Today, Dec. 15, is known as Zamenhof Day and is celebrated annually by users of Esperanto. Exactly 156 years ago, Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof was born in the town of Bia?ystok in the Russian Empire. Zamenhof was a Polish Jew, physician, inventor, and writer. But he is most widely known for creating Esperanto, the most successful constructed language in the world. Zamenhof was fascinated by the idea of a world without war and believed that this could happen with the help of a new international auxiliary language, which he first developed in 1873. Esperanto’s beauty lies in its being neutral, a combination of many different languages and most of all, not owned by one specific nation.
But Hitler accused Esperanto as being part of a Jewish conspiracy — global Jewish attempt to control the world. And Stalin accused it to be a language of spies and therefore, a political threat of cosmic proportions.
Today between one to two million people worldwide speak Esperanto and follow Zamenhof’s vision to unite the world.
Zamenhof died in Warsaw on April 14, 1917, and is buried at the Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery. Visitors to Jewish Poland stop at this historical Jewish cemetery, where Jewish innovators of all callings now rest in peace.
The Midrash teaches us that “We were led out of Egypt because we kept three things intact: our name, our clothing, and our language.”
Five years after Zamenhof’s passing, on Hanukkah of 1922, Eliezer Ben Yehuda died at the age of 64. Ben Yehuda, the key figure in the revival of the Hebrew language, fought so that we, the Hebrew nation will have one living language that will define us. Ben Yehuda too was a visionary, an innovator and a man of dreams.
One devoted his life to unify the world by introducing one mutual language to all, and the other devoted his life to distinguish the Jews from the rest of the world by reviving the Hebrew language. Two innovators, two dreamers, each representing a very different approach.
Are they really reflecting two different approaches or are they merely complimenting one another? In seeking ways to communicate with others, do we essentially define who we are, create our own identity, through the language we inherit and our chosen ways of discourse?
I grew up between both worlds, the Zamenhof one and the Ben Yehuda one. My grandparents lived on Zamenhof Street in Tel Aviv and my grandmother actually spoke Esperanto, while being known as one of the leading Hebrew teachers in the first Hebrew city. She passionately corrected people’s language mistakes and spoke the most beautiful Hebrew I have ever heard, but she bought into Zamenhof ‘s vision of one language common to all.
To be a people you need land, anthem, flag, common vision and hopes, values, moral, culture and tradition. And a people needs a language.
Ben Yehuda knew that one common language could create national pride. Zamenhof didn’t argue with that; he actually envisioned Esperanto to be a second language to all users, not their mother tongue.
On days when hatred, division, dispute and prejudice take over public discourse and evil acts of nationalism threaten our existence, we must strive to keep our nation’s symbols so that they stand for the very best in us. We must cherish and respect them, imbue them with pride, while constantly looking for ways to reach others, bridge gaps and connect.
We just ended eight days of Hanukkah where almost 15 million Jews worldwide lit candles. It is my hope that these millions of candles will spread light to overcome darkness of any form and shape. That this light will illuminate our many colors, while dancing into one, united flame.
Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center