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May 3: No Bar Mitsve for Theodor Herzl

May 3, 2014
dee855c7eb52b2b410c217232fa7f775Theodor Herzl, who would become the founder of the modern Zionist movement, was “confirmed” in his Budapest home, next door to a synagogue, on this date in 1873, one day after his 13th birthday. Herzl grew up in an assimilated family, but he did attend a Jewish elementary school and also attended classes about Judaism in his secondary school and at gymnasium. However, according to Jacques Kornberg’s Theodor Herzl: From Assimilation to Zionism, Herzl’s family had “an attenuated tie to Judaism,” and “the family had decided against a bar mitzvah, which would have been held in the synagogue with Herzl reading from the Torah, and instead observed the event at home.” Confirmations were a Reform Jewish invention, in which the young man made a statement of creedal beliefs, in a style similar to the Catholic catechism. It was not common in Hungary, and there is no record of what Herzl did at his confirmation, to which he never referred in his writings or in his later life. It is not even certain that the event took place (though there is an extant invitation), as a cholera epidemic was raging in Budapest. “His upbringing produced very little sign that he would become widely regarded as a great Jewish emancipator. . . . In fact, prior to the first Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897, both he and Max Nordau could not follow the Sabbath services they had been invited to attend — their Hebrew language skills and familiarity with the Jewish prayer service being so limited.” -Avi Davis, Jewish Journal