Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Esperanto and the Hebrew connection

I've long been fascinated by the by the connections between the creation of Esperanto and the revival of Hebrew. Both Ludovick Zamenhof and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda were born in the same part of the world, got involved in the early Zionist movement, and even had the same first name. Let's start with the elder Eliezer.

Eliezer Perlman was born in 1858 in Luzhki, Belarus. His parents wanted him to become a rabbi. He studied history instead. When he became part of the Zionist movement, he felt that reviving Hebrew as a everyday spoken language was of vital importance. He adopted the name Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. To that end, he raised his son, Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda speaking only Hebrew. Poor Ben-Zion didn't get to play with other children, because they spoke Yiddish.

Eliezer Zamenhof was born in 1859 in Bialystok, Poland. Like Luzhki, Bialystok was part of the Russian Empire. The places are about 250 miles apart. Eliezer, who later latinized his name to Ludovic, wanted to create a language to bring peace to the world. His parents wanted him to become a doctor. He did both, becoming an eye doctor and creating his "Lingvo Interncia," which we now all Esperanto. He also was involved in the Zionist movement. At one point, he suggested that the Jewish people seek a grant of land from the United States. Zamenhof is quoted in Aleksander Korĵenkov's Historio de Esperanto as saying:
Until we meet again, my people, in our own home, on the free banks of Mississippi. (Ĝis revido, mia popolo, en nia propra hejmo, sur la liberal bordoj de Misisipo.)
But Zamenhof noted that Hebrew just wouldn't do as the language of this new Jewish state ("state" as a part of the United States of America). Instead, he proposed Esperanto as the new language of the Jewish people.

I've known all these things for a while, but this is as close as I've been able to pull things together. But remember Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda, the little boy who could only play with other Hebrew speakers, of which there where none at the time? What happened to him?

He is famous as the first person to grow up speaking Modern Hebrew. Like everyone else in this story, he changed his name and he had some thoughts about language. (Given the two gentlemen above, we would have to assume he went into a different career than his parents intended, although this doesn't seem to be case.) Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda changed his name to Itamar Ben-Avi. He grew up to be a journalist, and was active in the Zionist movement (this is clearly a requirement for getting mentioned here).

Ben-Avi felt that Hebrew was all well and good, but it should be printed using Roman letters, not the Assyrian square script that Hebrew is written in. I stumbled across Ben-Avi when was I was curious about romanization of Hebrew. He created a newspaper in romanized Hebrew. Wikipedia has a clipping from it to demonstrate romanization of Hebrew.

Wait! What's that? "Safatenu — Esperanto ha Yahudut ha Jolamit." What's Esperanto doing in a Jerusalem newspaper during the Palestine Mandate?

In addition to being an advocate of romanized Hebrew, Ben-Avi was an Esperanto speaker. Sure, his father raised him speaking only Hebrew, but he didn't stay a monolingual Hebrew speaker. He studied in Paris and Berlin after leaving Palestine (as it was then) at the age of 18. In 1900 there probably weren't a lot of university classes in Hebrew.

Wikipedia notes that he returned to Palestine and advocated for Esperanto in the pages of his newspaper. I have yet to turn up any reference to him in Esperanto sources, but his actions in Palestine may not have come to the attention of European or American esperantists sources. Did Ben-Avi ever cross paths with Ludovic Zamenhof?

So the trail grows cold for now. But after years of wondering if there was a link between these two men named Eliezer who grew up not far from each other and each worked and language, it's clear that was one. We know that Ludovic Zamenhof knew about Hebrew. Did Eliezer Ben-Yehuda know about Esperanto? The answer seems to be yes. And the man who was the link between the reviver of Hebrew and the creator of Esperanto, is no other than the son of the man who revived Hebrew.

Update: I've been told that the Hebrew phrase reads "Our language — The Esperanto of the Jewish people."

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  1. Bona verko, vivu Palestino. Kia ĝeno ke Esperanto ne kreskis multe en tiu lando.

    1. Notu ke Palestino estis la nomo de la regiono antaŭ la kreo de Israelo.

    2. kaj post la antaŭa esto de Israelo.

  2. Dankon, mi ja parolas hebrean kaj Esperanton… aldonis surprizajn informojn.

  3. Interesiga artikolo. Plusendita al juda konatulo.

    Bernardo Verda


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