Jewish Who’s Who of history’s dreamers

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The Jewish people have provided civilization with some of its most notable dreamers, including biblical figures like Jacob, Samuel, Solomon, Daniel and especially Joseph.

The Book of Genesis recounts Joseph’s dream in which his brothers bowed down to him. After Joseph reveals his vision to his brothers, they sell him into slavery in Egypt. There, he becomes an interpreter of dreams, including those of the Pharoah.

But the tradition didn’t end with the last chapter of the Bible. Over the last hundred years, many other Jewish dreamers have impacted history. Here are the stories of a few:

Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold (1860-1945) exemplifies the best of Jewish dreamers. Born in Baltimore the daughter of a noted rabbi, Szold received a first-class Jewish education in a time when girls were usually not so lucky. She became an activist in the 1880s, helping newly arrived Russian refugees adjust to American life. Later, she put her fervent Zionism into action by forming a society to provide medical aid to Jews in pre-state Israel. Szold’s most famous quote, “Dare to dream, and if you dream, dream big,” became a rallying cry for future generations.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) not only changed the way humanity looks at itself, he also wrote the book on dreams. Literally. The Austrian-born doctor pioneered the science of psychoanalysis, using dreams as a primary pathway to the unconscious. Yet as much as he is lionized as a standard-bearer of modernity, Freud was highly aware of the legacy he inherited. “Here we are,” he wrote, “returning to the technique of [dream] interpretation, used by the ancients.”

Marc Chagall (1887-1985) lived almost a century, but is best known for his vivid dreamscapes of childhood memories in Russia. Born in the village of Vitebsk, now Belarus, Chagall grew up surrounded by Chassidic culture. In 1910, he moved to Paris, where he began to make a name for himself as one of the great painters of modern times. As one critic wrote, “Color governed his compositions, calling up chimerical processions of memory where reality and the imaginary are woven into a single legend, born in Vitebsk and dreamed in Paris.”

As the first ordained woman rabbi in America, Sally Preisand holds a place of distinction in modern Jewish history. Born in 1946 and raised in a Conservative home, Preisand aspired to become a Jewish educator, but over time, she began to dream bigger dreams. She graduated from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, receiving ordination in 1972. Preisand had a tough time finding a pulpit position, but in 1979 she became rabbi of a congregation in Elizabeth, N.J. Since 1981, she has served as head rabbi at Monmouth Reform Temple in Monmouth, N.J. Following her example, hundreds of women have since been ordained, but someone had to be first. Preisand wears that garland.

Generally, Jews don’t go for martyrdom, but if any recent Jewish figure qualifies as a heroic martyr, it is Hannah Senesh (1921-1944). The Hungarian-born Senesh grew up in middle-class comfort, but by age 13, had become a confirmed Zionist. A diary she kept throughout her life reveals Senesh as a dedicated dreamer with a poetic flair. At 18, she moved to the Holy Land to become a builder of the nascent Jewish state. But World War II and its attending massacres were too terrible for her to bear. She joined a secret mission to drop behind enemy lines and rescue Hungarian Jews. Senesh was caught, turned over to the Gestapo, tortured and executed at age 23. But her heroic example lives on in her deeds and words. In one poem, Senesh wrote: “Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake/Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.”

Albert Einstein (1880-1955) would have scoffed had he known Time magazine would name him Man of the Century in 1999. While the man himself was the soul of modesty, his achievements were anything but modest. A poor student for much of his youth, Einstein admitted he possessed “an ability for abstract and mathematical thought” but lacked “imagination and practical ability.” While working in a Swiss patent office, he dreamed up his revolutionary Special Theory of Relativity, which altered the way science perceived the workings of the cosmos. The German-born physicist went on to make many other contributions to science, and was also a powerful voice for world peace. A quiet advocate for brotherhood and a dedicated Jew, Einstein once said, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Main story: BJE's annual "Feast of Jewish Learning 2004" salutes Judaism's visionaries

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.