Dear G.U.C.I Staff:
Sometimes being a late-night person pays off, at least in the “Watching Old Movies On TV,” department. The other night I revisited the saga of Tom Joad and his family as they made their trek westward out of the 1930’s Oklahoma dustbowl to the California line. Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” never hit home with me like it did that night. Granted, It was late and I was tired, but I sat mesmerized watching Henry Fonda come home from prison only to find that his family had lost the farm to the dust and the bank. It broke my heart to see those old farmers kneel down and scoop up handfuls of dirt and remember that their fathers and mothers were born and died on that land. Tom Joad’s grandfather refuses to leave, holding on to a handful of dirt saying, “this dirt is mine…. It ain’t worth nothin’…but it’s mine.”
This is a tragic story of folks being forced off of their family’s land, and making their way to a new place, living on a hope and a prayer. It’s the story that prompted so many of Woodie Guthrie’s songs. He was an “Oakie,” and “Dustbowl Refugee (one of his song titles),” when he wrote, “Do Re Mi,” and told us that “California is the Garden of Eden, a paradise to live in and see. But, believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot, if you ain’t got that Do Re Mi.” And out of his dustbowl came, “Pastures of Plenty,” and “I’m Goin’ Down That Road Feeling Bad (and I ain’t gonna to be treated this-a way).” In, “I Ain’t Got No Home,” Guthrie wrote the saddest of verses saying, “My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road. It’s a hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod. The landlords threw us out and drove us from our door. Now we ain’t got no home in this world any more.” Along with the better known, “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You,” Guthrie put Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” to music with “The Ballad of Tom Joad.” These are sad songs of poverty and suffering, but all with a glimmer of hope and great determination.
One of our recent Torah portions came to mind as I sat in my family room glued to director John Ford’s incredibly powerful visual masterpiece. How much like the Joads, must Abraham have felt when he heard the words “Lech Lecha…” as he was ordered to leave the land of his birth? How heroic to grit you teeth and pack your belongings and hit the road. I also couldn’t help but think of the tragedy happening today for all those dusty refugees in Afghanistan making their trek to the Pakistani line. I’m not necessarily speaking out against our war in Afghanistan, but it certainly is heartbreaking to see anyone who, “Ain’t got no home in this world anymore.”
I encourage you to go out and rent “The Grapes of Wrath.” See if it doesn’t help you understand the plight of the refugee and the heroism of the pioneer. God knows our ancestors filled both of those roles throughout our history; refugees from Egypt, Spain, Russia, Poland, Yemen, Ethiopia, etc. And heroic pioneers called Chalutzim, who left the lands of their birth with nothing but a dream, and came to Eretz Yisrael to build that dream in the form of kibbutzim. They too scooped up handfuls of earth and said, “This land is mine!” They understood the power of a personal relationship with land, the strength and satisfaction that comes from working the land, and because of that, the magnitude of the tragedy of being uprooted from your land. John Steinbeck and Woodie Guthrie understood and taught all of these lessons well. They just didn’t know how Jewish their message was.