One Hundred Years Later, Still Talking

By Marissa Brostoff

Published February 20, 2008, issue of February 22, 2008.
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One hundred years ago, the great classical Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz declared Yiddish the national Jewish language, a tongue and a culture that had transcended the boundaries of the nation-state.

“The folk, not the nation-state, is the modern concept! The people, not the Fatherland!” Peretz proclaimed at the First Conference for the Yiddish Language, held in Czernowitz, Bukovina, in 1908. “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 First Conference for the Yiddish Language also turned out to be the last. The writers, intellectuals and radicals who attended, and who virtually invented secular Yiddishism, never convened again.

“In retrospect, it was a total failure,” said Philip “Fishl” Kutner, a retired teacher who is active in the secular Yiddish-speaking community and edits the Bay Area-based Yiddish newsletter Der Bay. “On the other hand, it was the most important milestone. Before that, Yiddish was the language of the streets. This was the point at which it became recognized as a unique kind of language, of communication.”

This year, partly to mark the centenary of the Czernowitz conference, around 300 mostly retired Jews will gather in La Jolla, Calif., for a weekend of Yiddish chatter and walks on the beach. In one respect, at least, this gathering of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs has the Czernowitz conference bested many times over: This will be the group’s 12th convention.

“I’m not a philosopher. I’m not trying to change the world,” said Kutner, who is a member of the IAYC board and plans the events at the group’s conference each year. “Just like there are people who play mah-jongg or bridge, there are people who are interested in Yiddish.”

Kutner’s ambitions as a Yiddishist are modest. Although he claims to be optimistic about the future of Yiddish — there is growing interest in the language in Israel, he points out, and among young people who come to it through klezmer music — his aspirations for the upcoming conference do not extend beyond a plan to encourage Yiddish teachers to form an international association of their own.

The convention will include performances by the Second Avenue Klezmer Ensemble and by klezmer violinist and composer Yale Strom, and a Yiddish-language production of “My Fair Lady.”

Kutner does not make much of the discrepancy between the lofty topics that were discussed at the Czernowitz Yiddish conference and the IAYC’s more prosaic focus. Rather than seeing one as a disappointing redux of the other, he views them as entirely separate entities: The former was a watershed event that he compared to the American Revolution and to the advent of women’s suffrage; the latter, a pleasant weekend for Yiddish hobbyists.

In his 1908 speech, Peretz described a multinational society in which Jews, united by Yiddish, would live alongside other peoples defined by cultural boundaries rather than political ones. He even had a location in mind: Czernowitz, the city in which he was speaking.

Today part of modern-day Ukraine, Czernowitz was then the small but cosmopolitan capital of Bukovina, at the time a region on the eastern frontier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its peripheral location made it a haven for Jews around the turn of the century; incredibly, its denizens even elected a Jewish mayor.

The Czernowitz conference catapulted the city, already well known in Jewish Eastern Europe, to international fame. According to Iosif Vaisman, a professor of bioinformatics at George Mason University who was born in the town and is an expert on its history, word of the conference spread quickly among linguists, inspiring similar conventions to plan the development of Hebrew and even Catalan.

“There were no secular Jewish schools before 1908,” Vaisman said. “Yiddish was only a medium, not a subject in itself. The grammar wasn’t taught. The literature wasn’t taught. After the Czernowitz conference, there was almost an explosion in the number of writers, books. It became more legitimate.”

The conference was also a major event in the development of the Bund, a Jewish socialist movement. Bundist leaders such as Chaim Zhitlovsky, who attended the conference, went on to help map the new states of Lithuania and Romania after World War I. Vaisman argues that although the connections were not always so direct, the ideas about the rights of minorities formulated at Czernowitz were the intellectual ancestors of those batted around at the Treaty of Versailles 10 years later.

Although Kutner is adamant that Czernowitz will not be the only focus of the IAYC convention, two of the convention’s speakers grew up in the town in the wake of the Yiddish conference, as did such luminaries as poet Paul Celan, Yiddish linguist Mordkhe Schaechter and Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse. Meinhard Mayer, one of this year’s IAYC speakers, had been acquainted with Celan and Schaechter.

Festivities commemorating the Czernowitz conference have been held almost every decade since 1908. This year, in addition to the IAYC convention, a Czernowitz anniversary celebration will be held in Toronto, at York University, and, for the second time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, in Czernowitz itself.

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