Toronto lawyer produces film about Herzl

David Matlow stands on the Basel hotel balcony where Theodor Herzl stood in 1897 in an iconic photograph.

Toronto lawyer David Matlow has an incredible but unusual passion for the founder of modern political Zionism, Theodor Herzl.

So much so that he has the world’s largest private collection of Herzl memorabilia and has now made a documentary film about Herzl’s life and times.

My Herzl, a Canada-Israel co-production produced by Matlow and directed by his Israeli brother-in-law, Eli Tal-El, is due to be screened for one night only on April 22 at the Silver City theatre at Yonge and Eglinton in support of the Ann and Max Tannenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto.

Matlow, 52, has exhibited his Herzl collection, consisting of 2,500 objects from postcards and postage stamps to plates and pen knives, at various venues, including Beth Tzedec Congregation and the Baycrest senior care facility.

And while these exhibits have been informative in educating people about Herzl the man and the visionary, they have had limited exposure.

But since almost everyone likes movies, My Herzl is an opportunity to communicate lessons about Herzl and the Zionist movement to a considerably wider audience, said Matlow, a corporate securities and private equity lawyer at Goodmans LLP.

My Herzl, set in locales inextricably associated with Herzl, is based on a trip Matlow organized to Basel, Switzerland, for himself and his family and relatives and friends in August 2010, just months before he turned 50.

Basel was where the first Zionist Congress took place in 1897 and where Herzl – who died at 44 in 1904 after battling heart disease – prophetically predicted the birth of Israel within 50 years.

Matlow asked 27 people to join him in Basel. Apart from his wife, three daughters, sisters and their husbands and children, participants also included his late mother, Esther, a former president of Canadian Hadassah WIZO to whom My Herzl is dedicated, and friends such as Dr. Barry Simon and David and Ellen Chaikof and their families.

The group stayed at the Three Kings Hotel, where Herzl slept, and, like Herzl, posed for photographs on the balcony overlooking the scenic Rhine River.

Meanwhile, Tal-El, a professional filmmaker from Jerusalem, travelled with a Dror Habonim youth delegation to Budapest and Paris, cities bound up with Herzl.

For Matlow, the film was a chance to share his passion with people closest to him in a city so vitally important in the annals of Zionism.

He considers Herzl an inspirational figure who tirelessly used his talents to help lay the foundation for the establishment of Israel.

“He did something,” said Matlow. “He just didn’t talk about it.”

In light of Herzl’s achievements, he noted, “all dreams are possible.”

“During the late 1800s, the notion of a sovereign Jewish state was the most preposterous, most far-fetched and most ridiculous idea anyone ever had,” he explained. “Yet it came true because people starting with Herzl believed in the idea, and worked towards that goal.”

Herzl also personifies sacrifice, he added.

“Herzl sacrificed his own wealth, health and family to his objective of creating a Jewish state. He causes us to reflect on the sacrifices we might be prepared to make for the things we believe in.”

Commenting on Herzl’s contemporary relevance, Matlow said, “We should use our skills, talents and energy to complete Herzl’s dream – a Jewish state that is safe, secure and living in peace.”

The film portrays Herzl as an imperfect man who accomplished great things, he observed.

“Herzl was human, but we all have the potential to do great things. Are we doing all we can for what we believe in? Learning about Herzl allows us to reflect on this question about ourselves.”

My Herzl, a blend of history and travelogue, features the observations of, among others, Robert Wistrich, a Hebrew University historian and specialist in antisemitism.

Wistrich describes Herzl – a Budapest-born assimilationist disillusioned by the Dreyfus Affair in France – as a person who transformed himself in the face of anti-Jewish animus in 19th-century Europe.

Wistrich suggests that Palestine, an Ottoman backwater even as late as the early 20th century, was a bleak and forbidding land, “not the kind of place you’d expect millions of Jews” to immigrate.

My Herzl, which is being submitted to Jewish movie festivals around the world by Ruth Diskin Films in Jerusalem, offers sharply divergent views of Herzl. Matlow regards him glowingly, while Tal-El initially sees him as a washed up icon.

In passing, the film scolds Israel for having treated Herzl as a myth rather than as a man with a family for far too long.

Although My Herzl may expose many more Torontonians to a slice of Zionist lore, Matlow intends to continue bringing his Herzl collection to new venues. From April 12 to 30, it will be exhibited at Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa.