Before he starred as the lead in the hit 1970s’ sitcom “Barney Miller,” Hal Linden was just a regular kid growing up in the Bronx. The son of Lithuanian immigrants, Linden’s childhood in the 1930s and ’40s consisted of going to soccer games with his father and playing in the streets with other children. “On my block, you were either Jewish or Italian,” he recalled.
Linden, 92, is witty and charismatic. While many other Hollywood veterans of his generation are well into their retirement, he is still racking up film credits with his most recent appearance in Jonah Hill’s “You People,” featuring Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and a parade of other “A”-list celebrities.
Entertaining millions on TV, the silver screen and the stage has been a lifelong passion. However, several decades ago, he discovered another lifelong calling: Israel.
“My father was an ardent Zionist,” said Linden. “He co-founded the Order of the Sons of Zion, which later became B’nei Zion. He was also the head of the Harlem Zionists.”
While Linden can’t pinpoint the moment his father, Charles Lipshitz, decided to take on the Zionist cause, he ruminates that it may have been driven by the same reason his father came to the United States. “If he had stayed in Lithuania, he would’ve been conscripted into the tzar’s army and turned into cannon fodder,” said Linden.
As the Jewish homeland celebrates 75 years of independence, Linden, who also serves as Jewish National Fund-USA’s national spokesperson, remembers exactly where he was when David Ben-Gurion declared the State of Israel on May 14, 1948.
“I remember walking into our living room. The lights were off, and I found my father sitting in the dark. I switched on the lights and saw him weeping. Copious tears poured down his face because he had just heard that we had re-established the State of Israel. Here was a man who dedicated his whole life to this single ambition, and now, it had been achieved.”
As an American-born Jew growing up, Linden admits that he didn’t fully grasp why the Jewish people needed a “second country.” However, following a confluence of factors, including the ensuing attacks on Israel by Arab armies and the revelation of the Nazi’s atrocities, he said: “The thing that helped me understand my father’s ‘why’ behind his Zionism as well as why we, the Jewish people, needed Israel occurred when I learned that the British prevented Holocaust survivors from arriving in Israel. All of a sudden, the politics of the world became clear and I finally understood why we needed a home.”
Linden said that following his appointment as Jewish National Fund-USA Spokesperson in 1997, “all of my father’s work and his Zionist passion came back to me — his work became my passion.”
“At the time, my understanding of Jewish National Fund-USA was limited to knowing they were the ‘Blue Box people.’ It wasn’t until my wife and I traveled with them to Israel that I began to see what they also did with water, medical centers, R&D, and so much more. My wife and I were so impressed with that trip that she became a founding member of their Sapphire Society.”
Linden added, “During our travels to Israel, I became fascinated with [Jewish National Fund-USA’s] philanthropic investments in water infrastructure.”
So inspired was Linden by how the organization was changing Israel’s water narrative that he made a significant gift in his father and mother’s name to support the Neve Ur Water Reservoir.
With celebrations for Israel’s milestone birthday taking place worldwide, Linden doesn’t mince words when it comes to his advice for the next generation. “Put yourself in my shoes, kids. I spent my youth ignoring what was happening in the world until the world came back to remind us that we are Jews. I’m a totally secular Jew, but Judaism is a tribe … we have a common history. My father’s history was the pogroms in Eastern Europe. My history is the Holocaust in Europe. Today, you only need to open the paper to see why we need to be united in support of our one and only homeland.”
He added: “This isn’t about politics. It’s about peoplehood. People often say to me, ‘You’re so involved in Jewish affairs, but you’re not religious!’ And I reply, ‘Yes, I’m not observant—it’s about our common history … from the [Spanish] Inquisition to the Holocaust, we have to maintain a homeland for Jews.’ ”
Despite his concerns about the current state of world affairs, Linden remains a ‘glass-half-full guy.’ “I still have a positive view of our future because time after time, we have overcome those who stood against us, and we have won.”
Information about water technology, the environment and how to support Israel may be obtained from jnf.org.