Theodor Herzl was one of the few people who actually did change the world. And not in a small, one-heart-at-a-time way, either, but tangibly.
It was his vision, his drive, perhaps even his monomania that created the conditions that permitted the birth of the modern state of Israel. Without him, the world unarguably would have become a different place, the Jewish world perhaps unrecognizably so.
Still, according to Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, despite “some name recognition – some people know he was a big Zionist, and some that he was buried on Mount Herzl in Israel – most Jews don’t know anything about him. Certainly most non-Jews don’t.”
The documentary movie “It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl,” a production of the center’s Moriah Films division, uses archival stills and a few pieces of rare film footage, recreated scenes shot on location in Europe, and the voices of Sir Ben Kingsley, typecast as the omniscient narrator, and Christopher Waltz (who goes from playing a Nazi villain in “Inglourious Basterds” to voicing Herzl), to tell Herzl’s unlikely story.
The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly will screen the film on Thursday, Oct. 25, from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Hier will be there to introduce it.
Herzl, as Hier tells his story, was a deeply secular Hungarian-born Viennese Jew. He was a journalist, by nature and training an observer rather than an activist. His job took him to Paris, where he was the culture editor for a Viennese newspaper, the Neue Freie Presse. The publication, as Hier pointed out, was “a very distinguished one,” and Herzl’s role there was “a plum job.” He and his wife settled happily into Parisian life.
Then, in 1894, Alfred Dreyfus was tried, convicted, degraded, and sent into exile, to the sound of mobs baying for his head, all because he was a Jew. That galvanized Herzl, who otherwise “could have lived there, in Paris, until the ripe old age of whatever it was that people lived to then, but instead he gave it all up, and went against the tide,” Hier said.
“It was a very unpopular idea, then, that the Jews should return to a promised land. He fought with everyone,” he continued.
“The rich Jews hated him because they were fighting hard to swim to the top, and there was this fellow saying that it wasn’t good enough. Instead, let’s go to Palestine! The Rothschild, Baron Hirsch – they all hated him. And so did the rabbis. The Orthodox thought he competed with the messiah, who could only be a person with a beard and earlocks. And the Reform rabbis hated him, and did everything possible to undermine him, because they thought he was going to cause anti-Semitism to explode.” They thought, Hier said, that Herzl’s actions proved true the accusation that Jews were disloyal to the countries in which they lived.
Herzl became ever more deeply unpopular, Hier said; he couldn’t go out without being jeered at. “Here comes the king of the Jews,” he’d hear. His wife, “who hadn’t married a Zionist – she’d married a cultural editor,” wasn’t happy, and their marriage was deeply troubled. He died at 44.
Still, in his short, unstable life, “he saw more world leaders than any Rothschild ever will see,” Hier said. “He met with the pope, the sultan, the kaiser. No Jews had ever been in those places before. People said he was a maniac, but he got his way – with the help of Christian friends.”
Herzl was not particularly charismatic, at least at the start, and he was not driven by theology, Hier said. “He wasn’t saying, ‘God spoke to me.’ But he did say that in a very short time Europe with be consumed by flames.
“When the good Lord wants something to happen, he uses strange messengers,” Hier said. “Theodor Herzl was a messenger. It is difficult to believe that one human being could alter history, but it was bashert.”
The JCC is showing “It Is No Dream” “because Eric Aroesty, one of our members, brought the film to our attention,” said Rabbi Steve Golden, the JCC’s Judaic director. “He’s a very committed and enthusiastic supporter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.” The screening will be the film’s New Jersey premiere.
Herzl is important, Golden said, “because of the resurgence of anti-Semitism. It’s in a different form than we’ve had in the last 20 years or so. It points back to Herzl, who had no real connection to Jewish identity until the Dreyfus affair got him thinking about what it meant to him to be a Jew. So it’s a good time for an important review of his life.
“And the movie is supposed to be very fresh in terms of its archival imagery, so I expect to learn something new from it.”
|It Is No Dream|
|What: Screening of documentary film, “It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl”
Where: Kaplen JCC on the Palisades,
When: Thursday, Oct. 25, 7:30 – 9:30 pm.
Who: Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, will introduce it
How Much: Free
More Information: www.jccotp.org or 201.408.1426.