Galilee Diary: Dream Deferred
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
(Langston Hughes, “Harlem”)
Recently I began to volunteer once a week, assisting the English literature teacher in a nearby Arab high school. I’ve known the teacher, and the principal, for many years, through arranging encounters for their students with Jewish visitors, and this seems like a good way to stay in touch and involved. My first assignment was to present a background lesson to two 10th-grade classes studying a poem by Langston Hughes (“the poet laureate of Harlem,” who died in 1967). This assignment meant covering slavery, emancipation, the Civil War, Jim Crow, and the civil rights struggle, in simple English, assuming almost no historical background, in 40 minutes. Interesting challenge.
Hughes wrote a lot about dreams, and the term “deferred dream” recurs in his poems. I have always found his poem, “Harlam,” quoted in part above to be moving, and eternally relevant. Even though the kids were given excerpts of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, for them, dreams are personal: to be a doctor, to be a professional athlete, to emigrate to the west – not universal dreams of peace, or equality, or national self-determination. That is to be expected from 16-year-olds living a sheltered, middle-class life in their own village. And it certainly is not my role to educate them as to what is wrong with the world – they’ll discover that in due time.
For me, on the other hand, thinking about deferred dreams resonates on a different pitch, especially when I scan the daily headlines, and remember Herzl’s dream of an enlightened, civil, pluralistic Jewish national home; or my own dream when I made aliyah 25 years ago, of a Jewish state that would indeed be a “light unto the nations.” It often feels that we are not advancing toward the dream, but retreating from it. Since we don’t do “politically correct” here, even the highest officials can and do make blatantly racist and belittling statements about various ethnic and political and religious groups, and it is taken for granted. At the moment we have a former prime minister and a former president in jail. We are told that “Israel is too small to accept refugees.” Every expression of opposition is somehow “supporting terror.” The Jewish state that we dreamed would represent the “Jewish emergence from powerlessness” is obsessed with “terror,” an amorphous, ubiquitous, demonic enemy, waiting at every bus stop. I find that reading the left-leaning Haaretz is depressing – but then if I read Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Today tabloid, the depression goes to despair.
So what happens to a dream deferred? Well, one tempting response is to disengage, to give up, and to accept that there are forces in history more powerful than I am, and that sanity and normalcy demand that we revise the dream to be more modest and personal. If “national” Judaism is moving in directions with which I cannot identify, then perhaps I should redefine my Judaism as spiritual, personal, internal, local. Another common response to the nightmare voices is to fight fire with fire: Scream at them, drown them out, insult them, belittle them. It won’t bring my dream any closer to realization, but it will feel good.
So what is to be done? It seems to me that we Jews should understand, by now, that it is a long haul to redemption, that there is no alternative to slogging through, despite the pain and disappointment caused by an imperfect world – and an imperfect state (is there any other kind?). If Judaism has content other than nostalgia and the comforts of ethnic identity, it seems to me it resides in our being commanded to keep trying to translate the values we learned at Sinai (and thereafter) into real-life institutions. That means not screaming and not disengaging, but trying to perpetuate civil discourse and effective democracy, educating, struggling with ambiguity, listening, speaking out in support of - and funding - the voices of justice and civility, of equality and pluralism, of mercy for the disadvantaged. If we care, we don’t have the luxury of reading the paper and sulking. The stakes are too high for us to let this dream dry up like a raisin in the sun.