Follow by Email

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Va-y-chi: Mary Poppins, Eliza Doolittle, and the Value of Perspective

Many years ago, there was a beautiful young actress with an exquisite singing voice who landed the lead role in a magnificent new Broadway musical.

When it came time to turn the musical into a landmark movie, however, Hollywood producers doubted that the young actress had adequate screen presence, so they gave the choice lead role to a proven film star--even though her singing voice was so weak, her songs would be dubbed by a behind-the-scenes vocalist.

As a consolation prize, the young actress was offered the lead role in a pleasant, lightweight family film.

The young actress was Julie Andrews. The veteran film star was Audrey Hepburn. The magnificent-musical-turned-landmark-movie was My Fair Lady. The family film was Mary Poppins.

As it turned out, both films were made in 1964, and both actresses were nominated for an Oscar and somewhat surprisingl, it was Julie Andrews who won the statuette. Reporters asked her: Do you think you got the award because people felt sorry for you about being passed for the Eliza Doolittle role? to which  she replied with consternation, of course not.

Skip ahead in time some four decades, after Julie Andrews has crowned her long career with numerous films and a return to Broadway, has cemented her reputation with a whole new generation in the role of Queen of Genovia in the movie series The Princess Diaries, and has become a celebrated children's author to boot. Once again, she is asked if she thinks she got the 1964 Oscar as a consolation prize.

This time she smiles mischievously and nods. Yes, she says, there probably is some truth to that.

A long story to be sure, but it held my sixth graders spellbound when I told it as we discussed Va-y'chi, the last portion in the book of Genesis. There is so much to talk about in this moving and bittersweet story of reconciliation and closure--but the part that I focused on is the moment when Jacob, now reunited with his beloved son Joseph, goes to bless his grandsons. He puts his right hand on the younger grandson, and his left on the older--even though the older should get the benefit of the right hand. But before he speaks, Joseph, the boys' father, jumps in and urges that his father switch hands.

There is so much irony in this scene -- after all, Jacob himself "stole" his older brother's blessing through trickery, and Joseph was also a favored, albeit younger, son. As a boy, Joseph gloated and bragged about his undeserved, elevated status. But in this portion, an older and wiser Joseph tries to set things right for the next generation.

So I ask my students: Why do you think Julie Andrews reversed her answer the second time she was asked? Why do you think Joseph had a change of heart with regard to favoritism?

Personally, I think the Torah is teaching a lesson about the passage of time and the acquisition of perspective -- but my students surprised me with their own spin on the story. They pointed out to me that the young Julie Andrews was still creating herself and building her career. She couldn't afford to let her guard down by admitting that her Mary Poppins performance may not have deserved the Oscar.

Forty years later, my students said, of course Andrews was able to admit the truth. She was star, and her career was assured. She no longer had anything to risk.

Joseph, they added, also had come out on top by the time he was a father. At that point, they said, he could afford to hold a more balanced view about whether a younger son should have the privileges that normally go to the older one.

Then I asked: What about you? Have you ever seen things  one way in the heat of the moment  -- but understood things differently after time had passed?

They had many examples, but one student's response stands out in my mind. "Sometimes you get into a fight with a sibling or friend," she said, "and they say, 'You did this!' and you say, 'No, I didn't!' But then when you look back on it, you sort of say, 'Yeah, I guess I did."

As usual, my heart goes out to  my group of preteens, who naturally see everything through a prism of risk and uncertainty, and react automatically by going on the defense. Letting go of an advantage or admitting vulnerability is risky, in their world. It can put you in an emotional place that you really don't want to be. Getting older means becoming more certain of who you are. At that point, you can afford to let down your hair..

We talked about such sayings as, "Time heals all wounds," "With age comes wisdom," and "When you're mad, count to ten before you saying anything." My students agreed that perspective is a valuable commodity.

And while they were talking, they were giving me some new perspective as well.