Tikkun olam, ‘wonderful’ lives, and the mensch of Bedford Falls

Tikkun olam, ‘wonderful’ lives, and the mensch of Bedford Falls

George Bailey, center, played by Jimmy Stewart, does his part to repair the world of fictional Bedford Falls, N.Y., in the classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Photo by Flickr
George Bailey, center, played by Jimmy Stewart, does his part to repair the world of fictional Bedford Falls, N.Y., in the classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Photo by Flickr


That’s what George Bailey figures his life is worth in the 1946 movie “It’s A Wonderful Life.” His death, on the other hand, has a price tag of $15,000, courtesy of a life insurance policy. When George is confronted with false accusations of embezzling $8,000 from his family’s company, he decides to throw himself off a bridge so his heirs can collect the payout, absolve the debt, and save the business. At the last minute, an angel’s interference shows George that his actions have benefited, not burdened, his community of Bedford Falls, N.Y. — a fictional upstate town where everyone knows everyone.

Although “It’s A Wonderful Life,” directed by Frank Capra and starring Jimmy Stewart as George, is a Christmas movie, the Jewish concept of tikkun olam — repairing the world — resonates throughout the film like the blaring of a shofar, and the ideas of goodwill as detailed in the Mishna are apparent throughout the tale in George’s sacrifices.

“Repairing the world and repairing oneself are the results of George being an integral part of a tight-knit community,” Art Simon, a film professor at Montclair State University, told NJJN.

George repairs Bedford Falls throughout his life, and often through Bailey Brothers Building & Loan, the company his father and uncle founded. Whereas George’s calculus for a home loan is based on employment history, salary, and character, applicants don’t get the same treatment from the town’s greedy, unforgiving, and miserly bank president, Henry Potter. So influential is the villainous financier that he can keep a telephoning congressman on hold, Potter seeks only to strengthen his grip on the infrastructure of Bedford Falls and eliminate Bailey Brothers as a competitor. Plus, fewer loans mean more tenants in Potter’s barely habitable properties.

Since he was a boy, George dreamed of traveling the world, building great structures, and “shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet.” His contentment can neither be sought nor achieved in strolling down Genesee Street, the town’s main boulevard. Bedford Falls, after all, is no Brigadoon. But filial guilt outweighs inspiring dreams; George takes over the company when his father dies and he stays on when his brother Harry, who was to assume the reigns upon his return from college, instead comes back to Bedford Falls with a wife and a job offer from his father-in-law. When George’s forgetful uncle Billy accidentally leaves the aforementioned $8,000 in a folded newspaper at the bank in the hands of Potter, George, with the police on their way to arrest him, thinks he has nowhere to turn but to suicide. Or so he believes.

Before George plunges off the bridge, Clarence, his guardian angel, jumps into the river first, leaving George no choice but to save him instead of killing himself. Afterward, the hero tells Clarence that he wishes he had never been born, so the angel shows him an alternate universe in which George never existed. And through this vision, the power of tikkun olam is revealed.

Without a bastion to compete for the townspeople’s accounts, Potter is unassailable. Goodbye, Bedford Falls. Hello, Pottersville. Genesee Street is a den of iniquity with seedy nightclubs, a strip-tease establishment, and a pawn shop.

In “real-life” Bedford Falls, George had saved Harry from drowning when they were kids — George lost hearing in one ear as a result of the rescue; shades of Jacob’s limp after his struggle with the angel? — and his brother later became a pilot during World War II and shot down 15 Japanese planes, including one when it was about to crash into a ship. In the alternate universe, “Every man on that transport died,” explains Clarence. “Harry wasn’t there to save them because you weren’t there to save Harry. You see, George, you really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?”

Other ramifications of George’s inexistence: Billy lost the family business and lives in an insane asylum; George’s mother is desolate and runs a boarding house; and his beloved wife, Mary, is an “old maid” librarian.

That’s the last straw. George races to the bridge, recants his wish, and prays between sobs to get his life back. Wife. Four kids. $8,000 debt. Drafty house. Possible arrest. When Clarence restores Bedford Falls, George’s appreciation for his “crummy little town” is evident.

Like King David celebrating, leaping, and dancing before the Ark of the Covenant, George gallops down Genesee Street and screams, “Merry Christmas!” before heading back to the Bailey abode. Mary, having learned from Billy that George’s arrest was imminent, had asked the community for help. Word spread like wildfire through Bedford Falls, and the townspeople crowd the house with cash in hand to bail George out from his predicament.

By now, tikkun olam has come full circle. In repairing the Bedford Falls community, George has repaired himself in his heart, mind, and soul.   

“The movie is about community,” said Simon. “Capra and Stewart show the interconnections in George’s life and the ways that his good deeds are ultimately rewarded by the masses when the people of Bedford Falls act in the spirit of community. By the end, his life has meaning and he realizes that his place is in Bedford Falls. Capra is suggesting that you don’t need to travel the world to have a wonderful life. That’s not the road to happiness.”

It doesn’t appear that any Jews lived in Bedford Falls. But if they did, there’d probably be some gelt in George’s Christmas Eve bounty. Maybe even a dreidel for the Bailey children.

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