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Mira Sucharov


By Mira Sucharov, September 6, 2010

What do fallen celebrity Lindsay Lohan and the message of Rosh Hashana have in common? In my view, quite a bit.

Child star of the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap, and teenage star of the 2003 remake of Freaky Friday, Lohan has fallen down the predictable path of self-destruction, one well-trodden by many young celebrities.

Lohan recently completed a short prison sentence followed by a stint in rehab, for breaking parole following two DUI arrests. Perhaps the most sordid aspect of this tabloid tale occurred with an expletive pencilled onto her fingernail for photographers to capture as she covered her mouth in apparent shock while receiving the judge’s verdict.

Lohan’s story is a familiar one. Neither is it terribly interesting -- until it is placed against some of the most pressing concerns of Jewish theology.

The Parent Trap and Freaky Friday are both, at root, stories about the struggle for human agency. How do we make decisions, and what constraints do we face? One film contains a plausible plot with an implausible ending, while the other has an implausible plot with a plausible ending.

The Parent Trap tells the tale of a pair of identical twins who were separated at birth. Discovering one another at summercamp, they scheme to reunite their divorced parents. Though somewhat fantastical, the plot is plausible. But the ending is pure storybook. Their parents fall back in love and cross the Atlantic to live together again, the textbook fantasy of many a child of divorce.

By contrast, Freaky Friday, where a teenager and her mother accidentally switch bodies for a day, presents an impossible story with a realistic ending: both characters return to their true identities with a thing or two learned about childhood, adulthood, and empathy.

Both films address the question of how much control we have over our own lives and the lives of others. 

Every year, during the High Holidays, we are faced with a similar struggle over the uncertainty of how our lives will unfold. Whether or not we assume an interventionist God (or any God at all, for that matter), Rosh Hashana reminds us of our relative powerlessness over our own existence.

“Who by fire, who by water?” we ask during the Unetanneh Tokef prayer. We wonder not if we will die (of the many things organized religion does well, one is to force us to confront the fact of human mortality through elaborate death and mourning rituals), but when (and how) we shall meet our end. “May you be inscribed in the book of life,” we tell each other in not-always-understood Hebrew over kippered salmon and lokshen kugel. (The implication is may you be inscribed in the book of life “for this year,” at least.)

In a popular context, Lohan’s films force the question of how far we can go to reshape our destiny. A child struggling to make sense of her broken family might naturally desire to engineer a reunited one.

A teenager rebelling against parental restrictions and striving to create her own independent identity might long to live as an unencumbered adult for a day -- until discovering, the hard way, the many banal responsibilities that adulthood demands.

In her onscreen persona, Lindsay Lohan brought to life these scripted questions with pluck, charm and promise. But as an adult in real life, she has begun to answer these same questions with an ironic twist -- by making the kinds of problematic choices that have led her to have her freedom ultimately curtailed by incarceration.

We admittedly have limited control over our fate. But we do have some control. We can choose to lead ethical lives, or lives governed by deceit. We can take care of our bodies, or harm them through unhealthy lifestyle habits. On a global level, we can protect the planet or destroy it through greed.

It has become a truism that with having received so much so young, child celebrities shoulder an amazingly difficult burden once they grow up.

But in a sense we each have been given so much so young. Each of us has been granted the mixed blessing of the blank slate of promise and potential. It is up to us to decide how to fill the slate, and to make the most of our lives -- at least until the point at which fire, water, sword or beast shall overtake us.

Former Winnipegger Mira Sucharov is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Carelton University.

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