Herzl and his family, c. 1866–1873
Theodor Herzl was born in the Tabakgasse (Dohány utca in Hungarian), a street in the Jewish quarter of Pest (now eastern part of Budapest), Kingdom of Hungary (now Hungary), to a secular Jewish family. His father's family were originally from Zimony (today Zemun, Serbia). He was the second child of Jeanette and Jakob Herzl, who were German-speaking, assimilated Jews. It is believed Herzl was of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic lineage predominately through his paternal line and to a lesser extent through the maternal line. He also claimed to be a direct descendant of the famous Greek Kabbalist Joseph Taitazak.
Jakob Herzl (1836–1902), Herzl's father, was a highly successful businessman. Herzl had one sister, Pauline, a year older than he was, who died suddenly on 7 February 1878, of typhus. Theodor lived with his family in a house next to the Dohány Street Synagogue (formerly known as Tabakgasse Synagogue) located in Belváros, the inner city of the historical old town of Pest, in the eastern section of Budapest.
As a youth, Herzl aspired to follow in the footsteps of Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, but did not succeed in the sciences and instead developed a growing enthusiasm for poetry and the humanities. This passion later developed into a successful career in journalism and a less-celebrated pursuit of playwrighting. According to Amos Elon, as a young man, Herzl was an ardent Germanophile who saw the Germans as the best Kulturvolk (cultured people) in Central Europe and embraced the German ideal of Bildung, whereby reading great works of literature by Goethe and Shakespeare could allow one to appreciate the beautiful things in life, and thus become a morally better person (the Bildung theory tended to equate beauty with goodness). Through Bildung, Herzl believed that Hungarian Jews such as himself could shake off their "shameful Jewish characteristics" caused by long centuries of impoverishment and oppression, and become civilized Central Europeans, a true Kulturvolk along the German lines.
In 1878, after the death of his sister, Pauline, the family moved to Vienna, Austria-Hungary, and lived in the 9th district, Alsergrund. At the University of Vienna, Herzl studied law. As a young law student, Herzl became a member of the German nationalist Burschenschaft (fraternity) Albia, which had the motto Ehre, Freiheit, Vaterland ("Honor, Freedom, Fatherland"). He later resigned in protest at the organisation's antisemitism.
After a brief legal career in the University of Vienna and Salzburg, he devoted himself to journalism and literature, working as a journalist for a Viennese newspaper and a correspondent for Neue Freie Presse, in Paris, occasionally making special trips to London and Istanbul. He later became literary editor of Neue Freie Presse, and wrote several comedies and dramas for the Viennese stage. His early work did not focus on Jewish life. It was of the feuilleton order, descriptive rather than political.