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The Uncivil Servant: In Praise of Esperanto

Mitchell Abidor
December 14, 2016

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: Bridge of Words by Esther Schor. Metropolitan Books, 2016, indexed, 364 pages

SOME TIME NEAR the end of the 20th century, the late, lamented magazine Lingua Franca ran an article about the international language, Esperanto. It presented it so attractively that I immediately picked up some teach-yourself books, and within a month I was able to read the language. It is simplicity itself: roots are built upon in a straightforward way, all verbs are regular, all singular nouns end in “o,” all adjectives in “a,” all adverbs in “e,” all words are pronounced with the accent on the penultimate syllable.

Intended as a universal auxiliary language, not as a replacement for national languages, Esperanto’s leftwing, internationalist bona fides were obvious to me, and I quickly tracked down texts from the Esperanto labor movement, the Laborista Esperanto Movado and the Internacia Komunista Esperantista Kolektivo. What difference if I’d have little use for the language in practice? As an ideal it was worth the trouble.

So in love with the language was I that when my wife and I got wed, our ketubah, which she, an artist, drew herself, had a passage in Hebrew translated into English and Esperanto -- certainly a rarity, and possibly unique in the world.

With time, I fell away from Esperanto, always regretting that I’d done so, but the appearance of Esther Shor’s wonderful, informative, and entertaining Bridge of Words, a historical and personal account of the language, has revived my interest, and will hopefully spark a wider interest in the language.

ESPERANTO was the invention of the Polish Jewish ophthalmologist Ludwig Zamenhof (who was the subject of perhaps the worst typo ever: in the last book by the historian of anarchism Paul Avrich, Sasha and Emma, instead of “oculist,” Zamenhof [1859-1917] is described as an “occultist.”). A native of Bialystok, his experience of pogroms and anti-Semitism, and his feeling that the lack of a common language encouraged the divisions in Polish society, led him to create an early version of an international language in 1878 and, in 1887, Esperanto — the name derived from the Latin root for “hope,” sper.

“I was brought up as an idealist,” Zamenhoff wrote. “I was taught that all men were brothers, and, meanwhile, in the street, in the square, everything at every step made me feel that men did not exists, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews, and so on.”

In 1887, Zamenhof published his Unua Libro –- First Book -- laying out the rules of the language, in which its later idealistic uses were not even hinted at. It was rather “an official and commercial dialect,” its selling point being its utility and ease of learning. “This rich mellifluous, universally comprehensible language is not a matter of years of laborious study, but a mere light amusement of a few days.” In a stunning example of Zamenhof’s modesty, in his 1889 Dua Libro –- Second Book -- a slight revision of the original principles of the universal language, he would write: “From this day the future of the international language is no longer more in my hands than in the hands of any other friend of this sacred idea.”

This generosity of spirit would come back to haunt him in very short order, for when the first international congress was held in Boulogne-sur-Mer, the French organizers quickly grew worried about Zamenhof’s idealistic and ideological flights of fancy, grounded in a Jewish-based humanism.

Their worry was so great that, for fear of Zamenhof engaging in “mysticism,” they requested that he submit in advance the text of his congress speech. Going even further, one of the main figures of the French delegation, which was riven by the divisions of the Dreyfus Affair, said, “But he’s a Jewish prophet,” while another exclaimed: “We’ll be ruined and a laughing stock.’”

In the end, the congress was a success, and Schor writes that Louis Émile Javal, a French-Jewish Esperantist, “attributed Zamenhof’s warm reception to the committee’s efforts to conceal his Jewishness, especially from the French press.” Perhaps of greater importance, the Declaration of Boulogne, which laid out the principles of Esperanto, specified that the movement would concentrate solely on “the endeavor to spread throughout the entire world the use of this neutral, human language . . . All other ideals or hopes tied to Esperanto by any Esperantist is his or her purely private affair, for which Esperantism is not responsible.”

THOUGH HIS effort to overcome these ethnic separations would be an essential element in Zamenhof’s Esperantism, he would pass through a profoundly Judeo-centered phase, advocating for a Jewish state -- at one point recommending the purchasing of land on the banks of the Mississippi, removing Palestine from consideration because he felt the religious Zionists already resident there would be opposed to a secular Jewish state.

If there was to be a Jewish state gathering Jews from all nations, the language question would have to be settled, and as Schor recounts, “Zamenhof decided that ‘ancient Hebrew,’ as he put it, could never serve the Zionist dream. Instead, he devoted more than two years to the updating of Yiddish for use in a Jewish state.”

He grew disenchanted with Zionism by 1883, but Judaism remained an essential element of his thought as he developed an ideology he would call Hillelism, which he would expound upon fully in 1901:

“The Jewish people for a long time now haven’t existed . . . The expression ‘the Jewish people’ . . . is only the consequence of an illusion.” While he believed that Russian Jews, no matter what they did or felt, would always be viewed by Slavic Russians as Jews, he also considered them to be hypocrites for clinging to Judaism, since the majority, Schor summarizes, “neither showed respect for religious authority . . . nor observed any religious or spiritual practices.” “We are,” Zamenhof wrote, “chained to a cadaver.” Jews therefore had to free themselves of the covenant and Mosaic prescriptions and live according to precepts based on Hillel’s, “Do not do unto other what is hateful to you.” The Bible and holidays would be retained, at least those that could be adapted to Hillelism, but in order to be a nation the Jews needed a language -- and “only a ‘neutral, invented’ language . . . could unify and authenticate a renovated, Hillelist people,” writes Schor.

Providentially, such a language existed: Esperanto. Zamenhof would write in a letter to an early Esperantist that Hillelism was “a moral bridge by which all peoples and religions could unite in brotherhood without the creation of any new dogmas and without the need for people to throw away their own religion.” As Schor writes: “In isolation, Esperanto was a code, Hillelism a cult. But together, they constituted an ethical calling that looked to the future, not the past, for the spirit of community.”

ZAMENHOF would persist in his humanistic Esperantism, de-Judaizing Hillelism into a larger Homarismo –- Humanity-ism. Indeed, he interpreted the Boulogne Declaration in such a way that the “inner idea,” as his humanistic reading of Esperanto came to be called, was perfectly consonant with the declaration, as a matter of personal preference.

The early splits and disputes in the first decades of Esperanto foreshadowed the rest of the movement’s history. Zamenhof would die in 1917, overworked, and shocked in his final years to find anti-Semitism appearing in the language he had invented as a way to unite humanity.

Schor recounts the splits and disputes within the movement, as well as the stories of Esperantists who sought to broaden its approach, like Eugène Lanti, the great voice of revolutionary Esperantism and founder of Sennaciceca Asocio Tutmonda (Worldwide A-National Association: my translations of Lanti’s writings scan be found at the Marxists Internet Archive), and the founder’s daughter, Lidia Zamenhof, who attempted to wed Esperanto and Baha’i -- and who would, like her brother, be killed by the Nazis.

It will come as no surprise that these idealistic flights had little sway in the U.S., always a minor player in the Esperanto movement. Here the selling point -- and the use the term is not accidental -– was its business utility. Whereas in France, Eugène Lanti wedded communism and Esperanto at the height of the Cold War, the leader of the Esperanto movement here, George A. Connor, shaped the Esperanto Association of North America into a fellow-traveler in the anti-Communist crusade.

ALTHOUGH HARDLY the force it once was, even as an idealist’s dream, Esperanto continues to live, and scattered around Bridge of Words are accounts of Schor’s voyages around Esperantujo, Esperanto land. She attends congresses in Vietnam and Cuba, visits a farm in Brazil that takes in abandoned children, and attends intensive courses. Her affection for the language and those who maintain it is clear. An Esperantist herself (the book is based largely on Esperanto texts) , there is no condescension in her portrait of her fellows, as is all too often the case in accounts of the language.

She concludes by movingly stressing the importance of the language’s collective character, and its role as a bridge: “It is the Esperantic conversation, that century-long haphazard culture of chitchat and palaver, that builds a bridge between you and me, turning my action into our, myself into us.”

There are illusions that sustained humanity that deserved to die. The Esperanto dream of all of us speaking one common tongue is as moribund as many others, but it at least deserves to live.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new books include Voices of the Paris Commune and his collection of writings by and about the anarchist “propagandists of the deed,” Death to Bourgeois Society. His translations of the poetry of Benjamin Fondane can be found in the collection Cinepoems and Others, published by NYRB Poetry.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.