Nathan Birnbaum

Lawrence Bush
April 1, 2018

Nathan 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.

“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.