Theodor Herzl is my hero. He founded the Zionist movement and was the visionary of the State of Israel. He believed that we are not saddled with the conditions in which we find ourselves, that change is possible, and that the future can be better than the present. He lived in a world where antisemitism was rampant, which he concluded would never go away, and so, he came up with a radical solution: that the Jewish people are a nation, and as a nation are entitled to their own homeland.
I own the world’s largest private collection of Herzl memorabilia. In Toronto, where I live, I speak regularly about Herzl to schools, synagogues, and other groups. In fact, if you Google Herzl where I live, my picture comes up. I never miss an opportunity to talk about my hero. Many years ago, I was asked whether I would donate a portrait of Herzl to hang in the auditorium of the Herzl School in North Lawndale, Illinois. By donating the portrait, I would be able to honor Herzl in a very prominent location, fulfilling my goal of shining a spotlight on Herzl and his work. More importantly, I would make my wife happy. Her reaction when she first heard of the request was “if we can get another piece of junk out of the house, that would be great.”
My wife was made even happier by my friend Craig Taubman, whom I met at Camp Ramah in Canada 42 years ago. He invited me to mount an exhibit of my collection in Los Angeles at Adat Ari El. I readily accepted. After all, there are forty million people in California who have never heard me! And it would make my wife happy, at least temporarily.
The exhibit tells Herzl’s story. How he understood that something new needed to be done to confront antisemitism, and that he was the one to do it. How he didn’t just talk, he acted and put in place the infrastructure of a state in creation. How he knew that the Jewish people needed a symbol to inspire them to work toward the impossible idea of a Jewish state, and he became that symbol. The evidence of all this can be found in three glass cabinets.
My hope in bringing the exhibit to Los Angeles is that by learning about who Herzl was and what he did, Californians will be inspired to be a little like him. The world needs more Herzls! We need people who see a problem and don’t run from it. We need people who, rather than throw up their hands in despair, use those same hands to fashion a solution. We need people who have big dreams for a better tomorrow, and work to make it happen.
From our one week visit to Los Angeles when we set up the exhibit, my wife and I are confident that there are Herzls there to be found. We saw innovations in Jewish life and practices that we envy. A Friday night dinner where, if you didn’t pay in advance that’s ok, pay after Shabbat. A Saturday morning service with musical instruments and a free lunch attended by nearly 250 people. We visited the Pico Union Project, where they presented an Independence Day concert with Israeli band Yemen Blues, and the following morning provided 500 families with 15,000 lbs. of free fresh produce. If you will it, it is not a dream.
Herzl was a progressive. He envisioned a New Society with a seven-hour work day, free education through to university and free medical care. He would have felt very much at home in Los Angeles, especially with his hipster beard.
Most of all, Herzl was a dreamer. When Herzl first started advocating for a Jewish State in 1896, the prospect of it happening was greeted with laughter. He dreamed of it and worked to realize his dream. Herzl did not live to see it, but we now know his dream was realized.
As we look at Israel on its 75th birthday and witness the internal conflict relating to the judicial reforms, the external conflict with the country’s enemies, or the myriad other problems, one might conclude these issues will never be resolved. Herzl teaches us the opposite. As difficult as solving these issues might be, they are less difficult than Israel being created in the first place. If Israel can happen, anything can.
Bringing the Herzl collection to Los Angeles is my California dream. Los Angeles, enjoy it.
Herzl Goes West is part of the Israel@75 celebration produced by the Pico Union Project (https://www.picounionproject.org/israel75-events/). The exhibit at Adat Ariel Congregation, 12020 Burbank Blvd, Valley Village, CA 91607, runs until June 1.
The celebration includes My Jerusalem, The Paintings of Dudu Harel, which runs until June 28 at Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90024. More information about Dudu Harel is available at http://dudu-harel.co.il/
MyIsrael75 was produced by Craig Taubman and the Pico Union Project with the support of Judy and Tom Flesh, Jewish Community Foundation, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Pico Shul, Adat Ari El, Stand With Us and Sinai Temple