So how did you spend your summer vacation?
If you are of a certain age and can remember the year 1964, your summer vacation time answer to that question no doubt included the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Queens. A $2 admission ($1 for children under 12) with an extra dollar for a Belgian Waffle–topped with strawberries and whipped cream–and you were guaranteed the best time of your young life. You got to see the world without a passport or a plane ticket. You experienced the future, or at least how commercialism defined what the future would be like. You were magically entertained in moving grandstands. You could sit in a brand new Ford Mustang (you could even buy one for $2,368) that took you on a ride through the history of the world.
We were promised a better world thanks to the technology of tomorrow. “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow shinning at the end of every day. There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow and tomorrow is just a dream away.” I can still sing the lyrics of that General Electric Progress-land theme song and can remember the exciting GE ride that took me through their world of tomorrow, at least according to Disney. Yes, Walt Disney was a major creative force at the New York World’s Fair, (GE, Pepsi and Ford exhibits were all Disney created) in anticipation no doubt to the creative juices that would flow in years to come in Disney theme parks in California, Florida and throughout the world. Disney and Robert Moses were two of the big names during the Fair.
To many, Robert Moses was the man behind the Fair. Born Jewish, he was a convert to Christianity. He basically defined the concept of master builder power broker, using his contacts to help the New York-metropolitan area grow and grow. He spoke in big terms and in some cases may have over-promised. He estimated 70 million visitors would pay to enjoy the 1964-65 World’s Fair. But the final count was 20 million less and the
financial and potential bankruptcy problems were a major force behind the money-losing Fair and led to many of the financial problems that New York City would face in the years to come.
It turned out the Fair was never officially sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions governing board. Although 58 countries participated, a number of governments backed away. Israel was one that said, “No.” With such a huge Jewish population in and around the New York City-area, the decision by the Israeli government not to exhibit at the Fair understandably created quite a storm. With huge fanfare, an official World’s Fair delegation from New York met with Premier David Ben-Gurion and other government officials three years before the official opening. A year later in 1962, the Israeli Cabinet announced they would stay away from the Fair claiming the high costs associated with an Israeli exposition. Reports said that Robert Moses verbally attacked Prime Minister Ben-Gurion for withdrawing. Author Robert Caro, who was Robert Moses’s biographer wrote that “Every one of the major religions in America was represented at the Fair, save one, and Jewish leaders were increasingly perturbed by the absence of any representation of their faith (some of them seeming to feel that the Fair was not especially anxious to have any)…” An organization called the Synagogue Council of America, which was dissolved in 1994, had attempted to put up its own exhibition at the Fair but without giving any reason, said that it would not participate at all. The organization never explained why it was stepping away from the Fair.
Whatever political and/or financial reasons behind the decision for Israel to withdraw from the New York World’s Fair, the clock was ticking. The Jewish press was concerned about squandering an opportunity for a Jewish and Israeli presence in the world’s biggest media market.
Faster than you can say “falafel,” a privately sponsored exhibition financed by American Jewish interests was put on the drawing board and under construction. The American-Israeli Pavilion, as it was called, was filled with exhibits from Solomon’s Temple, to Hasidic Eastern Europe to contemporary Haifa, from collections of
authentic documents, maps and music to photographs, paintings, sculptures, costumed
mannequins and much more. Israelis were brought in to perform Israeli pop music, serve up falafels and act as guides through the displays. In addition, the Pavilion featured gift shops, a cafe and a nightclub with a “hora platform.”
Perhaps because it was a privately funded exhibit, the American Israeli Pavilion charged a separate 75 cent admission (a quarter for children under 12). The spiral-shaped building featured a winding walkway for visitors to explore over 4,000 years of Jewish history. The 20 minute walking tour touched on Biblical times. Another scene focused on Jews making contributions during different periods to the cultures of Europe, Asia and Africa. There was a display of the Ten Commandments along with a depiction of Israel’s scientific and social progress.
The New York World’s Fair’s theme of “Peace Through Understanding” was difficult for many to accept. Like the challenging mid-east governments of today, there was no shortage of controversy surrounding World’s Fair participants which included Jordan, the United Arab Republic, Lebanon, Sudan and even the Vatican, where visitors could see Michaelangelo’s Pieta. Jordan featured a pavilion showcasing a controversial mural emphasizing the plight of the Palestinian people. The mural depicted an Arab child appealing to the world for help for the million Arabian refugees who had left their homes in what is now Israel. The mural led many to picket and protest.
Two years after the New York World’s Fair concluded, I journeyed to Montreal for the officially sanctioned Expo 67. There, an official government sanctioned Israel exhibition –along with a separate Montreal Jewish religious exhibit– was part of that successful Expo. As much as I enjoyed Expo 67, I still considered the New York World’s Fair to be the gold standard. Memories were made at the New York Fair. They’ve lasted a lifetime. Even this summer, reminiscing fifty years later, every time I drove along where the Long Island Expressway and Grand Central Parkways meet in the Flushing-Meadows part of Queens, I look at the Unisphere and New York State Tower Pavilion and keep remembering the wonderful times of the past, and the impact that this World’s Fair has had on our lives.