The Wizard of Oz & Thd Voice of Melody - August 15, 2014

August 12th was the 75th anniversary of the debut of The Wizard of Oz. I know: the Oscar's recognized this milestone in February, with Pink singing the iconic "Somewhere over the Rainbow". But the premiere didn’t take place in Hollywood or New York City, but in the small Wisconsin town of Oconomowoc.  Originally, it was not a great blockbuster success for MGM, despite the tremulous voice of the young Judy Garland, Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, Jack Haley as the Tin Woodman, and Bert Lahr as the cowardly Lion, witches good and bad, and the magic of Technicolor. The official opening was on August 25th, 1939 and less than a week later, Germany sent 5 armies of 1.5 million men to invade Poland. The Holocaust was about to begin. Dorothy might have rightly said: "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore."

L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s novel of Dorothy, the girl from Kansas, and her little dog Toto, has been studied by many a doctoral student as a political allegory.  Dorothy’s odyssey down the yellow-brick road towards the Emerald City has been considered as not merely a pleasureable book for youngsters, but rather as a subtle satire of the 1890’s populism, the agrarian revolt the spread across the Midwest and the debate of the Gold Standard and "free silver", advocated by Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Remember 10th grade history? Baum even has Dorothy trodding the golden road with her "silver slippers", not the red ruby shoes of the movie.  Baum  incorporated the monetary controversies of his time into a fairy tale, with a happy ending.

For Hollywood moguls, for songwriters and musicians like Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, the movie of 1939 became another allegory, deeply embedded in the Jewish experience.

In the prelude to the murderous orgy of 6 million Jews by the Nazis, there were three revolutionary movements in the shtetls, towns, villages and cities of Germany and Eastern Europe:  Communism, Zionism and Americanism. Whereas communism promised an international movement by doing away with nationalism, Zionism posited that Jews should return to their ancient homeland, and establish themselves as a people.  Americanism offered survival in a land of refuge and opportunity, a dreamland that exists "over the rainbow", where skies are blue and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.  What the European Jews called "the goldene medina", had streets paved with - you guessed it - gold.

While clouds of anti-Semitism gathered over Europe, out of the collective angst Jews brought to our shores, a handful translated their fantasies into a new medium - film, and invented Hollywood. Here shtetl dreams really could come true on the silver screen.

I heard once that the most poignant song emerging out of the mass exodus of the Jews from Europe -from the 1880's until the gates of immigration closed in the 1920's was none other than the music of Harold Arlen, a cantor's son, named Hyman Arluck, from Lithuania, and a lyricist Yip Harburg, an immigrant from Russia, whose real name was Isadore Hochberg. Together the wrote "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", the 20th century's number one song from a movie.

Like Baum, they reached deep into their immigrant Jewish consciousness, framed by the pogroms of the past and the Holocaust soon to occur and wrote an unforgettable melody, set to near prophetic words.

Are the words really about Jewish survival?

Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, There's a land that I heard of once in a lullaby

Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are  blue And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true

Someday I'll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me. Where troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops That's where you'll find me.

Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly. Birds fly over the rainbow, why then, oh why can't I? If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why, oh, why, can't I?"

The Jews of Europe could not fly and escape beyond the rainbow.  When Pink belted out this song, I doubt many people knew that her mother is Judith Kugel, a Jew from Lithuania. For two thousand years, the land that the Jews heard of in their lullabies, in the heder, in the synagogue, was not America, but Israel. Ten years after "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" was first published, the long exile was over and the State of Israel was reborn. Perhaps, the dreams we dare to dream really do come true.

This week's Haftorah reading, one of 7 to provide consolation following Tisha b'Av is from the book of Isaiah. "For the Lord has comforted Zion; He has comforted all her waste places, and has made her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; Joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody."