A Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow
Tue, 01/24/2012
The Unisphere, 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, 12-story spherical stainless steel representation of Earth.
The Unisphere, 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, 12-story spherical stainless steel representation of Earth.

There’s a great, big, beautiful tomorrow

Shining at the end of every day

There’s a great, big, beautiful tomorrow

And tomorrow’s just a dream away.

Sure, go ahead and laugh. Disney kitsch at its most unctuous. But the lyrics changed my life.

The song, a recurring anthem at Walt Disney theme parks, made its debut at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens. In General Electric’s Carousel of Progress pavilion, the audience section mechanically revolved around four stage sets, beginning with the turn of the last century and continuing to the present. At each scene, an animatronic family lolled in the living room amid the growing wonders of technology. From listening to a gramophone to gathering around the radio to watching color TV, consumer electronics were depicted as the harbinger of an ever brighter tomorrow. All the while, the melody hummed and the message was clear: The future is better.

Heady stuff indeed for an 8-year-old boy living in a Brooklyn railroad flat.

It certainly beat the lackluster American-Israel Pavilion, where a display of the Ten Commandments was on view and I sampled my first falafel.

My grandmother, in contrast, was less smitten with Robert Moses’ Towers of Babel. While her daughter and grandsons explored the pavilions dominated by the Dow Jones leading industrial indicators, Bubbie contentedly rested on a wrought-iron bench near the Unisphere, sipping hot borscht from a thermos, the dementia that would kill her in a few years already setting in. What would Bubbie have made of the Carousel of Progress? I would like to think that for her, “great, big, beautiful tomorrow” was then and there. Speaking only Yiddish, with single-minded doggedness Bubbie had whisked her family out of Poland as storm clouds gathered. She brought her family to these free shores, to the future.

But that is not how I saw it. The Carousel of Progress left me impatient with the 20th century and nostalgic for the future. I even knew future’s address: 2001. 2001 was the screaming siren call of a Saturn rocket soaring to outer space, the next century when we would vacation on the moon and chat with our friends on video telephones (also first displayed at the World’s Fair).

We Jews invented the future. “On that day God will be one and his name, one” we thrice daily conclude our prayers. We are suckers for the future, if only for the succor it provided in an often inhospitable past. Our Passover foundation story concludes with a look ahead:  “Next year in Jerusalem.”

In modern times, the Jewish messianic idea has been replaced with faith in Progress. As to whether socialism and Zionism, Esperanto and Google, mark an improvement over the guy on the white donkey, is perhaps best left for wiser minds to ponder. You’ve got to admit, though, be it Spinoza or Schneerson, Schechter or Soloveitchik, Buber or Ben-Gurion, our post-enlightenment hearts have generally been in the right place. And that place is a world at peace under the glory of God.    

We have a ways to go before we reach that distant summit. “And even if he tarries, I await each day for his coming,” is how Maimonides teaches us to prepare for the Messiah. The key is to keep going, even if we don’t quite get there. As Rev. Martin Luther King  Jr. said, shortly before his death, “In the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘If you can’t fly, run, if you can’t run, walk, if you can’t walk, crawl,’ but by all means keep moving.”    

As I grew up, the future came down. Mortgages replaced moon voyages and while I’m thinking about getting an iPad, I don’t expect it to augur the End of Days. If I have glimpsed the future, it is my son quarterbacking his school football team to another glorious defeat, my daughter channeling Sarah Bernhardt as the lead in her high school play.

But the farther future of the old World’s Fair continues to beckon. If not as soon as promised by General Electric’s Carousel of Progress or General Motors’ “Futurama” pavilions, still, we are headed to the stars. “Lift up your eyes on high: who created these,” Isaiah commands. One day the immense grandeur of the universe, currently an abstraction to all but astrophysicists, will become real and manifest. Where will God fit in?  

Recently, in “The Natural History of the Bible,” professor Daniel Hillel of Columbia University posited that it was the varied ecological domains of the ancient Near East experienced by the wandering ancient Israelites that forged their insight of a single overarching deity. If ranging from the humid highlands of the Fertile Crescent to the arid dry lands of the Negev helped usher in universal monotheism, what impact will colonizing Mars have on our beliefs? One can only hope that our faith does not become so ossified that space travel will not inspire fresh insights. New journeys may compel not only a reassessment of space and time, but also of the divine. Perhaps for God there is no past, there is no future. All is now.

Barry E. Lichtenberg practices law in Manhattan. His articles have appeared in The Jewish Week and Forward (Yiddish edition).