Weekly Reader: The Czernowitz Conference

There is perhaps no more important event in the annals of modern Yiddish than the First Yiddish Language Conference, which took place in Czernowitz, Bukowina (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine), from August 30 to September 4, 1908. The brainchild of educator, writer, and politician Nathan Birnbaum (1864–1937), the conference was intended to elevate and standardize the Yiddish language and to further its literary and cultural ambitions. The proceedings were nearly derailed, however, by a fierce dispute about the status of Yiddish relative to Hebrew. Was Yiddish a Jewish national language or the Jewish national language? In the end the delegates settled on the former formulation. It left few people satisfied, but today Yiddishists tend to advocate for a multicultural Jewish identity that includes Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Persian, and any other diaspora languages in addition to Hebrew, and that suits us just fine. In honor of its 115th anniversary, we’re taking a look back at this seminal event.

Ezra Glinter, Senior Staff Writer and Editor

Voice of Authority

Peretz in Czernowitz, Katchor.jpg

While the conference was addressed by many of the most illustrious Yiddish personalities of the time, there was no one more important or authoritative than I. L. Peretz. Fortunately, Peretz’s address at the conference was preserved for posterity and was translated by Marvin Zuckerman and appears in The Three Great Classic Writers of Modern Yiddish Literature, Volume III, Selected Works of I. L. Peretz, edited by Marvin Zuckerman and Marion Herbst (Pangloss Press, 1996). Peretz took a moderate position in the Yiddish vs. Hebrew dispute, and as Madsen writes, his “voice is appealing—humble, sympathetic, and authoritative. His ideas are lucid and condensed, and his vision for Yiddish literature is lovingly ambitious.”


Read I. L. Peretz’s address to the Czernowitz Conference


Attendees of the Czernowitz Conference. From left: Avrom Reyzen, I. L. Peretz, Sholem Asch, Chaim Zhitlowsky, and Hersh Dovid Nomberg

Like most conferences, Czernowitz was followed by a slew of publications. These include a collection of documents and reports, which was published by the YIVO Institute in 1931, and a short history of the conference by Argentine activist and writer Tzalel Blitz, which was titled The Czernowitz Constitution and published in 1948 in Buenos Aires.

Read the YIVO report on the conference

Read The Czernowitz Constitution

Fifty Years Later

Yiddish audiotape description written on yellowed paper

The Czernowitz Conference continued to be celebrated years after it took place. This commemorative gathering, which took place in Montreal on the conference’s fiftieth anniversary, in 1958, features many of the city’s leading Yiddish activists and literati.


Listen to a fiftieth-anniversary celebration of the Czernowitz Conference

Great Debate

Samuel Kassow wears purple sweater and glasses, and sits in front of book shelves

One of the main points of contention during the conference was the place of Yiddish vs. Hebrew as a Jewish national language. In this lecture Professor Samuel Kassow considers the historical relationship between the two tongues and the nature of the debate surrounding them in Czernowitz.


Watch a lecture by Samuel Kassow


Itzik Manger_0.jpeg

While Czernowitz took on a special significance to Yiddishists, the city was, and continued to be, the home of important Yiddish cultural activity independent of the 1908 conference. Perhaps the most famous Yiddish writer from Czernowitz was the poet Itzik Manger, who wrote sophisticated verse in addition to essays, stories, plays, and portions of a fictional autobiography.

Explore the work of Itzik Manger

Note from the editor: In the Weekly Reader of September 3 we mistakenly attributed the translation of I. L. Peretz's address to the Czernowitz Conference. The translation is by Marvin Zuckerman and appears in The Three Great Classic Writers of Modern Yiddish Literature, Volume III, Selected Works of I. L. Peretz, edited by Marvin Zuckerman and Marion Herbst (Pangloss Press, 1996). We apologize to Marvin Zuckerman for the error.