Then and Now*
Nathan Birnbaum

It was the first of January in 1908 when I arrived in New York on my first trip to America. In the lectures I gave there, 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. American Jews were very reluctant and disinclined at that time to accept such a program, a fact that became clearly evident in the pages of the newspapers. I was received cordially enough, but that did not prevent my being thoroughly attacked. The humorous papers, in particular, set upon me with a vengeance. But to tell the truth, I played right into their hands in that I held my lectures in German. 

All this scarcely disturbed me - on the contrary, it made me more resolute in my opinions. I felt 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. Since I was, nevertheless, able to find a few kindred spirits there, well-known figures, we finally came to the decision to call into being a Yiddish-language conference which would encompass all the issues which touch upon the interests of Yiddish writers and the language they employ. We selected Tshernovits, in Bukovina (then a part of Austria, now in Rumania) as the conference site. The Conference set the little world of Yiddish astir. It was not a mere trifle. The most acclaimed Yiddish writers and poets of the era were present: Perets, Ash, Reyzn, Zhitlovski, Nomberg and others. Mendele Moykher Sforem and Sholem Aleykhem sent heartfelt greetings. Correspondents representing various publications, in particular those who had declared their fervent opposition to the conference, were on hand. These very journalists lost no time in penning articles and sending out news that sometimes did not adhere closely to the truth. For example, during the Conference there was a significant discussion whether to proclaim Yiddish as the ethnonational tongue or just an ethnonational language of the Jewish people. Those who advocated the latter point of view proved victorious. However, the newspapers reported differently, issuing statements contrary to the facts and directing their barbed attacks on "fanatical Yiddishists." To note just another fact: I was the only one at the entire Conference who eschewed strong words, opposed radicalism and demanded practical results. Even "an ethnonational language" did not strike me as of overwhelming importance. The media drummed up the story that I showed myself to be unequivocally for "the ethnonational language" and an incendiary opponent of the Holy Tongue. In truth, it was the renowned Bundist, Esther, who took the most radical stance. Throughout the Conference, there was a running war between the two of us. Most other Conference delegates were generally more closely aligned with her than with me. 

The papers also made heavy use of irony in their descriptions of my introductory speech to the Conference, concentrating on the fact that I did not deliver it extemporaneously but followed a prepared text. My use of German during all the debates did not escape their notice, and with these charges they convinced themselves that they had thoroughly negated the value of the Conference. But whom did it disturb? Who did not understand that the power and rights of Yiddish were unrelated to the fact that a certain man raised in Western Europe had learned the language late in life and that at the time of the Conference he could not, as yet, speak it freely? 

A notable impression was made in Tshernovits itself by the huge public meeting which was convened there for the Conference and by the speeches given at the meeting by Perets, Ash, Zhitlovski, Reyzn, Nomberg and others concerning the significance of Yiddish for the Jewish people and the aims of the Conference. Rarely, if ever, has a city had such an opportunity to see and hear, assembled in one place and at one time, the great and renowned Jewish writers and poets of the age. 

At the time of their departure, those assembled at the Conference thought that in all probability they would be meeting each other again, at a second conference. However, they did not meet again. It appears that a second meeting was not of such pressing importance. The first conference had accomplished more than enough. It had strengthened the energies of those to whom the Yiddish language was very dear. It turned them into diligent laborers in the Yiddish vineyard. There is, however, one thing I fear, namely, that these workers have veered onto a wrong path. At the time of the Conference, I did not foresee (nor could I have foreseen) this. But today, as a result of my return to the Torah and to the Jews who cannot live without it, I observe with mounting apprehension how the radical parties attempt to monopolize the Yiddish language for their own purposes. In so doing, they have driven a wedge between Yiddish and the mass of religious Jews - the original and truthful creators of Yiddish - and, thereby, they have placed Yiddish in jeopardy of being sundered from its life - giving sources, of losing its own linguistic authenticity, its true Jewish nature, its vivid colors. Ultimately it may become a mere ghost of its former self - a desiccated artifact, just another European tongue, a mere language. 

Would that this danger pass, with no untoward results, and permit Yiddish to remain the Jewish treasure on behalf of which it was so eminently worthwhile to have convened the Tshernovits Yiddish Language Conference. 
*"Demolt un atsind," in Di ershte yidishe shprakh - konferents: barikhtn, faktn, opklangen fun der tshernovitser konferents. Vilne, Yiddish Scientific Institute - Yivo, 1931.
Translated by Joshua Fishman.  Reprinted with translator's permission from: Joshua A. Fishman, Ideology, Society & Language : The Odyssey of Nathan Birnbaum / Ann Arbor, Mich. : Karoma, 1987.  

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