SERIES Sephard in Ashkenaz and Ashkenaz in Sephard. Binyamin Ze'ev (Theodore) Herzl's Sephardic Roots
I recently came across an article in the Sephardic Heritage Update newsletter edited by David Shasha, entitled Kelal Yisrael: Definition, History, Facts, Application written by Dr. David Rabeeya. In that piece, Dr. Rabeeya attempts to dispel erroneous notions and stereotypes about Sephardic Jews. What caught my eye was this:
Myth: Theodore Herzl was from Eastern European Ashkenazic stock. He was the only founder of the modern political Zionist movement.
Fact: Herzl came from an assimilated Sephardic/Ashkenazic family that had lived in Hungary for several generations. At least several decades before Herzl’s ideas appeared, another Sephardic Jew, Rabbi Judah Alkalai, of Serbian descent, advocated that a Zionist organization be established in order to negotiate with western powers. He emphasized the necessity for political negotiation with Turkey if a Jewish state was to be established. He also advocated the establishment of a special fund for the purchase and colonization of Palestine.
Actually, Herzl's purported Sephardic background is shrouded in obscurity. The only mention of it is in his conversations with the early English Zionist Jacob de Haas (1872-1937). He told the latter that his paternal grandfather was a Spanish Jew who had been forced to convert to Christianity and had later fled to Constantinople where he re-embraced Judaism. In a different version he traced his descent to a high-ranking converso monk who returned to Judaism while abroad on a mission.
The late Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook (the younger) claimed that he once met the noted Hassidic historian Aaron Marcus who related to him that Herzl had told him personally, on one occasion, that he was a direct descendant of the noted Sephardic Kabbalist, Rabbi Yosef Taitaczak.
הרצי"ה מציין שהסופר הרב אהרון מרקוס סיפר לו כי בנימין זאב הרצל שהיה מקורב לו מסר לו אישית על היותו צאצא ישיר (בן אחר בן) של ר' יוסף טאיטאצאק
(על פי שיחות הרצי"ה, עיטורי כהנים, 126, וכן לנתיבות ישראל חלק ב', מאמר "להצדיק צדיקים
(Interestingly enough, the surname 'taitaczak' shows up in Hungary and in Morroco respectively to this day. It is a subject that merits further research).
Contemporary Israeli poets, twin brothers Herzl and Balfour Hakak, write about Herzl's Sephardic ancestry as if it were an established fact. Now while it may very well be true, I have yet to come across any hard evidence pointing toward Iberian origins. I would appreciate if anyone could further enlighten me on the subject (UPDATE: The evidence seems to be pointing in the affirmative. Check back on this blog for a new post on Herzl's Sephardic origins).
Dr. Rabeeya touched upon a very interesting and important point however, namely the (forgotten) Sephardic roots of Zionism. Before Herzl came on the scene, forcefully advocating political Zionism, there was the aforementioned Rabbi Alkalay, as well as Rabbi Yehuda Bibas among others (Budapest-born Zionist leader Max Nordau was of Sephardic origin as well), but more on that in a different post.
see "Benjamin Disraeli and the myth of Sephardi superiority" Todd M. Endelman, in Jewish History Volume 10, Number 2 / September, 1996: Page 32.
In a personal email to me, Endelman casts doubt on the claim and writes "As for Herzl's claim, I do not know whether anyone has really taken it seriously and sought to prove or disprove it".
see hereופרט פיקנטי במיוחד: התברר לי שמוצא משפחתו של בנימין זאב הרצל אינו מבודפסט כמו שלמדנו בספרי הלימוד. הרצל היה נצר למשפחה ספרדית ממגורשי ספרד שגרה בזמון (זמלין), עיר הולדתו של הרב ח"י אלקלעי, ובבית הקברות היהודי קבורים אבות אבותיו של חוזה המדינה. משפחתו נדדה לבודפסט, וזה מה שנשאר בדפי ההיסטוריה.
See also Peres, Shimon in The Imaginary Voyage where he writes that Herzl was part Sephardic.