L.L. Zamenhof's 150th birthday

Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof (1859-1917), is best known as creator of the Esperanto language. December 15 marks the 150th anniversary of his birth. Tonight I will get to meet his great-granddaughter, whose very existence is a near miracle.

I will broach the subject by enumerating three recent bibliographies/web guides I've compiled. Incidentally, I've learned, not much to my surprise though indeed to my disgust, that I can't bring up the subject of Jews in any context without being immediately assaulted by bigots. These additional bibliographies reveal more of the extent of my interests.

My first bibliography:

Marxism & the Jewish Question: Selected Bibliography

This material is testing ground for a number of projects. Not only in terms of overt politics, but conceptually, how was historical materialism sufficiently evolved or not at any given stage or within any given tendency to explain exactly what bound the Jewish people--specifically of Europe (and more specifically of Eastern Europe, where conditions were worst)--as a people? Could historical materialism adequately encompass culture, and conversely, what did the culturalists leave out in their conceptualization of their situation?

On the plane of overt politics, one will find an emphasis here on the conceptions and policies of the Bolsheviks as compared to the Jewish Bundists (on which there is a thought-provoking new book out).

This is, however, only a portion of the elements needed for a full analysis. The late 19th century and early 20th century were filled with schemes of religious, cultural, linguistic, and political reform and radicalism. There were currents not only of socialism and Marxism, but of assimilationism, Zionism, cultural autonomism, liberalism, Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment)--formulated and argued by Jewish intellectuals, all involving different conceptions of the nature of the past and contemporaneous communities of European Jews and prospects and programs for their future. I attempted to cover as many of these currents as I could in my second bibliography:

L. L. Zamenhof & the Cultural, Religious, Professional & Political Context of 19th-20th Century Eastern European Jewish Intellectuals:
Selected Bibliography

Juxtaposing these two bibliographies suggests the extensiveness and complexity of the ideological ferment of the time, a topic which stands on its own, though the intellectually vacuous, ideologically degenerate, and juvenile politics of the present would gain some perspective from a study of this past.

Finally, all of this is related to a specific project. December 15 will mark the 150th birthday of the creator of the Esperanto language, L. L. Zamenhof, a product of this ferment. Tonight I will have the opportunity to meet Zamenhof's great-granddaughter, itself a remarkable occasion, all the more amazing because all of Zamenhof's children were murdered by the Nazis, and his grandson, a child at the time, escaped their clutches twice by a hairsbreadth (once under the protection of a Catholic priest), to eventually produce two daughters. Though Zamenhof is known mostly for the creation of Esperanto, underlying that project was a more general program of cultural and religious reform, all stemming from Zamenhof's preoccupation with the Jewish question.

Traumatized by the pogroms of 1881, Zamenhof, still a medical student, joined the early Zionist movement and embroiled himself in its debates. At the time various options--all utopian--were considered. Zamenhof opposed establishing settlements in the territory that is now Israel, and favored settlement in America. Ultimately he rejected Zionism altogether, and argued vigorously for years afterward that the project of settling in the Middle East would be either impracticable or disastrous. Another project involved the reform and standardization of Yiddish. (Zamenhof was born in the same year as Sholem Aleichem.) He gave up on that as well. In 1887 he published his first book outlining the basics of Esperanto. As the Esperanto movement took off internationally, he published two treatises in Russian under a pseudonym, in 1901, outlining a program for religious reform and a doctrine called "Hilelismo", inspired by Rabbi Hillel's famous aphorism concerning the golden rule as the essence of religion. Here the influence of Enlightenment thought (Haskalah) is evident, as Zamenhof rejects ancient superstitions and outmoded practices. However, Zamenhof's arguments were even more trenchant. Not only does he demolish the case for Zionism in every way possible, but he engages in a merciless demystification of the Jewish people, questioning the continuity that allegedly connects the Jewish people of today with their ancient homeland, and even questions the basis of their commonality across different nations and regions in the present.

Zamenhof enquires as to what binds peoples together in general, and in the case of Jews in particular. He settles on language and religion as the two shaping principles of peoplehood. This is the very obverse of historical materialism, as Zamenhof completely ignores material factors and concentrates all of his attention on cultural issues (I suppose what is now called by some "imagined communities"). Zamenhof rejects nationalism and in particular nationalistic religion. But curiously, he also pooh-poohs the culturalist Yiddishist option, which would be the logical choice for secularists who reject assimilation (as did Zamenhof). Yiddish is now just a "jargon" in his eyes; Hebrew is not (in 1901) a living language, and the Jews are a "pseudo-people", martyring themselves for a faith they can no longer believe in, and immersed in a nostalgia for a lost civilization with which they no longer have a substantial connection. Hence, a radical cultural reform is necessary, with a radically reformed religion for modern times, sustaining a connection between the intellectuals and the masses, aiming to create a modern, "neutrally-human" people for a cosmopolitan world. By this time Zamenhof sees Esperanto as the binding language, not a reformed Yiddish.

These ideas got Zamenhof into hot water with all parties concerned, both in Jewish circles and in the Esperanto movement, now internationally established, with its center of gravity having shifted from Eastern Europe to France. Within a few years his project underwent another transformation, and "Hilelismo" for the Jews was generalized to "Homaranismo" for everyone. ("Homaranismo" is not literally translatable but means being a member of the human family). Homaranismo bears similarities to Ethical Culture or Unitarianism, but has its own spin, intended as a mediator between inherited traditions and modern secularized consciousness, and between members of different religious traditions. While Esperanto thrived, Homaranismo sank like a stone. Zamenhof's prospective for either the Jews or of all of humanity based on linguistic and religious reform belongs to an alternative history, a timeline in a parallel universe for a strategy that had no chance in this one.

Zamenhof attempted a few other types of public interventions, a contribution to the Universal Races Congress of 1911, and a call to diplomats in 1915, proposing what nations should look like after the war. Zamenhof died in 1917.

There is a postscript to this story. Following the war, a separate workers' Esperanto movement sprang up and remained vigorous, until it was largely killed off by Hitler and Stalin. There arose within it two major factions--the anarchists/anationalists and the Soviets and their supporters. Zamenhof's idealist notions of society were criticized by Soviet Esperantists using the analytical tools provided by Soviet Marxism. They did not, however, wrestle with the Jewish question or delve into Zamenhof's specific arguments with respect to it. In any case, Zamenhof's Jewish origin was such a sensitive topic up to that time that scholars only delved into it substantively decades later.

Thus my third bibliography:

Zamenhof & Zamenhof Studies Web Guide (Zamenhof kaj Zamenhofologio)

Only a smattering of documents listed are in English, but some do tell this story, particularly in the sections on Hilelismo/Homaranismo & Jewish affairs.

Pursuing any portion of the intellectual terrain mapped out by these three bibliographies/web guides can be related to a number of conceptual issues.


“Scholars of Wisdom have no rest in this world or in the world to come.” -- Talmud


William Blake: Moto por la Kanzonoj de Naivo kaj de Sperto

Antaŭ du semajnoj, kiam mi finlaboris mian tradukon de “Plenas via pelv’ da semo” [Thou hast a lap full of seed] de William Blake (kiun mi finis je la naskiĝtago de Blake, la 28-an de novembro), mi ankaŭ prilaboris tradukon de la jena poemo de Blake, ankaŭ neniam de li publikigita. Ĝi montras la saman spiriton de la alia menciita poemo kaj de la Kanzonoj el Sperto ĝenerale: skeptika esploro sub ŝajnoj pri homa naturo, motivita de ideo kiu priokupis Blake kaj kiun li iam esprimis jene, ke "innocence" (senkulpeco, naivo, pureco, senmakuleco--malfacile tradukebla) ne povas travivi naive kaj senscie, sed "oni devas puron organizi" ("Innocence must be organiz'd"), t.e. navigi la kontraŭdirojn kaj danĝerojn de la reala vivo, afero kiu postulas asimilon de cinika kompreno de homaj karaktero kaj institucioj.

Moto por la Kanzonoj de Naivo kaj de Sperto

de William Blake
el la Notlibro de 1793
tradukis Ralph Dumain

Bonulojn logas homperceptoj;
Ili per si mem ne pensas;
Ĝis Spert’ instruos kapti, kaĝe
Elfojn kaj feinojn, saĝe.

Sekvas grunt’ de la fripon’
Kaj hipokrita hurlo;
El amikoj malkaŝiĝas la intrigo,
Kaj distingiĝas aglo de la strigo.


The Good are attracted by Mens perceptions
And Think not for themselves
Till Experience teaches them to catch
And to cage the Fairies & Elves

And then the Knave begins to snarl
And the Hypocrite to howl
And all his good Friends shew their private ends
And the Eagle is known from the Owl

The Notebook of William Blake - Folio N101 and N100