Segal: A nanny, a bear and a grocery-store clerk

Rabbi David Segal

My 3-year-old son is obsessed with “Mary Poppins.” As far as being forced to watch a movie on repeat, my wife and I lucked out. “Mary Poppins” is funny and poignant with catchy tunes and dazzling dance numbers. Maybe the best way to describe it is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Watching “Mary Poppins” as an adult, I’ve noticed it’s quite subversive. Both capitalism and feminism undermine the Banks family’s health. Mr. Banks proves to be successful in banking but inept at raising a family. Mrs. Banks devotes herself to the women’s suffrage movement and neglects her own children. Neither parent has the time or patience to take their children seriously.

Enter Mary Poppins, a radical outsider from another class (and apparently an immigrant from a cloud), to show the Banks parents the error of their ways. Mary is a firm disciplinarian, but she gives the children space to expand their imagination and explore their inner lives. She’s the only adult who takes them seriously. Ultimately, her influence “turns the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents,” to put it in biblical terms (Malachi 4:6).

With two young children ourselves, my wife and I rarely go out to see movies. But we did manage to take our 3-year-old to see “Paddington,” based on the British children’s books about a bear living in London. I was pleasantly surprised that the movie had enough antics to entertain a child and enough sophistication to satisfy the adults. And, like “Mary Poppins,” it’s about a whimsical outsider who transforms the hearts of the family that takes him in.

Paddington comes from a race of intelligent, talking bears who live in “darkest Peru” (whatever that means). When an earthquake ravages his village, his aunt sends him to London to find a proper home. Paddington finds himself homeless on a train platform waiting for someone to take him in. Finally, reluctantly, a dysfunctional family does.

In trying to trace Paddington’s roots, the mother of the family takes him to see an old antique collector. Mr. Gruber, speaking with a German accent, tells Paddington of his own childhood journey away from his parents when disaster struck his home. His story is a thinly veiled reference to the Kindertransports. During World War II, some German Jewish parents, unable to escape from Nazi Germany, made the life-saving but heartbreaking choice to send their children to live with adopted families in London. Despite his childhood trauma, it’s clear that Mr. Gruber has lived a productive life in London, grateful for the new home that welcomed him when his birthplace did not.

Paddington, too, is a refugee seeking a better life. Some of the neighbors are suspicious of the newcomer from a foreign land. Paddington always tries to do the right thing, and when he helps the police catch a robber, he begins to win the hearts and minds of his fellow citizens. In addition, he provides precisely the “spoonful of sugar” (in this case, marmalade) that his host family needs to resolve their dysfunction. They transition from alienated and stressed to loving and tight-knit, thanks to the influence of their newly adopted bear.

In real life, stories of outsiders adjusting to a new home don’t always have happy endings. Last month in Paris, Islamic extremists killed a dozen people at the Charlie Hebdo offices and another four at a kosher supermarket during a terror spree. It’s almost ludicrous to write about these murders in the same breath as children’s movies. And yet, the message these films teach our kids is one we should hold dear: that we still believe diversity makes us stronger, that differences should be embraced and not feared and that sometimes outsiders can reintroduce us to our better selves.

During the hostage situation in the Parisian kosher market, quick thinking by one employee saved several lives. Lassana Bathily, a young Muslim immigrant from Mali, escorted frightened customers to safety in the walk-in freezer. Then he sneaked out to aid the police, providing vital information that helped them take down the perpetrators. Afterward, Bathily said in an interview, “I am a practicing Muslim. I’ve already done my prayers in this store. And yes, I helped the Jews. We are brothers. It’s not a question of Jews, Christians or Muslims. We are all in this together; we need to help to get out of this crisis” (translated via Google Translate from BFMTV, Jan. 10, Sometimes it takes an outsider to remind us who we’re supposed to be. On Jan. 20, France made Bathily a citizen.

As we marshal our resources and rhetoric to defeat extremists and bring them to justice, we are good at naming what and whom we’re against. We should get better at articulating what we stand for: An open society where anyone willing to work for the common good is welcomed, whether he or she is a magical nanny, a talking bear or a supermarket clerk whose skin color and religion are different from mine.

At the end of the film, Paddington sits in his attic window, writing a letter to his aunt as he looks out over the rooftops of London. “In London,” says the voiceover, “everyone is different, so anyone can fit in.” This is the promise of pluralism. Even as we acknowledge its dark side, let’s not forget that hopeful vision. It’s an ideal that even a child can understand — maybe even better than the rest of us.

Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, can be reached at 970-925-8245 or He blogs at, and his column runs the first Saturday of each month.


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