Binyamin Ze’ev (Theodor) Herzl was born in Budapest, Hungary on May 2, 1860 (2nd of Iyar 5620). His parents were very involved in the non-Jewish society in which they lived, and followed a secular lifestyle. His father, Jacob Herzl, was a businessman and his mother, Jeanette Diamant, was in charge of educating the children, Theodor and Pauline, who was one year older than her brother.
The family members were particularly close. Herzl and his sister would read, walk and play together, and they were given an extensive education from private tutors hired by their mother. The children were educated in the spirit of Enlightenment, and were influenced by the modern, Western European atmosphere; their mother encouraged them to expand their horizons. Theodor had a special relationship with his mother. She nurtured within him the search for excellence and achievement. She had already identified his special talents even in his youth, and she provided him with a variety of enrichment classes at a young age, such as language studies, music, and piano lessons. Her image accompanied Herzl throughout his life, and she continued to play a dominant and influential role in his life, even as an adult.
At home, the Herzl family did not observe religious practice, but the family did maintain a Jewish character. On Shabbat and festivals, Herzl would visit the synagogue with his father, and when the boy turned 13, they held a festive and impressive bar mitzvah ceremony for him.
Herzl apparently had a pleasant childhood and adolescence. He attended the city’s best schools and achieved good grades, especially in the humanities and languages. Although Herzl was also interested in science and technology, his main love was literature. He wrote many poems, stories and short articles, and when he was in high school he founded a literary society where the members used to read and discuss each other’s work.
The family idyll was shattered in 1878, when Pauline came down with typhus and died shortly thereafter. Her sudden death was a severe blow to the family and her brother, Theodor Herzl, kept her memory alive his entire life: he visited her grave every year, the character of Miriam, the teacher appearing in his book Altneuland, was modeled after her, and his eldest daughter was named for his beloved sister – Pauline.
With Pauline’s death the family moved to Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was the main spiritual and social capital of Europe at that time. Herzl, who was 18 by now, quickly became involved in the city’s vivacious social life. He lived in Vienna’s Second District, where many famous Jews were gathered, including Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, composer Gustav Mahler, and Jewish author Arthur Schnitzler, who wrote The Dream Novel, which was made into a successful Hollywood film at the end of the 20th century (“Eyes Wide Shut”). The two became friends and for a short time they even corresponded with one another. “I still remember when I saw you for the first time, it was in the academic reading room. You made a speech and you were very stern…” wrote Schnitzler to him in August, 1892. “If I knew how to speak and to smile thusly, I would be surrounded by a circle of young, beautiful women – and again, I was jealous of you, and I hope it was not unjustified… and I left you again with the feeling one has towards someone who always seems to be walking on the same street as he, but is 20 paces ahead.”
At the end of the 19th century Vienna was known for its rich and pluralistic culture. It was the destination of the leading thinkers and the great artists whose work is still with us today – Sigmund Freud and other leading psychoanalysts, musicians, men of the theater, and other unique artists, such as Egon Schiele, Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka. A lively atmosphere enveloped the Austro-Hungarian capital, and creativity flourished. Scientific discoveries, technological innovations, and psychological insights into the human psyche contributed to the growing interest in areas that people had not previously been interested in: topics such as dreams, insanity and secularity became part of the cultural and artistic milieu, alongside independent thinking which pitted the individual and his needs against the principles of the collective and social conventions.
Vienna at the end of the 19th century was a mixed metropolis, which became a new and promising home to thousands of immigrants. Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians and Jews came together in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and created a single fabric, but it was far from uniform: members of the different nationalities lived together in apartment buildings and sat at the same cafes, but their different cultural backgrounds and languages set them apart. The relationship between the residents was relatively harmonious, because everyone wanted to have neighborly relations and strived to blend into a “single multi-cultural Vienna.” But underneath the surface, other ideas were taking shape, and subtle feelings of jealousy, competition and frustration began to surface, and these were exposed later on with the rise of the nationalist movements. Following the collapse of the imperialist powers, nationalist feelings began to take hold among the different peoples, and this is also reflected in the growth of anti-Semitic movements and the worsening attitude towards Jewish residents, who were often exposed to anti-Semitic incidents, hostile reactions and direct and indirect displays of negative behavior.
Herzl, who studied law, joined the “Albia” fraternity, most of whose members were practiced in the art of fencing. Like most student organizations, Albia was also characterized by a connection to German culture, which it encouraged and promoted, and with time the group’s nationalist tendencies became more and more extreme, even anti-Semitic. The members’ declared support of Hermann Bahr, a student expelled from the university because of his strong anti-Semitic remarks, led to Herzl’s resignation from the fraternity. Not all of Albia’s Jewish members followed suit, but in retrospect, it seems as if Herzl was able to foresee future events: Albia’s orientation became more and more nationalistic, and after a while Jews were excluded altogether.
Herzl’s search for a solution to the problem of anti-Semitism was a key factor in his life for several years following his graduation, but even as a student he had been exposed to the issue and began exhibiting an interest. The book by Eugen Dühring, The Jewish Question, made a strong impression on Herzl, as did the election of anti-Semitic candidate Karl Lueger as mayor of Vienna. These contributed to his resignation from Albia, which was a public _expression of his strong stand against the worrisome anti-Semitic trends.
Herzl’s interest in the anti-Semitism issue, as well as the racism he experienced himself, led to his desire to search for practical solutions, and with time his dreams of establishing an independent state for the Jews became even stronger.
In the area of the Vienna Prater lived two Jewish intellectuals who were occupied with dreams, each in his own way: The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, investigated them from the psychoanalytical perspective, while Theodor Herzl wanted to fulfill the Jewish dream of returning to Zion.
“It is a wonderful thing that we Jews have dreamed this majestic dream throughout the entire night of our history,” Herzl claimed in his book Solution to the Jewish Question. He added, “We need do nothing but wipe the sleep from our eyes, stretch our strong limbs, and we can turn the dream into reality. Whoever brings this message – does not come as a prophet with bizarre expressions, nor as a dreamer.”
Herzl’s ideas and his actions received mixed reactions: some considered him to be a visionary, others feared he was deluded. The issue of dreams, as stated, occupied the thoughts of many people during that period thanks, in no small part, to Freud’s research and his book, The Interpretation of Dreams, which was published in 1900. As we can see from the citation above, Herzl too, the father of the nation, related to this topic. But unlike the Father of Psychoanalysis, who claimed that dreams were a mirror reflecting the mind’s innermost treasures, Herzl saw dreams as a motivating force and sought to bring them to fruition.