“The Farewell Party” Poses More Questions Than Answers

“The Farewell Party” poses questions more usually associated with the High Holidays and long hours of contemplation in the sanctuary: Who shall live? Who shall die? Who by destiny? Who by free will? Although touted as an Israeli comedy about euthanasia, the film raises important political, ethical and religious points about assisted suicide and the fine line between aiding a suffering friend and playing God.

The film is set in Jerusalem in a retirement home where everyone knows each other’s business. Although the residents have individual apartments with doors that close, the atmosphere is more like a kibbutz.

Amateur inventor Yehezkel (Ze’ev Revach) and his waifish wife, Levana (Levana Finkelshtein) are a devoted couple with a small circle of equally devoted friends. Their terminally ill best pal, Max, who doctors are keeping alive against his will, is suffering terribly from the prolonged constant pain. When his wife Yana begs Yehezkel to help in any way he can, he agrees.

The machinist teams up with retired vet Dr. Daniel to design a machine that will assist the angel of death with the push of a button. Dr. Daniel’s married lover Raffi (whom we meet for the first time literally in the closet and naked), a retired cop, suggests the mercy killers pre-tape a video of Max stating that he is ending his life of his own free will and that he alone is responsible for his decision and his action.

The posse gathers to inaugurate Yehezkel’s machine in a loving bedside farewell that restores dignity and a smile to Max’s pain-wracked face. They swear each other to secrecy but since their lives at the communal retirement home are open books where the lines between the private and public blur, word soon gets out that there is an alternative to death with indignity.


The friends of “The Farewell Party” gather to hear the pleas of a fellow septuagenarian whose wife wants to end her life. 

Levana, the only one of the group who morally opposes euthanasia, is ironically the only one in its needs when she starts her slow disappearance into the abyss of dementia. Yehezkel’s reaction to his wife’s request spotlights the dilemmas and ambiguities of assisted suicide, and we see in his face he wishes, too late, that he had never decided to tinker with matters of life and death.

The film is surprisingly light and graceful and the cast interesting and believable. The writer-director team Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon balance tenderness and daring as they tackle the contemporary issue of how to deal with elderly patients who may not want the all the wonders medicine makes available to them. They take their serious subject seriously, but ably interweave humor and heartbreaking caring. Although “The Farewell Party” is a film about death, it is also a film about the sanctity of life.

When that life becomes subjectively unendurable, and the treatment objectively values quantity of days lived over their quality, the doctor’s drive to keep the patient alive at all costs becomes as cruel and impersonal as the disease itself.

However, whether a tinkerer and a retired vet have the right to build a “mercy-killing machine” and use it with impunity is not necessarily the best alternative. Or is it?

Check local theater listings for times and locations.

Celebrating the Miracle of Israel

The emergence of Israel from the ashes of the Holocaust is no less miraculous than the parting of the Red Sea during the Exodus.

Starting today, we celebrate a week of holidays that, like Passover, afford an opportunity to reflect, remember and reconnect to our Judaism. They also link that Judaism to the land of Israel. With Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers) and Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day), we commemorate how and why Israel came to be, and recommit to ensuring the survival of our homeland.

Yom Hashoah (April 16) reminds us that people are capable of unimaginable evil and cruelty. The lessons of the Holocaust and the dangers of passivity are unfortunately still relevant today. A global wave of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment has spilled over into dangerous acts of violence and intimidation against Jews. Life in the Diaspora remains difficult for Jews. What is different today is that we now have a safety net and its name is Israel.

Yom Hazikaron (April 22) acknowledges and laments the many who died to create and maintain the Jewish state. In Israel, where military conscription is mandatory, many families have suffered losses. For them, the holiday is neither abstract nor remote. They have paid, and continue to pay, the price to keep Israel free so that the world’s Jews have a place they can call home.

Yom Haatzmaut (April 23) commemorates the birth of Israel, the one place that unconditionally welcomes all Jews. On this day, we rejoice that we survived as a people and remember those who sacrificed and perished on our behalf. We forget the contemporary political and religious differences of opinion that may divide us and collectively marvel at the week’s journey from Holocaust to sacrifice to homeland.

What will we take away from this week? Perhaps a sense of responsibility and duty to safeguard Israel’s existence will inspire us to take action to contribute to her legacy. Perhaps awareness that we are all survivors will rekindle an image of a global Jewish family that can cherish Israel’s existence while acknowledging her faults. At the very least, we are reminded that Israel’s existence is nothing less than a miracle that should never be taken for granted.

Last week we ended our Seders with the words, “next year in Jerusalem.” This week we give thanks that, for us, that is a real option.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on April 16, 2015.

In Praise of Active Listening

We have grown used to the fact that there are many opinions in America about Israel’s actions, both from within our community and without. The settlements, possible peace negotiations and the country’s upcoming elections are a few hot button topics. Whether Israel’s future should be as a one- or two-state entity is a hotter one still.

These are complex political issues that deserve enthusiastic debate. All sides have a right to state their points of view, to argue, to express disagreement, to give reasons, to provide evidence and ultimately to try to persuade. Few disputes are black and white; it is the fleshing out of the gray area that is at the heart of our democratic freedom of speech.

All sides also have the obligation to listen to the other’s point of view. It is as important to understand why people hold different opinions as it is to hear them. After all, how can we truly grasp the issues and discuss them in a constructive and civil manner if we do not expose ourselves to thoughtful people with whom we disagree?

No side, however, has a right to vilify, belittle or marginalize the other. When Jews turn against Jews under the guise of the “pro-Israel/anti-Israel” litmus test, we do to ourselves what we would not let others do to us. We become a people divided.

That division is exacerbated when we add American politics into the mix. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to speak to the U.S. Republican-majority Congress at Speaker Boehner’s invitation has created yet another opportunity for Jews to draw lines of separation. The media is rife with strident pieces equating Republicans with pro-Israelis and Democrats with anti-Israelis. These impassioned attacks leave no room for reasoned and reasonable discussion.

With media available in so many formats, it has never been easier to access information. While we may gravitate towards sources that philosophically agree with us, it behooves us to broaden our horizons and listen to people on all sides of the political spectrum. Not only does this bolster our own arguments, it also trains us in the crucial skill of active listening.

Rather than listening in order to react and argue back, the active listener makes a conscious effort to hear and understand what people are saying. A communication skill that can be learned and must be practiced, active listening is a key component to civil discourse and productive conversation.

We have deliberately offered two opposite opinions about Netanyahu’s March 3 visit on the facing page. We invite you to open your mind, open your ears, actively listen and then let us know what you think.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on February 26, 2015

Gaza’s Real Enemy

On August 4, Nobel Peace Laureate Eli Wiesel published a full-page Op-ed ad rebuking Hamas for using children in Gaza as human shields against Israeli rockets. Titled “Jews rejected child sacrifices 3,500 years ago. Now it’s Hamas’ turn,” it ran in major U.S. newspapers including The New York Times and The Washington Post, and was paid for by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s This World: The Values Network.

In the ad, Wiesel contended that the world must shift its criticism away from Israeli soldiers for the suffering of those in Gaza and instead hold the real culprit, Hamas, solely to blame. He used these points to build his case.

First, although Hamas and the Palestinians both live in Gaza, they are not alike. Hamas is a recognized terrorist death cult that uses children as suicide bombers and human shields. The Palestinian citizens of Gaza want a hopeful future of peace for their families. Instead, Hamas has imposed its murderous regime on them.

Second, Palestinian parents have more in common with Israeli parents than they do with Hamas. Parents in Gaza and parents in Israel are united by their love for their children and by the fact that neither would voluntarily put a child in danger. Hamas deliberately puts children and other civilians in harm’s way.

Third, both Israelis and Palestinians suffer at the hands of Hamas. Israel struggles for its survival as a nation. Those people of Gaza who reject Hamas’ credo of terror are disenfranchised and alienated by the very people they elected and entrusted to protect and defend them. Instead of the peace and hope they desire and deserve, Hamas gives them war and despair.

Last, both Muslim and Jewish cultures share a love of life and learning while Hamas promotes a barbaric cult of death.

Some have criticized Wiesel’s language as unduly provocative and forceful. The London Times even refused to run the paid ad. Stylistic affinities notwithstanding, he undeniably makes a powerful and rational argument for why Arabs and Jews and “all moderate men and women of faith” must view the war differently.

According to Wiesel, this is not a battle between Arab and Jew or Israeli and Palestinian as much as it is a battle between Hamas and Israel and Hamas and the people of Gaza. Israel’s fight with Hamas, a force determined to annihilate it, is for its right to exist. The true Muslims among the Gaza Palestinians, the ones held hostage and occupied by their own people, are unable to fight back against their Hamas oppressors.

Wiesel’s plea to the world to recognize that Hamas, and not Israel, is the real enemy of the Gaza Palestinians deserves to be heard.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on August 14, 2014.

In Their Own Words

Every summer, hundreds of American teenagers travel to Israel under the auspices of programs such as the Lappin Foundation’s Youth to Israel. Y2I, a “rite de passage” for many North Shore Jewish teens, is intended as a life-changing Israel experience. 2014’s trip was uniquely so.

As their plane landed at Ben Gurion Airport, news broke that the fate of three kidnapped boys was clear: their murdered bodies had been found. Within days, Hamas rockets sequestered the Y2I group in northern Israel, precluding visits to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and Masada. It was simply unsafe to proceed with the trip “as usual.”

The teens wrote post-trip essays about their experience and, with the permission of the Lappin Foundation, we share passages from many of them, joined together into a single voice.

“This trip taught me the true definition of being Jewish. It was not until I was actually in Israel, with the rockets and fighting, that I understood how strong we are. Israel is an amazing and resilient country and we were lucky enough to witness it firsthand.

The Israeli kids told me how important it was to just go through your day with a smile, and make the best of a dim situation. I will take that piece of advice with me and use it for the rest of my life. I never thought one trip could teach me such a big lesson.

What I admire most about Israel is her strength and heart. Israel and the Jewish people have always faced adversity. But even when times get tough, even when other people and other countries knock us down and try to belittle us or hurt us or say we are not good enough, we always get up.

I feel it is part of my responsibility to let people know about the real struggles in Israel, not the fake rumors. This is extremely important to me, and Y21 gave me the ability to understand it better.”

During this wrenching time for Israel and Jews everywhere, it is easy to get caught in the web of relentless media coverage, political polemics and sharp-tongued rhetoric. How fortunate we are that we can also tune into the voices of those with the most at stake: our children, who will live in a future we will not see.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on July 31, 2014.