Yiddish writers at the Czernowitz Conference, 1908: (left to right) Avrom Reyzen, Yitskhok Leybush Peretz, Sholem Asch, Khayim Zhitlovski, Hersh Dovid Nomberg. Postcard (Warsaw: Verlag Jehudia). (YIVO)

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Czernowitz Conference

The first international conference in support of the Yiddish language. An international conference on Yiddish language and its role in Jewish life was convened from 30 August to 4 September 1908 in Czernowitz, then capital of the Austrian crown province of Bukowina (now Chernivtsi in Ukraine). (Czernowitz was the German form of the city’s name used at that time; the Yiddish Tshernovits is increasingly used in scholarly literature on the conference.) Occurring at a time when more than a dozen other languages on three continents were also organizing their own “first” conferences (usually under non- or even antigovernmental auspices), the Czernowitz Conference was the brainchild of Nathan Birnbaum (1864–1937), a prolific, innovative, and peripatetic Jewish educator, essayist, philosopher, politician, and social organizer.

The administrative committee of the conference was made up of members of the University of Vienna’s Yiddish club, Yidishe Kultur, that Birnbaum had founded a few years earlier. The call to the conference was issued in early 1908, during Birnbaum’s first visit to America and was signed by a handful of distinguished Yiddish-related personages, preeminently Khayim Zhitlovski and Dovid Pinski. Not only does this genesis bespeak an unusual lack of party-related or other organizational sponsorship, but the distribution of the invitations by mail, to “all Jewish organizations interested in Yiddish” for either educational, cultural, or political reasons, was also decidedly skewed along geographic and political lines. Accordingly, the Bund was underrepresented and the various local Zionist clubs, particularly from Galicia, were overrepresented.

Among the Yiddish “classicists,” only Y. L. Peretz attended, but Sholem Asch, Avrom Reyzen, and Hersh Dovid Nomberg, among the younger Yiddish writers, participated actively. Their aid was extremely important in securing newspaper publicity for the conference before, during, and after its deliberations. Inevitably, given the ideological diversity among East European Jews of that time, this publicity—although it ultimately constituted the sole historical record of this unprecedented conference, the “minutes” book kept by Solomon Birnbaum (Nathan’s son and himself a noted Yiddish linguist and Hebrew paleographist) being irretrievably lost during World War I—attracted a highly variable group of participants, many of whom had literally never attended a conference before. Thus, inauspiciously, began the earliest stage of Yiddish language planning.

First conferences that are under independent, nongovernmental auspices always ran the risk of becoming immersed in politics, often to their own surprise, even if such topics were explicitly skirted by the conference planners. The Czernowitz agenda was a broad one and included the need for Yiddish schools and teachers; support for the Yiddish press, theater, and literature; reversing the growing tendency for young people to prefer Hebrew or their major coterritorial non-Jewish language to Yiddish; supporting the translation of canonical works from Hebrew and Aramaic into Yiddish; and the regularization of Yiddish orthography. One issue, however—as Pinski had anticipated in New York at the beginning of the year—was prominent: the status of Yiddish. The topic immediately came to the fore and practically monopolized the proceedings during the entire conference. The arguments waged in Czernowitz over whether Yiddish was “the” national language or only “a” national language of the Jewish people polarized and split the delegates irrevocably. The other items on the agenda that Birnbaum and Zhitlovski had hoped and diligently planned for gained little attention.

Jewish cultural figures at a celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the Czernowitz Yiddish conference, Cernăuți, Romania (now Chernivtsi, Ukr.), 1928. Pictured are (standing, left to right) artist Shloyme Lerner, actor Herts Grosbart, theatrical director Mordkhe Goldenberg, (seated, left to right) writer Itsik Manger, historian Noah Pryłucki, journalist Zalmen Reyzen, and pedagogue and linguist Yisroel Rubin. Photograph by Jacob Brüll. (YIVO)

Positions adopted by delegates on the place of Yiddish varied widely, as did their rationales. Ester Frumkin (Malke Lifshits), a Bundist (and later a Communist), was concerned that the conference was not sufficiently class-conscious and might, therefore, retreat from the Bund’s prior resolution that Yiddish was “the” national language of the Jewish people. At one point, she walked out of a banquet in protest because worker-delegates, who wore no jackets, would not be seated because of their “inappropriate dress.” In fact, the Bund long continued to characterize the conference as a minor event and insisted that it did not constitute the initiation of a major movement or ideology (Yiddishism) in Jewish life.

Zionist and religious delegates protested any pro-Yiddish formulation that impinged on the priority and the dignity of Hebrew. Many delegates from Galicia anticipated the 1911 “language of everyday life” census question in Austro-Hungary (purported to become the factual basis of new cultural autonomy laws to be enacted at an unspecified future date) and bemoaned the conference’s inability to resolve that all Jews in the monarchy should claim Yiddish as their Umgangssprache (language of general interaction), given that many of them were themselves German-speaking at home and some (even Birnbaum himself) had only recently acquired active fluency in Yiddish. Some wept uncontrollably when Hebrew was termed a “putrefying cadaver,” and others howled when speakers questioned whether Yiddish was a language at all. The “a national language of the Jewish people” view, initially formulated by Nomberg, was finally adopted as the best possible compromise position, even though it left many dissatisfied.

Birnbaum was elected the secretary general of the “post-conference cultural organization.” It became his task to help all parties invite speakers, publish books, arrange courses, organize schools, foster choral and theatrical events, and plan periodic follow-up international conferences. Since his position turned out to be nonsalaried, notwithstanding its distinctive title, the cultural organization never really got off the ground; indeed, almost no fund-raising followed the conclusion of the conference. Birnbaum left Czernowitz, soon turning toward personal Orthodoxy and to Agudas Yisroel as the only remaining means of preserving and unifying the scattered Jewish people. In later years, he looked back upon the Czernowitz Conference as both a time of anguish and of error in its “hedonistic” definition of Jews and Jewishness.

The continued symbolic value of the Czernowitz Conference since the Holocaust requires a brief parting comment. The conference has come to be reinterpreted as a reminder of the high tide that Yiddish and Yiddish activism reached in the first decades of the twentieth century—for example, recognition of Yiddish in several post–World War I East European armistice agreements, the establishment of YIVO in 1925, the organization of the TSYSHO network of Yiddish secular schools in 1921, of the Yidisher Kultur Farband (Yiddish Culture Association; YKUF) in 1937, and of the World Congress for Yiddish Culture soon after the conclusion of World War II. However, though some continue to claim otherwise, there is little if any direct link between any of the above and either the nebulous “spirit of Czernowitz,” on the one hand, or the resolutions and participants at Czernowitz itself, on the other. Perhaps because Yiddishism needs a festive event to balance out its somber year, the memory of Czernowitz is called upon regularly for that purpose.

Suggested Reading

Di ershte yidishe shprakh-konferents: Barikhtn, dokumentn un opklangen fun der tshernovitser konferents, 1908 (Vilna, 1931); Joshua A. Fishman, “Attracting a Following to High-Culture Functions for a Language of Everyday Life: The Role of the Tshernovits Language Conference in the ‘Rise of Yiddish,’” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 24 (1980): 43–73; Joshua A. Fishman, “Der hebreisher opruf af der tshernovitser konferents,” Afn shvel 271 (1988): 8–13; Joshua A. Fishman, “The ‘First Congress’ Phenomenon: Arriving at Some General Conclusions,” in The Earliest Stage of Language Planning, pp. 333–348 (Berlin, 1993); Joshua A. Fishman, “The Tshernovits Conference Revisited: The ‘First World Conference for Yiddish’ 85 Years Later,” in The Earliest Stage of Language Planning, pp. 321–331 (Berlin, 1993); Joshua A. Fishman, “Ethnicity and Supra-Ethnicity in Corpus Planning: The Hidden Status Agenda in Corpus Planning,” in History and National Destiny: Ethnosymbolism and Its Critics, ed. Montserrat Guibernau and John Hutchinson, pp. 79–94 (Oxford, 2004).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 360, Shmuel Niger, Papers, 1907-1950s; RG 448, Israel Cohen, Papers, 1905-1950s.