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How to bend and not break

From the most important word in the history of American cinema ... a lesson in life itself.

(RNS) — When you think of moral heroes, you probably go to Rosa Parks, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela or Elie Wiesel. They were all great moral heroes. But, sometimes you need to encounter someone who has a teaspoon of heroism. Those are my two guests on this podcast — two “human lulavs,” who showed that they could bend but not break.

Click below to listen to the audio — and let us know what you think.


It is time to play the game of movie trivia.

Question: what is the most important one-word quote in motion picture history?

I can see some of you getting ready to raise your hands. Well, I can’t see that, but I am imagining it.

Some of you would say it is the last word from Orson Welles’ classic film, “Citizen Kane”: “rosebud.”

But, no. Sorry. That is not the answer I am looking for.

Let’s talk about one of the great American movies of our time: “The Graduate.”

Now, in fact, there was either nothing Jewish about “The Graduate” — or there was everything Jewish about “The Graduate.”

It is not only that it starred Dustin Hoffman, who is about as Jewish as it gets.

It is not only that Simon and Garfunkel provided the soundtrack — which is also about as Jewish as it gets.

Benjamin Braddock, the alienated graduate, could have been Benjamin Bronstein.

Mrs. Robinson could have been Mrs. Rubinstein.

“The Graduate” was a totally Jewish movie.

Let’s remember the movie together.

Ben Braddock is a product of Southern California’s upper middle class. He has just graduated from college. He is lost. He does not know what he wants out of life.

At his graduation party, a family friend approaches Benjamin.

“I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening?”

Many of you know the word that comes next.


There you have it. Perhaps the single most important one-word line in all of motion picture history.

If you are of a certain age, you remember that we used that word to describe people — and it was not a compliment. “She is so totally plastic.”

“Plastic” described people who were artificial. It also described people who could twist themselves into being whatever others thought they should be, or into being what society thought they should be.

To be plastic is to be infinitely malleable.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in being flexible.

Jews are now in the process of finishing the festival of Sukkot.

We have been shaking the lulav, the palm frond.

What is the greatest quality of the lulav?

It bends. It is flexible.

The Talmud asks the question: Why does a sofer, a scribe, use a quill made out of a reed to write a scroll of the Torah?

Because, it says, a person should always be as flexible as a reed — and as unyielding as a cedar.

But, you cannot be so flexible that you forget the core of who you are. When that happens, you break.

Or, your soul breaks.

I have spent a certain chunk of my life reflecting on that whole notion of “plastics.”

Perhaps the original word “plastics” in “The Graduate” — that piece of advice the friend offered Benjamin Braddock — was not, in fact, his way of saying Ben should be infinitely malleable.

If you remember the mass-production of plastics — an innovation in the late 1960s — then perhaps the friend was merely saying: Hey, Ben, plastics is going to be a thing, and you should get in on the ground floor.

If the movie had been made in recent years, it would have been — what? — Bitcoin?

We laughed when we heard “plastics,” because it was the ultimate synthetic material.

Southern California, where “The Graduate” took place, was the ultimate synthetic place.

Nothing was real in the world of “The Graduate.”

During the late 1960s, we used the word “plastic” as a derogatory term. It meant someone was as synthetic as the material itself. 

But, this whole thing about plastic reminds us of something else.

Malleability? Not so good.

A faith tradition that holds out the model of an Abraham, of prophets, of Maccabees who refused to bend to the assimilationist waves of Hellenism, of Spanish Jews who let themselves be burned rather than convert to Christianity, of Russian Jews who resisted the dominant religion of Marx and Lenin for the subversive religion of God and Torah … no one has ever come up to us and said that magic word: “plastics.”

Flexible? Much better. We all have learned how to be flexible, especially since the pandemic.

With flexibility has come resiliency.

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