How to bend and not break

(RNS) – When you think of moral heroes, you probably think of Rosa Parks, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela or Elie Wiesel. They were all great moral heroes. But sometimes you need to meet someone who has a teaspoon of heroism. These are my two guests on this podcast – two “human Lulavs” who have shown they can bend but not break.

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

It’s time to play the movie trivia game.

Question: What is the most important one-word quote in film history?

I can see some of you getting ready to put your hands up. Well, I can’t see it, but I’m imagining it.

Some of you would say it’s the last word in Orson Welles’ classic film Citizen Kane: Rosebud.

But no. We’re sorry. That’s not the answer I’m looking for.

Let’s talk about one of the greatest American films of our time: The Graduate.

In fact, there was either nothing Jewish about The Graduate—or everything about The Graduate was Jewish.

It’s not just that it stars Dustin Hoffman, who is as Jewish as it gets.

Not only did Simon and Garfunkel provide the soundtrack – which is also as Jewish as it gets.

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

Mrs. Robinson could have been Mrs. Rubinstein.

The Graduate was a thoroughly Jewish film.

Let’s remember the movie together.

Ben Braddock is an upper middle class product in Southern California. He just graduated from college. he is lost He doesn’t know what he wants from life.

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At his graduation, a family friend approaches Benjamin.

“I want to say a word to you. Only one word. Do you hear?”

Many of you know the word that comes next.


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

If you’re a certain age, remember we used that word to describe people – and it wasn’t a compliment. “She’s so totally plastic.”

“Plastic” described people who were artificial. It also described people who could transform themselves into what others thought of them or to be what society thought of them.

Being plastic means being infinitely malleable.

Do not get me wrong. I believe in being flexible.

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

We shook the lulav, the palm frond.

What is the greatest quality of the lulav?

It bends. It’s flexible.

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

Because, it is said, a person should always be as flexible as a reed – and as unyielding as a cedar.

But you can’t be so flexible that you forget the core of who you are. If that happens, break up.

Or your soul breaks.

I’ve spent a certain part of my life thinking about this whole notion of “plastic”.

Perhaps the original word “plastic” in The Graduate — that advice given by friend Benjamin Braddock — wasn’t really his way of saying Ben should be infinitely malleable.

If you remember the mass production of plastics – an innovation in the late 1960s – then maybe the friend just said, hey, Ben, plastics are going to be a thing and you should get on the ground floor.

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If the film had been made in the last few years, it would have been – what? — bitcoins?

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

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

In the world of The Graduate, nothing was real.

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

But this whole thing with plastic reminds us of something else.

malleability? Not so good.

A faith tradition that upholds the model of Abraham, of prophets, of Maccabees who refused to bow to the assimilationist waves of Hellenism, of Spanish Jews who allowed themselves to be burned instead of converting to Christianity, of Russian Jews who the dominant religion opposed by Marx and Lenin for the subversive religion of God and Torah… no one ever came up to us and said that magic word: “plastic”.

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

With flexibility comes resilience.

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