Monday, Apr 22, 2024

Jewish Marco Polo


Daniel Herszberg Has Been to Every One of the World’s 197 Countries


Marco Polo may be one of history’s most famous travelers, but he was only in 16 countries as measured by the United Nations. Queen Elizabeth II spent over 60 years pacing the globe on behalf of the United Kingdom, but she still came up short — just 112 of the world’s 197 countries and territories. Alexander the Great ruled over the entire known world 2,500 years ago, but history only records him physically in 15 countries.

A week before Pesach, Daniel Herszberg, a frum Jew from Melbourne, entered one of the world’s rarest clubs — those who visited every one of the 197 countries and territories recognized by the United Nations. He is number 149 on the list but stands out in two ways — at 31, he is the youngest to have accomplished the feat, and his passion stems not only from wanderlust but out of a desire to step back in time and glimpse the world’s forgotten Jewish past.

From the punishing steppes of Siberia to the sundrenched pueblos of Spain, from under the stony glares of Kim Jong Un in North Korea to the Pacific Isles, the Australian citizen has seen them all. His achievement was certified by NomadMania, a Guinness-like organization for globetrotters.

Fewer than 300 people in history have made the cut. Herszberg stands somewhere in the middle of that exclusive league, whose members try to visit all 193 countries, plus the Vatican, Palestinian territories, Kosovo and Taiwan.

A “visit,” NomadMania emphasizes, cannot be a mere step into the country, a la President Trump into North Korea in 2019. It requires a trip “a reasonable distance” beyond the airport, train station, or immigration center.

World travel has long been a fascination to people, particularly during the Middle Ages when Europeans were ready to believe fantastic tales about the world yonder. They imagined lands where roads were paved with gold, where sea dragons governed the seas, where people reared on a fountain of youth lived forever, and where fearsome men as tall as trees ruled over man and beast.

World travelers spent decades on the road, and often succumbed to war, disease, and the elements without returning home. The first accurate account by a world traveler is Rav Binyomin of Tudela, a Spanish Jew whose 14 years abroad enthralled the world during the 12th century. His travels through Europe, the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East, and India brought the first reports of how Jewish communities there fared since the Churban Bayis Sheini.

He was followed a century later by Marco Polo, whose four-decade sojourn thrilled Europe with the grandiose courts of China and Japan.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus might not have been a Jew, but he found a land he thought was new, which in due time, served for the Jews as a refuge of rescue, in the land of the free, under the red, white, and blue.

While these travelers tended to be explorers, in recent years, as the art of diplomacy became more a matter of showing up, United States secretaries of state have increasingly joined the list of jet setters. A century ago, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes limited his travel to Brazil and Bermuda in the Americas and four European countries. President Barack Obama’s two top diplomats, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, broke records for global travel. Clinton visited 112 countries in her four years in office, while Kerry was in 91. The current occupant of Turtle Bay, Antony Blinken, is in office for a bit more than two years and he’s been to almost 70 countries.

Herszberg places himself somewhere in between the two groups. Neither a diplomat nor an explorer, he travels to countries rarely, if ever, visited by Jews in centuries and records any Jewish sites or items on his camera.

NomadMania shows that the world’s most traveled person — likely in all of history — is Harry Mitsidis, the site’s founder. A son of a Greek father and a South African mother, the British man has not only been to each country but has even stepped foot in nearly each one of the world’s 1,301 regions. He has 21 regions left to go, but he has time — he is 51 years old.

Herszberg is a relatively common name; he says that they are all related. Having a family sprawled across the globe — his great-grandmother lived in Canada, his grandparents in Israel and South Africa, and his aunts in Florida — he began his journey to 197 as a young tot.

He has two brothers who have recently joined the contest. Arieh Herszberg, 23, has 93 countries and territories under his belt while Ezra, 26, is four behind, at 89. Their parents, Sam and Dassi, are also international travelers but are not listed on NomadMania.

Daniel Herszberg has an easy job that allows him long stretches of free time and a budget to cover travel. He was close to his goal in 2019 so he was determined to finish the job within a year.

Covid intervened, so it took him until a week before Pesach to arrive at his final destination — the Pacific Island nation of Tonga.

Herszberg is currently back in school in Britain, where he is studying before he tackles his next travel challenges.

How does a nice Jewish boy get to have such an interesting hobby, traveling the world?

Would you believe I went to a Chabad yeshiva my whole life?

Do I believe that? I would believe it. You’ve probably seen a Chabad house wherever you went.

Yeah, exactly.

Have you ever found a place where there was no Chabad house?

Of course. But I’ve definitely been to Chabad houses in the most obscure places.

Where, for example, is an obscure place you met them?

I was in Chabad in Ghana for Shabbos; Ghana is a country in West Africa. I also did a Shabbos in deep, dark Siberia. That, I guess, is traditional Chabad territory, but still, we’re talking really in the middle of nowhere. But, you know, I imagine Chabad has been there for 150 years.

Did you rely on your connection to Chabad before you started your travels?


By the way, my family is not Chabad; I just went to school there. But no, I wasn’t relying on them. But still, it’s nice sometimes to have them.

What interests you, is it the traveling? Is it seeing new and exotic places? Which bug bit you?

It started with just a curiosity to know the world and to get out there. I think that as I started spending more time in the Middle East among Arab countries, the interest in seeing Jewish stuff really kicked in.

Ever since I was a little child, I have been curious about the world. I used to read little picture books with pictures of exotic countries. The journey kind of changed over the years, but I was always interested in visiting all countries and learning from different cultures.

As I started spending more time in the Middle East, it dawned on me very quickly that in a lot of the countries I was visiting, I was the first Jew to visit a shul or yeshiva in 50 or 60 years. For a lot of these, the records online show that no one really knew if any of these were still standing, particularly in countries like Iraq or Syria where you once had hundreds of thousands of Jews. So the journey took a bit of a change, and I started actively looking for Jewish stories along the way.

And you know, the ruins of the Jewish world are everywhere, from Pakistan to Malaysia to Indonesia. You find Jewish stories in the most obscure corners, which has been remarkable.

What do you find in Pakistan, Malaysia, and Tunisia? Tunisia had a large Jewish community until recent times, but Malaysia and Pakistan?

There are two sections in Pakistan with a Jewish connection.

In the north, near Afghanistan, you find records from Jewish homes on the Silk Road. You see homes in Bukhara and Kabul and elsewhere that are decorated with Mogen Dovids, so they knew they were Jewish homes. In the south, in Karachi, you have huge graveyards. Basically, the community was a mix of the Bene Israel Jews from Mumbai and the British and Baghdadi Jews who were coming to trade.

I have a friend who works with people in Afghanistan, and he is emphatic that in Mazar-i-Sharif, next to the Pakistani border, there is a community of thousands of people who claim to be of Jewish descent.

One of the major ethnic groups in Afghanistan is the Pashtuns, and people think the Pashtuns could be Jewish. I think that’s the extent of the story. They’re not Jewish. They’re Muslim. No one’s pretending to be Jewish there. But in the city of Herat, there’s a big shul, and the cemetery there is also really interesting; it’s in someone’s backyard. It’s quite sad to see. They’ve tried to fix some of the graves, but it’s obvious they did it haphazardly — the Hebrew is upside down.

Let’s start from the beginning. As a child, I would sometimes think, “Okay, how many countries was I ever in?” and the extent of it was three states and Canada. How old were you the first time you traveled to a different country?

Honestly, I was young, maybe two and a half. My mom is from overseas, so we went to visit my mom’s grandmother, and my grandparents were in Israel, so we used to go there every year. So there was always travel, but it was never to the extent that it became now.

You’re lucky to have an Australian passport; that probably gives you access to countries that even I as an American would not be able to get to.

Yes. Particularly some of the more difficult countries, such as Iran or Syria. Interestingly, when I go to Iran I don’t even need anything. I come, they stamp me on arrival, and I’m free. Americans are watched very closely. But it’s still nerve-racking — they know.

What do they know, that you’re Jewish?

Sometimes, yes. Also, often there are people I need to trust; I have to let them know that I’m Jewish, especially when I’m trying to gain access to Jewish sites. Last year, for example, I was in Baghdad — there’s one shul left in Baghdad, which is sad for a country that I think once had over 300 shuls — and to gain access there was really hard. I met a woman who is one of the six Jews left in Baghdad. Just to gain access to her and to people like her, there are layers and layers of trust. So you have to sort of let people know, “Look, I’m really serious about this. I need to get access.”

But, often when you are willing to slip some money, people are willing to turn a blind eye.

So those are two essentials to international travel — a good passport and, like they say, baksheesh.


An Australian passport can take you to any country, including North Korea?

Yes. You still need visas, but there are no prohibitions on entry. Americans can also, it just may be a bit more difficult, sometimes.

The remotest country I can think of is probably North Korea. How long were you there for?

I was there for a week.

Were you able to walk around?

Yes. I was living in China at the time for business so it was a bit easier on me. I don’t know if that made it easier, but I got the visa quickly. You don’t spend any money while you’re there; you just pay for the full package and then you go there.

Is there any Jewish connection to North Korea at all?

No. That part of Asia, even South Korea, really has nothing historically Jewish. Now there’s a big Chabad house in South Korea, but before — nothing.

The closest to anything Jewish is Harbin, in China.

What was the most surprising Jewish connection that you discovered?

I’ll give you two. One is a small set of six islands off West Africa called Cape Verde; they used to be a Portuguese colony. I was driving on one of the islands and I passed a town called Synagoga — that’s the name of the town. So I ask around, and sure enough, behind the town are some ruins of some old Portuguese buildings that no one knew what they were. The only thing I can presume is that it was built by Marranos who ran away from Portugal. There’s no other explanation — I mean, why else would they call it Synagoga? All we know is that people escaped Portugal and ran away there.

The second one that comes to mind is an Arab country called Mauritania, just south of Morocco. That country is deep in the Sahara, and there’s a little town called Chinguetti — we’re talking really remote. The history of Chinguetti is important for Muslims as a waystation to go to Mecca. Basically, Muslims would come from all over Africa to this town, and from there they would take the camels to Mecca. They would congregate there until it was time for the caravan to go. By virtue of that, these big Islamic libraries ended up there.

Sure enough — there were a lot of people coming to that town, so who else went to that town? Jewish traders. So in these Islamic libraries are Hebrew texts — forget a siddur, I’ve found a Tisha B’Av kinus there. No one knows how old these things are; they could be 1,000 years old. This, in the middle of a Muslim library in the middle of the Sahara.

What do you do when you see these things?

I take photos. I research a bit.

Sometimes I find living things. Here’s a wild story — in the Amazon in Brazil, there was a group of Moroccan Jews in the 1800s who went there to trade. Today, you have in the Amazon three shuls which look like they were transported from Morocco. These are Moroccan Jews living in the middle of the Amazon. And they’re still there. And Chabad is now there, too.

They still keep up their traditions and their faith?

Yes. When I was there, we had a full Moroccan Sephardi davening.

When you say, “in middle of the Amazon,” what do you mean?

In a city in the Amazon.

I’m sure you’re familiar, but over the centuries there were some famous Jewish travelers. The most famous one was Rav Binyomin of Tudela, who traveled throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa in the 12th century — he was like the Jewish Marco Polo. We know of what he saw since he kept a diary. Did you ever consider writing about your travels and what you’ve seen?

I definitely do. I’ve got a lot on my plate, but the plan is to write, eventually. I’m familiar with Rav Binyomin of Tudela — as I travel through places, I’ll often read his writings, just to see what he says. He’s got a way with words; he brings a city to life. What he wrote about Syria, what he wrote about Iraq, was super, super interesting.

I’ll give you one example — the kever of Ezra in Iraq. I’m pretty sure it was Rav Binyomin of Tudela — if not, it was an Ashkenazi rabbi who traveled through — who wrote that a light came out from the top of the tomb. Iraqi Jews would also refer to this light that came out from the tomb. You know, what am I going to say about it? To be there and to think, “Oh, wow, this many years ago he traveled all the way here and stood here and that’s what he saw” — it’s remarkable.

What about even further back? Did you visit any Biblical sites that are inaccessible to the Jewish world today?

I went to Ur.

I heard that it’s just a ruin today.

Yes, it’s just a ruin. There’s a house there that they say may have been Avrohom Avinu’s house. They base this on the fact that there’s one house there that didn’t have an idol cabinet. But what do they know?

I saw a travelogue written by someone who traveled from Germany about 150 years ago — I think his name was also Binyomin — and he wrote about visiting Ur and that he saw the furnace where they tried burning Avrohom Avinu. He also writes of seeing a mikvah that Avrohom used. But you say that there’s nothing there today. Did you ask anyone if there was something 100 years ago?


I spent Purim last year in Shushan, which was pretty neat.

Did you read the megillah on the first day or the second day?

(Laughs) I read the megillah at Esther’s kever. That was pretty special.

There’s Biblical stuff in Lebanon, but otherwise, most of it is in Israel. There’s nothing in the Sinai. Jordan has some sites but the Jordanians close it all off. Any sort of first or second Bais Hamikdosh sites they won’t allow to be excavated.

Is that because of security or because they don’t want to acknowledge Jewish history?

Political reasons.

You were in all 197 countries. One of them is the United States — where in the United States did you mark the checklist that you visited?

Oh, I’ve been to 20-something states.

Okay. You don’t do things on the fly.

Oh, no, no, I spent a bit of time working in New York. My mother’s sisters live in Florida, so I try and go visit them. I spent a bit of time in the South. It’s a very interesting country, obviously. I don’t do things on the fly.

What made you decide to transform from a guy who just likes to see new places into, I’m going to see every country on the planet?

I think when I knew I could. That’s a cryptic answer, but the more I traveled the more the adrenaline kicked in and momentum builds momentum — and I was suddenly in the league. You keep pushing the boundaries a little bit. North Korea was the first really crazy place I went to. And you know what? It was okay. Then you keep pushing it a little bit, and then at one point I quit my job as a lawyer and I said, “I’m going to go all in.” I never looked back. I quit my job and went straight to Afghanistan.

Interesting sabbatical. I’m looking at this site,, which tracks international travelers. There are people who have visited every country, but they’re all in their 70s and 80s. You, as far as I know, are in your 30s.

Yes. I’m 30.

So you have already completed the ultimate bucket list and you’re barely starting out on life. Where do you go from this?

You know what? In Australia, the system kind of works. I was living at home and studying, I was doing part-time jobs that paid very well so I could save up money. I had a lot of time off. That worked very well. Then I was living in Hong Kong and working for a few years, so that was my next base.

Now I’m based in the U.K.

So you never completely dropped your job. You did this traveling on your off time.


Do you still do legal work?

No. Now I’m studying. I’ve gone back to school.

Of the nearly 200 countries you’ve visited, what is the most interesting of your traveling career?

All the animal experiences in Africa — trekking for wild gorillas, walking among zebras, anything on safari. During the pandemic, I spent four months in Cairo, in Egypt, which as a Jew is a difficult place to spend a lot of time. But for me personally, it was very interesting and I learned a lot, and I got to see a lot of interesting Jewish stuff as well.

Were you in Fustat, which is ancient Cairo? There used to be a thriving Jewish community there. The Rambam lived there.

There are a lot of big, beautiful shuls in Cairo, as well.

Visiting Muslim countries puts a lot in perspective — Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia. Those are the big things.

I see that you don’t go somewhere just do check another country off your checklist. You try to immerse yourself in the local culture.

I genuinely love it. Last year, I went back to Pakistan for a month for the second time. This is what I enjoy. I’m already looking at the end of this year to maybe go back to Iraq, southern Africa.

When did you reach the milestone of 197 countries?

The week before Pesach.

Do you now have a new list? A new challenge?

For this year, my challenge is to not apply for any visas, because that really is the source of my white hairs. So this year I’m taking it easy. As for next year, come back to me for more and we’ll talk again.

The honest truth is that I’m driven by Jewish stories. I definitely want to go out and find more of that. Especially now that I’m in Europe, I can fly into any airport in Eastern Europe and spend a month visiting every shtetl around there. That really excites me.

What would you do when going to Siberia or someplace like that?

That part of Russia and Central Asia — like the stan countries — is a pretty remarkable part of the world in that they have an extreme environment. For three months a year, it’s a furnace and it’s so hot, and for nine months a year, it’s unbearably cold. So there’s no good time to go, but you go when it’s hot because you can then be outdoors — it’s extreme, but with that comes a magnificent landscape.
There are mountains and plains and wild horses and it’s just so beautiful and super interesting.

How do you get used to the constant time changes? I travel to Israel once a year and it takes me weeks to fully get back to myself. How did you do it so often?

I’ll tell you what — as I get older it gets harder.

Nobody’s immune to jet lag.

No. When you’re young, it’s fine.

What are the essentials to pack for these types of trips?

Depending on where I’m going. If I’m going to Africa, the essentials become more complicated — then you need malaria pills, I need a malaria net to sleep in, insect repellent, and the right kind of clothes. I generally try to bring clothes that I’m going to attract the least amount of attention. I choose plain colors — you don’t want to look too rich, you don’t want to look too poor, because that can also give you some problems.

Everything is pretty thought out in that sense. I bring my camera, but my camera bag is very discreet.

Bli ayin hora, I haven’t run into any problems over the years.

No problems at all. Not with the government, not with locals.

Right. I’ve been robbed a handful of times, but nothing substantial. I’ve never ended up in a hospital, I never had Covid, never spent a night in jail.

Any rules you would advise people who want to go to some of these places?

Keep your cool is the answer. There are a lot of frustrating experiences out there, and from experience, I can say that once you cross the line in some of these countries, it’s very hard to step back.

Have you ever come to a place where they’re living just like they did 2,000 years ago?

Oh, most of the world. Certainly across Africa, I don’t think anything’s changed there in at least 100 years. If you think of a country like Yemen, they’re all walking around with swords on their belts. So yes, the men have a mobile phone in their pocket, but you don’t leave the house without a sword.

Is that for ornamental purposes or personal security?


Did that give you pause? You might get into an argument with a guy who has his hand on his sword?

No. That’s just the way they are.

Any regional group where people are particularly friendly?

The truth is that most of the world is full of good people. I will say this — anytime I’ve run into trouble anywhere, whether it’s in Africa or Asia or South America or wherever, it’s always the people on the ground who are helping me get through it. If I get into trouble on some street, I knock on a door, I knock on a shop, and people will come and help.

Two years ago I was in West Africa when I got mugged right outside a shop. I pushed the guy away and I ran into the store, and the store owner and his family huddled around me and they made sure I was okay and they helped me find a car. I have countless stories like that. So far, people have really, really treated me well.

As I’ve said, considering the number of sticky situations I’ve put myself in, I don’t have reason to doubt people.

Do you get by with English? Is that a universal language?

No is the honest truth. English helps a lot. Spanish, French — those languages are helpful. In East Asia, it gets difficult. I lived in China for a while so I speak Chinese, but outside of China, it’s useless. In Japan and Korea, they have very low English levels. In the Arab world, you can get by with English and French, though a bit of Arabic always helps.

How many languages do you speak fluently?

Six. English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, enough Chinese, a little bit of Arabic — a taxi Arabic — Hebrew.

Any other languages you know enough of to get by?

Ah bissel Yiddish. But that doesn’t get you anywhere outside of the heimishe areas.

Were you ever in Boro Park?

Yes, of course. I was once with my dad in New York on Chol Hamoed Pesach. We were hungry so he said, “We’ll get good food in Boro Park.” So we shlepped to Boro Park, but none of the restaurants were open.

Do you plan trips in advance or are they spur of the moment?

Yes, I plan. I take people along on tours as well.

How do you plan?

It’s meticulous. It depends on where I’m going. If I’m going somewhere that’s a bit less traveled, a bit off the beaten path, then I’ll speak to some local contacts and try and find out what the situation is on the ground. In a lot of these countries, things change very quickly, especially over the last few years, so you will always try and get some local information.

Have you ever been to the remote islands?

The answer is yes. I was just there now, before Pesach, out in the islands in the South Pacific. It’s really remote. These are the furthest corners of the world.

What do you do when you come to a place and you’re the only Jew these people ever saw, and they know it? What is their reaction?

It depends. But I’ll tell you a good story. I was just now in a country that I can almost guarantee no one’s ever heard of — it’s called Kiribati but it’s pronounced Kiribas. It’s a little island halfway between Hawaii and Australia and they’re very Christian.

Are they a sovereign state?

Yes, a sovereign state. They have a population of about 100,000 people or so. I was sitting there with a bunch of islanders, and they go, “Are you Pentecostal? Catholic?” I say, “No, none of them.” “So what are you?” I gave it a shot and said, “I’m Jewish.” They got so excited because they read the Bible. They’re like, “You are a Jew. Jerusalem.” They were so happy to finally meet one.

But you know, sometimes it can be not so friendly. Especially with me living in Europe now, sometimes it’s a lot less friendly.

Yes, unfortunately in places with a lot of Jews that’s common.

Unfortunately. But you know what? I live in England now. They’ve been going after the Jews for 1,000 years now. You think in one generation that’s going to disappear? It doesn’t.

Take this place Kiribati — how do you find out about these places?

I Google. In the early days, but especially now that I’ve been to so many countries already, I rely on Google to tell me about more places. I’m trying to find these remote islands and places that are not a sovereign state but something in between. Places where they run their own show.

What makes you decide that a certain place qualifies as a country and I’m going there?

Generally, curiosity. If there’s a unique culture or a unique language or something there that pulls me — get me on a plane. Presuming that I don’t have to pay a million dollars or sit on a boat for two weeks, if I can get there, I’ll do it.

What about St. Helena, the place where Napoleon was imprisoned? It’s supposedly the remotest place on earth. Have you been there?

One day.

I heard it’s like a journey of two weeks.

Yes. They built an airport, but the winds are so bad that the planes can barely land there. I think one plane lands a week.

So even you still have a bucket list.


What else is on that list?

Antarctica is the obvious one.

What was the closest you got to it?

South Africa, Australia, Argentina.

I have some adventures I want to do, like travel by land across the Sahara Desert, things like that. But, you know, I have a lifetime for that.

Do you make friends along the way with whom you keep up with?

Yes, of course. I’m a friendly pal.

I could see that. Do you keep up with them afterward?

Yes. These days it’s easy.

Does everyone have cell phones around the world?

Internet maybe less so, but mobile phones, yes.

Have you ever been to a place where technology hasn’t penetrated?

People in Western countries don’t realize this, but in Africa and in many countries they have mobile money. So even if people have nothing, their mobile is their wallet. It’s all done via text message, not through any apps.

Maybe North Korea is the only country where mobile phones are not widespread.

This mobile money, is that based on trust, or does actual money get traded like a banking app?

No, it’s really highly regulated. It’s just the nature of their economy that they can do it.

Which currency do you take along when you travel, Australian dollars? U.S. dollars?

Australian, U.S., euros — all that.

Those things are enough to get you around everywhere?


When and where is your next planned trip?

I was just in Israel. Hopefully, Saudi Arabia before the end of the year, maybe in September, before the Yomim Tovim.

There’s an interesting old Jewish city there, Khyber. The ruins of Khyber are one of the most incredible sites I’ve seen. When I was there the first time, you had to climb over a fence and it was just there, but now I read that they are turning it into a tourist site. I guess for years they didn’t want to acknowledge that it was a Jewish city.

This must be about 1,500 years old. The ruins stayed untouched for all that time?


When I was growing up in Boro Park, I thought the world was divided, half Jewish, half non-Jewish. As someone who can take the view from 500 feet up, having been to so many different places, how do you feel about Yiddishkeit?

I always say I feel very, very blessed to be part of the Jewish people. It’s the best club in the world. The way we take care of each other — every Jewish community I’ve ever walked into it, it’s a cliché but it feels like family. No matter where I am in the world on a Friday night, whether I’m in China or Iran, when I walk into someone’s Shabbos house, it feels like Shabbos and I feel like I belong.

You can’t explain that to a non-Jew. You can’t explain to them that when you sit down in someone’s house in Tehran, no matter what’s going on outside, when I sit there I feel like I’m with my people and I feel safe. That’s remarkable. And that’s something that I’ve had in every corner of the world.

And you know what? When you’re living in America or Australia, you sometimes feel different when you’re with Litvaks or chassidim, Sephardim or Ashkenazim. But when you’re outside of home, it really is Am Yisroel. There’s nothing like it.



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