goes all film critic on you.

Actress Frances McDormand in a scene from “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

In this, my last post of the Jewish year, I want to suggest a great way to prepare for the awesome nature of the Days of Awe.

You would expect me to say: read certain sacred texts.

You would expect me to say: approach those whom you have hurt and ask their forgiveness.

You might also expect me to say: listen to certain powerful and moving pieces of Jewish and secular music.

All of those are good.

But, for the moment, I am going to ask you to watch any of the following movies.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Yes, it is the story of a rape-murder, and how the victim’s mother searched for justice. But, it is also one of the finest movies you will ever see in which hesed — freely translated as grace — has a starring role. Ultimately, it might even be a cinematic midrash on the mystical idea that God needs to balance two aspects of the divine personality — justice and compassion — and that we need to do that, as well. Great acting all around.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” This documentary about Fred Rogers will take you beyond the PBS show that nurtured our children, and will serve as one of the best illustrations of how we might answer the question: “How, now, shall I live my life?” It is about being a mensch, and finding holiness in living and in relationships.

“1945.”  Right after the end of the Shoah, two Orthodox men — a man and his grown son — return to their village in Hungary. The ghostlike presence of these two Jews haunts the villagers, who are preparing for a wedding. They must confront their own roles in the destruction — while wondering aloud what brings these two survivors back to their town. The movie is about complicity, and about what it means to return — which is to say, teshuvah — the major theme of the Days of Awe.

“The Descendants.” There is either nothing Jewish about this movie about family dynamics, adultery, and inheritance in Hawaii — or there is everything Jewish about it. A major statement about forgiveness and generational responsibility. One of George Clooney’s finest roles, IMHO.

“The Queen.”  “The Crown” is a good use of your time. But, “The Queen” is not only about the British royal family’s response to the death of Diana. It is also a great story about God. The British wanted a more emotionally-available monarch, and on the Days of Awe, when we sing Avinu Malcheinu, that is precisely what we are saying, as well. Great performances by Helen Mirren and James Cromwell, as the impossibly irascible Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.

“Groundhog Day.” How many times have you seen this classic comedy with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell? You just never really thought of it as an implicit critique of the ancient way of viewing time as circular and cyclical, with a preference for the Judaic sense that while the years come and go, we can actually change. Or, that the word for year in Hebrew, shanah, can also mean “to repeat,” “to change,” and “to learn.”

“Atonement.” Yes, once again — nothing Jewish about this drama about tragedy, lust, and lies in wartime Britain. Or, there is everything Jewish about it — especially because it deals with the most painful of subjects: How do you atone when the people you’ve offended are dead?

“Munich.” This is still one of the most interesting, and problematic, dramatizations of the Israeli psyche and the burdens of Jewish history. Not to mention the meaning of revenge, and who has the right to exact it.

A few years ago, an Israeli friend wished me a shnat d’vash — a year of honey. I thanked her for the good wish.

Then, she pointed out to me that the phrase has a double meaning. Yes, honey is sweet.

But, it is also messy.

This year has been, in many ways, messy.

The only answer is: Let’s stick together.

Sorry. I will repent of that one on Yom Kippur.

A good, sweet, reasonably unmessy year to you and your loved ones.

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