I saw this off-beat and charmingly casual Hebrew-language documentary at last November’s New York Israel Film Festival. Better late than never, it’s worth commenting on.
In contrast to the young American-Israeli who returned from his Israeli army service (and his movie role in “Beaufort” ) to go to college at the University of Texas, an earlier generation of Israelis living abroad was branded as “traitors” and the like by no less an archetypical Sabra than Yitzhak Rabin, when he was prime minister in the mid-1970s. The young Israeli creators of “Did Herzl Really Say That?”, Oren Harman and Yanay Ofran, explore contemporary issues of “Israeli-ness.”
They begin at Theodor Herzl’s hallowed grave on Mount Herzl, but it soon becomes clear that this is not an examination of Herzl’s explicit ideas. The filmmakers apparently believe that, in exploring the lives of Israeli expatriates in New York, they are commenting on Herzl’s Zionism— ironically to be sure, but not in a hostile way.
The young ex-soldier and actor in “Beaufort” is one of a new breed of citizens of the world, who could have been a subject of this second film. He remains culturally and by identification an Israeli, even as he lives outside of Israel.
Although the subjects of “Did Herzl Really Say That?” live concretely as Americans in New York, they feel their Israeli-ness deeply. They largely associate with other Israeli expatriates and Hebrew remains a primary language. Some return often to Israel; one jet-setting international professional virtually commutes there, maintaining a residence in Israel even as his business dealings are elsewhere.
This active but usually long-distance relationship with Israel reminds me of how movement shlichim (Zionist representatives) are beginning to regard Zionism. They are emphasizing an ongoing relationship over time and through the generations, with people going back and forth, on sabbaticals, vacations and the like. This is not your father’s or grandfather’s “aliya” anymore.
Only one subject, a middle-aged gay man who owns a hair salon, denied feeling a longing to return to Israel. He is aware that Israel has changed enormously in how it relates to gay people in the more than 20 years since he left. In fact, although not devoid of bigotry, Israel is probably more gay-friendly today than is the US. But even as he relates to a heavily Israeli clientele in New York, he’s made his life here and sees nothing for himself in Israel.
It is also noteworthy to me that for most subjects of this film, Jewishness has little to do with their Israeli-ness. It never comes up in their reflections and only one, as I recall, is noticeably Jewish in the way he relates to his children. They would probably have to make another film to explore these issues with religious Jews.