Esperanto and Modern Hebrew –“Artificial” Languages that Came to Life

by Norman Berdichevsky (February 2014)

The originator of the international language Esperanto, Dr. Lazar Ludwig Zamenhof, was a Jew whose knowledge of Hebrew undoubtedly played a role in the successful development of the only devised language to make the transition from a desk project to a living tongue. Although the Esperanto vocabulary is largely derived from the Romance, Germanic and Slavic families, it is likely that Zamenhof’s profound knowledge of Hebrew contributed to the logical structure of what most linguists will agree is the easiest language to learn.

Zamenhof and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the pioneer figure in the movement to modernize the Hebrew language so that it could function as the literary and national language of culture, the arts and sciences and modern statecraft of the Jewish people in their ancient homeland, as well as make it once again a spoken vernacular, were contemporaries and the similarities of their lives and careers are nothing short of amazing. The monumental achievements of these two provide inspiring examples of devotion to learning, prophetic vision and identification with Jewish heritage and destiny. The parallels between them are uncanny, almost as if each one was the other’s alter-ego.

They were born within one year of each other (1858-9) and grew up in similar homes, infused with the “Litvak” (Lithuanian-Jewish) atmosphere of the Haskala (Enlightenment) movement, in which respect for secular learning was esteemed equally with Jewish tradition. Zamenhof’s home town, Byalistock, lies 250 miles from Luzhki in the Vitebsk region in what is today’s Belarus where Ben-Yehuda (originally Pearlman) was born.

Both sought a career in medicine, one which Zamenhof achieved and went on to become a respected eye specialist with an international reputation and true to the noblest traditions of the profession often treated the poor without charge. Both made enormous professional, material and physical sacrifices to advance the cause of their languages, despite their opponents’ derisive claims that they were “eccentrics” or “fanatics,” to the ultimate success of witnessing living communities of Hebrew and Esperanto.

The physical appearance of them both, marked by a frail build, modest demeanor, neatly trimmed beard, horned-rimmed pince-nez eyeglasses, was exaggeratedly bookish. Finally, both men had unusually devoted wives who gave unstintingly of their love and devotion, thereby enabling them to persist in their task against abuse and petty jealousies.

To appreciate fully Zamenhof's life-work and achievement, one should study his background, upbringing, character, and motivations. Several biographies have appeared, all written for an Esperanto-reading audience. In all but one of these biographies, (Hebreo el la Geto – de Cionismo al Hilelismo, 1976, eldonejo ludoviko, Japanese Esperanto Assn.), Zamenhof's Jewish motivation is omitted or considerably underplayed. Yet it was just that which was the very source of his success, where hundreds of professional linguists working full-time and with often generous financial support and technical assistance managed to produce only paper projects (among these being Volapük, Ido, Latino sine Flexione, Basic English, Occidental, Novial, and Interlingua; See NER  Dec. 2007 Why Esperanto is Different).

Lazar Ludwik Zamenhof was born in the then Russian-ruled province of Grodno (today in northeastern Poland near the Lithuanian border). He was the oldest child in a family of nine brothers and sisters. Both his father and grandfather were instructors of foreign languages (French and German) and supporters of the Haskala movement, which had encouraged Jews to seek secular learning and aspire to social integration with the surrounding society while stopping short of assimilation.

The goal of Haskalah supporters was equal rights based on common loyalty and citizenship, without surrendering respect for Jewish heritage and traditions. The ideal of “a man abroad, a Jew at home” made significant inroads among an educated minority of Lithuanian Jews who had long been opponents of Hasidism. “Litvak,” legalistic Talmudic inclinations were transformed into a passion for secular learning which formed a common motif in the life and work of both Zamenhof and Ben-Yehuda.

The Bialystok of Zamenhof’s youth was populated by Russian and Yiddish speaking Jews who accounted for two thirds of its population. The diverse groups of Polish and Lithuanian Catholics, Russian Orthodox Christians and German Lutherans lived in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and antagonism. The Jews, although the majority, were the only group subjected to physical violence, especially in the two infamous pogroms of 1902 and 1906. Poles and Lithuanians regarded the Russian-speaking Jews as agents of “Russification,” while the Russian ruling class suspected the Yiddish-speaking Jews of being sympathetic to the Germans. This latter fear resulted in the expulsion of most of the Jews living in areas along the front lines during World War I, when the Tsarist authorities became convinced that the Jews would actively welcome a German advance.

These deep ethnic, religious, and linguistic divisions deeply impressed the young Zamenhof, who had already mastered half a dozen languages before entering the local gymnasium. Although many Jews were bilingual in Russian and Yiddish, Zamenhof had also acquired Hebrew, Aramaic, German and French through the influence of his father and grandfather. He had learned Polish from friends and at the state-run elementary school, and then Latin and Greek as a high-school student. To these he added a good reading knowledge of English and Italian and perhaps several other European languages. Later he would make use of important elements from all of these languages in creating Esperanto.

At the age of seventeen he began three years of intense research, which resulted in the completion in 1879 of the first scholarly and comprehensive Yiddish grammar. This was partially published in the Vilna Journal, Lebn un Vissenschaft, in 1909. Zamenhof’s reluctance to publish the manuscript earlier has never been fully explained, but it may be assumed that he was already enthusiastically engaged in efforts to create Esperanto and wanted to give it all his efforts.

On more than one occasion, Zamenhof confessed to a deep love of Yiddish but feared that even in his reformed Latinized version, it would remain a barrier, confining Jewish life to the ghetto. Moreover, he was aware that millions of Jews outside Eastern Europe and the Tsarist Empire were unable to speak or understand Yiddish and that the language lacked the prestige and historical continuity of Hebrew. The life and work of Ben-Yehuda are well known, and his memory is widely honored by the State of Israel and its institutions. But the life and work of Zamenhof deserve to reach a far wider audience than has heretofore been the case. The vision which motivated and sustained him throughout his life's work was that of a secure, productive, and culturally creative existence for the Jewish people living in a world of understanding and mutual respect among the nations.

On the centennial of his birth in 1959, the United Nations called upon all governments and cultural organizations to join in honoring Zamenhof, as “one of the great personalities of humanity.” The UN, as well as its forerunner, the League of Nations, passed resolutions favorable to the teaching of the international language he devised. He was one of the first members of Hovevei Zion, the earliest Zionist political movement, and author of the first comprehensive scholarly grammar of the Yiddish language yet, remarkably, his portrait appeared on Soviet postage stamps before those of Marx and Engels.

A Polish ship bears his name as do streets and memorial plazas in over two hundred cities (including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Warsaw, Budapest, Vienna, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Zagreb, Marseilles, Antwerp, Barcelona and Rio de Janeiro). A silk factory in the People's Republic of China annually produces thousands of banners emblazoned with his picture and a Japanese publishing house recently reissued his collected works. In spite of all these international honors, most people still fail to identify his name.

Why this is so is not difficult to understand. A very small proportion of the world's peoples have a reasonable command of a second language and, for example, only eight percent of American colleges have any foreign language requirement. Most of the world is composed of essentially of monolingual speakers. Where the language in question is “prestigious,” such as English, Russian, Spanish, German or French, speakers are liable to view the idea of an international neutral language as eccentric and superfluous. Esperanto's popularity has been greatest precisely among speakers of “minor” languages such as Hungarian, Bulgarian, Danish, Dutch, Finnish or Greek who have already acquired one or more foreign languages in order to communicate beyond the boundaries of their own countries.

The linguistic situation in the Diaspora today stands in sharp contrast to that of previous centuries, when Jews enjoyed a reputation for linguistic accomplishments. During the Middle Ages, translations by Jews of scientific, medical, and philosophical texts had helped bring about a revival of scholarly activity and secular interests. Jewish merchants in Europe and the Middle East were often, by necessity, fluent in or more languages. A linguistic consequence of the Holocaust was a drastic reduction in the number of Jewish speakers of German and Yiddish, Hebraists, and several million Jewish multi-lingual speakers of languages such as Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Serbo-Croatian, Dutch, Greek, Lithuanian and Ladino. The centers of Yiddish cultural activity in Europe were obliterated, although a handful of refugee authors were able to keep the spark of Yiddish literature alive in the new world.

Although careful to sublimate his Jewish identity following the initial successes of the Esperanto movement, due to fear of provoking anti-Semitic opposition in the wake of the Dreyfus trial, Zamenhof did not hesitate to express his deepest Jewish emotions and convictions in private correspondence or before selected Jewish audiences. In a letter to a French Esperantist, A. Michaux, in 1905, Zamenhof wrote…

If I had not been a Jew out of the Ghetto, the idea of the unity of mankind would either never have come into my head or it never would have held me so obstinately during the course of my entire life. The unhappiness of the disunity of mankind can never be felt so strongly as by a Jew out of the Ghetto who is obligated to pray to God in a long-dead language, and who receives his education and instruction in the language of a people who oppress him, and who has co-sufferers throughout the world with who he cannot inter-communicate.

The greatest irony in Zamenhof’s life was his failure to appreciate the possibility of reviving Hebrew. Ben-Yehuda's efforts were still in their infancy when Zamenhof first launched the Esperanto movement in 1887. Hebrew writers of his generation were still forced to use a stilted unnatural style when using Hebrew for modern secular themes. Quite a few authors of the 1880's such as Mendele Mokher Seforim (Shalom Jacob Abramovitsch) abandoned Hebrew for Yiddish, but later returned to Hebrew following the pioneering efforts of Ben-Yehuda. Zamenhof’s last great project, completed during World War 1, was the translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Esperanto.

Those who know both languages can appreciate the fidelity of Zamenhof’s translation of the concepts, mood, and the majestic rhythm of the original Biblical Hebrew. However, Zamenhof doubted that the Hebrew language could be made sufficiently flexible to accommodate the needs of modern society and preferred to dedicate his energies on behalf of the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe by “reforming” Yiddish. Jews constituted a large proportion of the pre-World War II Esperantists in Central and Eastern Europe estimated at from one-quarter to one-third. They fell victim to the twin oppression of Hitler, who as early as the publication of Mein Kampf in 1923 had declared Esperanto to be “the creation of Jews, Communists and Freemasons,” and Stalin’s xenophobia.

One of the most pathetic chapters in the history of noble ideals is the lengths to which a considerable segment of the German Esperanto Movement went in order to prevent the inevitable Nazi decision to  eradicate the organization for obvious anti-Semitic motives. Who more than Zamenhof and Esperanto symbolized all that the Nazis detested – the Jewish, internationalist, pacifist and humanitarian character of its founder? Nevertheless, several high ranking members of the German Esperanto movement tried to create a new “National German Esperanto organization” totally disregarding the “internal idea” of the movement to foster brotherhood. They vainly hoped to create a merger of the international language to serve the needs of the new Nazi Germany. This absurd idea was immediately rejected by the Nazis who warned German Esperantists to simply cease and desist from all further propaganda and activity in the Third Reich.

The Soviet Union initially adopted a favorable attitude towards the international language and supported an Esperanto theatre during the nineteen-thirties. Many socialists referred to Esperanto as “the Latin of the Proletariat.” Incredibly, Zamenhof’s portrait appeared on a Soviet postage stamp before the image of Marx and Lenin! A reversal occurred when it became crystal clear to Stalin that Esperantists outside the USSR were unwilling to follow the party line as dictated from Moscow and, even worse, that Soviet Esperantists were able to inform correspondents abroad unchecked about the ugly realities of Soviet life. The result was that by 1938 the Soviet press and penal code had designated Esperanto as a “tool of Zionism and Cosmopolitanism,” and almost all Soviet Esperantists either perished in the great purges or languished in Siberian labor camps until the Khrushchev thaw of 1956.

Both Zamenhof and Ben-Yehuda regarded the problem of Jewish identity as inseparable from the question of language. Ben-Yehuda’s vision focused on the revival of Hebrew as a pre-condition for a Jewish national renaissance. At various times Zamenhof, too, had toyed with the idea of reviving Hebrew, and the use of the Latin alphabet for Yiddish. He ultimately rejected both solutions in favor of a neutral international language. This language would, at the same time, be used as a Jewish national language.

As a young man, he strongly supported Zionism but eventually argued that only a common language (Esperanto) and a common “undisputed” territory offered a solution to the insecurity of Jewish existence (for a time he advocated Jewish settlement of the American West aimed at statehood along the lines of the Mormon settlement of Utah). For a brief period, he held out a dual hope for the progress of Esperanto as the “New Yiddish,” as well as the more far-reaching goal of a widely accepted international auxiliary language.

History has of course disproved the negative evaluation of the future of Hebrew shared by Zamenhof and Herzl. Only the revitalization of Hebrew as envisioned by Ben-Yehuda, Ahad ha-Am (Asher Ginsberg), and Mordecai Kaplan could fulfill the role of historic continuity and function as the authentic voice of “Judaism as a Civilization.” The one pathetic attempt to create an autonomous Jewish culture in Esperanto was the brief existence of a kolkhoz in the Crimea, “Nova Vivo” (New Life) during the late 1920's and 1930's. The collective settlement was a founded by Jewish Communists who had left Palestine after disappointment with the progress of Zionism and had joined the remnants of the Russian Hehalutz (pioneer Zionist) organization.

The authorities rejected the use of Hebrew, and Esperanto was chosen by members of the new settlement. After strenuous efforts, Nova Vivo flourished, only to disappear in the great purges. Nothing remains of a Jewish national existence either in the Crimea or in the so-called Jewish Autonomous (and supposedly Yiddish-speaking) Region of Birobidjan in the Soviet Far East along the Amur River border with China. (According to Soviet statistics, fewer than 12,000 Jews lived in the region in 1976—only 7% of the population. Of these, approximately 2,000 Jews gave Yiddish as their first language.).

The anguish which gripped Russian Jewry following the pogroms of 1881 raised revolutionary hopes for change, as well as the question of mass emigration. Zamenhof arrived in Warsaw during a break in his medical studies at the University of Moscow and published an article calling for mass emigration to a Jewish homeland to be created in the United States. Zamenhof opposed Jewish settlement in Palestine purely on pragmatic grounds, arguing that the country's sensitive geopolitical location and its religious Christian and Moslem significance would raise serious barriers against Jewish revival. He did not question the emotional and religious Jewish ties to the Land of Israel but his logic led him to favor the United States.

The end of such an attempt, in Zamenhof's estimation, would entail more tears, sweat and blood than could be justified in a land which, even if fully exploited, could, he thought, accommodate no more than two million people. His article achieved notoriety primarily because it evoked an avalanche of opposition from confirmed Zionists who were more familiar with conditions in the United States (but overly optimistic about problem-free settlement in Palestine).

Their arguments convinced Zamenhof to change his stance, a rare example of him being swayed by emotion. From 1881 to 1884 he became one of the most active leaders in the Hovevei Zion movement, collecting funds and writing articles while completing his medical studies. During the same period, Ben-Yehuda became the first habitual speaker of Hebrew, demonstrating by sheer force of will that the revival of the language was a necessary and logical consequence of Zionism.

It was another telling, if coincidental parallel, that Zamenhof published his first Esperanto textbooks in 1887 under the pseudonym “Doktoro Esperanto” (“Dr. Hopeful”), just a few years after the composition of the Zionist anthem Hatikva (“The Hope”). Zamenhof finally abandoned his Zionist activities about the time of his graduation from medical school and marriage in 1884.

Through the generosity of his father-in-law, he succeeded in publishing the first Esperanto textbooks in major European languages in 1887 (Russian, German, Polish, French, English), followed by Italian, Swedish, Hebrew and Yiddish editions in 1888. The initial response to Zamenhof’s project was favorable but progress was slow until the turn of the century. He eventually withdrew from Jewish affairs to devote himself to Esperanto, but followed with intense interest the deliberations of the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897 and the debate over territorial alternatives to Palestine (such as Argentina, the United States, Canada, Australia and Uganda). By 1901, Zamenhof had just begun to enjoy the dedicated admiration of thousands of followers when he felt obligated to take part in the great debate over the future of the Jewish people.

He was very careful about compromising the Esperanto movement because of his own beliefs and Jewish identity. Zamenhof frequently espoused belief in what he called the “internal idea” of Esperanto, which he defined as the ultimate goal of a world order based on understanding, tolerance, and mutual respect between peoples – it was the same ideal of the haskalah – a Jew at home, a fellow citizen outside. Each community would preserve its own customs, religious beliefs, and language “at home,” but would meet each other “abroad” on a neutral basis. This “internal idea” provoked the hostility of chauvinistic and anti-Semitic forces which saw in it evidence of another “Jewish conspiracy” aimed at world domination.

Under the pseudonym Homo Sum (I am a Man) Zamenhof wrote a pamphlet entitled “Hillelism—A Project for the Solution of the Jewish Question.” On the first page, he posed the terrible question: Why Jewish suffering? He argued that the Jews were the descendants of a people who had lost the essential national characteristics of land and language. Their chief misery and cause of suffering was the separateness of their religious doctrine, which alone among the great monotheistic faiths was limited to a single “nation” when it should be the universal possession of many peoples, in the same manner as Christianity, Islam, and Bahai'ism (see Israel: World Center for Three Great Faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Bahaism (May 2011).

The solution he advocated was a radical reform of Judaism stripped of ritual and the doctrine of the “Chosen People.” The new reformed faith would follow the pure monotheism of Moses and the ethical commands of the prophets in the liberal spirit of the great rabbi, Hillel. Hillelism rested on a belief in the Supreme Being and in obeying the voice of one's conscience. It would slowly win adherents among Jews who would simultaneously strive to create a national existence in a common territory and through the medium of a common language, Esperanto being Zamenhof's choice. His ideas met with little response among the Jewish masses and were ignored by the Orthodox who had already pronounced a Herem (excommunication) against Ben-Yehuda for what they conceived as an audacious and blasphemous attempt to use Hebrew for purely secular purposes.

Zamenhof achieved a major breakthrough as the result of an international congress in France in 1905 and the support he received from such intellectual giants as Tolstoy. He received the Order of the Legion of Honor from the French government, the first of many such awards which brought him recognition and made Esperanto a serious cultural force by 1914.

This international recognition made him even more ultra-cautious about his Jewish identity. The lack of Jewish response to Hillelism was a disappointment. He expanded his ideas into a program for a universalist-deist faith which he renamed Homaranism (“Mankindism”). In essence it was the old Enlightenment maxim of “a Jew at Home, a man abroad”; be a Russian, Frenchman or Englishman, at home, be a Christian, Moslem or Jew in your own house of worship, but find a common neutral language and ethical-religious meeting ground elsewhere through Esperanto and Homaranism.

Zamenhof  died in 1917. His daughter, Lidja, was an accomplished Esperantist who eventually embraced Bahai'ism, the religious faith which most closely resembles Homaranism, yet she perished as a Jew along with the rest of the Zamenhof family in the Holocaust. A book on her life is appropriately dedicated to the “memory of thousands of Jewish Esperantists, friends, and co-workers murdered by the Nazis.” In 1932, she visited Palestine where she was more impressed by the aesthetic beauty of the Baha'i shrines than in the pioneering efforts of the Zionist settlers. During a visit to the United States in 1937, she wrote to friends about the possibility of initiating a special course for the Negroes of Harlem to “widen their horizons and lift them out of the narrow spiritual confines of their ghetto.”

For several generations, sceptics of “Modern Hebrew” and Esperanto argued against them as a betrayal of a normal “living tongue” in favor of a “constructed,” “artificial” language, and both Zamenhof and Ben-Yehuda were called creators of a “Frankenstein” language that was not really anyone’s mother tongue and unable to draw upon the wealth of folklore, a historic prior literature and cultural creativity. Both defied the critics and in spite of active persecution by oppressive regimes, succeeded in creating lasting achievements – the foundation of the modern culture of the State of Israel and a vast and creative international society. 

(For a thorough comparison of the grammar, and new word formation techniques of both languages, see my forthcoming book…. Modern Hebrew, The Past and Future of a Revitalized Language. (Due Spring 2014,  McFarland Publishing ISBN 978-0-7864-9492-7.)


Norman Berdichevsky is the author of The Left is Seldom Right for New English Review Press.


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