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The Contemporary Meaning of the Czernowitz Yiddish Language Conference

Lawrence Bush
July 7, 2008

An Interview with Emanuel S. Goldsmith

“Three liberating moments in Jewish history created our movement,” said the classic Yiddish writer, I.L. Peretz (1851-1915), in his address to the Czernowitz Conference for the Yiddish Language, which convened one hundred years ago on August 30th, 1908. The first “moment” he identified was the awakening of “the poor Jewish masses” who “began to liberate themselves” from “both the Jewish Talmudic scholar and... the rich man.” This set the stage for the second “moment,” the mid-18th century emergence of khasidism (Hasidism), which Peretz characterized as “Torah for everybody” — a democratizing movement (at least for a short period) that expressed its joyous spirituality in the Yiddish language. [caption id=“attachment_31304” align=“alignleft” width=“400”]Photo of Czernowitz participants Participants in the Czernowitz Conference included (left to right) Avrom Reyzn, I.L. Peretz, Sholem Asch, Khayim Zhitlovsky, & H.D. Nomberg.[/caption] Third, said Peretz, was when “the Jewish woman — the Jewish wife... demanded something for herself. Women’s books appeared, and out of Judeo-German was born a ‘mother-tongue.’” However, he continued, “from these three moments alone, the Yiddish language would not have emerged.” The final force was the arrival onstage of “the Jewish proletariat,” which created “an instrument for its struggle for life, its working-class culture in Yiddish.” This, in a nutshell, was Peretz’s analysis of how Yiddish had matured into the very embodiment of Ashkenazic life — and was deserving of cultivation by the sixty or so Yiddish writers, editors, linguists and political and cultural activists who attended the Czernowitz (in Yiddish, Tshernovits) Conference. The gathering, which lasted nearly a week, was organized chiefly by Nathan Birnbaum (1864-1937), a Viennese writer and intellectual who had coined the terms “Zionism” and “Yiddishism.” Just a few months before the Conference, Birnbaum had made a lecture trip to America, during which, he later wrote, “I declared my support for a diaspora cultural nationalism and underlined the essential importance of the Yiddish language for the survival of the Jewish people” — a point of view that American Jews “were very reluctant and disinclined at that time to accept.” He thus determined that “something of great moment must be accomplished on behalf of Yiddish, a kind of public proclamation of its linguistic legitimacy and of its linguistic rights.” Yet Birnbaum himself wrote and lectured primarily in German and was new both to Yiddish literature and culture and to the multilingual city of Czernowitz, the capital of Bukovina. (Czernowitz at various times was part of Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Romania, Ukraine, the Ottoman Empire, and other sovereignties.) Along with Birnbaum and I.L. Peretz, the other catalyzing figures of the Czernowitz Conference were Dr. Khayim Zhitlovsky (1865-1943), the social philosopher and Yiddishist, who drafted the invitation, and Matisyohu Mieses (1885-1945), a young linguist whose writings provided a formal defense of Yiddish as a fully legitimate language. The Conference itself was attended by many major Yiddish writers of the day, with the unfortunate exceptions of Sholem Aleichem, who was seriously ill, and the elderly Mendele Moykher Sforim. Nevertheless, from the perspective of one hundred years later, Czernowitz may appear to have been ineffectual. Of the ten agenda items proposed by the organizers — including Yiddish orthography, the Yiddish press, Yiddish theater, a Yiddish dictionary, and more — only the tenth point, “recognition for the Yiddish language,” was fully debated on the floor. Was Yiddish to be trumpeted as “the ethno-national language” of the Jewish people, as the Bundists in attendance, led by Ester Frumkin, vociferously urged, or as “an ethno-national language” of the Jewish people, as Birnbaum himself recommended. The latter position won the majority, after four days of wrangling. “I was the only one at the entire Conference,” Birnbaum recalled (after becoming an Orthodox Jew — he was a man of shifting identities), “who eschewed strong words, opposed radicalism and demanded practical results.” The minutes of the Czernowitz Conference went unpublished. Efforts to establish an office and membership organization devoted to follow-up were unsuccessful. Nevertheless, writes Ruth Kaswan, a scholar whose parents were cofounders of the Jewish Labor Bund in Bukovina, the Conference “was a landmark occasion in the rise of Jewish consciousness and liberation.” The affirmation of Yiddish as a language was itself “a declaration of solidarity with the Jewish masses that was by definition a revolutionary act.” Kaswan continues: Czernowitz 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. (Kaswan’s essay, as well as the translations used in this introduction and many other wonderful resources about the Czernowitz Conference, are available in both English and transliterated Yiddish.) To gain insight into the significance of the Czernowitz Conference in this centennial year, Jewish Currents recently interviewed Dr. Emanuel S. Goldsmith, author of Modern Yiddish Culture: The Story of the Yiddish Language Movement (1997), a comprehensive and authoritative study of the Conference. A professor of Yiddish and Hebrew Literatures and Jewish studies at Queens College (CUNY), Goldsmith is also the editor of Yiddish Literature in America, 1870-2000, a two-volume anthology of Yiddish poetry and prose (in Yiddish). He is an ordained rabbi who leads M’vakshe Derekh, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Scarsdale, New York, and is a student of the philosophy of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Jewish Reconstructionism. Goldsmith is editor (with Mel Scult) of a volume of Kaplan’s writings, Dynamic Judaism (1991), and of The American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan (with Scult and Robert M. Seltzer, 1990). He belongs to a breed of Jew that is passing from our world: the kind who stand at the crossroads of many, many strands of Jewish life and contributes, with love and creativity, to all of them. [caption id=“attachment_31305” align=“alignleft” width=“200”]Headshot of Dr. Emanuel S. Goldsmith Emanuel S. Goldsmith[/caption] “My parents were Yiddish speakers,” Manny Goldsmith told us, “my father from Palestine, my mother from the Ukraine. They read Der Tog [“The Day”] out loud. They shlepped me to Zionist meetings, where the language was Yiddish. They took me to the Yiddish theater. We listened to the Yiddish radio, WEVD and WLIB, and I would come home from school to listen to the music. But when it came to sending me to a Jewish school, I was sent to a talmud toyre [traditional religious school]. Even there, the principal, who taught us to davn in Hebrew and lectured about the Bible in English, spoke in Yiddish when it came to anything essential. I knew, instinctively, that when you get down to the nitty-gritty, it’s got to be in Yiddish. There was no question in my mind that Yiddish was the living language of the Jewish people.” Manny did not begin to study the language formally, however, until he came to City College and met Max Weinreich, the great Yiddish scholar. “Weinreich immediately began teaching me Yiddish literature,” Manny recalls. “Shortly after meeting him, I said, ‘You know, Dr. Weinreich, I’m not a Yiddishist.’ And he snapped back at me: ‘Neither am I!’ Of course, Weinreich was a Yiddishist, one of the great Yiddishists of our time — but what he meant was that he was a Jew for whom Yiddish was not the sum total of Judaism. Everything was in Yiddish, but Yiddish was not everything. Well, that immediately sold me! I fell in love with him — he was a fascinating guy, who could speak to me authoritatively about everything I was interested in — and then I fell completely in love with Yiddish.” Professor Goldsmith was interviewed in our offices by our editor, Lawrence Bush; our new website editor and New York organizer, Rokhl Kafrissen; the Workmen’s Circle’s in-house Yiddish educator, Kolya Borodulin; and Miriam Leberstein, a member of our editorial advisory council who teaches Yiddish to retired United Federation of Teachers members and is a Yiddish translator. Rokhl Kafrissen: You knew two very significant Jewish figures: Dr. Weinreich and Dr. Mordecai Kaplan, the theorist of Reconstructionism — who was not particularly supportive of Yiddish... Emanuel Goldsmith: Let me correct you. Yiddish was very precious to Kaplan. He read the Yiddish press every day. As a yeshiva student, he organized a strike against students who were speaking English instead of Yiddish! His daughter, Judith Eisenstein, told me that there was even a period in his life when he felt that they’d made a mistake in Palestine by making Hebrew the official language — it should’ve been Yiddish. He later changed his mind about that, but it shows his passion about Yiddish. As a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he sometimes assigned books in Yiddish to his classes. And his ideas were frequently defended in the Yiddish press by such writers as Sholem Aleichem’s son-in-law, B.Z. Goldberg, the literary critic S. Niger, and Dr. S. Margoshes. I should add that Kaplan clearly was influenced by Khayim Zhitlovsky, the great theorist of Yiddishism. Unfortunately, Kaplan didn’t acknowledge this, perhaps because Zhitlovsky was a political radical and a formal atheist. But in 1909, Zhitlovsky wrote an essay called “The National Poetic Rebirth of the Jewish Religion.” It was pure Reconstructionism! Zhitlovsky taught that we don’t have to believe in all the beliefs of the Jewish religion, but we have to continue practicing Judaism because it has beautiful poetic values, spiritual values, and national values. That is precisely what Kaplan taught! That’s why I’ll never understand why Reconstructionist rabbis get no training whatsoever in Yiddish... Kafrissen: You seem to have integrated these diverse strands of Jewish life perhaps more successfully than your mentors. Goldsmith: I never saw the separation! I don’t understand how you can separate religion and culture and Israel and Zionism and language and politics — it’s all part of Judaism. I inherited from my parents a love of all things Jewish, and all things Jewish have been expressed most fully in the Yiddish language. It is the expression of the soul of the Jewish people. Lawrence Bush: I’m reminded of how my grandmother would use the words “Yiddish” and “Jewish” interchangeably. Goldsmith: Exactly. And the Czernowitz Conference affirmed that. 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. Miriam Leberstein: I love that definition! Goldsmith: And had there not been a Holocaust, and had there not been a Stalin, there would still be millions of Jews living out that definition. Kafrissen: Joshua Fishman, in his biography of Nathan Birnbaum, describes him not as a Yiddishist, but as a “Yiddish makes good Jewish things better”-ist. [caption id=“attachment_31306” align=“alignright” width=“200”]Headshot of Nathan Birnbaum Nathan Birnbaum, the key organizer of the Czernowitz Conference.[/caption] Goldsmith: That’s wonderful. Birnbaum went through many ideological stages in his life. He was overly enthusiastic for whatever he had for breakfast that day. He went through a period as a proud atheist — his pen-name was Matisyohu Akher, “Akher” referring to the Talmudic scholar Elisha ben Avuyah, who questioned Providence. Then Birnbaum became a Zionist; then a Jewish nationalist; then a Yiddishist; then the leader of Agudas Yisroel, the organization of ultra-Orthodox Jews. But once he fell in love with Yiddish, that remained with him throughout his life. Bush: His mother was the daughter of a misnagid rabbi — an opponent of khasidism — while his father was a Galitsianer khosid. That’s an apt background for the kind of flip-flopping you just described. Kafrissen: Fishman describes the family as tending towards assimilation, but Jess Olson, a young scholar who just wrote his thesis on Birnbaum and had access to the Birnbaum family archive, describes the household as a lot more observant than has been thought. Goldsmith: The word “assimilationist” was used by ultra-Orthodox Jews to refer to all people who left Orthodoxy. If you went to what we would today consider a Reform or Conservative synagogue, you were considered an assimilationist. Bush: What some Orthodox rabbis in Israel today call a goy. Goldsmith: Yes, all of us in this room would be considered goyim, along with 90 percent of the Israeli Jewish population. Birnbaum’s family had been influenced by the haskole [“Enlightenment”]. The leaders of the haskole not only wanted Jews to integrate with the societies in which they lived, but also to remain Jews. Too many books describe the maskilim [proponents of the haskole] as if they only wanted the Jews to integrate. They also wanted Jews to remain Jews. That was the essential purpose of the Czernowitz Conference: to keep the Jewish people from disappearing. Yiddish was seen as the main tool for that purpose. That was also the purpose for the creation of Zionism, by the way: not simply to create a country in the Middle East, but to save the Jewish people from disappearing by creating that country. Even after Yiddish literature became a world-class literature, its writers were obsessed with the question: How will Jews remain Jews now that they are not segregated from the non-Jewish populations? As Shimon Rawidowicz said, we were and are the ever-disappearing people. The Jews were a people without assets. They did not have a land. The Jewish religion was evaporating at the beginning of the 20th century. The only asset the Jews had was a national language, the language that three out of every four Jews on earth spoke. Yiddish is what kept them alive as a nation. Czernowitz was all about cultivating that asset. I agree with Yudel Mark, who said that Yiddish produced the most national literature that the Jewish people has ever had, even more so than Hebrew. You can’t help but love the Jewish people if you read Yiddish literature. So here’s what the Anti-Defamation League should do: hand out booklets of Sholem Aleichem stories to Jews and non-Jews. That would be very effective defense work! Bush: Tell us about the historical context for the passions that arose over the question that dominated the Conference, which was, essentially, an ideological question: whether to call Yiddish ‘the’ language or ‘a’ language of the Jewish people. Goldsmith:That’s still a living issue today! Bush: Could it be that the other agenda issues were less important than the ideological one because the language didn’t really need to be rehabilitated or elevated? After all, by the time of Czernowitz, there were already writers of great repute writing in Yiddish... [caption id=“attachment_31307” align=“alignleft” width=“400”]Group photo of conference participants Nathan Birnbaum, second row, far left. The woman next to him is probably his wife, Rosa Korngut, but the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia identifies her as Ester Frumkin of the Jewish Labor Bund, a central figure in the contention over the status of Yiddish as the or a national language. I.L. Peretz, at right, second row,
is seated next to his wife, Helene Ringelblum.[/caption] Goldsmith: The language needed respect. There had been a two thousand year history when all that mattered to the Jews was religion. Language was never important to Jews — it was the religious content it conveyed that counted. Yet for a thousand years the Yiddish language had been developing. For nearly two centuries before the Conference, people were waking up to the significance of Yiddish. A literature was forming. The musr [Mussar] movement and other educational movements were conducted in Yiddish. As Peretz pointed out, a Jewish working class was forming that needed a language. Jewish women needed a language. Khasidism had taught us that even the Jewish religion needed Yiddish if it was going to be revived among the people. So the issue was, were we going to give status to this language or not? Kolya Borodulin: It was the growing secular sector of Jews that was most intent on elevating Yiddish. The religious Jews didn’t care that much, but the secular did. The Jewish Bund, for example. It was in existence for ten years by the time of Czernowitz. There was a developing socialist consciousness among many Jews. Goldsmith: I agree with you completely. However, “secular,” in 1908, meant the recognition there are aspects to Judaism besides religion. It did not stand for anti-religionism. Later, in America, for certain reasons, “secular” came to mean anti-religious or even atheistic. At the time of Czernowitz, it did not have that meaning at all. The Yiddish word for ‘secular’ was veltlekh, which means you have to be concerned with oylem hazeh, this world, not only oylem habo, the world to come. Judaism, as practiced at that time, was an other-worldly religion. Now people were becoming interested in life in this world. You mention the Bund. The Bund was very influenced by the Conference. Before Czernowitz, the Bund wasn’t sure that it wanted to go with Jewish nationalism and with Yiddish. It wanted Yiddish as a tool, not as a cause. After the Conference, Yiddish became a cause for the Bund — and in the end, the Bund did a great deal for the language. Its Jewish nationalism and Yiddish belonged together. Bush: Nathan Birnbaum didn’t quite feel that way. After going through his religious conversion and looking back on the Conference, he said this: “I observe with mounting apprehension how the radical parties tend to monopolize the Yiddish language for their own purposes. In doing so, they’ve driven a wedge between Yiddish and the mass of religious Jews, the original and truthful creators of Yiddish, and thereby they’ve placed Yiddish in jeopardy of being sundered from its life-giving sources” and of “losing its linguistic authenticity, its true Jewish nature, its vivid colors” [translation by Joshua Fishman]. Goldsmith: It was only the politicians who were doing that. The great Yiddish writers were not. All of them wrote about religion, about God — including Avrom Reyzn, who has a poem in which he says, “I’m not religious.” But there isn’t anything in the Jewish religion about which Avrom Reyzn did not write a poem! Bush: Even Ester Frumkin, who moved from being a Bundist to being a farbrente [fiery]Communist, seemed to agree with your idea — and Zhitlovsky’s idea — that the Jewish religion is an essential part of Jewish identity and survival. Nora Levin quoted her as saying that at least some religious tradition was “a necessary element in the raising of a ‘folk child.’... When we speak of education in a proletarian spirit, we do not mean that children should recite... a chapter of The Communist Manifesto instead of the ‘Modeh Ani.’” Goldsmith: Frumkin was a terribly tragic figure, who died in a Soviet prison. She was the only woman at the Czernowitz Conference, apart from the wives of some of the attendees. Bush: But do you buy Birnbaum’s idea that she and others of the Bund somehow did damage to Yiddish? Goldsmith: They did damage in the eyes of the religious. They moved Jews away from religion by virtue of their politics. The great Bundist leaders understood their purpose to be to keep the Jewish people alive, but there were others in the Bund whose only real interest was getting Jews to support international socialism. Given how it turned out for the Jews under “international socialism,” you could say that the Bundists kicked Yiddish in the behind. So did the Zionists. They conducted their business in Yiddish, built the Jewish state in Yiddish, and then they kicked Yiddish in the behind. Borodulin: What if the Bund had won the day and the Conference had endorsed Yiddish as “the”national language instead of “a”national language? Goldsmith: There would have been a real war between the Hebraists and the Yiddishists — and the Hebraists would have won. Hebrew was the sacred tongue, the language of the Torah, the language of the prayers. By saying “a” national language, Yiddishism was refusing to go to war against Hebrew, which meant that that Yiddish could have the space to continue to blossom — and I could grow up without taking sides! Bush: And what if the Conference itself had not gotten off the ground? Goldsmith: Other Jews elsewhere would have convened a conference. The issue of Yiddish was boiling. Jews had to be inoculated with language consciousness. Czernowitz did that. It overcame the self-hatred and ignorance that weighed down Yiddish. Leberstein: In many ways, Czernowitz was simply a continuation of a European process of legitimizing vernaculars, which started centuries earlier with English. Goldsmith: That’s correct. But all the European nations had hundreds of years for that process. For the Jews, Czernowitz was the watershed. We cannot exaggerate the importance of having intelligent people declaring Yiddish to be a language — a national language, no less! Several of the speakers delivered eloquent addresses that proved how much of a language Yiddish really could be. All of this was a shock to the Jewish system. It made Jews think about language for the first time. Only after Czernowitz, in fact, did the Hebraist movement really get started. Czernowitz inspired the creation of secular Jewish schools in which Yiddish was now taught as a subject. Yiddish writers and scholars began to become interested in the language itself. In 1925, Yehoyesh [Yehoyesh Shloyme-Blumgarten] published his translation of the Tanakh [Bible] in modern Yiddish — that was a very important development. Leberstein: The translation of world literature into Yiddish was also an important outcome of the Conference. Goldsmith: World literature, as well as modern Jewish scholarship from other languages — Heinrich Graetz’s History of the Jews, for example, was translated into Yiddish. Leberstein: And more writers chose to write in Yiddish, and helped develop it through their writing. Some of the great Yiddish writers in the 20th century were really creating the language, with contributions in vocabulary and more. Dovid Bergelson was especially well-known for that. Goldsmith: That’s very important. When Mendele, Sholem Aleichem and Peretz were writing in the language, it had not been crystallized. After Czernowitz, people began to publish Yiddish dictionaries, to publish Yiddish language research. It’s hard to imagine, today, what would have been had there not been Hitler and Stalin. We would still have a great Yiddish culture, including here in America. I used to be a great fan of the Yiddish theater, you know, and I would wonder if they worried about sustaining their audiences. But they didn’t worry, because they believed there would always be yidn coming over from Europe, for generations to come — Jews who would still speak Yiddish and love Yiddish, even if they knew English or Russian or other languages of the countries in which they lived. Who could have anticipated Hitler and Stalin putting an end to that? Leberstein: Assimilation did its work, too. The younger generations had already moved from Yiddish. Goldsmith: You’re right. But we had had the Czernowitz Conference, you see! Which meant that there were people all around the Jewish world propagandizing about the significance and the beauty of Yiddish. I’ve traveled all over Europe, Canada, America, Israel — everywhere I go, I meet yidishistn, people who are working for this. They could not have stemmed the tide of assimilation completely, so maybe we wouldn’t have ten million Jews speaking Yiddish — but if we had five million? Or three million? Kafrissen: Perhaps we need another Czernowitz-type conference, here in the U.S., to declare once again that Yiddish is a language and a real Jewish asset, worthy of respect. Goldsmith: The job is not to have another conference, but to propagandize, with billions of dollars and all our creativity, to let them know the significance of Yiddish. People are receptive: Wherever I go, Jews who don’t know Yiddish still have a heart-felt response. Jews don’t feel that way about Hebrew. If they don’t know Hebrew, it’s an absolutely foreign language to them. But Jews love Yiddish. Kafrissen: But whenever I meet Jews and tell them I’m interested in Yiddish, they say, “What about Hebrew?” There’s still lots of ideology about language in the Jewish community. Goldsmith: Well, let’s clean up our own act first. Jewish Currents and The Workmen’s Circle are trying to propagate Yiddish, but, with all due respect — and I’m a member of The Workmen’s Circle, I’m entitled to say this — you’re doing it wrong! To have the word “secular” on the Jewish Currents masthead — why? Orthodox Jews today are “secular,” in the old sense of the word. Everybody is worldly! Why set yourselves apart? We have to be for Yiddish, for Jewish survival, not against the Jewish religion, which is what the word “secular” implies today. Yiddish must again be made into a tool of Jewish continuity. I’ve studied Hebrew throughout my lifetime, and I love Hebrew language and literature. But now we also have to include the lifelong study of Yiddish language, literature and lore as part of Judaism. Hebrew, you see, as the language of a country, comes with big burdens. It has to engage in all kinds of political tsores. It has debits as well as credits. Yiddish, by comparison, comes to us right now as the language of a Jewish people that was Jewish one hundred percent. It was the language of the people who died in the Holocaust. Yiddish has a resonance that Hebrew had before but is now losing. I’m not saying Yiddish is the only tool... Leberstein: As they said at Czernowitz, it’s a language, not the language. Goldsmith: Exactly. Leberstein: Though for me, Yiddish is the main way to be Jewish, because I don’t relate to a lot of the other ways. I have no interest in religion; I may recognize some of the enduring values that one can say originate in the religion and that resonate throughout Jewish culture, but I have no interest in religious practice. But overlaid with my very modern intellectual life, my feminism, my political and social ideologies, is the feeling that I was somehow born in a shtetl. My whole childhood was in Yiddish, and the language resonates in me on a very deep level. Frankly, there are days when I wake up and say, Do we have to be Jewish today? There’s a part of me that feels it would be easier to let it fade away. The Yiddish keeps me anchored as a Jew. Goldsmith: And you’re not alone in that feeling! Borodulin: Yes, I have it, too. To this day, I still can’t believe that as a Jew raised in the so-called “Jewish Autonomous Region” of Birobidzhan, I had nothing to do with my Jewish identity right through my young adulthood. Then, all of a sudden, I become a groyser [big] Yiddishist! When I started to dig into the language and to see what we had, I really began to want to bring its message to other people. Goldsmith: I’ll say it right here: I don’t think we’re going to get millions of people to speak Yiddish in the foreseeable future. But we can get millions of people to love Yiddish, and through that to find their love for being Jewish. There were only thirty-one years between the Conference and the beginning of our destruction in 1939. That’s a terribly short time; it was simply not enough time for the message of the Conference to get out. So it’s in our hands, now, as part of our tool kit to assure that the Jewish people endures.

​​​​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.