Courtesy Daniel Herszberg
Daniel Herszberg inside the Yu Aw Synagogue, Herat, AfghanistanCourtesy Daniel Herszberg
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Been Around the World

Australian Daniel Herszberg visited every country on earth by age 30—and documented Jewish life, past and present, along the way

Nomi Kaltmann
May 02, 2023
Courtesy Daniel Herszberg
Daniel Herszberg inside the Yu Aw Synagogue, Herat, AfghanistanCourtesy Daniel Herszberg

Visiting every country on Earth is a rare feat, with NomadMania, a not-for-profit organization that certifies people who travel to every country on Earth, estimating that fewer than 300 people have done so—about half as many as have been to space. This spring, Daniel Herszberg, a native of Melbourne, Australia, was added to that list. Currently ranked the 145th most traveled person in the world by NomadMania, he is just the fourth Australian to visit every country (193 countries officially recognized by the U.N., plus the Vatican, Palestine, Kosovo, and Taiwan for a total of 197), and he did it by age 30.

While traveling, Herszberg has seen some amazing sites including the lava lakes of the Congo, the great dunes of the Sahara Desert, and Lake Baikal in Siberia. His journey has also taken him to active war zones in Syria, Yemen, and Somalia. However, Herszberg, who was raised in an Orthodox family in Melbourne, has a specific interest that differs from other world travelers: Jewish history. In each location he goes, Herszberg actively seeks to document anything Jewish that he can find.

“There are two sides to the Jewish story of the world,” he said. “The living side, where communities still exist and are flourishing, and the other side, where you see the world that was lost. Centers of former Jewish civilizations in countries we left behind.”

In 2016, Herszberg drove outside the glitzy, oil-rich city of Baku, Azerbaijan, where the landscape is dotted with red mountains and minarets, passing through mountains and crossing a river, until he arrived in Qırmızı Qəsəbə, a quintessential Jewish city. The synagogues are located off the main road and little children play on the streets wearing kippahs. The local Jews speak their own ancient language, Judeo-Tat. The people of Qırmızı Qəsəbə—nicknamed “the last surviving shtetl on earth”—are residents of one of the only Jewish-only towns outside of Israel and the United States. The town was largely protected from persecution during the Holocaust after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, and despite rising emigration, its roughly 3,800 Jewish residents retain a strong presence and tradition.

When Herszberg posted photos on his Instagram account @dhersz, followers were fascinated, with many commenting that they were unaware that there was a thriving Jewish community living in Azerbaijan.

Herszberg’s content resonates with many people, but especially with Jews whose families have historic connections to the places he visits and have not been able to go back and visit.

“I’ve had people whose families used to be connected to some of these abandoned synagogues and they reached out to me on Instagram to tell me they saw the photos and they showed them to their grandparents,” he said. “I’ve been in touch with descendants of people who have described emotions of comfort or closure, knowing what has happened to their childhood school, home, or synagogue.”

The travel bug bit Herszberg early. His mother is South African, and his first overseas trip at age 2 was to visit his great-grandmother in Canada. As a kid, he also visited Israel and the United States, and went on a few family holidays to Thailand and Singapore.

When he turned 18, Herszberg knew he wanted to travel the world. While studying liberal arts and law at university in Melbourne he visited 140 countries, paying for his travels through part-time jobs including tutoring, teaching swimming lessons, and running the children’s service at his local synagogue. “I would work all semester and then travel in my breaks,” he said.

He is fluent in six languages including Hebrew, English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Mandarin, as well as conversational in Levantine Arabic, Indonesian, and basic Yiddish.

When Herszberg finished university in 2016, he accepted a corporate job at Skadden, Arps in Hong Kong. After working as a lawyer for three years, he had saved enough to fund his travel to the remaining countries on his list.

In 2019, he quit his job, armed with a plan to finish visiting all the remaining countries in the next 12 months. The pandemic intervened and stretched out his plans a bit longer until March 2023, when he reached his final country, the Pacific island country of Tonga, whose borders were shut for the duration of the pandemic.

As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, Herszberg is especially appreciative of his Australian passport, which allowed him to visit every country on earth.

“I share a lot of my journey online and at times it’s been quite difficult,” he said. “I always wanted to share Jewish stories, but for the first 180 countries I visited, I kept my Jewishness quiet as I was scared of being refused a visa or trouble at immigration. As the risk decreased that I would be refused a visa, I started sharing Jewish stories more openly.”

A look on his Instagram page shows content dedicated to the Jews of Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon. The pictures he shares are poignant, and give a sense of the rich Jewish communities that used to live in these places.

Herszberg also documents the synagogues he visits in hard-to-reach countries and is especially grateful to all the non-Jewish caretakers who helped him on his journey access these sites.

“The story of these caretakers is often very similar. Their families were the caretakers of these buildings for many generations. The Jews in many countries such as Egypt and Iraq left in a haste. When the Jews left, the caretaker moved into the site and received the keys. They are the last ones standing,” said Herszberg. “They often have a real nostalgia for this lost world.”

These caretakers, now in their 80s and 90s, often remember the vibrant Jewish communities that lived in these places.

“In Cairo, a caretaker took me to a synagogue,” he said, “and he still knew how to chant the Jewish prayers in the tunes the community used to sing, more than 70 years after the Jews left. He knew where everyone lived. He pointed to houses on the street and told me: This hakham [rabbi] lived there; this family used to live here. These properties belonged to this family, the kosher butcher stood here. In the backstreets of Cairo, the stories of this caretaker brought an exiled Jewish community back to life.”

In addition to the kindness of the caretakers who have allowed him to document the history of so many important historic Jewish sites, Herszberg is grateful to the global Jewish community that has hosted him in many unexpected places including Iran, Ethiopia, and Uzbekistan.

“The Jewish people have historically been scattered and defined by dispersion,” he said. “But the more I traveled and the more people and stories I got to know, the more I experienced how our scattered communities are connected. From Shabbat dinners in Tehran to the Amazon, we would play Jewish geography and almost always identify a mutual friend or community member—tying together our Jewish communities over Friday night dinner. No matter where we are located, Jews share common understandings of our heritage and identity.”

Nomi Kaltmann is Tablet magazine’s Australian correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @NomiKal.