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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton February 28, 2014

Nathan Birnbaum's The tasks of Eastern European Jews

  • Joshua A. Fishman EMAIL logo


Here we have translated the German text of a (1905) lecture of Nathan Birnbaum's that has been almost completely overlooked by researchers of modern Jewish movements generally, and particularly in the study of the Czernowitz Conference. This lecture was itself given at Czernowitz and ends with a call for “linguistic and literary conferences” on behalf of Yiddish and the elevation of the public status of the language. The lecture was given in German not only because the intellectual Jewish society Zephirah conducted its business in German, as was still (and long remained) the custom among the majority of the Czernowitz intelligentsia, but also both because Birnbaum himself had at that time never spoken Yiddish before an audience and because some of the individuals who had invited him to Czernowitz had been pupils of his in the previous decade when they were studying in Vienna, and so his relationship with them had already been established in German.

Birnbaum guides his audience through all the Jewish problems of the time (Zionism, emigration, assimilation, cultural autonomy, the revival of Hebrew), until he comes, finally, to the problem and promise of Yiddish. Ten years later he would be in his Orthodox phase, which is faintly perceptible in this lecture, where both his earlier break with Zionism (1898/1899) and the autonomist, Diaspora-nationalist phase in which he found himself in the first decade of the 20th century are clearly evident. Although the entire lecture is quite clearly a Diaspora-nationalist manifesto, it is also especially important for the study of the Czernowitz Conference, because the lecture concludes with a number of the points that three years later Birnbaum would develop into the agenda of the conference there. This lecture clearly shows us the extent to which Birnbaum was the chief instigator of and driving force behind the conference. On Birnbaum as a language planner (and also as a national planner, always full of plans to strengthen, rebuild and deepen the Jewish people culturally) see Fishman (1987a).

Published Online: 2014-2-28
Published in Print: 2014-3-1

©2014 by Walter de Gruyter Berlin/Boston

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