I was born into great wealth. It was not the wealth people usually think off.
My father worked hard to move us out of poverty and the Jewish ghetto, where mostly poor Jews lived. He was the proprietor of a bookstore, and we lived comfortably in a three-room house where love ruled.
The three of us siblings slept in the same room, a room that served all purposes. It was our day room, where the family spent most of our time. While most of our meals were consumed in the kitchen, Mother on Shabbat put her treasured, crocheted tablecloth, two silver candlesticks, silver Kiddush cup and two challahs on the table, and the room assumed a new stature and became fit for the Shabbat banquet.
But every night the room turned into a dormitory, including a certain pot in lieu of a bathroom.
Still, I must reiterate that I was born into wealth, for we had a treasure: our dream for the future.
We believed with an unwavering faith in the coming of the Messiah. Each day in the morning prayer we declared the 13 principles of faith coined by Maimonides, and we fervently declared that although he might tarry, we maintained our faith in the coming of the Messiah, who would establish a peaceful and just world.
To my mother, the coming of the Messiah simply meant a world without drudgery, including no cooking. All one had to do was pluck the fruit off a new and marvelous tree, and, like the manna in the desert, it would taste like whatever one wished.
I was born into a people who dreamed and were the masters of dreams. Out of our dreams of the Messiah came new dreams of a new land — a homeland that would become an ideal for the world.
All one had to do was open the door to any classroom at the Hebrew grade school or the Hebrew gymnasium, the school I attended, to see a big placard of a man with a handsome black beard leaning over the rail of a balcony while dreamingly scanning the horizon of Israel. That man was Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and under the picture was a new slogan written in Hebrew: “If you wish it, this is not merely a dream.”
The rise of Zionism in a sense came to replace the dream of the coming of the Messiah with a more attainable dream. Zionism proposed that we, the Jews by ourselves, could redeem the ancestral home. And the repossession of the land began both through aliyah — returning to live in the land — and through the purchase of the land.
I remember the blue-and-white kufsoth, the boxes into which we dropped our coins, as well as the stamps we bought and the trees we planted and the songs we sang of how we would dry the mosquito-infested wetlands. We had dreams of self-determination.
Of course, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda gave us another dream, the dream of Hebrew, along with the rejection of Yiddish. After all, as Ben-Yehuda proposed, there can be no national revival without the revival of its language.
Hebrew was being revived. We took it out from its archaic status when the language was called Lashon Hakodesh (the holy language), not to be used in secular, everyday discourse, and turned it into a modern and vibrant language. With this language, we re-created our bond of ancient Israel with modern Israel and re-established our ties with our ancestors.
Of course, Zionism sought to alter the image of the galut Jew, the Jew who for 2,000 years was a submissive person, whose motto was to become invisible, who lived in fear of what the morrow would bring, who refrained from speaking, lest our ideas would open Satan’s mouth and give fodder to anti-Semites.
Zionism dreamed to strengthen our backbone so that we could, as the prayer states, return to our land, standing erect with pride and without fear.
Zionism had a dream of the Jew as a chalutz, a pioneer, and not necessarily the matmid, the faithful Jew who sits in the synagogue and does not engage in life.
We needed builders who also served as fearless defenders. We sought to emulate our heroes from the past, such as Gideon, Deborah, Yael, the Maccabees and Bar Kochba.
The mold for the modern hero was cast in the shape of a former Russian lieutenant, Yosef Trumpeldor, who died defending Tel Chai. He was a builder by day, plowing the land in his kibbutz, and at night stood guard with his rifle in his hand.
Zionism was a vision and a dream infused into me of a new Jewish people free from the negativity and fearfulness that marked the Diaspora.
When in 1948 the ancient dream of our restored homeland became a reality and some of the original dreamers were standing in the new Israel amid the horah dancers, the chalutzim and the Holocaust survivors, I cried.
Some of the early masters of the dream, such as Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, were there to realize the 2,000-year-old national hope.
Unfortunately, it seems to me that we have lost or have forgotten our dreams. Instead of fulfilling our uniqueness as a people committed to the moral teaching of tzedek (justice) for all, we have become like all other nations, a secularized people who have lost the moral spark that made us a holy people.
Moreover, we seemingly have lost our capacity to have dreams, a quality that our prophets wished for us so we could imagine a better future.
Of course, we and Israel must live in a world governed by realpolitik, but must we lose our capacity to dream that we can create a world that rises above the worship of power? Must we give up the dream that we held dear for millennia to become a model for all nations as a people governed by justice and concern for the welfare of all?
Must we become kechol hagoyim — like all other people — and lose our capacity to dream a dream that reflected the soul of this holy people and was an essential part of Zionism’s vision of tikkun olam?