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August 30: The Czernowitz Conference

August 30, 2010

Czern-conf_leaders2_bigThe week-long Czernowitz Yiddish Language Conference began on this date in 1908. The gathering was organized chiefly by Nathan Birnbaum (1864-1937), a Viennese writer and intellectual who had coined the terms “Zionism” and “Yiddishism.” Many important Yiddish writers of the day attended, with the unfortunate exceptions of Sholem Aleichem, who was seriously ill, and the elderly Mendele Moykher Sforim. The minutes of the Conference went unpublished, and efforts to establish an office and membership organization devoted to follow-up were unsuccessful. Nevertheless, writes Ruth Kaswan, the Conference “was a landmark occasion in the rise of Jewish consciousness and liberation.” Its affirmation of Yiddish as a language was “a declaration of solidarity with the Jewish masses that was by definition a revolutionary act.” This “inspired the creation of a vast school system around which the Jewish population in the areas of its greatest concentration, in Poland and the Baltic States, was able to create almost a state within a state in the period between the two world wars, inspiring in the people a sense of pride and identity and providing a focal point for democratic socialist action in the context of the political activities of their countries.” (Our June 2008 issue featured an in-depth conversation about the Czernowitz Conference with Dr. Emanuel Goldsmith.)

“The great achievement of the Conference was not that it put Yiddish on the map — Yiddish had been on the map for a long time — but it put Yiddishism on the map. Yiddishism is the idea that preserving, sustaining, developing and encouraging culture in the Yiddish language is a form of Jewish living, a way of being Jewish.” —Emanuel Goldsmith