Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language

Hebrew, Esperanto have some amazing stories to tell

In 1957, Noam Chomsky’s father, William, published “Hebrew: The Eternal Language,” but in the five decades since then, we haven’t had a similar effort in English to create a concise history of the Hebrew language.

Until now.

The Story of Hebrew book coverLewis Glinert’s “The Story of Hebrew” — one of two language books I’ll be looking at in this column — is enormously rewarding for those wishing to familiarize themselves with the evolution both of the Hebrew language and attitudes toward it.

A professor of Hebrew studies and linguistics at Dartmouth College, Glinert is an excellent tour guide. Many of the book’s most compelling stories are those that help explain how, during the nearly two millennia during which it had generally ceased to be a spoken language, Hebrew continued to be central to the lives of Jews.

Glinert reveals some fascinating information: For example, during the early medieval period, often viewed as the Dark Ages elsewhere, many of the greatest innovations occurred. This is when the Masoretes developed not only the definitive biblical text, but the entire system of vowels, punctuation and cantillation marks that would enable Jews around the world to read it aloud and make sense of it.

And shortly thereafter, inspired by endeavors in Arabic, scholars first created a systematic grammar for the Hebrew language. I was rather shocked to learn that the three-letter root system familiar to any student of Hebrew was a concept developed post facto during this time.

Glinert discusses a number of lesser-known phenomena, such as a period in the Middle Ages when Hebrew was used prominently in the study of science and medicine — to the extent that it once again functioned as a spoken language, albeit temporarily and within a limited field.

Also new to me was much of Glinert’s rich presentation of Hebrew in the Christian imagination over a vast period of time. Christians’ study of Hebrew was sometimes accompanied by a favorable attitude toward Jews and Jewish thought, and sometimes by bald anti-Semitism.

Glinert addresses the prominence of Hebrew study among the educated elite in America in the 18th and early 19th centuries. He notes that the first two presidents of Harvard and the first president of King’s College (later Columbia University) were Hebrew scholars.

Finally, Glinert addresses the development and ascendency of modern Hebrew.

cover of Bridge of WordsEsperanto, an invented language that emerged at the same time as modern Hebrew, is not commonly seen as a Jewish language. However, Esther Schor’s new book “Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language” uncovers a bit of surprising history: Esperanto was largely a response to the conditions of Jewish life in the 19th century.

The language’s founder, Ludovik Lazarus Zamenhof, was born in Bialystok in 1859 and worked as an ophthalmologist. He associated the enmity he witnessed between the Poles, Jews, Russians and Germans who populated the city with the fact that each group spoke its own language.

He came to believe that the development of a neutral language — a “second language for the world” — could help break down the barriers separating ethnic communities, and in the process afford protection to his fellow Jews. (Zamenhof spent a number of years as a committed Zionist before turning his attention to ways of improving the lot of Jews within Europe.)

It would also help lead Jews into the larger culture both through interaction with the greater society and through the adoption of a humanistic worldview he developed to intertwine with the language. Disavowing chosenness and much of Jewish religious tradition, he entitled his philosophy Hillelism, from a core teaching of Rabbi Hillel.

That the language’s Jewish origins are little known is part of the story, as the Jewish particularism was soon suppressed.

When the first international Esperanto congress was held in France in 1905 during the period of the Dreyfus affair, conference organizers sought to conceal Zamenhof’s Jewishness and nix expressions of Hillelism.

Schor, a professor at Princeton perhaps best known for her biography of Emma Lazarus, traces some of the schisms and power struggles that characterized the Esperanto movement, as well the circumstances in which the language was welcomed and opposed. And sometimes both responses applied: Although Hitler and Goebbels decried Esperanto, an actual Nazi Esperanto movement sprang forth in Germany in the 1930s.

A large portion of Schor’s book departs entirely from history, detailing her travels in today’s world of Esperanto as she interacts with adherents at conferences, retreats and elsewhere.

Her account brought me back to my own college days when I took a correspondence class in Esperanto. Although I never got very far, I was struck by the priority that was placed on encouraging the spread and use of the language, which, as Schor explains, dates to Zamenhof’s earliest efforts.

It strikes me that the study of Hebrew could benefit from a similar ethic of promotion. In a world in which most Jewish texts are now readily available in English translation, in which identification with Israel among American Jews is in decline and in which most Israelis speak English quite well, there is less natural incentive for American Jews to learn Hebrew than at any point during recent memory.

Perhaps the study of the language’s history is a good place to start.

“The Story of Hebrew” by Lewis Glinert (288 pages, Princeton University Press)

“Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language” by Esther Schor (364 pages, Metropolitan Books)

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Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.