Mel Brooks, Theodor Herzl, and a Chance Encounter at the Bellagio Hotel - Opinion

The present time may seem turbulent, as it so often does, but if this is what Israel had achieved in its first 75 years, what even greater things will we achieve in the next 75?

 "History of the World: Part II (photo credit: PR)
"History of the World: Part II
(photo credit: PR)

As Israel turns 75, I’m reminded of how much the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, achieved in his 44 short years. While Herzl’s achievements are celebrated and well known, shortly before he died, he shared with a friend, “It was my mistake I began too late…If you knew how I suffer at the thought of the lost years.” 

On March 6, Mel Brooks released "History of the World: Part II,” the sequel to his original 1981 hit. The original film was replete with Jewish references including some epic comedy including skits of "Jews in Space" and "Moses."

In the early 2000s, I was in Las Vegas’ Bellagio Hotel when I passed none other than Brooks and his son. Stopped in my tracks, I did a complete 180 and walked after them. Once I caught up, I asked: "Are you Mel Broo-..." he cut me off and said while rolling his eyes, "Just say hello, don't make it awkward!"

Sam Goldberg (Credit: JNF-USA)Sam Goldberg (Credit: JNF-USA)

I laughed at that. Then I explained that History of the World Part I was my favorite movie as a kid and for years I looked at our local video rental store for Part II, but it was never there. I demanded to know when the sequel was coming. This time, Mel laughed, and said, "it's coming, it's coming." 

Finally, after all this time, Part II has arrived! 

The odds of my brief interaction with Brooks may have had zero impact on the sequel coming to fruition. But what if it had? 

What if Mel, while he couldn't explain why, who, or how; deep down knew that he was supposed to make Part II and our interaction helped push it into becoming reality all these years later? 

Ultimately, it doesn't matter if my single interaction made the difference or not. It doesn't matter if Brooks would remember or not. It doesn't matter if I remember or not. It doesn't matter if you ever read this story or not. 

What does matter is that when we want something - when we know that something should happen - and we are presented with an opportunity to help make it happen, then we must act. 

For centuries the Jewish People's inability to act, our lack of cohesiveness, our lack of power, whatever the je ne sais quoi was - it doesn't matter. For centuries we were homeless. And we suffered. Until you've read Paul Johnson's A History of the Jews, it is difficult to fully grasp the immense efforts that every-single-country and every-single-people used to exploit, harm, and yes, even murder us. 

Yet this has dramatically changed. It changed because of one person, an Austrian journalist who woke up and decided to act. While Herzl never saw what he worked so hard to achieve, we now revere his name and have a city, streets, and the highest honored memorial in Israel named after him. 

Herzl died the same age I am now - 44 years old. Before his passing, he formed the nucleus of Jewish unity that has brought us the greatest achievement of modern history - the rebirth of our Jewish homeland. But his path was not a straight line. Like now, Herzl faced strong differences of opinion. Like now, Herzl was not sure if Jews from different places, different religious backgrounds, and different socio-economic status and philosophies could find a way to work together. He could have easily chosen not to act, and after starting, he had every reason to give up. But Herzl chose a different path – every day he woke up and chose to act. 

While Herzl may have relit the dormant torch, the flame of Zionism is blazing stronger than ever, and it has now been passed to us. While it is a tremendous responsibility, it is an even greater opportunity. 

Because you carry this torch, your descendants will no longer (I pray) run from pogroms. Because you carry this torch, the future generations of Jews will live with the pride of success, accomplishment, and independence knowing that they are free to be who they choose, and that we are a people living in our homeland - the only homeland for any people that is so dedicated in the most popular book in the history of the world (of course, that would be the Bible). 

As leaders of our Jewish community, many of us regularly look at how we are spending our time and what impact we’re making. Yet, what could Herzl have done if he had one more more more more year?

Each day is an opportunity because it is the only time that is actually "now." 

Some people criticize what they perceive as "Jewish Power." What they may never understand, but what we so intimately and intuitively realize, is that the so-called “power” we have is a function of our will. It is not a weapon. It is not a bank account. It is not anything other than our sheer determination to achieve. To achieve one must act. Herzl chose to act. Today, many of us choose to get involved with our JCCs, synagogues, and organizations like Jewish National Fund-USA. 

In 2022, I became regional President of the Board for Jewish National Fund-USA’s Mountain States Region. At our first board meeting together, I shared with my fellow ambassadors (lay leaders) that being a member of the board is an opportunity – and not an obligation. It is an opportunity to contribute to the greatest enterprise in the history of our planet. This enterprise is leading the way in solving global problems like water and food scarcity.  Our tiny country on a sliver of sand and swamp with few natural resources, no natural borders other than its back to the sea, no adjacent allies, and no logical reason to exist other than our deep love for our home and our commitment to act! 

Our commitment has allowed Israel in only 75 years to become one of the world's top innovators, an economic powerhouse, a cultural phenomenon, and the home of salvation to the Jews of Europe, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia, and any Jew from any place for any reason because, imperfect as it may be, Israel is our home. 

The present time may seem turbulent, as it so often does, but we know that if this is what Israel achieved in its first 75 years, what beauty, glory, and amazements will be realized in the next 75 years? I predict that in 300 years, Jews will look back at our time as the start of the golden age of Jewish history. 

If you were given the gift of life to wake up today, then today is your opportunity to act. After all, the People of Israel live! Am Yisrael Chai! 

Sam Goldberg is President of the Board for Jewish National Fund-USA’s Mountain States Region