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April 2: Nathan Birnbaum

Lawrence Bush
April 2, 2010

birnbaum_nNathan Birnbaum, who coined the term “Zionism” and was the chief organizer of the historic 1908 Czernowitz Conference for the Yiddish Language, died on this date in 1937. A decade before Theodor Herzl launched the Zionist movement, Birnbaum founded Kadimah (“Forward”), the first Jewish nationalist student association in Vienna, and established Selbstemanzipation! (“Self-Emancipation!”), a journal that advocated the development of a Jewish liberation movement in Palestine. At the First Zionist Congress in 1897, Birnbaum was elected secretary-general of the Zionist Organization, but left it shortly after, unhappy over the organization’s negative views of the Diaspora and himself increasingly committed to cultural, rather than political, Zionism. Once a staunch atheist, Birnbaum became an Orthodox Jew in 1916 after a conversionary experience and soon became general secretary of Agudas Yisroel. His 1917 Confession can be read in English translation.

“Something of great moment [had to be] accomplished on behalf of Yiddish, a kind of public proclamation of its linguistic legitimacy and of its linguistic rights.” —Nathan Birnbaum on the Czernowitz Conference

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.