New book explores historical perspectives of Yiddish Language Conference

Canadians may be familiar with debates over language rights and nationalism, but a new book co-edited by two York history professors, Czernowitz at 100: The First Yiddish Language Conference in Historical Perspective, looks beyond our borders and back in time for its frame of reference: to Czernowitz in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The historic Czernowitz conference of 1908, which addressed the political and legal status of the Yiddish language, is considered a watershed moment in Jewish nationalism.

The book is a compilation of essays based upon papers delivered at a centenary retrospective conference at York in 2008 organized by the book’s editors, York history Professor Joshua Fogel, Canada Research Chair in the History of Modern China, and Kalman Weiser, Silber Family Professor of Modern Jewish Studies in the Departments of History and Humanities in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.

Weiser says there were two major nationalist movements on the rise in the late-19th century among Jews. One, later known as Zionism, supported the creation of a Jewish nation-state in the area of Palestine; the other advocated the idea of diaspora nationalism, which argued that Jews constituted a nation and deserved recognition as such wherever they lived. This second one proposed that a geographical homeland wasn’t necessary and Jews – and other nationalities – could live as a nationality in multinational or multi-ethnic states. “The Austro-Hungarian Empire was relatively liberal in comparison with the Russian Empire. It extended language rights to groups such as the Italians, the Poles etc. – so why couldn’t this apply to the Jews?” he says.

The next question, continues Weiser, was if such rights were to be extended, what would be the official language of the Jews? There were two options – Hebrew and Yiddish.

Left: Joshua Fogel

Weiser says that, at this time, the vast majority of Jews used Yiddish as their primary language, the language of commerce and everyday life. By contrast, he says, the speaking of Hebrew was far less common; it was the literary prestige language and the language of liturgy, but the spoken language of extremely few. He likens the relationship between the two to that between Latin and vernacular languages in Western Europe prior to the modern era.

He states that a leading Yiddish activist of the era, Nathan Birnbaum (who also coined the term Zionism), convened a group of Jewish artists, writers and intellectuals to debate the issues in Czernowitz, a multi-ethnic, urban centre, now in the Ukraine, with a politically and culturally active Jewish population. “The 1908 Czernowitz conference was held to discuss the political status of Yiddish, to raise its prestige and legal status and consider the methods needed to standardize it and promote it,” Weiser says. He claims the conference didn’t reach a clear resolution as the debate became bogged down in arguments over whether Yiddish was a national language or the national language of the Jews. He says it ended with a compromise, asserting that Yiddish is a national language.

Czernowitz at 100, the conference organized by Fogel and Weiser at York, assembled academics from across North America, Europe and Israel with the goal of assessing intellectually the original conference and considering the ramifications of it over the course of the subsequent century. It differed from the 1908 conference in several ways. Foremost, the agenda was different. While there were some debates, the goal was not to resurrect the fundamental argument. Participants primarily looked back at the 1908 conference with the critical eyes of scholarship and considered what had been achieved. They also spoke the lingua franca of English rather than Yiddish and, rather than artists and writers, the 2008 conference involved scholars. Weiser does note that the host cities have a lot in common – Toronto, like Czernowitz of 1908, is cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and multilingual.

Right: Kalman Weiser

Czernowitz at 100: The First Yiddish Language Conference in Historical Perspective (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), which evolved from the conference, considers the successes and failures of the 1908 conference and reflects on what can be learned from Czernowitz to promote the harmonious coexistence of ethnocultural groups in multi-ethnic environments.

What did the attendees discuss and conclude? Weiser says they noted a complete reversal in language practice. Yiddish is used today for everyday life chiefly among Hasidic Jews while Hebrew, the holy language, has also become an everyday language for millions regardless of their religious beliefs or ethnic background. He says conference participants also considered what other nationalities could learn about their languages and national identities. Finally, they looked at what lessons could be learned from campaigns for national minority rights in multi-ethnic settings.

Though specializing in East Asian history, Fogel admits to a longstanding interest in Yiddish and Jewish history. “Issues of language and identity in multi-ethnic contexts remain as relevant today as they were a century ago," he says. "With the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, to say nothing of many other regional hot spots around the world, linguistic nationalism is still a vital force in the forging of identities.”

Weiser’s forthcoming book, Jewish People, Yiddish Nation: Noah Prylucki and the Folkists in Poland (University of Toronto Press, 2010), deals with one of the participants in the 1908 Czernowitz conference, Prylucki. It focuses on the rise and fall of Yiddish culture and Jewish nationalism in Eastern Europe, including the 1908 Czernowitz conference.

Submitted by David Wallace, communications coordinator, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies