Bridge of Words

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

A sto­ry is told that, dur­ing a cof­fee break between ses­sions at an Inter­na­tion­al Con­gress of Esper­an­tists, where all papers are read exclu­sive­ly in Esperan­to, two Jew­ish Esper­an­tists, old friends, spot each oth­er across the room and rush over to exchange greet­ings. As they approach each oth­er for a warm hug, one of the old friends calls out, Nu, vus makht a Yid?”

This sto­ry illus­trates one of the issues Esther Schor deals with in Bridge of Words, a book on her sev­en-year pil­grim­age through this world, if only periph­er­al­ly: the Jew­ish impact at the cen­ter of Esperanto.

Esther Schor is a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Prince­ton, a pub­lished poet and mem­oirist (“My Last JDate” in Tablet Mag­a­zine is a must-read), and the author of Emma Lazarus, a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award win­ner. Her most engag­ing chap­ters deal with her sojourn at Bona Espero, an Esperan­to vil­lage in Brazil for repair­ing the lives of dis­ad­van­taged youth, and a nar­ra­tive con­cern­ing the trans­ac­tions with the Bahà’ì reli­gion of Lidia Zamen­hof, the daugh­ter of Lud­wig Zamen­hof, inven­tor of Esperanto.

Esperan­to, before it became a lan­guage, was a name — the pseu­do­nym of Lud­wig Zamen­hof, called Dok­tor Esperan­to, a physi­cian who would cure the ills of humankind by reg­u­lar injec­tions of that drug called hope. The anthem Zamen­hof wrote for the move­ment he was found­ing was enti­tled La Espera—”The Hope” — and calls to mind the anthem of the Zion­ist move­ment—Hatik­va—”The Hope” as well. It is rev­e­la­to­ry of the deep Jew­ish source of Zamenhof’s project. Indeed Schor touch­es on Zamenhof’s ear­ly flir­ta­tions with Zion­ism, which did not last long. As Schor points out, he even had the idea of found­ing a Jew­ish State in Mis­sis­sip­pi and his broth­er tried to estab­lish a Jew­ish agri­cul­tur­al set­tle­ment in Brazil. Explain­ing Zamenhof’s divorce from Her­zlian Zion­ism, the author presents Zamen­hof as some­thing of a the­olo­gian, in a reli­gion where only an invent­ed lan­guage can func­tion as the uni­fi­er of a peo­ple, and not only of the Jews. Zamenhof’s lan­guage would be a neu­tral invent­ed lan­guage, beau­ti­ful sound­ing and so extra­or­di­nar­i­ly easy that it could be learned in a week.” Like Zion­ism, for which Hebrew is one of the main keys, Zamen­hof tried to cre­ate not only a new lan­guage but a new type of peo­ple. The stick­ing point was that Esper­an­tists would be a peo­ple with a future but not a past.

The author sug­gests that, as with Herzl’s move­ment, Esperan­to was orig­i­nal­ly moti­vat­ed by anti­semitism. Lat­er, speak­ing of the movement’s Boulogne Uni­ver­sal Con­fer­ence in 1915, at which a schism was brew­ing, Schor points out that Esper­an­tists felt the need to con­ceal the depth of the language’s Jew­ish sources. In addi­tion, says Schor, as recent­ly as 2009, the Bia­lystok con­fer­ence turned out to be a pre­text for flex­ing Pol­ish anti­se­mit­ic mus­cles, while the atten­dees pre­tend­ed that uni­ver­sal­ism had been achieved.

While Zamen­hof often used the micro­cosm of the Jew­ish fam­i­ly as the metaphor for the com­mu­ni­ty he dreamt of — fra­ter­ni­ty” was its leit­wort—it turned out that at the macro lev­el the fam­i­ly resem­bles the bick­er­ing Bick­er­sons, where quar­rels — about things big and small — dom­i­nate the fam­i­ly reunions. At times, read­ing Schor’s pre­sen­ta­tion of a won­der­ful idea gone wrong, one gets the feel­ing that instead of Bridge of Words” a more apt descrip­tion to account for all the set­backs caused by these internecine quar­rels might have been Bridge of Sighs.”

The book, focus­ing on the move­ment, does not endeav­or to teach the lan­guage. (Wikipedia does a good job of pro­vid­ing the basics.) Nev­er­the­less, Schor does serve up many inter­est­ing tid­bits along the way, one of the most col­or­ful of which is Ho ve!” where one can rec­og­nize the Yid­dish expres­sion, Oy vey!

A New York Times arti­cle on the bil­lion­aire Esper­an­tist George Soros recent­ly called Esperan­to a lan­guage fash­ioned in the almost evan­gel­i­cal belief that giv­ing the world a com­mon easy-to-learn sec­ond lan­guage would reduce con­flict.” Esther Schor, a writer of beau­ti­ful Eng­lish and a thor­ough researcher and schol­ar, tells us how Zamenhof’s dream of per­fect­ing the world — like that of most world reform­ers — did not come to fruition.

But there is always hope.

And yet, there are many peo­ple today who would still pre­fer the Hebrew ver­sion of that hope.

Joseph Lowin, Hebrew lan­guage colum­nist for Hadas­sah Mag­a­zine, is the author most recent­ly of a book of lit­er­ary analy­sis, Art and the Artist in the Con­tem­po­rary Israeli Nov­el (Lex­ing­ton Books, 2017).

Discussion Questions