November 19, 2018

The Jewish Dimensions of ‘Ready Player One’

I recommend putting on the glasses and watching “Ready Player One” — Steven Spielberg’s latest high-octane adventure story, about a boy who saves the world — in 3-D. The film is even better when you put on your JD (Jewish Dimensional™) glasses.

“Ready Player One” is an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2012 novel of the same name. It takes place in a not-too-distant dystopian future when people have given up on fixing the world’s problems and spend their time playing an immersive virtual reality video game of infinite possibilities called OASIS.

The players revere the game’s creator and study his love for ’80s pop culture like a religious text. When he dies, he bequeaths the game to the first player who can solve a series of challenges and puzzles, but an evil corporation enslaves thousands of players to win the contest. Together with his friends, the hero, Parzival, works to defeat the evil corporation and save their virtual world from monetization.

Unfortunately, critics argue, Parzival and his friends spend all their time saving a fake world when they should be saving the real world. However, the morally questionable message of this film seems to be that saving the game is the correct choice.

Initially, I agreed with the critics. But when I put on my Jewish Dimensional™ glasses, I saw it differently.

The rabbis of the Talmud teach that it is worth creating a world for one person and that each person is like a world. We all contain a dark, heavy world of despair. We also contain a world of infinite possibilities, creativity and hope. We need both to live. Without hope, the struggles of life can consume us. If we are unaware of the darkness, we can get lost in our fantasies and neglect important parts of life.

Today’s social media culture vacillates between broadcasting extremist voices and silencing them.

The real world and virtual world of “Ready Player One” are symbols of the worlds inside us all. The “real world” in “Ready Player One” is the harsh, finite world of darkness. The game is the optimistic, infinite world of light. Parzival and his friends save the world of light. Nothing could be nobler.

Spielberg’s film changes the challenges from Cline’s original novel. There, the challenges rely more on encyclopedic knowledge of ’80 s nerd culture. Spielberg creates challenges that measure and stretch the moral character of the contestants. One challenge encourages thinking outside the box, another encourages taking a leap of faith, while a third reminds us that winning isn’t everything.

In its preachiest moment, “Ready Player One” reminds us: “As terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real.”

Today’s social media culture vacillates between broadcasting extremist voices and silencing them. The message of “Ready Player One” is that to save our world, we need to restore balance and moderation using hope, kindness and creativity.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Chair dancing with the ‘Jersey Boys,’ Mikey Weinstein blocks prosyletizing Pentagon video game

Stars of a Different Stripe

Theirs was a classic rags-to-riches story, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, representing the truest incarnation of the American dream: the crooked kids from the other side of town getting a break and making it big.

Big enough in fact, that my closest association with the quartet virtuoso before I saw “Jersey Boys” was the memory of singing along with the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack. “Big Girls Don’t Cry” — that was about Baby growing up. Daddy’s little girl lured away from the ample nest by a dancer as seductive as he was penniless, who had to learn to “Walk Like a Man” to sustain her affections — but that’s another story.

This one began when Dava Savel, best known for penning the Emmy-winning coming-out episode for the TV comedy series, “Ellen,” placated her ex-husband by finally seeing his magnum opus — one night before it closed a three-month run at the Ahmanson Theatre, and we joined her for the evening.

Steve Orich, longtime orchestrator, composer and musical director working out of New York and Los Angeles, created the score for the Tony-winning musical, garnering nominations for both a Tony and Grammy award. This explains why the box office attendant said, “Wow, these are really good seats” when we picked them up at will-call.

Savel recounts the days during their 13-year marriage when they lived and breathed Broadway — she wrote Hollywood scripts and he conducted at Carnegie Hall.

Last summer, Savel re-visited Broadway with her daughter, but not for “Jersey Boys” — “Mary Poppins” was the pick of the day then. So what finally brought her ’round to see her ex-hubby’s musical sensation? “I wanted to be supportive. We’ve been through a gazillion shows, and my kids raved about it. I wanted to check it out for myself.”

The theatricals that ensued involved dancing in our seats and singing along to every song. The documentary-style musical interweaves spirited renditions of the group’s greatest hits with scenes that reflect the group’s dramatic rise to stardom. There was prison and booze and women, debts, disagreements and eventual dissolution. It’s a tale that, despite being set in the 1960s, remains relevant — although by comparison, these guys exuded charm and professionalism, while the likes of Lindsey Lohan and Britney Spears embody the anguish of excess. Ultimately, though, they’re all just people whose fast rise to fame and fortune meant home life would suffer.

Maybe the real stars are the ones who find balance. Like the award-winning television writer and the award-winning orchestrator who have found ways to amicably raise their children in harmony, while enjoying committed relationships with new partners.

“I thought he did an amazing job,” Savel said. “People think it’s the same Frankie Valli songs, but Valli probably used four instruments and Steve is orchestrating for an entire orchestra — he’s given the music new life.”

Last I saw, Savel was sitting front-row mezzanine belting “Oh What a Night!”

Scene and Heard …

Ally Maize and Alexa Block
Holy Maccabee! Two Beverly Hills teens, Ally Maize and Alexa Block took home the gold medal with the L.A. Soccer team at this year’s Maccabi Games held in Orange County. More than 2,000 Jewish teens came from around the world to sport-their-stuff at this Olympic-style event responsible for launching the careers of real Olympians Mitch Gaylord, Mark Spitz and Lenny Krayzelburg.

Fast-talking military man Mikey Weinstein successfully lobbied the Pentagon to halt delivery of a proselytizing video game, developed by Operation Straight Up, that was intended to evangelize U.S. troops stationed in the Middle East. In a JTA brief, Weinstein said, “It’s a horrible game because in it you either kill or convert the other side.”

Eleven-year-old Sarah Lang didn’t let disease derail her dream. The Speed Skating Champion was a special guest at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America Guts and Glory 5k walk/run held at UCLA Aug. 26. She received a dual diagnosis of Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis in 2006 but finished the season in the top five of the 1000 meter race and is currently ranked eighth in the world. More than 1.4 million people in the United States are afflicted with Crohn’s, and it is particularly prevalent among Jews of Ashkenazic descent.

Olmert offers civilian service plan as military draft alternative; U.S. to train Palestinian troops

Olmert Promotes Civilian National Service

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office announced this week that it had formed an administration to accommodate Israelis who, upon reaching draft age, prefer a civilian version of national service to the standard military conscription. The administration, which begins operations next year, will mostly cater to Israeli Arabs, ultra-Orthodox Jews and draft-age youths who cite personal or political reasons for not wanting to wear a uniform. It is expected to offer them options such as community service or medical posts, with similar commitment periods and benefits as conscripted soldiers. Israelis who do national service enjoy later perks such as tax breaks and student stipends.

State Dept. to Train P.A. troops

U.S. State Department officials will train Palestinian troops assigned to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“The course work and practical exercises will enhance the abilities of the Presidential Guard to carry out their primary function — VIP protection,” a department statement said Sunday. “This training is part of a series of courses that will be offered this fall through early 2008.”

The training will be carried out by the department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which trains security details around the world. It is part of an agreement signed this month by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the statement said. The statement said that both sides have “worked closely” to design the program. Gen. Keith Dayton, the top U.S. security envoy to the region, had been ready to train pro-Abbas troops in June, when forces loyal to Hamas, a terrorist group, drove Abbas loyalists out of the Gaza Strip.

The U.S. focus is now on bolstering Abbas in the West Bank and is part of a wider effort that includes the European Union, Egypt and Jordan.

“The rule of law and security must be the foundation of any successful Palestinian government,” the statement said. “The training and assistance that is being provided will help improve the Palestinian Authority’s capacity to deliver security for the Palestinian people and fight terrorism, build confidence between the parties, and ultimately help to meet the security needs of Palestinians and Israelis alike.”

Hezbollah Computer Game Based on War

“Special Force 2” — a computer game based on its war last summer with Israel and launched last week in Beirut in Arabic, Persian and English-language editions — awards points for killing Israeli soldiers. It retails for about $10.

“This game presents the culture of the resistance to children: that occupation must be resisted and that land and the nation must be guarded,” Hezbollah media official Sheikh Ali Daher told Reuters. “The features which are the secret of resistance’s victory in the south have moved to this game so that the child can understand that fighting the enemy does not only require the gun. It requires readiness, supplies, armament, attentiveness, tactics.”

Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed terrorist group based in Lebanon, launched the war on July 12, 2006 with a surprise raid into Israel, killing eight Israeli soldiers and capturing two. Its leaders later said they were surprised by the ferocity of the Israeli response. About 160 Israelis and 1,200 Lebanese died in the war.

Israel Drafts Interim Deal for Survivors

Israeli survivors of Nazi concentration camps and wartime ghettoes are to receive increased state subsidies under an interim deal forged by Ehud Olmert. Sunday marked the deadline set by the prime minister for settling the demands of Holocaust survivors who had protested a government plan to grant them just $20 a month in subsidies. Under a draft deal, those survivors who were in concentration camps or ghettoes will now receive between $200 and $300 a month in addition to standard welfare payouts for the elderly.

Israeli Welfare Ministry Director General Nahum Itzkowitz, speaking on Army Radio, said the deal “could change someone’s life and give him a feeling of stability and security, in comparison with the present situation.”

But a resolution is still pending for the majority of Israel’s 250,000 survivors who were dispossessed by Nazi Germany’s onslaught but never incarcerated. Israeli officials suggested they might attempt a compromise whereby state funding for a central trust catering to the needs of Holocaust survivors would be significantly raised.

Sen. Obama Praises Israel Aid Hike

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) welcomed a raise in defense assistance to Israel. The Bush administration this week signed an agreement with Israel increasing its assistance from $2.4 billion a year to $3 billion a year over 10 years. The assistance is part of a package that uses incentives to encourage multiple parties — the Palestinians, Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well as Israel — to move forward on Israeli-Palestinian peace. Obama, a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, said the assistance was necessary because Bush administration policies had endangered Israel.

“The Administration’s failed policies in Iraq, in a war that never should have been authorized, have strengthened Iran and emboldened Hamas and Hezbollah,” he said in a statement Thursday. “That makes it more important than ever that the United States live up to its commitment to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge in a dangerous region. For that reason, I support the agreement on military assistance reached today.”

Shul Can Help You Live Longer, Study Suggests

A Hebrew University of Jerusalem study suggests that people who attend synagogue regularly live longer than those who do not.

Professor Howard Litwin of the university’s Israel Gerontological Data Center studied 5,000 Israelis aged 60 or older over a seven-year period, according to an article in Ha’aretz. He compared various factors influencing their longevity. His findings, published in The European Journal of Aging, showed a death rate 75 percent higher among those who did not attend synagogue regularly.

Litwin suggested several reasons: Faith may help people survive psychological pressure better; observant Jews walk to shul on Shabbat, thus maintaining an exercise routine; and a supportive community helps people live longer.

Save the computer peace, save the world

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