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Dr. Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, an opthalmologist who created and promoted the world’s most successful language invented by an individual, Esperanto, was born in Bialystok on this date in 1859. Zamenhoff had native fluency in Yiddish and Russian, and his father, a language teacher, gave him knowledge of German and French. Zamenhof also learned Polish, and studied classical Latin, Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. A lifelong peace activist, Zamenhof developed his international language as a tool of world harmony when he was only 19, after several years of experimentation. He published it under the pseudonym “Doktoro Esperanto” (“Doctor One who hopes”), and those who learned the language used that pseudonym as its name. (Zamenhof called it simply “Lingvo internacia,” international language.) Shortly after publishing his first book about Esperanto, he became involved in a proto-Zionist movement, but ultimately argued that Zionism would not solve the problems of the Jews. “I am profoundly convinced,” he later wrote, declining an invitation to join an organization of Jewish Esperanto speakers, “that every nationalism offers humanity only the greatest unhappiness.” Among many works that Zamenhoff translated into Esperanto was the Hebrew Bible. He also wrote the first grammar of the Yiddish language in 1879, and a book of his religious philosophy, which he called both Homaranismo (“humanitism”) and “Hillelism,” as it drew strongly upon the Talmudic teachings of Hillel the Elder (“What you would not want done to you, do to no one; that is the whole Torah.”) The minor planet 1462 Zamenhof is named in his honor, as are streets in numerous countries, including Israel. Esperanto has hundreds of thousands of speakers in the world today, and a website for learning the language with 150,000 registered users. To see a short video about the basic structure of Esperanto, look below.
“With Hillelism we don’t mean a new denomination; we mean a new corporate-religious order inside the old Jewish religion, which has existed for a long time. Everybody who lives ethically could take part in this religion with a clear conscience, no matter what the religious views he had before looked like.” —Ludwig Zamenoff