It is 1922, and the League of Nations has just pledged to take up the question of a world language. It’s been a long, rewarding day at the Esperanto Congress. Speaker after speaker, in fluent Esperanto, has described the rosy prospects of the new universal tongue. Finally, with dinner time approaching, one of the lecturers turns to another and remarks, “Nu, vus makht a Yid?”—roughly, “How’s it going?” this time not in Esperanto but Yiddish.
This old joke plays on the fact that so many of Esperanto’s early champions were, like its inventor, Ludwik Leyzer Zamenhof, Eastern European Jews. They already had a common language for Jewish purposes, but Yiddish could never become truly universal. A huge majority of Jews knew Yiddish, and they had never made war on one another. So the early Esperantists had a messianic fantasy: If we could all speak the same language we would truly understand one another, and then wars and bloodshed would cease.
It was not for nothing that Zamenhof dubbed himself Doktoro Esperanto, Dr. Hopeful. His fervor has long since passed: Today’s Esperantists resemble ham-radio enthusiasts or birdwatchers, hobbyists rather than utopian dreamers. Few people realize that hundreds of thousands of people still gossip, joke and hold forth in Zamenhof’s ingenious tongue, and if they did, they likely wouldn’t care. It’s probably better to spend your time learning Lithuanian or Tamil, which, unlike Esperanto, stand at the center of a living culture, with native speakers and a literary tradition. But Esperanto is a unique case, because it flourishes, to the extent it does, without the support of a day-to-day home culture. Instead of a mamaloshen, it is a super ego sprache, the voice of high-minded, old-school internationalism. Despite its lack of a people and a territory, Esperanto has acquired many of the spices that a living language needs: slang, popular songs, and even a few poets and novelists. It has the edge over Klingon, at least for now.
Esther Schor’s entertaining new book, Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language, combines the life story of Zamenhof with a history of the Esperanto movement and sandwiches both between a lively account of Schor’s own experience as a globe-trotting Esperanto enthusiast. As you might expect, the Esperanto movement has its share of attractive oddballs, and Schor hits her stride when she sketches the friends she has met at Esperanto meetings in Vietnam, Cuba, Poland and elsewhere. She confesses that she occasionally “crocodiles” (the Esperantist term for speaking one’s native language at an Esperanto gathering). But she has worked hard at her Esperanto, attending the crash course held each summer in California along with a slew of international congresses. Esperanto speakers boast that, once you learn Zamenhof’s lingo, you’ll enjoy free room and board throughout the world, courtesy of your fellow Esperantists: no more Airbnb! The real draw, though, seems to be sharing the company of characters who, like the language they speak, are nothing if not original.
Zamenhof, Esperanto’s creator, was an eye doctor from Bialystok. The town was about 70 percent Jewish in Zamenhof’s day, with the rest mostly Poles, Russians, and Germans. As Schor puts it, Zamenhof, who was born in 1859, “grew up convinced that linguistic difference lay at the root of interethnic animosity.” If you could solve Babel, he thought, swords would be beaten into plowshares, and the nations rescued from their strife.
An amateur through and through, Zamenhof was a great improviser in the cause of linguistic simplicity. He made up words by taking a root, usually a Latinate one, and adding -o for a noun, -a for an adjective and -e for an adverb. Esperanto roots themselves remain invariable, which is not the case in Indo-European languages: Esperanto is what linguists call an agglutinative language (think Japanese, Hungarian or Navajo). Most important, Zamenhof had a stroke of genius after publishing his Unua Libro and Dua Libro, Esperanto’s “first and second books,” in 1887-88. He turned over the further development of Esperanto to the community of speakers: Let them argue out new vocabulary and grammar. The fact that speakers could make up the language together as they went along was a tremendous draw. Esperanto, in other words, was a Wiki.
Zamenhof’s original idea was, in its way, a traditional one. Esperanto was never supposed to be a native tongue, but rather an adaptable second language that would form a bridge between foreign speakers. The Western world had long had a lingua franca, whether Greek, Latin or, in Zamenhof’s day, French. But these languages had spread through imperial conquest. Esperanto, by contrast, was supposed to transcend nationalism. The language didn’t catch on the way Zamenhof planned: He hoped for 10 million speakers within a few years, but there has never been anything close to that number. Zamenhof’s belief in the fina venko, the final victory of Esperanto as a worldwide lingua franca, was dead long before the 1980s, when the Esperanto movement declared it impossible. Global English killed the Esperantist utopia without even breaking a sweat.
Esperanto, like English, is a recognizably European tongue. Basically a romance language with some Germanic and Slavic roots, it looks rather hobbled in this globalist age. One of the Esperanto scholars that Schor interviews comments that a new Esperanto based on Chinese wouldn’t be a bad idea. A simplified version of Chinese, without tones or ideograms, could act as a rope thrown across the chasm that separates Mandarin speakers from the rest of us. In the coming Chinese century, Esperanto—no less Eurocentric than English—seems quaintly unequipped to serve as a universal tongue.
Schor notes that the 20-something Zamenhof became a Zionist in the 1880s, when he was a medical student at Moscow University. (He also, for a time, urged Jews to purchase a 60-mile tract of land on the Mississippi River, convinced that an American Jewish colony could model itself after Utah’s Mormons.) Zamenhof soon abandoned Zionism, and he regularly concealed his early Jewish nationalism after he became the leader of the Esperanto movement: Zionism could have gotten him into trouble in France during the Dreyfus years, when Esperanto started to take off among non-Jews.
Yet Zamenhof remained thoroughly Jewish. He wrote that “my Jewishness has been the main reason why, from earliest childhood, I gave myself completely to one crucial idea, one dream—the dream of the unity of humankind.” Like many a Jewish socialist, he translated the messianic urge into secular terms.
In 1901, Zamenhof unveiled a universal ethics he called “Hillelism,” to be spread by Esperanto speakers. Rejecting Jewish observance, he wrote:
We are simply chained to a cadaver. The regional-racial form of the Jewish religion now is not only a philosophical-religious absurdity, but also the fullest possible anachronism; and until such time as this form will exist, the suffering of the Jews will never, never cease, neither because of [ethnic] liberalism, nor because of Zionism, and after one hundred and after one thousand years, will Heine’s prophetic words still prevail with the same strength: Das Judentum ist keine Religion, es ist ein Ungluck. [Judaism is not a religion, it is a misfortune]
Like those contemporary American Jews who define Jewishness as the devotion to social justice, Zamenhof was straddling a fence. If Jewish tradition was an anachronism, why name his universal ethics after the sage Hillel? Judaism could only conquer if the Jews themselves disappeared qua Jews, Zamenhof seemed to be implying. Here was a depressing twist on the Jewish prayer Aleinu, which forecasts that the idolatrous nations will change their ways and accept the Israelite God. Zamenhof thought that non-Jews would adopt Jewish moral seriousness if only Jews could divest themselves of nationhood, religion and cultural identity. To put it mildly, the 20th century did not validate this highly paradoxical fantasy. Zamenhof’s own daughters were murdered in Auschwitz.
For Zamenhof, Schor writes, “Hillelism promised the ‘normalization’ of Jewishness.” She quotes one of his bolder admissions: “Instead of being absorbed by the Christian world, we shall absorb them; for that is our mission, to spread among humanity the truth of monotheism and the principles of justice and fraternity.”
Hillelism had a tweet-sized credo ending in a variation on Hillel’s famous command: What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. But Hillel, as he came down off one foot, let the other shoe drop with his second command: “Now go and study.” Zamenhof, as Schor remarks, omitted this injunction. For him, the law was superfluous; like Rousseau’s Savoyard vicar, he championed the religion of the heart.
For the 1905 Boulogne Esperanto Congress, Zamenhof composed a Hillelist hymn addressed to “thee, O powerful incorporeal mystery / Great force, ruling the world…” Like Robespierre’s similarly abstract Cult of the Supreme Being, Hillelism lacked popular appeal. The Boulogne Congress was nevertheless a great success, with a Catholic mass and a Molière play performed in Esperanto, and souvenirs including a tasty liqueur dubbed “Esperantine.”
The movement desperately wanted Zamenhof’s Jewishness to remain secret. “We needed admirable discipline to hide your origins from the public,” Zamenhof’s colleague Louis Emile Javal, also a Jew, wrote after the Boulogne Congress. In the long run, such concealment didn’t work: Most of Javal’s children, like Zamenhof’s, were killed by the Nazis.
“Little by little, Esperantujo will become a school for future brotherly humanity,” Zamenhof wrote, but he lived long enough to see anti-Semitic polemics appear in a Polish Esperanto journal called Pola Esperantisto. Zamenhof wrote a letter to the editor condemning the articles, in which he remarked that “the entire sin of the Jews consists only in this, that Jews also want to live and have human rights.” But the editor rejected Zamenhof’s letter and continued on his path of Jew-hatred.
Today’s Esperantists, unlike those of a century ago, celebrate Zamenhof’s Jewishness. Schor tells us about the Esperanto Congress in Bialystok, Zamenhof’s birth city, where she hears speeches about Zamenhof’s Jewish roots. Sadly, outside the congress, a right-wing Pole defaces the bust of Zamenhof with pink paint, the Esperantists’ tent is set on fire, Polish skinheads display stars of David with red slashes through them, tires are slashed and a Molotov cocktail is thrown at the meeting hall. Zamenhof’s claim that Jews were not a nation did little to calm Bialystok’s racists, for whom Esperanto might as well have been a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.
One currently world-famous Jew is that rarest of birds, a denaskulo (native speaker of Esperanto): George Soros. The name Soros, Esperanto for “will soar,” was chosen by Tivadar Soros, George’s father, who wrote a novel and a memoir in Esperanto. After escaping from a Siberian POW camp during the Russian Civil War, Tivadar Soros founded an Esperanto club in Irkutsk before making his way back to his native Hungary. When he and George left Hungary in 1947, their first stop was an Esperanto convention in Bern, Switzerland. Later that year, George Soros made speeches about world peace from the Esperanto speakers’ stand in London’s Hyde Park. Soros’s philanthropic career, his interest in global cooperation, and his wish to be a universalist benefactor rather than a pleader for Jewish causes were surely influenced by the ideals of the Esperanto movement.
Esperanto speakers still want to save the world, Schor explains, just not through the vain wish that their language might one day become universal. Schor’s most poignant chapter, a fitting end to a heartening and diverting book, describes her stay at an Esperantist refuge called Bona Espero in rural Brazil. Here a European couple, Ursula and Giuseppe Grattapaglia, have for the past 40 years run an orphanage and school for Brazilian children. The setting is remote, as in a Rousseau fantasy of the primitive: There’s no cellphone reception at Bona Espero, Schor writes, but “two miles down the dirt road, if you hold your phone high overhead, it’s possible to text.” Schor’s marriage of 30 years has just broken up, and she feels like an orphan herself, connected somehow to the Brazilian street kids who have found a home at the Grattapaglias’ commune. The children prefer to speak Portuguese rather than Esperanto, but the Esperantist dream of the good society lives in the forest.
One of Esperanto’s great promoters, Humphrey Tonkin, wrote in a 1987 essay marking the centenary of Zamenhof’s invention that “Doktoro Esperanto took upon himself that heaviest, almost Mosaic responsibility, to guide his people (all humanity) out of captivity to the promised land.” Despite Zamenhof’s heroic efforts, we still wander in the linguistic wilderness, tribe upon tribe of us, and the lack of a common language seems the least of our problems. Esperanto never became a substantial social movement; in a basic sense, it remained a gimmick, fodder for popular jokes. One needs more than a new language to bring humanity out of its darkness: Even vastly more powerful devices like the personal computer and the smartphone haven’t done that. Zamenhof probably should have remained a Zionist and tried to preserve the tribe instead of redeeming all humanity. This wan, gifted Quixote, dying in 1917, was lucky that he never saw how insignificant his vision would look when the largest storm of the 20th century crashed into his people.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.