Bintel Blog

Zamenhof Days: December 15 and the Polish Jewish inventor of Esperanto

By Benjamin Ivry

What are you doing on Zamenhof Day? To the uninitiated, that means December 15, the birthday of Ludwik Łazarz Zamenhof (born Eliezer Samenhof in 1859) a Polish Jewish ophthalmologist and inventor of Esperanto, the most popular constructed language ever. Although opinions differ widely on how many people actually speak it today Wikipedia quotes the Universal Esperanto Association approvingly when it says on its website that speakers number in the hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions.

Esperanto clubs flourish around the world, including in Tel Aviv, and Israeli TV discusses Esperanto on kids’ shows as well as news chat programs.

A rather more discreet presentation will take place in New York when The Universal Esperanto Association presents a symposium at The Church Center for the United Nations with featured speakers including Esther Schor, a Princeton University English professor, and author of “Emma Lazarus” (Schocken, 2006), a study of the acclaimed Jewish poet.

Also speaking will be writer Arika Okrent, a linguist (and devoted bagel baker) who compares Esperanto speakers to Trekkies who run around speaking the Klingon language as part of their everyday routine in “In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers and the Mad Dreamers who Tried to Build a Perfect Language” (Spiegel & Grau, 2009).

The link between Esperanto and “Star Trek” is strengthened by the famous cult 1965 sci-fi film “Incubus” starring the Canadian Jewish actor William Shatner, better known as Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise. One of the very few full-length feature films made entirely in Esperanto its reemergence on YouTube and Netflix suggests that, despite its limited native audience, its niche earnestness has a broad, if ironic, appeal.

Despite the temptation to make light of the utopian aspirations of Zamenhof and his followers, they were born in a time of deadly serious antisemitic violence. Zamenhof, who also created a religious philosophy, Homaranismo based on teachings by Hillel, had three children, all of whom perished in the Holocaust. His youngest daughter Lidia, a fervent disciple of Esperanto as well as the Bahá’í Faith, to which she converted in the 1920s, was murdered at Treblinka.

Watch William Shatner in the Esperanto-language film “Incubus.”

For a typically irreverent review of “Incubus” on DVD watch Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.”

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