Cofounder of the World Zionist Organization
1. Max Nordau was born Simon (Simcha) Maximillian Sudfeld in Pest, Hungary, in July 1849. His father was a Hebrew poet.
2. He studied to be a physician, earning his medical degree from the University of Budapest in 1872. In 1873 he changed his name to Max Nordau (more about this below). He served for six years as an Austrian military surgeon; then, in 1880 he moved to Paris, where he would spend most of his life.
3. He considered himself fully assimilated. “When I reached the age of fifteen,” he wrote, “I left the Jewish way of life and the study of Torah….Judaism remained a mere memory and since then I have always felt as a German and as a German only.” Hence the name change.
4. Then came the Dreyfus Affair. In Paris, he attended the trial, reported on it, and witnessed a mob screaming, “Death to the Jews!” He concluded that anti-Semitism was universal. And therefore, that Zionism was a necessity.
5. Theodor Herzl was in Paris working as a correspondent to a Vienna newspaper. Nordau, as his friend and advisor, was the one who convinced Herzl of the need for democratic assemblies in the Zionist movement. Nordau organized the first Zionist Congress, held in Basel in 1897; there would come to be 11 in all.
6. Nordau had already achieved fame as an intellectual and essayist, who wrote on contemporary art, society and politics. His works were widely translated, and his involvement lent the congress a certain vogue. He spoke second at the conference, after Herzl, offering statistics that documented the miserable condition of Eastern European Jews and then expressing his belief in the future establishment of a democratic nation-state.
7. In 1898, at the second Zionist Congress, he coined the term “muscular Judaism” to describe the discipline and agility of a stronger, more physically assured Jew – replacing the physically weak, intellectually sustained stereotype. Though he railed against such characterizations, he himself believed that the Jew had a special genius for politics.
8. He supported the Uganda Plan, coining the term “night shelter” to describe a temporary solution to the precarious condition of so many Eastern European Jews.
9. He is best known today for his book Degeneration (1892), an attack on what he considered degenerate art. Always controversial, other works of social criticism included The Conventional Lies of Our Civilization (1883) and Paradoxes (1896). He died in Paris in January 1923; three years later, his remains were moved to Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv.
10. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Nordau, though I’m certain he would not appreciate my amused and ironic take on it: “Degenerates are not always criminals, anarchists and pronounced lunatics; they are often authors and artists.”
You’ll find Nordau Street in Tel Aviv not far from the port. In Jerusalem, Kikkar Nordau is located near the central bus station. Look for him in Haifa, too.