Esperanto: A Jewish Story

IN A LETTER OF 1905, LUDOVIK LAZARUS ZAMENHOF, the Jewish oculist from Warsaw who created and founded Esperanto, wrote: “My Jewishness has been the main reason why, from earliest childhood, I have given my all for a single great idea, a single dream – the dream of the unity of humankind.” At best, the claim is a stretch. Zamenhof, who in 1887 published his plan for an international language under the name “Doktoro Esperanto” – one who hopes – described his passage from Zionism to Esperanto as “cross[ing] the Rubicon.” From the far side he would look back at Zionism, to be sure, but he never revisited his decision to cross over. At worst, it’s a guilty apology by a once-ardent Zionist who abandoned Jewish nationhood – a man whose three adult children, 25 years after his death in 1917, were slain by the Nazis, one at gunpoint, two at Treblinka.

As a young medical student in Warsaw in the early 1880s, Zamenhof knew that the Jewish question was itself an answer to another question. Its most benign version was: When will you Jews understand that you can’t be both modern and Jewish? But there were darker versions hammered in the forge of Christian anti-Semitism, whetted with centuries of rage and resentment. After the pogroms of 1881–82 that smashed, burned, robbed, raped, and murdered Jewish lives from the Pale of Settlement to the heart of Poland, the Jews of Eastern Europe took it upon themselves to ask and try to answer the Jewish question, conceding that they were a problem in need of a solution. Zamenhof was among those who asked if there was a future for Jews in Eastern Europe. Would they be able to survive when legal disabilities, hostility, and ostracism escalated to violence, or would they be driven to emigrate? If so, where?

Zamenhof’s Zionist years were precisely those in which he conceived of his universal language movement and invented its lexicon and grammar. Unpuzzling the relationship between Zamenhof’s Zionism and his universalism reveals a Jewish story within the history of Esperanto. 

HIS HEBREW NAME WAS LEJZER (LAZAR), but he grew up as Ludovik. The son and grandson of foreign language teachers, Zamenhof was raised to the emancipated Jewish life described by his fellow Litvak, the poet Judah Leib Gordon, as “a Jew at home, a man on the street.” His father, Markus, seemed to have finessed this double life. Fluent in French, German, Russian, and Polish, Markus derived most of his income from his knowledge of Yiddish and Hebrew, which qualified him to be the czar’s official censor of Jewish books and periodicals. Much in demand as a Torah leyner, Markus wore the uniform of his office to synagogue but left his official sword at home on Sabbath and holidays.

Zamenhof was sent to gymnasium to prepare for medical studies and in 1879 he departed for Moscow University. But in 1881, for financial reasons, he was called back to Warsaw, scant months before pogroms erupted there in December. After documenting them for the Russian-language Jewish magazine Rassyvet, Zamenhof joined the Hibbat Zion movement and threw himself into planning a future for the Jews of Eastern Europe.

Thanks to the exacting scholarship of Galician-born Esperantist N. Z. Maimon, we can follow Zamenhof’s shifting positions. As Zamenhof told the Jewish Chronicle of London in 1907, while still in Moscow he had convened a group of 15 Jewish students and “unfolded to them a plan [to found] a Jewish colony in some unoccupied part of the globe.” Along the same lines, his first Zionist article, published in 1882 under the anagrammatic pseudonym GAMZEFON, argues that a Jewish homeland was a necessity, but need not – in fact should not – be located in Palestine. He enumerated the objections: Palestine was sacred to both Christians and Muslims, a place where religious belief ran high, and would place Jews in danger, sapping the resources with which they were to build a state. Palestine belonged to the Turks, who would not willingly surrender it. In short, it was an alien, inhospitable, and primitive place that promised hostility rather than peaceful coexistence.

Zamenhof’s alternative proposal was for Jews to purchase a tract of unoccupied land – about 60 square miles – on the banks of the Mississippi River. There, he imagined, Jews would be free to enjoy the bounty of nature and to live unmolested. All their energy could be devoted to farming and building a Jewish colony. When Zamenhof’s dream of an American Jewish colony was met with ridicule, he was enough of a realist to recognize that the dream of a homeland in Palestine, burnished as it was with historical and cultural prestige, was the dream that would prevail. His next article unambiguously and romantically advocated settlement in Palestine as though he had never thought otherwise.

At great personal risk, Zamenhof became active in the nascent Hibbat Zion movement in Warsaw, serving on its executive committee. He led a student Zionist society called “Shearith Israel” (“Remnant of Israel”) and developed a network of youths to raise funds to settle in Palestine. Now a young doctor trying to establish himself as a practitioner, he devoted his after-hours to unifying the activities of three separate Zionist circles in Warsaw, and was considered the “go-to” man among Warsaw’s Zionists. At the home of a colleague in Hibbat Zion, he met his future wife, Clara Zilbernick, the daughter of a soap manufacturer from Kaunas.

Like his contemporary Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, Zamenhof knew that the Jewish nation of the future would need a modern Jewish language. To the Yeshiva-educated Ben-Yehuda, the Zionist dream required the revival of Hebrew, but Zamenhof opted instead to modernize Yiddish. At the time, his was the more practical of the two language projects, given that two-thirds of the world’s ten million Jews spoke Yiddish. During the early 1880s, perhaps even during his student days in Moscow, Zamenhof worked on modernizing mame loshn. Writing in Russian, he proposed the use of Latin characters and a new, rationalized orthography that would free Yiddish from German-influenced spellings. (In terms of orthography, Zamenhof was ahead of his time, anticipating by decades both the Soviet reform of Yiddish orthography and the Latin transliteration conventions developed by YIVO in the 1920s.) To avoid homonyms, he distinguished in spelling between pairs such as nehmen (to take) and nemen (names). Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the project was his prosody of Yiddish – not a prose treatise but a practicum in verse. Writing in his new Latin-character system, he composed in Yiddish a Zionist ballad in verses of iambs, dactyls, amphibrachs, and anapests, the Greek names of which he rendered in his altered Yiddish. Zamenhof’s “new Jewish Language,” as he called it, envisioned a new Jewish culture uttered in both prose and poetry.

But the decade that began with a new Yiddish would end in a new language altogether: Esperanto. It’s not clear exactly when Zamenhof gave up his Yiddish project. Still, the palimpsest of Yiddish in Esperanto remains clear: it was Yiddish, a mongrel of Germanic, Semitic, and Slavic words, that modeled for Zamenhof an international language. What had happened to Yiddish over a millennium, in mass migrations of Jews from Western to Eastern Europe and back, Zamenhof would make happen to Esperanto – but at his writing desk, and in just a few years.

IN THE END, Zamenhof built up his Esperanto lexicon of 900 roots mainly from Romance languages, German, English, and Russian, borrowing conjunctions and particles from Latin and Greek. For maximal accessibility, he selected roots that were common to the greatest number of languages. When in doubt, he favored Latin: house was dom-; tree, arb-; night, nokt-. To become a word, a root acquired a vowel ending: nokt- with an –o ending was the noun “night”; with an –a ending, the adjectival nokta, as in “night-hour”; with an e-ending, the adverbial nokte, meaning “nightly.” And for flexibility, he developed lists of prefixes and suffixes that could be combined with roots – or with several roots glued together – to form new words. A forest was an arbaro; a cabin, a dometo; and later, some Esperantist with something to say about a tree house would coin the word arbodometo.

Zamenhof gave up Yiddish for Esperanto because he had changed his mind about the Jewish question. By 1887, he had decided that it was not an issue of the Jews at all; it was the transhistorical world question of interethnic hatred, and he undertook to answer it for the whole world. Not without trepidation: he had been to enough Zionist meetings to know that Jews who took on universal causes (notwithstanding the fact that Zionism weds nationalism to rights-of-man universalism) were mocked for egotism and self-delusion. Recalling this era in 1905, he wrote that he had been “tormented” by the thought that he had “no moral right to work neutrally for human ideals, when my people suffered so much and had so few to fight on their behalf.”

But Zamenhof felt that the cause of human unity (he rarely used the word “universal”) was itself a Jewish cause; in fact, it was the mission to which God had dedicated the Jewish people. By 1901, he had named his cause Hilelismo, a choice that was at once naïve and revolutionary. He was naïve to think that a movement named for a first-century BCE Jewish rabbi would be received as anything but a Jewish affair. But Zamenhof needed Hillel in order to supersede, in one grand gesture, both Moses and Jesus. With Hillel, Zamenhof shifted the focus of Judaism from law to ethics, taking Hillel’s famous dictum – “Do not do unto others what is hateful to you” – as the epitome of Judaism. Like Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture movement, he was trying to cast religion as a way of living ethically; like Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, he was trying to infuse Jewish spirituality with Haskalah ideals. At the same time, staking his vision on Hillel challenged the Christian monopoly on the “golden rule,” Jesus’s positive reformulation of Hillel’s dictum in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:12).

Under the pseudonym Homo Sum (“I am a man”), Zamenhof floated a “trial balloon” of Hillelism in 1901 in a Russian Jewish magazine. It did not get far: “I could not find a single person willing to help me in organising such a sect as I contemplated.” Interviewed by The Jewish Chronicle in 1907, Zamenhof said that he’d intended to “call together a Jewish Congress and found a sect of Jews professing clearly defined philosophical principles.” The Russian Jewish Hillelists would preserve Jewish “customs and ceremonials, feasts and fasts; not, however, as laws, but as traditions.” Insofar as halacha was to be regarded not as binding laws but as cherished “folkways,” this was Reconstruction avant la lettre.

The bloody events of the revolutionary year 1905 renewed Zamenhof’s determination to press forward. Emboldened by the warm reception he had recently received at the First Esperanto Congress in Boulogne, he tried again, this time with an appeal to all Esperantists. In January 1906, a fictitious “Circle of Hillelists” issued The Dogmas of Hillelism, a twelve-point credo that reads like a cross between the “Rights of Man and the Citizen” and Maimonides’ “Ani Ma’amin.” Hillelists were entitled to their chosen or inherited religions, but vowed to reject any elements that failed to meet the severe ethical standards of Hillelism, such as nationalistic ideals; national, racial, and religious chauvinism; and doctrines offensive to one’s reason. In short, it was to be a sort of ethical quality control of religion. Hillelists would someday convene in Hillelist temples with Hillelist religious school and Hillelist programs for the elderly. And the language of Hillelism, of course, was to be Esperanto. The goal was a quiet, gradual transformation, “little by little, unremarked and without any disruption.”

Before the year was out, Zamenhof lightly revised the declaration, changing the movement’s name to Homaranismo (Humanitarianism). He was, in part, pandering to non-Jewish Esperantists, recasting a movement grounded in Jewish ethics as a “philosophically pure monotheism.” But Homaranismo required Zamenhof to come clean on what he meant by monotheism. God, he wrote in a richly ambiguous statement, was “a united ideal for all Humanity.” Zamenhof hoped that Esperanto would eventually unite humanity in a belief in God, but he was also suggesting that God was defined by the unity of human beings. Esperanto was to do the Jewish work of saving the world, soul by speaking soul.

AGAIN, ZAMENHOF HAD MISCALCULATED. He introduced Homaranismo just as Esperanto was gaining credibility in France among its most prestigious adherents yet – men of science, reason, and progress, heirs to the French enlightenment, and openly contemptuous of Homaranismo. Finding themselves on both sides of the Dreyfus affair, the movement’s French leaders had pragmatically decided that only by making Esperanto ideologically neutral could they gain adherents in France. In 1906, when Zamenhof was preparing to speak about Homaranismo at the Second Esperanto Congress in Geneva, the French organizers warned him to spare the assembly his pallid mystifications. Zamenhof’s close associate, the Jewish French ophthalmologist Emile Javal, was in no doubt about the French organizers’ anti-Semitism and warned Zamenhof to avoid advertising his Jewishness. Knowing Zamenhof had recently been ill, Javal even counseled him not to attend.

Instead, Zamenhof went to Geneva and delivered the most eloquent and ardent speech of his life. He spoke neither about Homaranismo nor about Hilelismo, but about Jews. In graphic and unsparing terms, he decried the recent pogroms in his native Bialystok:

“In the streets of my unhappy birthplace, savages with axes and iron stakes have flung themselves, like the fiercest beasts, against the quiet town-dwellers, whose sole crime was that they spoke another language and practiced another people’s [race’s] religion than that of the savages. For this reason they smashed the skulls and poked out the eyes of men and women, of broken old men and helpless infants!”

Zamenhof exhorted Esperantists to “break down, break down the walls” between peoples, and defied those who insisted that “Esperanto is only a language.” From these “first fighters for Esperanto,” he called for resistance – a strange exhortation for a pacifist; perhaps less strange from a six-year veteran of Hibbat Zion. He would not let secularists and pragmatists “tear out of our hearts that part of Esperantism which is the most important, the most sacred.”

He now called that part, not Homaranismo, but the interna ideo (internal idea). It was an attempt to keep Homaranismo at the center without compelling Esperantists to subscribe to a particular religious creed. With the interna ideo rather than an explicit creed at its core, Esperanto would have a fighting chance to claim progressive adherents in a new century. His was an ancient prophetic strategy for a modern cause; those who had “ears to hear” would understand. And yet, citing the interna ideo, the man who trusted words to redeem humanity relied on a code word to protect his sacred cause. 

THE HISTORY OF ESPERANTO is a series of Chinese boxes with a Jewish ghost inside. Has the history of the movement vindicated Zamenhof’s decision to hide Hilelismo in Homaranismo, and Homaranismo in the interna ideo? Yes and no. That Esperanto has lasted 120 years, with fluent adherents and active groups on six continents, testifies to the flexibility and inclusiveness of the interna ideo. Esperanto has served the causes of anti-imperialism, antifascism, anti-Nazism; it has protested sweatshop labor, pollution, and nuclear arms. Yet the few schisms and power struggles that have occurred – and it’s hard to imagine a long-lived world movement without them – usually began with an assault on the interna ideo: it was judged too insufficiently socialistic, in thrall to a national committee, and so on. Moreover, if Zamenhof felt he had successfully de-Judaicized the movement, Stalin and Hitler could have told him otherwise. In Mein Kampf, Hitler labeled Esperanto a “Jewish conspiracy” and both he and Stalin, after banning Esperanto, executed Esperantists by special order.

More than a century after the Geneva Congress of 1906, the word Homaranismo is all but lost to Esperanto. But at Esperanto gatherings, the interna ideo still shimmers in the air, solemnly invoked at opening ceremonies, dedications, and, on December 15, Zamenhof’s birthday. I’ve asked Esperantists in Hanoi, Istanbul, Sydney, Bialystok, Jerusalem, and San Diego what interna ideo means and I’ve received many answers. Some tell me it is political and religious neutrality; some, dignity and respect for all people; some, equality; some, a striving for higher goals than politics can achieve. I think justice is more what Zamenhof had in mind: a Jewish ideal of justice, in which the righteousness of humanity and God are one and the same.

Esther Schor, a professor of English at Princeton University, is the author of Emma Lazarus (2006), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.