I am often asked why I wrote a book about Esperanto. (Correction: I am always asked.) I generally explain that I wrote the book not as an Esperantist — I learned the language while writing the book — but as a Jew, thinking about a perennial Jewish conundrum: the relationship between particularism and universalism.

Like so many books, this one started in another book, my biography of the American Jewish poet Emma Lazarus (1849-1887). In her writings of the 1870s, Lazarus forged the identity of the Jewish-American writer for a mainstream, middle-brow American audience. In the following decade, however, she embraced a different task: reconciling her particular identity as a wealthy fourth- or fifth-generation Sephardic American Jew with universalism. Lazarus’s concept of universalism was one part tikkun olam and one part an Enlightenment ideal of human rights and world culture. When the pogroms of the early 1880s transformed her preoccupation with Jewish history into a passion to save Russia’s Jews, she became a lone American voice espousing the cause of Jewish auto-emancipation — what would soon be called Zionism.

The year Lazarus died prematurely at 38 was the year Esperanto was born. Its inventor, Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, was a child of the haskalah (the Enlightenment). As a medical student in Moscow during the tumultuous early 1880s, he became embroiled in Zionist activism and fled to Warsaw, where he became the go-to man among young supporters of Hibbat Zion. He organized meetings, publicized the Zionist cause, and even channeled money illegally to settlers. For a time, he espoused a Jewish state on the banks of the Mississippi. Palestine, he maintained, was a “volcano” whose imminent eruption would sap the Zionist capacity for state-building. By 1887, when he published International Language, Zamenhof had become disillusioned with Zionism, partly because of infighting among settlers, and partly because his Zionism had always been in tension with his strongly universalist bent.

But while Zamenhof liked to speak of “crossing the Rubicon” from Zionism to universalism, Esperanto was from its inception embedded in a Jewish matrix. It was born in the mean streets of Bialystok, a place of inter-ethnic hostility among Jews, Germans, Russians and Poles. And Zamenhof believed that Esperanto would play a role in the future of Judaism. In 1901, he called on the Jewish intelligentsia of the Russian Empire to embrace what he called “Hillelism,” a reformed Judaism purged of nationalism, in which Jewish observance was submitted to the test of conscience. Hebrew, he wrote, was a “cadaver,” and Yiddish a “jargon”; instead, the Jews of the future would be unified by Esperanto, a language free of nationalism. In 1905, ridiculed by anti-Semitic French Esperantists, Zamenhof agreed officially to sever Hillelism from Esperanto; thereafter he would refer to the “internal idea” of the international language, while continuing to revise, develop and advocate for what he came to call a “neutral -human religion.” In time, he believed, Hillelism would extend itself to all who sought an ethical religious community based not on ethnicity but on a shared future.

So my story, in its inception, was a Jewish story, and I hoped that it would be embraced by the Jewish press. And it was, with a twist that I found surprising. Reviewers in Jewish journals and websites, by and large, regarded Zamenhof as a tragic figure who made a devil’s bargain. Hillelism itself was denigrated. As David Mikics put it in Tablet Magazine, “Hillelism had a tweet-sized credo ending in a variation on Hillel’s famous command: What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” Others bemoaned Zamenhof’s renunciation of Zionism. Hillel Halkin, among others, remarked that Zamenhof should have stayed a Zionist and tried to preserve the tribe instead of redeeming all humanity. Still others portrayed Zamenhof as a luftmensch, a grandiose Quixote who, dying in 1917, never saw how tragically insignificant his vision would look when the largest storm of the 20th Century overwhelmed his people.

I was, perhaps naively, surprised at the animus toward Zamenhof. The Jewish press, I felt, had collectively failed to grasp two crucial points (mea culpa, it can take a reviewer to show an author what points needed more emphasis to emerge clearly). First, I’d intended to present Esperanto as a Jewish language, and not simply because Zamenhof offered it to the Jews of Russia. Zamenhof abandoned a three-year project to modernize Yiddish because Esperanto itself took on that work. Esperanto, a “mongrel” language like Yiddish, reversed the ratio of Romance to Slavic and Germanic words in Yiddish to frame a Jewish language pointed toward the west and the future. Second, reviewers were disinclined to read Zamenhof’s Hillelism as a Judaizing movement. Zamenhof had an astonishing confidence that Jewish values and culture, purged of nationalism and fl uent in Esperanto, would become universally meaningful and practicable. I understand why this is a distasteful claim. It comes dangerously close to conspiracy theories about global Jewish aspirations, which is precisely how Hitler represented Esperanto in Mein Kampf (1925). Among the titles of reviews of my book were some odd choices (probably editorial): in Haaretz, “Esperanto: Universal Language, or yet another ‘Jewish Conspiracy?’”; in Tablet Magazine, “The Secret language of George Soros.”

To me, Zamenhof was anything but a failure. The language he invented alone at his desk and entrusted to its speakers is now spoken 130 years later on six continents. While he was shortsighted and mistaken in some crucial respects, he was heroic in his passionate commitment to interethnic understanding, his respect for the capacity of human beings to ameliorate society, and his sustained, if unconventional, piety to a God he inherited from Judaism. Though Zamenhof did renounce Zionism (as he did all nationalism without exception), he never denied his Jewishness, even as other Esperantists did their best to protect him from anti-Semitism. In fact, he defended his Jewish identity vigorously and explicitly, reminding his challengers that in his Dzika street medical practice (where he also lived), he worked for decades treating eye disease among the poor Jews of Warsaw. When he traveled to England, he gave interviews to The Jewish Chronicle and responded when criticized in the New York Yiddish papers Tageblatt and Die Wahrheit. When anti-Semitic statements appeared in an Esperanto periodical published in Poland, he denounced them.

But perhaps the biggest surprise for me, as my book appeared in the polarized weeks leading up to the election of Donald Trump, was the positive reception of Esperanto itself in the mainstream U.S. press. Reviewers remarked on the vitality of the Esperantists, on their capacity to adapt to changing political climates and on their savvy expansion of the language to speak to new technologies and social practices. And in this deeply divided political climate, nearly all reviewers remarked on the strong affinities Esperantists feel across national, ethnic, racial and religious boundaries.

In fact, they brought me back to my initial, gut response to my first gathering of Esperantists, as I put it in the Forward in 2007: “Zamenhof’s figurative children, without suspecting it, seem and act so much like Jews.” Esperantists call one another samideanoj, meaning “same-idea-nik.” Indeed, their sense of a shared culture, a shared language, even a shared sense of humor — all of these gave me the strong impression of a group of crypto-Jews. As I traveled the world and came to know more and more Esperantists, I felt how reductive it was to represent Esperantists this way, and I distanced myself from this perception. So much so, that I acknowledged in print that I had long been, even before learning the language, a crypto-Esperantist. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between: between a people over whom Jewishness casts a very long shadow, and a Jewish writer who found her people, unexpectedly, among the samideanoj of Esperanto. 

Esther Schor, Professor of English at Princeton University, is the author of Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language and Emma Lazarus, a winner of the National Jewish Book Award.