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Zalkind Hourwitz

(1751 – 1812)

Zalkind Hourwitz was a Polish-born maskil, political activist, journalist, and author in pre-revolutionary and revolutionary France. As a young man, Hourwitz left his home in a small village near Lublin and set out for Berlin, where he supported himself by tutoring children of the wealthy. Here he may have interacted with Moses Mendelssohn and his circle before making his way to Metz and finally, by 1774, to Paris. In Paris, he sold used clothing during the day and at night poured over torn copies of Ovid and Molière, Voltaire, and Rousseau.

In 1785, Hourwitz was the only Jew to submit an essay when the prestigious Academy of Arts and Sciences in Metz devoted its annual contest to examining the Jewish question. Sharing the coveted prize with the abbé Grégoire and the Protestant lawyer Claude Thiéry, he gained access to elite governmental circles and competed successfully for the position of secrétaire-interprète at the Royal Library, the most important post a Jew could occupy in ancien régime France. Hourwitz’s award-winning essay Apologie des Juifs appeared in 1789, receiving lengthy and laudatory reviews, and played an important role in framing the discussion for granting equal rights to French Jewry.

Hourwitz’s commitment to the Revolution, which included service in the National Guard, never wavered. Neither did his presumption that the new political order would bring both security and freedom to his fellow Jews. Barely surviving the Reign of Terror (Hourwitz and his political friends had supported the cause of the Girondins), he once again raised his voice in defense of the Jews during the Directory. Joining a coterie of utopian visionaries and idealistic educators, he sought to vindicate the revolutionary promise of fraternity.

He invented a universal language which he presented before the prestigious Institut de France, explored the common origin of all languages, and appended his signature to proposals to prevent thefts, construct fire escapes, rename the streets and quarters of Paris, and feed the poor. He also 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 letters alphabétiques (1801), Origine des Langues (1801), and Lacographie ou écriture laconique, aussi vite que la parole (1811).

Having alienated members of the Jewish establishment, he was not invited to participate in the Assembly of Jewish Notables convened by Napoleon in 1806. Government ministers, however, consulted him privately.

Hourwitz proudly carried his Jewish identity wherever he went and fought for his vision of Jewish equality in France, defending the texts as well as the ethical integrity of Judaism. Although he frequently accused rabbis and lay leaders of willfully thwarting the economic, political, and intellectual well-being of his fellow Jews, he defiantly rejected the need for a Jewish regeneration. He argued in his Apologie that it is the Christians whom one must regenerate.


F. Malino, A Jew in the French Revolution (1996); idem, Un Juif rebelle dans la Révolution et sous l'Empire (2000).

[Frances Malino (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.