By Rabbi Sam Yolen, Congregation Beth Israel (Lebanon)
“History may not repeat itself,” the Mark Twain adage goes, “but it often rhymes.” And for the last few years, many researchers and scholars have debated as to which historic time period this era most clearly rhymes with. Here’s a sampling of their musings:
Is our era like the Gilded Age of the 1890s, whereby the wealth stratification looked eerily similar to the billionaire class we have now? Is our era like the “stagflation” of the 1970s, whereby unemployment and the CPI (consumer price of goods) rose to make for an ever more difficult standard of living for the average American?
Is our era the 1920s, whereby the loose credit and easy wealth generated by the stock and housing boom allowed corporations and individuals to become overleveraged? Is our era like the 1930s, whereby the roaring 20s eroded into a painful depression, destroying local businesses and subsequently deflating real estate? Is our era like the 1940s, whereby the Great Depression transmuted into World War II and the population became hyper-focused on the total sacrifice of war?
I’ve even heard interesting analogies likening today’s political scene to the 1850s! In case you don’t remember - that was the pre-Civil War era in which the two-party system was split between the conservative Whig Party (which grew out of the Republican Party) and the Democratic Party (which grew out of Andrew Jackson’s populism). Obsessed with Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny, these parties neglected the most critical issue of the day, abolishing slavery, and just plainly walked themselves into the Civil War. Similarly today, we talk about sustainability, peak resource depletion, environmental change, and yet we ignore the all-out-war effort required to marshal reserves to that goal. I have yet to see a political party legitimately address these civilization-threatening possibilities, and with everyday news of supply chain bottlenecks, these fears become less theoretical and more imminent.
As with most things, depending on who you solicit for testimony, the answer to “What era does our modern society most reflect?” will vary. Individuals later in their life, people who own significant assets, may see this era as the 1920s, where great money was made and people could afford to retire earlier. Those same people may have seen behavioral standards abruptly change from the more conservative gilded-age gentle society to the short-skirted jazz-age flapper. “I don’t understand rag-time,” could be easily replaced by “I don’t understand rap music.” Individuals, like me, in their early middle-age may see this era like a replay of the stagflation 1970s, where more people are looking for good careers, jobs are more scarce, and everything just seems to be more expensive. Women entering the workforce for the first time in the 1970s often meant delaying motherhood, something young women today can identify with considering the financial burden of parenthood.
For the youngest adults in our society, I happen to see the most similarities between this era and The Great Depression. Culturally, financially, economically, politically - recent college graduates are clamoring for meager opportunities and developing bold radical political responses to meet the times. In Benjamin Roth’s published diary, The Great Depression, he describes the zeitgeist of the early 1930s in no uncertain terms:
“One of the great tragedies of this depression is the fact that young college and professional school graduates are unable to get placed. Some have been looking for work for two years and others are driving bakery wagons, clerking in stores, etc. They are getting cynical. The number of lawyers in Youngstown has almost tripled in the past ten years and of doctors has doubled.” And, “There is a great deal of talk about socialism and communism and revolution. It seems silly to me. Everything will work itself out without these radical changes. The depression has loosed all the radical thinkers who call themselves ‘liberals.’ The true liberal and the true conservative have been silenced and in disgrace.”
It’s amazing to read these reflections on society from ninety years ago, and to wonder at how similar the personalities of our grandparents and great-grandparents are to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. While things have surely changed since The Great Depression - discreet food stamps have replaced ubiquitous soup kitchen lines, personalized smartphones have replaced fireside chats from the living room radio, government stimulus checks have replaced Roosevelt's New Deal - the underlying human response to widespread penury is the same. A population without hope is one rife with depression, suicide, anxiety, drug use, unemployment, homelessness, and escapism. I hear from our synagogue's custodian how many needles he finds on the adjacent sidewalk to our downtown building, and it makes me grateful that I don’t live in a warm weather climate like Southern California or Florida, where those problems are magnified.
Two more interesting parallels between The Great Depression and today are the proliferation of “get-rich-quick” schemes and gimmicks and the repeal of prohibition to spur economic growth. Depression era games like “Whiffle Board,” or the “Bug” racket were culturally similar to today’s online gambling apps or stock market trading platforms like “Robinhood.” Also, taxes raised through alcohol sales could easily mirror today’s legalization of cannabis ostensibly to foster economic growth. In late March 1933 Benjamin Roth wrote, “The return of beer and light wines has caused considerable activity in this line. Already shares of stock are being offered for sale to the public in newly organized companies. Personally I think the whole thing is overrated and that the excitement will die down in a few months.” The busiest stores in Lebanon seem to be the medical marijuana stores - another one just opened further down Cumberland Street.
While meditating on the similarities between our contemporary era and the bygone eras of yesterday, I am moved to remember my first job, assisting in a senior living community in the early 2000s. In order to become a Bar Mitzvah, I volunteered by bringing my dog to the elder facility for “petting therapy,” and helping with meal preparation among other things. The individuals I met as a young teenager came of age before World War II - they matured in the Great Depression and while many were young enough to fight and sacrifice during the war, many more had formative memories on how to be content during the penury of the Great Depression.
You would think “how to survive the terrible wartime sacrifice,” would be this generation’s imparting lesson, but many times it wasn’t.
Instead they taught me, “how to have a good time amidst intense poverty,” or “How to dance on, even if the boisterous big band is now a slow crooning song.” Also, “Don’t throw away good food! Eat what’s on your plate!”
These elders were quick with a joke, easygoing when confronted with difficulty, and indecisive with grand choices as they grew up in the worst economic period America has seen yet. Benjamin Roth writes again in his diary, describing their landscape: “The streets are crowded with shabby, unemployed - vacant store rooms everywhere - signs on closed banks - bankruptcy sales and half price sales in the stores that are open - soup kitchens” and “Office men and women take their lunch to work or go home during the noon hour instead of eating in town. It has become popular to wear old clothes - to brag about poverty and how much you lost in the 1929 crash. It is almost in bad taste to give a big party or drive a new car.”
As we enter a new age of The American Society, I wonder - what era will tomorrow’s heroes be reincarnated by? Which literary characters and cultural icons will most speak to the journey that our children and grandchildren will need to walk? As King Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 3:15, “That which hath been is now, and that which is to be hath already been, and God requireth that which is past.” Meaning, whatever new age we are entering with our Jewish families, it really isn’t that new. And with a little research and family memories, we may just be able to have our ancestors lead the way forward.
As my great grandma Genia Paltrowitz would say “Face reality!” and “If you’re not born lucky, don’t be born at all” - sage wisdom learned from a bygone era of crisis.