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A Valid Passport
Eric Blau. The man with the rich, black beard and frock coat presents his century-old Austrian passport to El Al officials at JFK. Theodor Herzl will finally visit the Jewish state he said would be "no dream." Imaginative story. Spring 1997.
 REFORM JUDAISM

A Valid Passport

The man with the rich, black beard and frock coat presents
his century-old Austrian passport to El Al officials at JFK.
He will finally visit the Jewish state he said would be "no dream."

By Eric Blau

There was a lot of excitement in the El Al passenger lounge at Kennedy International Airport in New York. A plainclothes man arrived and examined the suspicious passport. Israeli security, I thought.

"This is strictly a diplomatic affair," he said.

An intense nervous silence prevailed until the diplomat, a woman in her forties, arrived. The Israeli security man handed her the document. She stared at it, opened it, looked at the first page, and whistled.

"His papers are in order," said the embassy woman.

The security man disagreed. "How can it be valid? The damned thing was issued in 1895!"

"The Austrians are not questioning it. They've stamped it. So it's valid."

One of the uniformed El Al women protested. "But he claims to be Theodor Herzl!"

"What's the big deal?" said another. "In the Vienna telephone directory you'll find several hundred Herzls and a dozen Theodors."

"But look how he dresses!" insisted another.

"So he's a little eccentric," said the embassy woman. "His papers are in order and his passport is valid."

The man with the rich, black beard and frock coat was escorted into the passenger lounge by a second Israeli security officer, a short man who smiled sheepishly and shrugged his shoulders.

*         *         *

"Do you mind if Mr. Herzl sits next to you?" the chief flight attendant asked.

"Not at all," I said.

She took his top hat and placed it in the overhead compartment. When he had seated himself, she buckled him into the seat. "We'll be airborne in a few minutes," she said soothingly, sensing his discomfort.

We did not speak to each other until after the pilot's welcome--"Shalom! This is Captain Shlomo Dinur. Welcome aboard El Al to Tel Aviv, Israel!"

The bearded man in antique clothing leaned toward me and, gesturing toward the spacious 747-400 cabin, asked, "What kind of air craft is this? It's huge. Does it really fly?"

"Oh yes. Before you know it we'll land at Ben Gurion Airport. In about ten hours we'll fly eight thousand miles and go back two thousand years!"

"A time machine?"

"In a way, yes, a time machine," I answered and smiled.

Rolling down the departure strip, the 747 picked up speed. I could hear the bearded man gasp as the plane lifted into the sky.

Thinking of the name on the passport, I remarked playfully, "You know, we're on our way to the Jewish State; the Old New Land, Alteneuland."

He relaxed unexpectedly and turned toward me, a smile breaking through the dense beard. "Yes, I know," he said. "I wrote that." After a pause he added, "In 1898 I traveled to Palestine and met the Kaiser on the road to Jerusalem."

I shifted uneasily in my seat. Eccentric, I thought. "Did you fly El Al?" I asked.

"No," he said, smiling tolerantly. "I came by ship, the Russia. We dropped anchor off the port of Jaffa and were rowed to the quay side by long boat. It was unbearably hot that day."

"You and your party of Zionists wore light cotton clothes and white cork helmets," I said.

"How can you possibly know that?"

"I read it in your diary," I said. "Don't be startled. Your diaries have all been published."

He stroked his beard. "I didn't give anyone permission."

I was unable to restrain my laughter. "Everything you've ever written has been published. You are the subject of many books, articles, studies."

He looked puzzled. His mouth opened several times, as if he had wanted to speak but had changed his mind. Finally he extended his hand to me and said, "My name is Theodor Herzl. My friends call me Dori.

"May I confess something, sir?" he added.

"Sure," I said. "Confess away."

"I do not quite know what I'm doing here."

"You're probably the guest of honor at the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress in Basel."

"I see," he said. "I must have mislaid the invitation." After a moment of thought, he added, "I hope the delegates will not be as quarrelsome as those in Basel were."

I smiled. "There's not much to quarrel about. It is here; it exists."

He was silent again. He stroked his beard anxiously. "Will it always exist? History is a riotous place. There is nothing so constant as change."

I trembled when he said that. How could Theodor Herzl say such a thing, even imagine it! I turned to him and looked into his intense eyes. I said, "Israel will exist forever!"

Now he smiled, a melancholy smile. "Yes," he said, "forever--if that's what the people really want."

When he saw the confused look on my face, he slapped my thigh and laughed. "I am not trying to cast doubts. I'm still a true believer. It was there, in Basel, at the first Congress, that I knew I had created the Jewish State. I didn't dare tell that to anyone. But I wrote it in my diary after the Congress. When did it happen...the state?"

When I told him Israel would be fifty years old in May of 1998, Herzl rose up in his seat and applauded loudly. A stewardess hurried to his side and asked if anything was wrong.

He ceased his celebration. The puzzled attendant retreated.

"I'm sorry. I got carried away," he said. After a pause, he leaned toward me and asked, "What happened between 1904 and now?"

1904, I thought, the year Herzl died.

I cited some of the major events. He listened intently. When I recounted the Holocaust, he wept. He placed his arm on mine, stopping my sad story of the Jews in the world.

He fumbled with the seat-belt buckle until it opened and went unsteadily toward the lavatory.

When he returned, he said, "I'm sorry. I rarely show such emotion. I knew that anti-Semitism was the plague of Europe, but six million!"

He stroked his beard in silence, a very long silence. "Tell me this, if you know, are the Jews content in their homeland?"

I filled him in on the Israeli wars and the interminable quarrels that led finally to the assassination of Premier Yitzhak Rabin. This prompted another silence, one which extended thousands of miles.

*         *         *

Passing through customs, the scene at Kennedy replayed itself with greater excitement. The customs inspector scrutinized the worn passport. He asked the bearded man to wait while he summoned his superior.

The higher-ranked customs agent looked at the 1895 passport with delight. "Word from the Foreign Office is that the passport is valid," he told the first agent. "Mr. Herzl's papers are in order."

At that moment a great cry came up from the old man in line behind Theodor Herzl. "It's him! It's him!" the man shouted, "Herzl has come back to us! Herzl Hamelech! Herzl the king!"

>From all over customs a thundering rush of feet filled the echoing air.

"Let's get out of here before you are crushed," I said, grabbing Herzl by the elbow. We ran toward the exit door, a crowd behind us. I finally hailed a taxi. In the cab, breathing heavily, he slumped down on the seat. "My heart!" he said. "You'll kill me before I can get to the celebration."

By the time we reached Tel Aviv, Herzl had recovered somewhat. I asked the taxi to wait while I took him into a small sports shop. "You can't run around in what you're wearing, Dori, if we don't want to attract attention." Seizing some clothing and footwear from the display tables and racks, I pushed Herzl into the changing room.

He emerged in a blue and white nylon warm-up jacket over a white T-shirt with the face of Michael Jordan. His new attire was completed by khaki walking shorts (a little roomy), mid-calf sweatsocks, and Nike trackshoes.

Smiling, a little embarrassed, he carried his old clothes across his arm. I placed a red sports cap on his head. In Hebrew the logo read: Coca Cola. I stuffed his hundred-year-old clothes into a backpack and paid by credit card.

"Your beard!" I said.

"Absolutely not, sir. The beard stays."

*         *         *

Herzl's eyes were filled by Tel Aviv--the towers, the traffic, the streams of people. "Israeli's largest city," I offered. He nodded.

At the bus terminal we were accosted by street vendors--one selling pornography--and beggars. "Schnorrers," he said with undisguised contempt. "The Jewish State can live without them!"

On the road to Jerusalem we did not speak much. His beard was pressed against the cool glass of the window. He studied the landscape alongside the highway. Finally he said, "It's all changed."

"What is?"

"The road to Jerusalem. I stood on the roadside and waited until the Kaiser's entourage approached. The Kaiser cantered up to me on his fine stallion; the Empress in her white dress followed behind. He saluted me with his riding crop. Do you remember that?"

"Well, not actually."

"Let's go to the Marx House in Jerusalem, where I can rest a while and take a bath. That is where I stayed last time."

But in Jerusalem we could not find the Marx House. No one had heard of it. Herzl was visibly disappointed. His shoulders sagged. He fanned his face with his cap.

"This isn't the Jerusalem I knew," he said. He regarded me with his gentle smile. "I'm glad you speak English. I don't speak Hebrew at all." He paused and shrugged. "Do you know, I promised the Kaiser that in the Jewish state the official language would be German?"

I led him through the Jaffa Gate into the Old City. We walked along the narrow streets of the marketplaces.

"It is good to see they have cleaned it up! Long ago I had promised myself Jerusalem would be cleaned up as one of the first acts of the Jewish state!"

He seemed to gain in energy looking at the gleaming new buildings ringing the Old City. "Good job!" he said.

We got into a taxi. "Before we check into a hotel," I said, "I want you to see something."

"Not too long. It's been a very long day, my friend."

"Mount Herzl!" I called to the driver. The bearded man looked toward me. His deep brown eyes seemed to say, I can take a joke; it's all right.

On Mount Herzl we walked toward the black marble tomb which occupied the hilltop. A little larger and deeper than a casket, the tomb rested on its black marble platform. In Hebrew letters the name Herzl was cut deeply into the marble surface. Small stones, placed there by visitors, framed the monument.

The bearded man removed the top hat from his backpack and exchanged it with the sports cap on his head. Slowly he circled the stern tomb.

"I think it's very appropriate. Don't you?"

"Yes, it is," I said, "but you look a little out of place in your jacket and shorts."

He laughed out loud. "You're right. Wait here, I'll change."

He walked a short distance, then turned back to me. "Oh," he said, "I want to thank you. You have been very kind." He lowered his head and then looked up, smiling. "If anyone asks you, tell them I still believe a Jewish state is a very good thing."

He continued walking. In the Nikes his legs looked spindly. He seemed very tired.

I never saw him again. Later, I found the backpack under a tree. In it, along with his sports clothes, was the 1895 passport.


Eric Blau is an award-winning novelist, poet, and playwright. His novels include The Beggar's Cup (Knopf) and The Hero of the Slocum Disaster (Mosaic Press), which will be released this spring.




 


Union for Reform Judaism.