Joshua Fishman
The Conference Per Se 

    The Conference began on Sunday, August 30, 1908, and lasted for a little under a week. 

A quarter after ten in the morning there walked onto the stage Nosn Birnboym in the company of Y. L. Perets, S. Ash, Dr. Kh. Zhitlovski and other distinguished guests... Dr. N. Birnboym opens the Conference reading his first speech in Yiddish fluently from his notes... He reads his speech in the Galician dialect. (Rasvet, September1908: quoted from Afn shvel 1968).  Birnbaum stressed the fact that this was the first world-wide effort on behalf of Yiddish, sponsored by its greatest writers (“respected even by the opponents of Yiddish”) and the beginning of a long chain of efforts yet to come. These opening remarks caused a sensation among local Tshernovitsians.  Everyone knew that he [Bimbaum] doesn’t speak Yiddish and that the speech would be translated from German. However, all were eager to hear how the "coarse" words would sound coming from the mouth of Dr. Birnbaum who was known as an excellent German speaker... However at the festive banquet in honor of the esteemed guests... he spoke superbly in German, the way only he could. (Vays 1937) Indeed, a speaker’s ability to speak Yiddish well and the very fact that Yiddish could be spoken as befitted a world conference, i.e., in a cultivated, learned, disciplined fashion in conjunction with modern concerns, never ceased to impress those who had never before heard it so spoken.  Zhitlovski made the greatest impression on all the delegates and guests, both at the Conference and at the banquet (which was a great event for Yiddish culture that was still so unknown to most of those in attendance). “That kind of Yiddish is more beautiful than French!” was a comment heard from all quarters and particularly from circles that had hitherto rejected Yiddish from a “purely esthetic” point of view (Vays 1937). Yiddish used adeptly in an H function was itself a triumph for Tshernovits, almost regardless of what was said. 

    But of course a great deal was said substantively as well. The linguistic issues were “covered” by Ayznshtat, Sotek, and Mizes. Whereas the first two were roundly ignored, the third caused a storm, of protests when, in the midst of a paper on fusion languages and their hybrid-like strength, creativity, and vigor, he also attacked loshnl koydesh for being dead, stultifying, and decaying. Only Perets’s intervention saved Mizes’ paper for the record as “the first scientific paper in Yiddish on Yiddish” (Anon.  1931). Obviously, the tenth agenda item stubbornly refused to wait its place in line and constantly came to the fore in the form of an increasingly growing antagonism between those (primarily Bundists) who wanted to declare Yiddish as the ethnonational Jewish language (Hebrew/loshn koydesh - being a classical tongue rather than a mother tongue - could not, in their view, qualify as such) and those (primarily Zionists and traditionalists) who, at best, would go no further than to declare Yiddish as an ethnonational Jewish language, so that the role of Hebrew/loshn koydesh - past, present and future - would remain unsullied. In the midst of this fundamental argument, more primitive views still surfaced as a result of the presence of so many ideologically unmodernized guests. One of the delegates recounts the following tale: 

…(T)here suddenly appears on the stage a man with a long, red beard, wearing a traditional black kapote (kaftan) and yarmelke (skull-cap). He begins speaking by saying "I will tell you a story." The hall is full of quiet expectancy. We all listened carefully in order to hear a good, folksy anecdote. The man recounts in great detail a story about how two Jews once sued each other in court because of a shoyfer (ritual ram’s horn) that had been stolen from the beys-medresh (house of study and prayer). With great difficulty they explained to the gentile judge what a shoyfer is. Finally the judge asked: "In one word a trumpet?" At this point the litigants shuddered and one shouted to the other: "I ask you: is a shoyfer a trumpet?" The assembled participants in the hall were ready to smile at this "anecdote" which had long been well known, when the man suddenly began to shout at the top of his lungs: "You keep on talking about language, but is Yiddish (zhargon) a language?" (Kisman 1958)     The compromise formulation penned by Nomberg ("an ethnonational Jewish language") was finally adopted, thanks only to the insistence of Perets, Birnbaum, and Zhitlovski, and over the vociferous opposition of both left-wing and right-wing extremists who either favored an exclusive role for Yiddish ("the ethnonational Jewish language") or who wanted no resolutions at all on political topics.16 

    Very little time was devoted to organizational or implementational issues such as whether the Conference itself should sponsor "cultural work," convene a second conference within a reasonable time, or even establish a permanent office (secretariat) and membership organization. Although the last two recommendations were adopted (the first was rejected due to unified left-wing and right-wing disenchantment with the Conference’s stance regarding the "the or an" ethnonational language issue), and although Birnbaum and two young assistants were elected to be the executive officers and to establish a central office, very little was actually done along these lines. At any rate, the tasks entrusted to the secretariat were minimal and innocuous ones indeed. In addition, Birnbaum soon moved ever-closer to unreconstructed Orthodoxy and to its stress on matters "above and beyond language". At any rate, he was not an administrator/executive but an ideologue. He was, as always, penniless, and the funds that were required for an office and for his salary never materialized. Zhitlovski returned to America and threw himself into efforts there to start Yiddish supplementary schools and to restrain Jewish socialists from sacrificing their own Jewishness and the Jewish people as a whole on the altar of Americanization disguised as proletarian brotherhood. Perets did undertake one fund-raising trip to St. Petersburg where Shimen Dubnov (1860 - 1941), the distinguished historian and ideologist of cultural autonomy in the diaspora and himself a recent convert to the value of Yiddish, had convened a small group of wealthy but Russified potential donors. The latter greeted Perets with such cold cynicism that he "told them off" ("our salvation will come from the poor but warm-hearted Jews of the Pale rather than from the rich but cold-hearted Jews of St. Petersburg") and "slammed the door". Thus, for various reasons, no office was ever really established in Tshernovits and even the minutes of the Conference remained unpublished. Although S. A. Birnbaum helped prepare them for publication by editing out as many Germanisms as possible, they were subsequently misplaced or lost and had to be reconstructed more than two decades later from press clippings and memoirs (Anon. 1931). 

    Intellectuals (and even an intelligentsia) alone can rarely establish a movement. Intellectuals can reify language and react to it as a powerful symbol, as the bearer and actualizer of cultural values, behaviors, traditions, goals. However, for an L to spread into H functions, more concrete considerations (jobs, funds, influence, status, control, power) are involved. Only the Yiddishist left wing had in mind an economic, political, and cultural revolution that would have placed Yiddish on top. But that left did not even control the Tshernovits Conference, to say nothing of the hard, cruel world that surrounded it. 

Reprinted from: Joshua A. Fishman, Ideology, society & language : the odyssey of Nathan Birnbaum / Ann Arbor, Mich. : Karoma, 1987. 

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