by Judy Labensohn
Ever since I read Amos Eilon’s biography Herzl as background for an articleI wrote for Hadassah Magazine in 2004 in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Theodore Herzl’s death, I have been in love with Herzl.
I have gazed at the dilapidated building where he slept in Jaffa in 1898 on the first night of his only visit to Palestine. I ogled over the renovated 2nd-story porch in Rishon Zion from which he spoke to the villagers below. I have stood on the road outside Mikveh Yisrael where he waited in the hot sun to catch a glimpse of Kaiser Wilhelm, who was riding a white horse up to Jerusalem. I walked from the Jerusalem train station to the Stern House in Mamilla, where Herzl spent two nights and then to a derelict building behind Jaffa Road that served as Herzl’s hotel while he waited to gain an audience with the Kaiser, hoping the Kaiser would help him gain a Protectorate for the Jewish People from the Turkish Sultan. In short, I am a Herzl groupie.
After the Hadassah article, Herzl began to appear in my fiction, so there was no doubt I would go see the Cameri’sproduction of Herzl,based on Eilon’s book and Herzl’s journals, and performed at the Cameri’s temporary location on Nachmani Street in Tel Aviv.
Here I encountered the familiar events of his biography, played by eleven Herzls, each actor depicting another side to his mosaic personality. The minimalist set and props bring to life the Vienna that shaped him and the Paris that convinced him Europe was finished for Jews. Here, in this two and a half hour performance (including an intermission,) his wife finally gets a public platform to complain: “Zionism ruined my marriage” and an excellent belly dancer reveals the pull of the East, a taste of that foreign land far away from the troublesome Zionists in Basle.
After the play I waved down a sherut to scoot me over to the central bus station. You know it by its smell, a curious blend of urine and vodka. Next to the line of five people waiting to ascend to Jerusalem, a group of ten men sat in front of a flat screen watching a football match. African cleaners swept the filthy floors while I remembered Herzl’s first impressions of Jaffa and Jerusalem. He would clean up the place, he had written in his journal.
But as the bus left the station, past the apartments collapsing behind soot-covered plastic walls, and flew across Highway One, the lights of Ben-Gurion Airport and the Nesher cement factory shining on either side of Israel’s main artery, and as the Judean hills beckoned the Egged bus eastward into the mountains, I thought of this sad man Herzl, this complex European figure torn between his loving mother and jealous wife, whose children went crazy or converted, this tall man who loved the theatre but failed as a playwright, this assimilated Jew who had a dream one night in Paris and became obsessed by turning this dream into drama.
I thought how he might enjoy the late night bus ride up to Jerusalem. I would show him the cypress tree he planted in Motza in 1898, chopped down in its youth, covered today by Perspex. Herzl, Directed by Renee Yerushalmi, in Hebrew, Cameria Theatre. Tel. 03-6060960. For Herzl lovers only.
Judy Labensohn coordinates the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing, of which she is an alumna.