FIRST YIDDISH LANGUAGE CONFERENCE
 
Iosif Vaisman
 
The First Conference for the Yiddish Language, also known as Tshernovits* Conference, opened on Sunday, August 30, 1908. The Conference was convened to discuss very important topics, formulated in the ten point Conference agenda. To what extent the Conference succeeded in finding the solutions to any of these ten problems has been a subject of discussions (sometimes quite fierce) ever since. A simple look at the agenda is sufficient to see that many issues have yet to be resolved:  

1. Yiddish spelling 
2. Yiddish grammar 
3. Foreign words and new words 
4. A Yiddish dictionary 
5. Jewish youth and the Yiddish language 
6. The Yiddish press 
7. The Yiddish theater and Yiddish actors 
8. The economic status of Yiddish writers 
9. The economic status of Yiddish actors 
10. Recognition for the Yiddish language 
 
(Interestingly, some recent and ongoing discussions in Mendele echo the arguments that were first voiced in Tshernovits virtually verbatim.)

It has become a good tradition in the Yiddish world to celebrate the anniversaries of the Tshernovits Conference. Today Mendele joins the celebration of the ninetieth anniversary with a series of special issues dedicated to some of the Conference's highlights and the figures of several key participants. 
 
*Note: The names Tshernovits (Yid), Czernowitz (Ger), Cernauti (Rom), Chernovtsy (Rus), Chernivtsi (Ukr) , and their spelling variations in other languages, all refer to a single entity - a town in Central Europe at 48º 18' N latitude and 25º 56' E longitude. Capital of Bukovina, the land that shunned sovereignty for more than ten centuries, the town at various times was a part of Galician-Volhynian Principality, Principality of Moldavia, Poland, Lithuania, Walachia, Ottoman Empire, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Western Ukrainian National Republic, Romania, Soviet Union, and Ukraine, which partly explains the toponymical assortment. All Mendele posts retain the authorsí spellings or use contextual spellings of proper names. 



Every morning and afternoon in the late 1960ís, walking with one of my parents to and from kindergarten in a quiet residential neighborhood in Chernovtsy, I passed by a stately building on the Ukrainska Street that at the time housed the City Teachersí Club. Built for the Ukrainian National House at the very end of nineteenth century, in a fashionable then pseudoclassical style, the structure did not make the list of the cityís most important architectural landmarks. Not until much later did I learn that the building occupies one of the most important places on the map of the Yiddish Universe. In that building, from the podium on a slightly raised stage of the Assembly Hall, ninety years ago Yiddish was proclaimed a national language of the Jewish people. 

The beginning of my love affair with my hometown can be easily traced to my fatherís influence. He never missed an opportunity to talk about Czernowitzís rich history and splendid architecture during our walks. Why didnít he tell me that the Yiddish Language Conference, which was a topic of many our conversations, took place in the building we saw twice every day? Because, like many others, he thought that the Conference was held in the much larger, centrally located, and seemingly more appropriate for the ocasion Jewish National House. And indeed, the organizers planned the conference in the brand new, imposing Baroque building whose entablatures are supported by four Atlantes in various stages of straightening up their backs. Born in 1908, these Czernowitz Jewish Atlantes, on their way from the house of slavery to the redemption in the new old Homeland, were perhaps the first major architectural manifestation of the Zionist aspirations. I donít know whether it was the architect or the community leaders who decided to employ polytheistic deities as a symbol of the revival of Jewish people, but the facade of "Das Judische Nationalhaus" was not a bit more oxymoronic than any other detail of the Czernowitz Jewish landscape. And the idea of hosting a Yiddish language conference did not play well with the Czernowitz Jewish establishment (creating a precedent for many other Jewish establishments for many years to come). Under the pretext of unfinished construction, the Jewish House was closed. As a result, the conference started in the Concert Hall of the Czernowitz Music Society on Rudolfplatz and then moved to the Ukrainian National House on Josefgasse. 

Why did the conference take place in Czernowitz? This question seems to have earnestly interest scholars and commentators for nine decades. Many answers based on geographical, political, and other serious considerations were offered, and most of them are definitely valid. Czernowitz was very conveniently located. People in Czernowitz enjoyed much greater political freedoms than their neighbors across the borders. The proportion of what we would call "middle class" in the Czernowitz Jewish population was several times higher than in any other major Jewish center in Europe. Czernowitz was famous for what was known as "Czernowitz Toleranz", which can be illustrated by the fact that by 1908 Czernowitz was the only city in European history, where the mayor, the cityís representative to the Parliament, and the Rector of the University, were Jews. 

However, one very important reason escaped most observers. Czernowitz has always had an ability to produce and attract a disproportionate number of "unconventional" personalities, people, for whom Yiddish has borrowed a wonderful word "tshudakes". Unlike the English "eccentric" that incorporates negation, "tshudak" shares the root with the word "chudo", which means "miracle"... 

The list of Czernowitz "tshudakes" is long. A grandson of the Great Maggid, the last of the great hasidic masters and a distinguished expounder of the Torah, who surrounded himself by the ceremonials and luxury unheard of among the hasidim, and was known as a "king in Israel". The most gifted of his six sons, who ran away from home, and for a time joined the militant maskilim in Czernowitz. One of the founding fathers of modern molecular biology, known for the discovery of the rules of DNA composition, is also known as an astute cultural and social critic and also as an excellent poet. A grandson of the Czernowitz Chief Rabbi, who became one of the foremost Muslim theologians and ideologues of this century, close friend of Saudi royals and a cabinet minister in the newly independent Pakistan. An outstanding psychologist, whose attempts to combine world revolution, cosmic energy of orgasm, and capitalist business practices ended tragically for him. A brilliant Yiddish poet, who played not only with words, but also with his own identity. 

The mastermind of the 1908 Conference, Nathan Birnbaum deserves a place in this enumeration. A product of an intermarriage between a galitsian hasid and a daughter of a mitnagid rabbi, Birnbaum during his life embraced many disparate views and persuasions. A towering intellectual figure, a political leader who coined the terms Zionism and Yiddishism and founded the movements described by these terms, he played a pivotal role in shaping the Jewsih ideological and cultural landscape of this century. Birnbaumís move to Czernowitz in 1908 and his decision to convene the Coference there was not an accident. He had chosen the place that was fit for the task. 



The Czernowitz Conference significantly influenced Jewish nationalist movements in Bukovina and Galicia, in particular in Czernowitz. Jewish students at the Czernowitz University started registering as "Jews" by language and nationality, although Austrian laws did not recognize either of those (Yiddish language and Jews as ethnic group). Violators were punished and sometimes expelled from the University, but it did not stop the campaign. A mass demonstration in support of Yiddish was staged during the Census in December of 1910. All three major Jewish political forces (zionists, liberals - Jewish Peopleís Party, and socialists) called for indicating Yiddish as a "spoken language" ("Umgangssprachen") in the Census forms, despite the ban on using "unrecognized" language and severe intimidation by the government. The greatest success the demonstration had in Czernowitz: 75 percent of the Jewish population indicated Yiddish as their language (cf. Cracow - 25%, the whole Galicia and Bukovina - ca. 50%, S.M.Dubnov, 1923). 

In 1920ís and 30ís Czernowitz was a scene of lively and diverse Yiddish cultural, literary, and political activities. Twenty Yiddish periodicals served as a good indicator of this. In fact, Czernowitz boasted the largest in the world number of titles of Yiddish periodicals per capita of Jewish population: 3.9 titles/10,000 (for comparison Vilna had 3.4 (18 titles) and Warsaw - 2.4 (83 titles), L.Dobroszycki and B.Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1977). 
 

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