Birnbaum, Nathan
(1864 - 1937)
Opening Address
at the Conference for the Yiddish Language*
Nathan Birnbaum 
Honored Guests and Conference Participants: 

The public enjoys mocking people who desire to venture on new paths, yet this does not affect those hearty souls in the least. Nor does the derisive smile undo them. They possess a unique power to slough off the mockers and stop the jabbering mouths of fools and to shed light on benighted minds. They do not tire in making known their thoughts and criticisms until all become convinced and it becomes clear to the whole world that it is not they who are the fools but rather their tireless scoffers. 

Think, for example, of the movement for the Yiddish language. It began decades ago. At that time, there awoke the question in certain minds: why is it that when other nations jumble several languages together and derive from this melange a separate tongue with its unique soul, it is accorded the legitimacy of a separate language and the due respect of nations? Why then when Jews have done the same with the German, Hebrew and Slavic languages is it disparaged as a jargon and sneered at? At that time, assimilation was still powerful and the ethnonational movement had scarcely come into being. There were probably few people who were informed with respect to the new language question, and those that were, reacted to it with peals of uproarious laughter. Nevertheless, the idea did not wither away, and one of its first pioneers, if not the first, Aleksander Harkavi, lives till this very day in New York and has joyously lived to see the realization of his ideal. 

When Jewish intellectuals became ethnonationally conscious, it must be admitted that they looked askance at the Yiddish language. They viewed it as a nuisance which must be suffered patiently but which must not became the object of dedication. It never dawned on them that the nationalist intellectual must not only be bound closely by ties of the heart and will to his people but must, first of all, live in their midst. He must breathe the same cultural atmosphere, and his spiritual life must grow out of the folk-soul. Furthermore, he must be able to infuse into it the simple and unpretentious strength of the people. It never entered his mind that to speak any language other than his very own - the language of his people, the language of their innermost thoughts and feelings, of joys and sorrows, of tears and of laughter - is tantamount to leaving his people and going off into the desert-wilderness without friend or mentor, to follow the winding road into a chaotic world, to turn oneself into a rambler, a lost wanderer, torn from home and nationality. 

When the intellectuals were approached about this matter-when the attempt was made to convince them of the legitimacy of Yiddish - they laughed and jeered. "What, you want us, cultivated people, to stoop to the level of using your jargon, your most ugly jargon? You can be certain that you will not have your way with us. Better not make fools of yourselves." So they proclaimed arrogantly and considered those who spoke to them of Yiddish to be crazy, pure and simple. 

The Yiddish language took no notice of their laughing scorn and ugly disparagement. With quiet but firm tread, it pursued the road which the new age and the old nationality had diligently paved for it. The new age found it, the language, necessary in order to open the eyes of the common people so that they could at last see, voice their demands and carve a place for themselves in a hostile world. The old nationality, wakening from an age - old dream and as if longing for a major task, could not avoid the Yiddish language. Slowly, there blossomed forth new intellectuals (even nationalist intellectuals) who viewed Yiddish with a brighter and newer vision than their predecessors. They were seized by the powerful feeling that this language is the very soul of our people - its very heart, the very center of our life. Why do we weep that we lack self-esteem? Where should we derive this strength from, when we have spent our entire lives sunk in self-abasement? From which source can we draw on, when we demonstrate greater fidelity to the Hottentots than to ourselves, when we elevate the speech of others to the rank of dignified languages and when we invidiously belittle our own as nothing more than gibberish, as jargon; our language into which we have infused and secreted hundreds of years of our spirit, our heart, our humor and our deepest joys and sorrows? How can a nationality that suffers such supreme denigration ever, of its own accord, recover a modicum of feeling of self-respect and a sentiment for ethnonational sovereignty? Let us shed these garments of shame in which our language is swaddled-with which our weak and sickly yidishkayt has permitted it to be clothed - and our people will once more shine forth and bask in the warm glow of a long neglected self-respect. 

Why do we shed tears that we possess too dim an appreciation of beauty, or that Yiddish life has banished beauty? Is beauty not that which we extract from our minds and hearts and offer up to the world? Is beauty not the reflection of our inner beauty, or our deeper harmony? Could we not have already begun to perceive with true aesthetic sense, to see with eyes sensitized to beauty, and realize that the paltry bit of German and Polish speechifying has not elevated our inner beauty but only completely spoiled that trifling sum found among us? Only then would we comprehend that any unsightliness of Yiddish derives from our inner ugliness and discern what a guarantee of luster and beauty a language can afford us, a language that is held in high estimation and adorned by love. If we would understand, then let us make the effort to do so! Let us remove the opprobrium from our language and permit a new Jewish beauty to come forth from our midst and illuminate our lives. 

Why do we cry that we do not possess sufficient strength in the world? Do we endeavor to tap new wellsprings of strength and power? Have we not heard of what a language can do for a people? That it shelters and screens its culture and enables a people to unlock the door of ethnonational equality? Is this not a large dose of strength and power, and is it not found very near us, in our very mouths and on our own lips? We have only to reach out and grasp it and make it our own. 

These and similar claims have been given greater voice ever so gradually. Meanwhile, Yiddish literature has steadily developed. The first generation of poets were followed closely by a second, then a third generation, and, bit by bit, Yiddish was being widely used, entering into the general stream of life, and people were increasingly becoming sensitive to the inescapable obligation of helping it develop and prosper. This was efficaciously executed by the establishment of rules and systems, codes of grammar and the regulation of spelling. The call was burgeoning for the recognition of Yiddish as a separate language. 

Today, Jews from different lands have come together to proudly reacquaint themselves with our language and to discuss what can be done for our beloved Yiddish. We have the good fortune to have with us those great writers who evoke pride and command the deepest respect, even among the opponents and deriders of our language. 

You see, my dear guests and members of the conference, that ridicule has not foiled us; it has left us untouched and in the future it will not hurt us. As long as our struggle was an individual one, there existed the faint possibility that our strength would weaken and our spirit and patience falter. Now that we are gathered in strength from all over the world, we have nothing to fear. 

We are not spoiling for a fight with anyone. If fanatical adversaries will waylay us, they will find us steady and imperturbable. They cannot harm us in the least. Honest opponents who demonstrate propriety in their dealings with us will be answered with the utmost respect. The essence lies in work - quiet, tireless and devoted work. 

The following five days can be the start of our endeavors, but we remain cognizant that every beginning is connected with enormous responsibilities. 

I hereby declare to be opened the first Conference of the Yiddish language. 



*"Efenungs-rede af der konferents far der yidisher shprakh," Dír birnboyms vokhnblat. 1908, no. 1, 8 Elul. Translated by Joshua Fishman.  Text in Yiddish from Afn shvel, 1968, no.185.

The Russian-Jewish publication, Razsvet, in reporting N. Birnbaumís opening remarks preceded them with the following introductory comment: "A quarter past ten in the morning [Sunday, August 30, 1908] there walked onto the stage Dr. N. Birnbaum in the company of Y. L. Perets, S. Ash, Dr. Kh. Zhitlovski and other distinguished guests. Dr. N. Birnbaum opens the conference, reading his first speech in Yiddish fluently from his notes. His expressions pure Yiddish. Recognizable on occasion are pedantries of speech and a polished style. He reads his speech in the Galician dialect." 
Reprinted with permission from: Joshua A. Fishman, Ideology, Society & Language : The Odyssey of Nathan Birnbaum / Ann Arbor, Mich. : Karoma, 1987. 

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