In 1908, a group of Yiddish intellectuals decides that Yiddish language and literature has reached a level and an historical moment that required a world-wide Jewish conference on the subject of Yiddish. In April the initiators of the conference (Birnbaum, Cordon, Evalenko, Pinski, and Zhitlovsky) send out a letter and an invitation to various segments and levels of Jewish life all over the world. One of these is, of course, addressed to Peretz, with a request that he undersign the state-ment in the invitation as a sponsor and as one who is in accord with Its aims.
The invitation reads in part, as follows:
In the past several decades the Yiddish language has made great progress. Its literature has achieved a level of which no one had imagined it capable. Yiddish newspapers are distributed in hundreds of thousands of copies daily and weekly. Yiddish poets write songs which are sung by the people, stories which are read by the people, plays which the people eagerly flock to see. Every day the language itself becomes more refined and richer.
But it continues to lack one thing which older tongues possess. The latter are not permitted to roam around freely and wildly in the linguistic world to attract all kinds of dis-eases, defects, and perhaps even death. They are guarded as a precious child is guarded. No one, however, pays heed to the Yiddish language. Thousands of Yiddish words are replaced by German, Russian and English words which are completely unnecessary. The live rules of the language which are born and develop with it in the mouths of the people go unrecorded, and it appears not to possess any such rules. Each person writes it in a different way, with his own spelling because no standard authoritative Yiddish orthography has thus far been established.
True, the disgrace attached to Yiddish in the past has diminished. People are less and less ashamed of the con-temporary language of our people. It is gradually coming to be reckoned with and respected. It is coming to be understood that in Yiddish the Jewish spirit is reflected and its value for the survival of our nation is beginning to be comprehended. But it is still an object of ridicule and con-tempt. People are still ashamed of it. And is this not because of the faults noted above?
If this be true, a stop must be put to these things. A fence needs to be established, some sort of protection for our precious mother-tongue so that it not wander about aimlessly as until now, so that it not become chaotic, tat-tered and divided. All who are involved with the language, writers, poets, linguists, and those who simply love it-must confer and find the appropriate means and methods of establishing an authority to which all will have to and want to defer.
Honored sir: If you share the views herein expressed, you are invited to attend the Conference which we are call-ing on behalf of the Yiddish language. [From E. Goldsmith, Architects of Yiddishism (1976), pp. 183-4, his translation of this from Di Ershte Yidishe Shprakh-Konftrents (Vilna, 1931), pp. 2,3.]
Peretzís initial reaction to this invitation is luke-warm. He writes back, saying that he doesnít like its "American" preface. Here is the beginning of the letter he wrote (1908) to Dr. Nathan Birnbaum (my translation):
Most Esteemed Doctor:
It was very hard for us, Doctor, to answer.
We are, of course, very interested in a conference, but we could not under any circumstances sign [endorse] your invitation. We certainly did not want to hinder you - we would even come to the conference - but not sign [endorse] your invitation.
First of all, if you will forgive us, we donít like its American preface... Unfortunately, we donít believe in the "great progress" of Yiddish. What exists?
He then goes on to list a number of issues he thought needed to be dealt with-and if the initiators were in accord with them, they could then sign [endorse] his list and use his name. Here is his list:
At the conference itself, as a result of his literary reputation, but also as a result of his personal charisma, he takes center stage. His keynote address is received with great enthusiasm.
The five-day conference is torn by party politics, the conflict between Hebraists and Yiddishists, Bundists and Zionists, and other matters. Many issues are argued and discussed. Finally, the central issue becomes a debate between those who would like Yiddish declared the national language of the Jews and those who are opposed to this posi-tion for one reason or another.
Peretzís position is that Hebrew is our national language and that Yiddish is our folk language.
The conference arrives at a compromise resolution/declaration: "Yiddish is a [not the] national language." Peretz declares in his keynote address:
And we call out to the world: we are a Jewish nation and Yiddish is our language and we wish to live our lives and create our cultural heritage in this language. This is the language in which we wish to amass our treasure, to fash-ion our culture, to awaken our soul and to unite with each other across all countries and in all times.
For years afterwards, the 1908 Czernowitz Language Conference is considered a major milestone in the history of the Yiddish language and literature. Peretzís role was pivotal.
As soon as Peretz came to Czernowitz, he started to help with the work, and showed great energy and passion. He became one of the main activists at the conference, itsí living soul. He was the vice-president; he held the second speech at the opening festivities; he read the report about the world-wide Yiddish-language organizations; he took an active role in the discussions and during the conference. Peretz spoke at a variety of evenings in Czernowitz and later in many other cities of Galicia and Bukovina. Thanks to Peretz, the evenings in these cities became a great manifestation in support of Yiddish and Yiddish literature, and they became engraved in the minds of the attendees.
The conference opened with a speech by Dr. N Birnboym. As the Haynt, a Yiddish newspaper reported Birnboymís speech did not make the proper impression because he spoke a weak Yiddish. Peretzsí speech, the second one of the evening made a strong impression, therefore and the audience responded with tremendous applause. "Peretzís appearance on the platform," according to a reporter in a Czernowitz newspaper "evoked tremendous applause and indescribable joy." The speech was interrupted several times with enthusiastic applause.
In his memoirs of the Czernowitz Language Conference, Matisyohu Meises, says the following: "We were waiting, full of suspense and spiritual hunger for Peretzís opening speech at the Language Conference. He didnít disappoint us. We heard powerful, mighty words from his mouth... certain moments of his speech have remained etched in my memory. I remember experiencing a kind of electrical current which ran through my limbs. And the kind of glimpse I for a moment had into the soul of Peretz the man as in his opening speech he said Ďthe state is the greatest criminalí... in those few words I saw mirrored Peretzís weltanschauung."
Reprinted from "Selected works of I.L. Peretz" / edited by Marvin Zuckerman and Marion Herbst / Malibu, Calif. : Joseph Simon/Pangloss Press, 1996. The book is available from the National Yiddish Book Center.