A Rabbi on the Economy & The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in 1925 as a poignant commentary on the excesses of the pre-Great Depression jazz era. And now, in 2013, Baz Luhrman has brought it, once again, to the silver screen--a gaudy and beautiful rendering in a moment of economic recovery and rebounding housing markets. We watch this movie in an America hoping to return to dreaming big.

I have long appreciated Fitzgerald's novel as a commentary on the limits of the American Dream that we all hold sacred. Dreams and fantasies, the pursuit of wealth and fame and success--these vanities have been lifted to the highest levels of respect and hope and yearning over the past century. For many, they replace core values. They replace real connection and contentment with the pursuit of praise, which is a false kind of love. When we have achieved fame and power and wealth, we are validated, appreciated, fawned-over. Jay Gatsby could readily dismiss his outward success as empty of meaning. But his tragedy was that he could never acknowledge that the object of his desire--Daisy--was now a dream as empty as any garish party he threw. Her approval could never be made into real love.

My favorite character in the novel is not Gatsby, but Nick, the narrator. The love that Nick feels for Gatsby is real love, not ersatz fantasy love. Nick loved his friend Gatsby because he could see through his futile pursuit of dreams. In essence, Nick could see into his friend's neshamah, his soul. And what he found was a greatness that lived not just in Gatsby, but potentially in us all: a drive never to give up on the possibility of finding real love.

It strikes me as a funny moment in our society for this picture to roll out. After all, with its hip-hop score and beautiful young cast, it's geared toward the lucrative teen market, and also to the host of twenty-somethings who are struggling to find work, but who are maybe a bit more hopeful nowadays. The movie is a big money-maker, full of visions of what money can and can't buy. Do the Millenials watching this movie identify with their counterparts of a century ago? Or are they much more wise and world-weary, unlikely to fall for illusions the way that Gatsby did?

Dreams and fantasy may capture our yearning, but they can never, in the end, replace reality. That's a hard lesson to learn. When the housing market crashed in 2008, I was hopeful that a silver lining of this recession was the possibility of a spiritual return to reality--to its curses, but also to its blessings. We may lose our jobs, even our houses, but when it's all said and done, we have each other. Real love is the final reality that nothing can take away. But do we have the courage to let go of the fantasy priorities of material success that our society has long exulted?

There are real signs that our economy is doing better. Are we going to breathe a sigh of relief that our interruption on the way to success is now ending? Will that be all that recession meant to us? Will we be able to see past the cool music, the gorgeous costumes, and attractive stars of the movie, and really take in the core message of Fitzgerald's great novel?

As an American who is also committed to the values and wisdom of Judaism, I relish the feeling of infinite possibility in America. But I also am grateful to be grounded in an ancient tradition that demonstrates time and again that nothing can replace the bonds of community, the connection between generations of families, and the power of an authentic spiritual life. I pray for our economy to recover, for jobs to emerge, and for prosperity to reign once again. But I pray with equal fervor that as our Millenials get jobs and build beautiful lives for themselves, those lives will be based on the solid ground of wisdom and not just dreams of external success. I pray that they be more like Nick, and less like Gatsby--cutting through vanity, artifice and arrogance, and remembering instead that the measure of a life well-lived is not the love that we can buy or achieve, but rather the love that we can give.

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC.