The Great Family Circle
by Esther Schor
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 384 pp., $32
On January 23, 1924, the Jerusalem daily Do’ar Ha-yom ran an item about Esperanto. The newspaper’s editor, Itamar Ben-Avi, was the eldest son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the fanatical Hebrew lexicographer. Ben-Avi founded Do’ar Ha-yom in 1919 as a livelier alternative to Ha’aretz, modeling it on the Daily Mail of London. After the death of Ben-Avi’s father in 1922, Do’ar Ha-yom honored him with a motto on its masthead: “Ben-Yehuda haya omer, ‘Daber Ivrit—v’hivreta.’” (Ben-Yehuda used to say, “Speak Hebrew—and get healthy.”) The slogan is a pun on the word Ivrit; the syntax confers rabbinic status—as in “Hillel haya omer”—and the message is a cardinal trope of Zionist discourse: The Jewish condition needs to be healed. The mantra remained on the masthead until Ben-Avi’s final day as editor. And yet, during his 14 years at the helm, the paper ran many pieces promoting Esperanto, the international language.
The little item from 1924 is dryly humorous: An anti-Semitic weekly in Germany had urged fellow anti-Semites to learn Esperanto, the better to communicate with anti-Semitic organizations in other countries. “The newspaper apparently forgot,” concludes the squib, “that the inventor of Esperanto was a Jew, the late Dr. Zamenhof.”
Well, obviously. The famous ophthalmologist Ludovik Lazarus Zamenhof was born in 1859 to a polyglot family of emancipated Jews, in the multi-ethnic city of Białystok, in northeastern Poland. His father, Markus, was a teacher, at one point a censor of Jewish newspapers for the tsarist regime. During his medical studies in Moscow and Warsaw, Zamenhof favored a nationalist solution to the perennial “Jewish question.” Settlement in Palestine was complicated by the claims of Muslims and Christians, so he floated the notion of a Jewish colony in America, on the banks of the Mississippi. Soon he switched gears and became a leader in the Hibbat Zion movement. Within a few years, he had lost faith in Zionism and turned his efforts to inventing a universal language that would eliminate misunderstanding and enmity in the world. With his “implausibly bulbous head” and “boxy beard,” as Esther Schor describes him in her wise and absorbing new book on Esperanto, Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language, the chain-smoking eye doctor “could have passed for a younger, less self-important brother of Sigmund Freud.”