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Hourwitz, Zalkind

(1751–1812), maskil, political activist, journalist, and author. As a young man, Zalkind Hourwitz left his village near Lublin and set out for Berlin. There he tutored children of wealthy families—perhaps even coming into contact with the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn—before making his way to Metz and ultimately to Paris in 1774. Whether hawking used clothing or eking out a living teaching foreign languages to the young, he avoided starvation only with the support of his friends. In his spare time he studied Ovid, Molière, Voltaire, and Rousseau.

By 1788, Hourwitz was well known in the capital, having shared with a Catholic priest and a Protestant lawyer the Metz Academy’s prize for the best essay on improving conditions for Jews in France. Published in April 1789 to lengthy and laudatory reviews, his essay Apologie des Juifs (A Vindication of the Jews) played an important role in framing the discussion on granting equal rights to Jews. Abridged and very loosely translated into Polish—probably by a Polish reformer who advocated the granting of economic and municipal rights to the Jews—the essay was made available to the Polish public in November 1789.

Having befriended important ministers, in the spring of 1789 Hourwitz was awarded the position of interprète (interpreter) at the Bibliothèque Royale, the most important post a Jew could occupy in ancien régime France. In his published writings, as a national guardsman, and testifying before the Paris Commune, his commitment to the French Revolution never wavered. Nor did his sense that the new political order would bring both security and freedom to Jews. Barely surviving the Reign of Terror, Hourwitz again raised his voice in support of Jewish rights during the Directory.

Entering the world of letters, Hourwitz appended his signature to proposals to prevent thefts, construct fire escapes, and feed the poor. He published three books—Polygraphie ou l’art de correspondre, à l’aide d’un dictionnaire, dans toutes les langues, même dans celles dont on ne possède pas seulement les lettres alphabétiques (Polygraphie or the Art of Corresponding with the Help of a Dictionary in All Languages, Even Those for Which One Knows Only the Alphabet; 1801), Origine des langues (Origin of Languages; 1808), and Lacographie ou écriture laconique, aussi vite que la parole (Lacographie or a Concise Writing as Rapid as Speech; 1811)—and presented his concept for a universal language before the prestigious Institut de France. Having alienated members of the Jewish establishment with his biting public criticisms, he was not invited to participate in the Assembly of Jewish Notables convened by Napoleon in 1806. Government ministers, however, consulted him privately.

Joining the legacy of Jewish life in Eastern Europe with the intellectual weapons of the West, Hourwitz placed his faith in reason, education, and universal progress. Equal rights for Jews became his personal issue. Refusing to barter the self-esteem of his people for their political rights as individuals, he firmly identified a place for Jews in a regenerated French nation.

Suggested Reading

Frances Malino, A Jew in the French Revolution: The Life of Zalkind Hourwitz (Oxford, 1996).