By Harriet P. Gross
Earl “Jarlo” Bills is issuing us this challenge: Inteligenta persono lernas Esperanton facile kaj rapide, which means “An intelligent person learns Esperanto easily and quickly.” In Esperanto, of course.
Bills is a local, vocal proponent of this international language, created 125 years ago. He first found it in a Dallas library stack of old books when he was a college freshman in the early ’70s. Already a language student (French major, Spanish and German minors), he had no trouble teaching himself a tongue whose vocabulary is drawn mainly from European ones. But its ideas, he tells us, transcend geography:
“‘Esperanto’ means ‘the one who hopes,’ and its philosophy is la interna ideo: a belief that people from all backgrounds, countries and religions have the capacity to get along, if they can find a way to communicate.”
Should we be surprised that the father of this idealistic undertaking was Jewish? “Jewish ideals still run high in the Esperanto community,” Bills says. “Especially the idea that beliefs and practices don’t have to all be the same in order to be valid and worthwhile. This applies both to language and to religion and is the foundation of the interna ideo.”
L.L. Zamenhof was a young doctor, married and practicing in Warsaw, when he published the first Esperanto book, “The International Language,” in 1887 — an enterprise financed by his father-in-law. Soon after came Volapuk (Wordspeak), a second language that never caught on because the man who dominated it wouldn’t let other people create words.
“This was Zamenhof’s gift to the world,” says Bills. “He never made decisions about how the language evolved; he believed it could not be the province of one.”
To this point, he appends a warning for those trying to keep the “Star Trek” language alive and viable today: “Klingon must learn from Esperanto!”
Bills beats his resounding language drum even more loudly now since Esperanto USA, which unites local clubs under a national umbrella, held its most recent convention the last weekend in June at the University of Texas at Dallas. (The Universal Esperanto Association, headquartered in Rotterdam, will meet next year in Reykjavik, Iceland.)
“Of the 60 people attending, four were identifiably Jewish,” reports Bills, “which suggests that Jewish participation in the U.S. movement is roughly proportional to the Jewish percentage in the general population.”
One of those four himself, Bills is a six-year member of Congregation Beth Torah, where he’s a service leader and a mean guitarist for the synagogue’s monthly “Joyful Noise” Shabbats.
“In the early years, many of the movement’s leaders — still revered today by Esperantists — were Jews. However, the Communist and Nazi persecutions changed that,” Bills explains. Zamenhof himself had died in 1917; still, “His family was specifically targeted by Hitler, and were arrested immediately when the German army entered Warsaw.”
But early on, Zamenhof the Jew bequeathed a most unusual gift to the Christian world. By himself, he rendered the Tanach into Esperanto; later, when Esperantists in London translated the New Testament, they combined the Zamenhof translation with their work to form a complete Christian Bible. That makes this Esperanto “hybrid” the only Christian Scriptures in the world to use a Jewish translation of the “Old Testament.”
And “Esperantists would never change this,” Bills emphasizes. “Zamenhof’s translation is definitive and immutable. It is a model of Esperanto form and usage, and Esperanto dictionaries quote it extensively to illustrate both.”
Bills speaks extremely seriously about this, but shows a more humorous side when relating his own early Esperanto experiences.
“I subscribed to some periodicals, and then I took out an ad for pen pals,” he recalls. “I had 27 responses — all from behind the Iron Curtain. I picked a guy in Tallinn, Estonia, who wanted rock n’ roll albums. But when I sent them, they were censored. So I routed them to someone in Helsinki, and from there they were forwarded to the Soviet Union — my modest contribution by corruption to the fall of Communism,” he laughs, adding, “I also sent blue jeans.”
Want to learn more? Attend a local Klubo de Norda Teksaso meeting, 5-7 p.m. on the second Saturday of every month in the upstairs community room of Central Market, 5750 East Lovers Lane in Dallas. Or visit the Esperanto conversation circle, 3-5 p.m. every month’s first Sunday in the common room at Classic Residence, 5455 La Sierra Drive in Dallas. You’re an inteligenta persono who’ll be bonvenon (welcome).
Further information? E-mail email@example.com, or call Jarlo (Earl in Esperanto, of course) Bills himself, 469-585-1049.