The lives and careers of Nathan Birnbaum and Sholem Aleichem meet in the arena of Yiddishism. Each arrived there by contrasting routes.
Nathan Birnbaum (1864-1937) coined the terms "Yiddishism and Yiddishist." Born in Vienna, he was reared among people immersed in the German culture so highly regarded then among all people, including Jews. Yiddish was scorned in his milieu. However, he came to be a defender and exponent of Yiddish through his own deep philosophical reflections coupled with devotion to defending the survival of the Jewish spirit despite the hostile environments in which Jews lived. Sholem Aleichem came to Yiddishism by another route entirely.
Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) was enveloped by Yiddish in childhood. Hebrew, however, was more highly regarded. His first publications were in Hebrew. The Russian language was essential for making a living and dealing in the Ukraine of his birth. He learned Russian by age 14 or thereabouts, read many Russian literary masterpieces, and dreamed of becoming a Russian writer. He eventually did write works in Russian.
According to his own account, his inspiration to write in Yiddish was his discovery in the early 1880s of Mendeleís (Abramovitchís) Yiddish pieces beginning in the 1860s. In his 20s then, he found that Yiddish (the forceful, expressive, homey language of kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, street, school, work, play, love and hate) was fit for artistic creation. The language was a gift he already owned, and he exploited it brilliantly, most engagingly. That is how Sholem Aleichem came to Yiddishism.
Nathan Birnbaum was one of the main, driving forces and organizers of the Czernowitz language conference beginning August 30, 1908. Sholem Aleichem was not able to attend because of illness. He had collapsed with acute hemorrhagic tuberculosis in Baranovitch on July 28, 1908. For two months, he remained in Baranovitch, hovering between life and death. Going to Czernowitz was out of the question.
This next comment of mine is based on nothing but my general impression of Sholem Aleichemís world view. I suggest, not insist on the following. I believe Sholem Aleichem would have felt that the debate between Yiddishists and Hebraists could never be resolved, was futile, and did not matter in the long run. Sholem Aleichem was driven by what could be done today. I believe he felt that if you found something useful or inspiring or interesting to do today, the future would be taken care of. He was well aware of the debates about great issues that might shape the Jewish future, but doing is what counted most in his general perspective. He admired, did not disparage, discussions among ideologues like Nathan Birnbaum, but did not join them in their passions. There are, however, occasional vignettes that suggest something else. He was, for example, passionately devoted to protecting Yiddish language and literature from damage by shund writers like Shomer as illustrated by the humorless diatribe, Shomers Mishpet (1888).
However, Sholem Aleichemís ironic, gently amused air about most things fits the general picture I drew. Here is an example:
Sholem Aleichem caricatured the aftermath of the Czernowitz language conference in 1915 in a satiric piece, part of Kasrilevker Progres (Ale Verk Fun Sholem- Aleykhem, Folksfond Oysgabe, Vol. I, see pp. 68-71). Neither Hebraists nor Yiddishists in Kasrilevke were happy with the results of the famous conference. At a meeting of a Kasrilevke society, the Hebraists would not let Yiddish be spoken, and the Yiddishists would not permit a Hebrew speaker to continue. Finally, when someone yelled out "Czernowitz," it was as though a bomb had been thrown. All restraint was abandoned. Fighting broke out. Now we turn our attention to poor Noyekh. Noyekh was a selfless Kasrilevke citizen, a generous soul always ready to serve others without seeking or expecting any reward. He had organized the society. When fighting broke out, Noyekh was rewarded with the worst punishment. Sholem Aleichem observes: "If a person runs from honor and dignity, honor and dignity chase him down."
As noted above, Sholem Aleichem was ill in Baranovitch during the Czernowitz conference. As soon as he could take pen in hand he began to write, undertaking a Yiddish translation of Koheles (Ecclesiastes). For example, vanity, all is vanity was translated by him: blote sheb-blote, síiz altsding blote, a nekhtiker tog. In his introduction to "Koheles af mame-loshn" he wrote: I lie in my sick-bed ... in Baranovitch and was lately not in Baranovitch but in Czernowitz. I mean to say, my sinning flesh lay around here, but my soul was there at the first Jewish Language Conference. For the whole week of the conference I was most deeply irritated. My temperature rose day by day, my cough worsened, my appetite weakened. My doctor was beside himself! My good friend Dr. Birnbaum gave his opening speech in our mame- loshn, and because of such a mame-loshn, my temperature jumped six-tenths of a degree (Celsius)! The heated debates over which should be named our national language made my temperature rise almost to 40. My doctor was actually frightened. (See I.D. Berkowitz, Undzere Rishoynim, Tel Aviv: Hamenora, 1966, Vol. 3, pp. 150-151.)
In 1908, Nathan Birnbaum was still a struggling student of Yiddish. His style and usage must have seemed awkward to an east European native Yiddishist like Sholem Aleichem. However, Birnbaum kept working at it, and as evidence of his devotion to the cause, he eventually became a fluent orator and effective writer of Yiddish. He also translated a number of Sholem Aleichem pieces into German.