Word of the Day / Herzl: Simon Says Found a State

The founder of modern Zionism has lent his name to a children’s game - and a type of balcony.

“Simon says put your hands on your head.”

“Put your hands down.”

Hope you didn’t put your hands down, dear reader, because Simon didn’t say. And more to the point, neither did Herzl.

That’s right, I’m talking about Theodor Herzl, the visionary of modern political Zionism who was born in Budapest in 1860, witnessed the anti-Semitism surrounding the Dreyfus trial and ended up promoting political sovereignty as the best answer to the Jewish question. The Herzl who outlined his blueprint for the Jewish state in “Der Judenstaadt” and “Altneuland,” in which he famously wrote that “If you will it, it is no dream.” Notwithstanding that little let’s-resettle-the-Jews-in-Uganda hiccup, it’s safe to say that Herzl is a pretty major figure in modern Israeli history.

So I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that kids on the playground are supposed to do exactly what he says, even if he has been dead for more than 100 years.

Yup, one name for the children’s game of Simon Says, where you follow commands only when they’re preceded by the words “Simon says,” is Herzl Amar, meaning “Herzl Said.”

It sure would have saved a lot of lobbying efforts if this game had been invented back in Herzl’s day. (“Oh, but Herzl said the Jews should have their own state. Guess we’ve gotta give it to them, then.”)

Alas, even now Herzl has competition for his role as the ultimate decider of whether or not small children should put their hands on their heads, as the game is also called Hamelekh Amar, “The King Said.” This is not far off from the origin of Simon Says, according to the explanation (whose veracity I can neither confirm nor deny) that Simon was originally Cicero, a Roman statesman and philosopher whose orders were apparently best obeyed on the double.

We know what Cicero looked like thanks to busts from the first century. As for Herzl, he has been immortalized in a famous photograph taken by Ephraim Moses Lilien on the balcony of Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois in Basel in 1902. The photo shows Herzl leaning over the balcony, his signature black beard reaching his sternum and his arms resting on the railing as he looks out over the Rhine.

Little did Theodor Herzl know that in the State of Israel he foresaw so clearly (perhaps while pondering the Rhine?), children would be playing Herzl Says and real estate agents would be describing a small balcony, or mirpeset – the kind where you can’t do much more than stand and look out over the railing – as a mirpeset Herzl

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

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