The initial aim of the 1908 First Yiddish Language Conference in Czernowitz, Bukovina (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine), was to elevate and standardize the language—to further its literary and cultural ambitions, and (somewhat antithetically) to curb its appetite for borrowed vocabulary. As it turned out, the conference was nearly derailed by a fierce dispute about the status of Yiddish relative to Hebrew. Was Yiddish “a” Jewish national language or “the” Jewish national language? In 1908 this was a reasonable question: millions of people in Eastern Europe and America spoke Yiddish, the Hebrew revival was still in its infancy, and the Jewish nation had no geographic boundaries.
I. L. Peretz, who took a moderate position in this dispute, was a dominant figure at the conference. Originally trained as a lawyer, he had become a Yiddish writer after being disbarred under suspicion of radical sympathies. Since the 1890s he had been a champion of Yiddish literature and a mentor of many young writers. Radical sympathies he certainly had, but not revolutionary ones: his work was subtle rather than polemical, with a fine feeling for emotional undercurrents. His work and his character inspired the deepest respect; his opening speech at the Czernowitz conference was received, in the words of participant Matisyohu Mieses, with “spiritual hunger.”
A hundred years later, we read this speech with complex reactions. Peretz’s voice is appealing—humble, sympathetic, and authoritative. His ideas are lucid and condensed, and his vision for Yiddish literature is lovingly ambitious. Yet so much has happened since then. Even the Russian Revolution was still on the far horizon in 1908. Resonances, legitimate and illegitimate, attach themselves to Peretz’s rhetoric. “Socio-political international impulse” plausibly suggests the international class struggle of Marxist ideology—and implausibly, the international Jewish conspiracy of paranoid fantasy. “The folk,” a term deeply discredited by the Nazis, can no longer be read without a wince. The picture of coexisting “separate cultures” evokes the contemporary multiculturalist movement at its most cosmopolitan—but we have also seen it at its most repressive. The identity group too can be a Moloch demanding its tribute; the cultural tyranny of the nation-state is only one form of the perennial human impulse toward cultural tyranny.
Still, a nationalism of language taken seriously—as Peretz and his circle of younger writers took it—ultimately provides an escape from the tyranny of one’s own group. Language is unruly; it is the medium of the elevated and the embarrassing, the pointed question and the irreverent pun. Language is permeable; cultures that really coexist are constantly trading words. Somewhat like the relationship between God and Israel, the relationship between a people and its language has an element of choosing, an element of being stuck with, and an element of wild improvisation. A commitment to a language—even a language one hopes to keep within lexical bounds—is a commitment to the human imagination, warts and all.
The First Yiddish Language Conference
Three liberating moments in Jewish history created our movement.
I don’t want to be a prophet, and to proclaim that we are now experiencing a new historical moment, that we are uncovering a new source of fresh, living waters in God’s vineyard, and that from this day forward this place will be watered and will bloom. “Something,” though, has been achieved among us, and that something was elicited by those three liberating moments.
The poor Jewish masses, the poor ignorant Jews begin to liberate themselves. They lose confidence in both the Jewish Talmudic scholar and in the rich man. The rich man’s “charity” does not fill his stomach; the Talmudic scholar’s toyre doesn’t give him any joy. The masses long, feel, want to live their own poor lives in their own way. And Chassidism emerges. Toyre for everybody.
And this is the first moment.
Yiddish doesn’t begin with Isaac Meir Dik. The Chassidic tale, that is the “Genesis.” The tales in praise of the Baal Shem and other tales are folk-poetry. The first folk-poet is Reb Nakhman of Bratslav and his seven beggars.
Also, the Jewish woman—the Jewish wife—the Jewish girl awoke and demanded something for herself. Women’s books appeared, and out of Judeo-German was born a “mother-tongue.”
And the Jewish people still has two tongues: a language for the scholars in the house of study—the language of the toyre, the language of the Gemore, and the second for the masses and the Jewish daughter… .
But from these [two moments] alone the Yiddish language would not have emerged. Now the Jewish worker appears, the Jewish proletariat, and creates for itself an instrument for its struggle for life, its working-class culture in Yiddish. The worker is simply not satisfied just with women’s prayers and prayers from the women’s synagogue, and not just with the wonder-tales from behind the stove in the synagogue. He wants to and he must express himself in Yiddish. And the Yiddish secular book in the Yiddish language appears.
But all of that would not have brought us together; if we have come together from many different countries and states to proclaim equality for Yiddish language among all languages, it is also as a result of a fourth socio-political international impulse.
The nation-state, to which small and weak people were sacrificed—as children were in ancient times to Moloch—the nation-state, that had because of the interest of the ruling classes and peoples wanted to level everything, needed to make everything uniform: one army, one language, one school, one police, and one civil law – that nation-state is losing its luster.
The dense, oily smoke that wrapped itself around the sacrificial altar is becoming thinner and is being dispersed. The folk, not the nation-state, is the modern concept! The people, not the Fatherland! And separate cultures, not borders protected by patrols, guard the separate folk cultures....
The weak, oppressed people awake and struggle for their language, for their own culture against the nation-state. And we, the weakest, have also joined their ranks.
The nation-state will no longer falsify the cultures of its peoples, no longer suppress individuality and differentness. This is the byword of the multitudes, and we are in their ranks under our own banner and in the name of our own cultural interests.
We don’t want to be anyone’s handmaiden. A lackey people cannot create cultural riches—and we do!
And the best place for our gathering was here in Bukovina, especially its capital, Czernowitz. Here where people of various nationalities, speaking many languages, live side by side, it is easier to do our work in our language. We stroll in the evening in the streets and from various windows stream out the sounds of different languages, all kinds of folk-music. We want our own windows! Our own distinct motif in the folk-symphony.
We no longer want to be fragmented, and to render to every Molokh nation-state its tribute: There is one people—Jews, and its language is—Yiddish.
And in this language we want to amass our cultural treasures, create our culture, rouse our spirits and souls, and unite culturally with all countries and all times.
We did not come here simply to talk amongst ourselves and to issue proclamations. We have come here to work together. There will be various proposals for important tasks, but two such tasks that I consider of the utmost importance I want to mention at the outset. If Yiddish is to become a real language for us, then all the old cultural treasures of our great past must become a part of it. If Yiddish is to become a full member in the family of the languages of the world, it must become accessible to the world.
I, therefore, want to propose the translation into Yiddish of all our cultural treasures from our free, golden past, primarily the translation into Yiddish of the Bible. Also the transliteration of our best cultural treasures into Roman letters. We no longer want to be crude, unrefined parvenus or upstart newly-rich. Culture includes tradition! And we don’t want to introduce our culture to the peoples of the world through mechanical translations that deaden the living word.
We have come here to talk less and work more. Consequently we ask everyone to work more [applause]. We thank Dr. Birnboym for bringing us all together. We thank the academic association “Yiddish Culture” which dedicated itself to this purpose and with all its strength helped to publicize our conference. Also, let us remember today that great man, the first to create works in our modern, authentic Yiddish literature, who gave us the first classic work in the Yiddish language and who is unfortunately not here. We are without Mendele Moykher-Sforim! [loud applause of many minutes’ duration] Permit me to propose that we should, in the name of the entire conference, send him a greeting telegram [more applause].