Mel Alexenberg
Author of "Through a Bible Lens"

Strolling Down Herzl Street with Herzl

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The first portion of Exodus, Shemot/Names, is read from the Torah scroll on Shabbat, January 21, 2017.

And these are the names of the Children of Israel (Exodus1:1).


Names of the leading figures in Jewish and Zionist history are the names of the streets in towns and cities throughout Israel. The project of my students in the course “Judaism and Zionism: Roots and Values” that I taught at Ariel University invited them to learn about personalities named on the plaques on street corners in their hometown.

Each student chose leaders who exemplified roots and values of Judaism like Maimonides, Ibn Ezra and Rashi and Zionist leaders like Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Ahad Ha’am and Henrietta Szold. The student wrote, designed for easy reading, and printed a one page bio of each person chosen. They walked on Ben Yehuda Street, for example, asking residents and passersby what they know about Ben Yehuda. Israelis rarely admit that they don’t know. They invent creative bios that have nothing to do with the life of Ben Yehuda. The student then gives the bio that tells the real story.

My student’s final project was to write a paper envisioning themselves walking down streets named for the personalities they chose. They had to read their writings and create a narratives of an imagined dialogue. They wrote, for instance, about their conversation with Herzl while strolling down Herzl Street, found in every city in Israel, discussing his ideas with him. Are the buildings and activities on the Herzl Street expressions of Herzl’s values or the opposite?


During the seven years I was professor at Ariel University, I taught the course “Judaism and Zionism: Roots and Values” to hundreds of students each year. Herzl’s Altneuland in its Hebrew translation was one of four of textbooks for my course. The others were Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s Orot (Lights), Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Ish Halakha (Halakhic Man), and the popular Israeli siddur (prayer book) Rinat Yisrael.

Herzl’s 1902 novel creates a prophetic vision for a Jewish state in the Land of Israel that is close to its realization today as a successful start-up nation.   It begins with the anti-Semitic culture and Jewish poverty that permeated 19th century Vienna and ends with the realization of the Zionist dream in a socially and technologically advanced democracy. Today, thousands of Jews from France and Ukraine are leaving behind the renewed anti-Semitic culture of Europe to join in the Zionist enterprise of creating a more just and inclusive society.

Too few people have read this seminal Zionist book. It’s disappointing that when I went into Tzomet Sfarim and Steimatzky book stores, neither store had Altneuland in Hebrew or any other language.

In the final words of Altneuland, the main character asks, “We see before us a new and happier form of human society – by what was it created? Old Litwak said: “Distress!” Steineck the architect: “The united nation.” Kingscourt: “The new technology.” Dr. Marcus: “Knowledge.” Joe Levy: “Will power.” Professor Steineck: “The forces of nature.” Hopkins, the English parson: “Tolerence.” Reshid Bey: “Self-assurance.” David Litwak: “Love and suffering.” But Rabbi Shemuel rose and solemnly said “God.”

Rabbi Kook writes: “The Land of Israel is not something external, not an external national asset, a means to an end of collective solidarity and the strengthening of the nation’s existence, physical or even spiritual. The Land of Israel is an essential unit bound by the bond-of-life to the People, united by inner characteristics of existence.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik writes: “The dream of creation is the central idea in the halakhic consciousness – the idea of the importance of man as a partner of the Almighty in the act of creation, man as a creator of worlds.” He adds that Judaism’s most fervent desire is the perfection of the world under the dominion of righteousness and loving-kindness in the realm of concrete life, penetrating every nook of cranny of life. “The marketplace, the street, the factory, the house, the meeting place, the banquet hall, all constitute the background for religious life.”

From the siddur we pray daily, “Sound the great shofar for your freedom, raise the banner to gather our exiles and gather us together from the four corners of the earth. Blessed are you, God who gathers in the dispersed of Israel.”


See how my wife Miriam and I linked this Torah portion to our life in our “Torah Tweets” blogart project and in my book PHOTOGRAPH GOD: CREATING A SPIRITUAL BLOG OF YOUR LIFE

When we were creating “Torah Tweets,” we spent Shabbat Shemot at the Dan Acadia Hotel on the sea in Herzliya, named for Theodore Herzl, the towering figure of modern Zionism. Driving to the hotel, we photographed a laser-cut steel portrait of Herzl at the entrance to Herzliya peering down from a water tower. Miriam and I enjoy participating in Shabbat tefilah in a hotel synagogue. It unites Jews, hotel guests from different backgrounds and countries of origin, Israelis and tourists, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, young and old, new olim and old timers, and those wearing knitted kippot and black hats. They were called up to the Torah reading of Shemot with a medley of names.

Miriam’s mother lived at Beit Juliana, the Dutch parents’ home in Herzliya. She drove from Herzliya to our home in Petah Tikva in her red Volvo several times a week until she was 98 and the Israeli government would not renew her driver’s license. Her grandfather, Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dunner, knew Herzl. He was chief rabbi of Holland and founder of the Dutch Zionist Organization. Mel’s grandfather, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Kahn, participated in the 4th Zionist Congress in London in 1900 chaired by Herzl. Instead of returning to Lithuania after the congress, he sailed for Boston where he married and where my mother was born.

Our sabra son Moshe Yehuda, named for Miriam’s father, earned both his B.A. and M.A. in Government at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya as valedictorian. He taught Israeli society and politics at IDC for seven years and earned his MBA in a joint IDC/Warton program.

Herzl imagined how the Jewish State would be in his 1902 utopian novel Altneuland (OldNewLand), titled Tel Aviv in its Hebrew translation. The main character in Herzl’s book arrives at the newly created Jewish State in a yacht from his exile on an isolated Pacific island. We photographed the yachts at the Herzliya Marina and the Imaginarium shop in the Herzliya Marina Mall.

Then I came to the exiles, to Tel Aviv…. and I dwelt where they were dwelling. (Ezekiel 3:15)

About the Author
Mel Alexenberg is an artist, educator, writer, and blogger working at the interface between art, technology, Jewish thought, and living the Zionist miracle in Israel. He is the author of "Through a Bible Lens: Biblical Insights for Smartphone Photography and Social Media," "The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness," and "Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art" in Hebrew. He was professor at Columbia, Bar-Ilan and Ariel universities and research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies. His artworks are in the collections of more than forty museums worldwide. He lives in Ra’anana, Israel, with his wife artist Miriam Benjamin.
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