The exhibition Yiddish City, Yiddishists, and Yiddishism: Chernowitz Yiddish Language Conference of 1908 aims at tracing that balance between places, people, and ideals in formation of a historical event. Yiddishists, as the architects of the Conference came to be known, had one main goal: to elevate Yiddish from centuries of neglect, contempt, and illegitimacy as a language. The Chernowitz Conference was the first international gathering to discuss and legitimize the role of Yiddish in Jewish life. It was held for a little less than a week in Chernowitz, the capital of Bukovina, a region then under Austrian rule and now divided between Rumania and Ukraine. At the first glance, the choice of the location seems odd; although Chernowitz was a city with a significant Jewish population ¾ 21,500 Jews out of a total population of 68,4002 ¾ surely, there were many other more significant centers of Jewish activity, such as Vilna, Odessa, and Warsaw. However, the anti-Semitic atmosphere in Czarist Russia at the time could not provide a setting for the unimpeded discourse desired by the Conference’s organizers. Chernowitz, on the other hand, was at the time in the midst of the Austrian Empire’s debate on languages and nationalities’ rights. It was the city’s multi-ethnic and liberal nature and the viable Yiddishist organizations active there that made Chernowitz an ideal location for the Conference. Thus to gain a meaningful appreciation of the Conference, a visitor to the exhibition must become immersed in the multifarious city, get acquainted with the temperaments of the conference’s guests, and gain a sense of the various ideas these delegates brought to the Conference about the meaning and future of Yiddish. The visitor must become more than an apathetic observer. Through visual and narrative techniques, he/she will become a delegate to the conference, with a full appreciation of the meaning, urgency, and significance of the situation. This paper will outline the basic design of the exhibition and will survey the setting and proceedings of the conference (See Figure 1). Much of the text, quotations and pictures included here can be used to narrate the story line in a series of enlarged photographed scenes, collages, and narrative signs.
The greatest challenge of an exhibition is to capture the visitor’s attention from the very beginning – in essence, to turn an apathetic museum-goer into an active participant in a historical episode. I hope to achieve that partially by designing admission tickets as an invitation to the Conference, with the text from the original letter. This accomplishes more than just drawing the visitor into the past. Since the exhibition will probably attract visitors of various age groups and different levels of historical expertise, it is important to involve every visitor in the experience – those for whom Yiddish is an important part of their lives, those who view it as nothing but a curious linguistic treasure, and those for whom Yiddish vaguely reminds of the words ‘farklempt,’ ‘latkes,’ and ‘mazl tov.’ The invitation visitors receive briefly recounts the history of the struggle for Yiddish and introduces the visitor to the problem at hand: survival and flourishing of the language. It is a call to action:
But it continues to lack one thing which older tongues possess. The latter are not permitted to roam about freely and wildly in the linguistic world to attract all sorts of diseases, defects and perhaps even death. They are guarded as a precious child is guarded. No one, however, pays heed to the Yiddish language. Thousands of Yiddish words are replaced by German, Russian and English words which are completely unnecessary. The live rules of the language which are born and develop with it in the mouths of the people go unrecorded and it appears not to possess any such rules. Each person writes it in another way with his own spelling because no standard authoritative Yiddish orthography has thus far been established.
True, the disgrace attached to Yiddish in the past has diminished. People are less and less ashamed of the contemporary language of our people. It is gradually coming to be reckoned with and respected. It is coming to be understood that in Yiddish the Jewish spirit is reflected and its value for the survival of our nation is beginning to be comprehended. But it is still an object of ridicule and contempt. People are still ashamed of it. And is this not because of the faults noted above?
If this be true, a stop must be put to these things. Fence needs to be established, some sort of protection for our precious mother-tongue so that it is not to wander about aimlessly as until now, so that it not become chaotic, tattered and divided. All who are involved with the language, writers, poets, linguists, and those who simply love it – must confer and find appropriate means and methods of establishing an authority to which all will have to and want to defer.
Honored Sir! If you share the views herein expressed, you are invited to attend the Conference which we are calling on behalf of the Yiddish language.
The conference will be held on…………………………….in Czernowitz (Bukovina, Austria) and will deal with the following items: 1) Yiddish orthography, 2) Yiddish grammar, 3) Foreign and new words, 4) a Yiddish dictionary, 5) Jewish youth and the Yiddish language, 6) the Yiddish press and the Yiddish language, 7) the Yiddish stage and Yiddish actors, 8) the economic situation of the Yiddish writer, 9) the economic situation of Yiddish actors, 10) the recognition of the Yiddish language.
Enthusiasm and unbending spirit shine through the text. The letter is forward, decisive, and informative. With the invitation in hand, we are now ready to partake in the conference.
A large map at the entrance helps to orient us geographically (See Figure 2). An excerpt from great Yiddish writer Y.L. Peretz’s opening speech at the conference, written in large lettering, greets us at the entrance:
Y.L. Peretz, Opening speech at the Chernowitz Conference of Yiddish Language, 1908.
The Chernowitz section of the exhibition aims to convey the atmosphere of European gentle elegance and introduce the multi-ethnic gathering of the city inhabitants. Elegance and grandeur surround us as soon as we step into the first setting of the exhibition, the Ringplatz, the central square in Chernowitz. "Chestnut and white acacia trees lined the streets of Chernowitz. Its parks and squares brimmed with kaleidoscopic flowerbeds," writes Ruth Gold of pre-war Chernowitz in her memoirs. "The architecture, elegance, culture, and language evoked of Gemutlichkeit, of coziness. It was a little replica of classical Austrian culture – a sort of small Vienna."5 The Ringplatz, a small semi-circular pavilion, submerges us right into the pulsing heart of the city. An enlarged photograph of the scene stretches half the circumference of the room (See Figure 3-5). On Ringplatz, Magistrat, the city hall of "imposing" proportions with a square clock tower looked over the square.6 Its massive stone structure reminded Pearl Fichman of "Vienna and Budapest – just scaled down."7 Light music by Viennese composer Schubert playing in the pavilion further conveys the feeling of Austrian elegance and refinement. The square and its adjacent streets was the social hub of the city, the place to meet friends and acquaintances or stroll gracefully amidst the elegant people.
In the exhibition, the Ringplatz room opens the view on Herrengasse, the most elegant street of the city, with its lavish mansions, fashionable boutiques, and cozy coffee shops.(See Figure 6) Enlarged photographs, coffee shop enclaves, and life-sized shop signs and windows represent the street in the exhibit. Naturally, the passageway in the museum is narrower than the actual street, but the museum’s representation only adds to the ever-present feeling of coziness in the city.
As we step onto Herrengasse, the Schubert gives way to city sounds. At this point, we get closer acquainted with inhabitants of the city. Light piano music is coming out of a coffee shop, hopelessly drowned out by noisy conversations in German, Yiddish, Ukrainian, Russian, and thousands dialects of each. These sounds are designed to represent the actual clamor of the city life. People often gathered on Herrengasse for afternoon promenades. Young ladies, mothers with children, businessmen, and university students crowded the cafés and sidewalks. In the exhibition, we can look into the window of "Hamburg," one of the most popular cafés and see Chernowitzers sip coffee and discuss world news.8 Keeping with the latest fashion was crucial in these cultivated middle-class circles. "The women are so well dressed," marveled American tourist Sacheverell Sitwell in his account of pre-World War II Chernowitz.9
The scene is more complex than an ordinary Austrian city picture, however. Jews, who comprised less than a third of the population, made up its cultural, social, and economic elite. Jews were craftsmen, businessmen, lawyers, doctors, bankers, tailors, barbers – they dominated in any profession and occupation. "There is not a shop that has not a Jewish name painted above its windows," complains Sitwell. "The entire commerce of the place is in the hands of the Jews."9 Sitwell concedes, however, that "the benefit of this Jewish hegemony is a noticeable quickness of brains. Shopping takes up a tenth of the time that it consumes in other towns."9 Naturally, this hegemony elicited some anti-Semitic remarks from tourists. Elizaveta DeVitte, who toured Bukovina in 1903, blamed the Jews for the destitute condition of the Russian people in the area. She saw Jewish infiltration everywhere: "Out of the 600 students in the Chernowitz University, only 50 are Russian!" she wrote. "It is true that admission to the University is open to everyone, but the actual enrollment happens in the following way: on a set day, Jews block the doors of the University, and until every Jew enrolls, policemen – who choose to help the Jews – do not let anyone else in."10 Perhaps DeVitte’s story is slightly exaggerated, but Jews certainly enjoyed a great degree of religious, social, and cultural freedom in Chernowitz at that time11.
While many ethnic groups in the city – Romanians, Ukrainians, Russians, and many others – held on to their native tongues, affluent middle class Jews, a majority in the Jewish population at the time, adapted German as their lingua franca. As late as 1939, two decades after Chernowitz came under Romanian rule, German was still the predominant language of the population, and bookshops, owned primarily by Jews, carried the latest books from Vienna, Berlin, and Leipzig12. The sound of High German was not a novelty on Herrengasse; Bukovinian Jews strove to imitate their Viennese co-religionists in every way possible13.
In the exhibition, Herrengasse leads to the representation of the Tempel, the largest synagogue in Chernowitz (See Figure 7-9). The temple was built in a Moorish style, much like many Austrian temples, with minaret-like towers and imposing structure. The interior was beautifully done in wood. Pearl Fichman remembers that the congregation was very modern and "most people were shaven," meaning they did not have beards. The temple had an organ and a young boy chorus in the tradition of Austrian and German reform temples13. An enlarged photograph of the temple will give an idea of the grandeur of the building. Chernowitz Jews had a peculiar relationship with Judaism, balancing religiosity with the latest fashions from Vienna. "People were religious in Chernowitz," remembers Pearl Fichman, "but it was not extreme."13 This degree of piety did not suffice for the Hassidim from the nearby villages, who "pretty much considered Chernowitzers ‘goyim,’"14 as Eddie Rabinovitch recalls. Nevertheless, Chernowitz encompassed a remarkable tolerance for ethnic, cultural, and lingual diversity, and open-mindedness was much needed for the budding Yiddishist movement.
The fact that the Conference was held in Chernowitz determined the nature of the delegates and guests and streamlined the course of the proceedings. Language was a hot issue at that time since in the upcoming 1910 census, authorities wanted Bukovinian Jews to claim German as mother tongue as a counterbalance to Ukrainians and Rumanians’ claims for language privileges and parliamentary representation. Even though claiming a language not recognized by Austrian authorities was a punishable offense, Jews were rallying support to claim Hebrew or Yiddish as their native tongue. Because of this controversy, the Conference attracted more attention from the general public of the city than a serious linguistic convention normally would anywhere else. Because of the current political sentiments in Bukovina, there were more Zionist representatives and fewer Bundists than there would be in a Bundist center like Vilna. Furthermore, the Conference made a great impression on the attendees and local newspapers – more so than in more sophisticated Jewish centers – because Yiddish as a legitimate language was still a very novel idea in Chernowitz. "Come and you will hear how one speaks pure Yiddish at a meeting," said one guest to his wife15.
In the next major section of the exhibition, we are introduced to some of the delegates to the Conference. The entrance to the "Delegates" room is right across the Tempel. This room serves as the lounge area before the entrance to the conference hall. With dimmed chandeliers, soothing colors, leather couches, and wooden desks, this room conveys the sense of respectability and significance the Conference’s organizers wanted to portray. A large portrait of the delegates in a golden frame dominates one of the walls (See Illustration 10-11). A section of the wall or a stand in the room is devoted to each of the featured delegates. We are able to leisurely walk around the room, getting to know the delegates. The following are some of the delegates featured in the exhibition, with summaries of their ideologies and accomplishments in the Yiddish world. Information about these people can be represented in collages of photographs, letters, caricatures, and narrative placards.
Nathan Birnbaum can rightly be called the father of Yiddishism as one of the movement’s earliest and most active proponents (See Figure 12). A Viennese Jew, he disapproved of the assimilationist tendencies of his Austrian brethren. Instead, he idealized the Eastern European Jewry, believing it to carry the true soul of Jewish people. He believed that a flourishing Jewish culture in large European cities will eventually lead to the recognition of Jews as a nationality. Yiddish was to serve as the vehicle for this cultural and political recognition: "One may say without exaggeration that the Yiddish language places East European Jewry and with it the entire Jewish people before a turning point in its national destiny," he wrote. "Only in the light of this despised Golus [diaspora] dialect can the people’s full independence ripen and Jews win their second, higher national emancipation."16 To further this idea, Birnbaum organized Yiddish evenings, translated the writings of Sholom Aleychem, Y.L. Peretz, and Sholem Asch into German, gave lectures on Yiddish and Yiddish writers, and founded a youth organization for the advancement of Yiddish culture. In 1908, Birnbaum traveled to the United States to gain support for his ideas from American Jewish writers and activists. After lengthy discussions, he and Jewish dramatists David Pinski and Jacob Gordin, the publisher A. M. Evalenko, and the philosopher Chaim Zhitlovsky formed an organizing committee for the Chernowitz Conference17.
Socialist journalist and activist Chaim Zhitlovsky, who drafted the invitation, believed that Yiddish should serve as the primary vehicle of socialist propaganda among Jews (See Figure 13). "The socialists do not speak to the people in a language that it had long forgotten," Zhitlovsky wrote. "They also do not go to their neighbors to borrow a language. They speak the mother-tongue and convey thoughts which every mother might well learn by heart and teach to her children every day – thoughts which teach us how the poor, oppressed and exploited section of our society may free itself from its unfortunate condition."18 Zhitlovsky believed that the socialist literature for Jews that was written in Hebrew or Russian was ineffective because it did not reach out to the uneducated proletariat masses. He urged Jewish intellectuals to "return to Yiddish . . . and reunite [themselves] with the masses."19 After a propagandist visit to the United States on behalf of a Russian socialist party, Zhitlovsky settled in the country, continuing to lecture extensively and publish articles to further the cause of Yiddishism.
Yitzkhok Leybush Peretz’s contribution to the Conference stemmed less from his political convictions than from his sincere love and faith in the language’s power to educate Jewish people, and especially the women (See Figure 14). Already a leading Yiddish writer at the time, Peretz was concerned about the linguistic limitations of Yiddish. He wanted to enrich, revive, standardize, and modernize the largely colloquial tongue. Above all, he wanted to "create a Yiddish literature to speak and write to the people in its own language."20 A major advocate for education, Peretz believed fostering the growth of Yiddish is the only way to appeal to Jewish masses. "If we want to educate these three million Jews," he wrote in his influential essay Education, "We cannot wait until they acquire a thorough knowledge of other tongues."21 He approached the Chernowitz Conference with caution, however, because he opposed any political pronouncements and was only interested in the linguistic legitimization and standardization of the language22.
Matisyohu Mieses, a young linguist from Galicia, provided the technical background to pronounce Yiddish as a mature and sophisticated language (See Figure 15). In his numerous articles, he rejected the view that Yiddish is illegitimate because it is a jargon, a corruption and hodgepodge of Slavic, German, and Hebrew. Yiddish is just as legitimate as any other language, Mieses argued, since most human languages are derivatives of one another, but no one considers English, or German, or French more or less legitimate than the other. Furthermore, Mieses maintained that Yiddish was the sole method of maintaining national identity in the face of Slavic and German overlords and the diverse mix of other nationalities. "If Yiddish is abandoned, its true adversary, the language of the country, will be victorious and complete assimilation, the destruction of our nation, which our traitors anticipate, will come about," he wrote in 190723. Mieses was invited to conference to speak on "The Recognition of Yiddish."24
Besides these four major Yiddishist figures, the exhibition will also feature other guests to show the ideological, geographical, and cultural diversity of the delegates. L. Khazanovitch, a Poaley Zion party representative, advocated Yiddish as the national language in Jewish settlements: "Yiddish is a national language of the Jewish people and we demand complete political and social equity for it in the lands of compact mass settlement by Jews," he proposed at the Conference.25 Esther Frumkin, a Bundist representative, held some of the most radical views at the Conference, advocating Yiddish as the sole language of the Jewish people. She also helped defeat Peretz’s proposal to create a central organization for advancement and spread of Yiddish because she believed the struggle should be carried along local class lines.26 Some of the other delegates included, from the Czarist Empire: Sholem Ash, who was to become a well-known American Yiddish novelist and dramatist;27 Avrom Reyzin, already a popular poet; D. Nomberg, writer and journalist, who later founded a small political party Yiddishe Folkistishe Partey, which promoted Yiddish and Diaspora culture; N. Prilutski, a linguist, folklorist, and journalist; from Rumania: Slotek, an advocate for latinization of Yiddish; from Galicia and Bukovina: eight minor literary figures and 47 students, merchants, bookkeepers, craftsmen, etc.28
This motley collection of ideologues, politicians, writers, philosophers, linguists, and a whole bunch of curious on-lookers had an intimidating goal in front of them: to decide on the future of Yiddish in a constructive and orderly manner. Of course, with such a great number of Jews with diverging and often conflicting views, the conference was everything but orderly and constructive. The last pavilion of the exhibition aims to show the chaos, wavering convictions, confused speeches and ineffectual decisions that preoccupied much of the Conference’s proceedings. Collages of photographs, documents, and newspaper articles occupy the walls of the square conference room. Large narrative signs around the room trace and elucidate the course of the Conference. A dramatized recording of the speeches plays to help bring the viewer into the action.
Nathan Birnbaum’s opening speech set the tone for the Conference. He reiterated the already standard Yiddishist ideas about the power of Yiddish as an educating tool for the masses and the need to elevate the status of Yiddish from pidgin to an official language. Reading from his notes in broken Galician Yiddish – he only started learning the language several years before the Conference - Birnbaum called the delegates "to remove opprobrium from our language and permit a new Jewish beauty to come forth from our midst and illuminate our lives."29 Peretz’s opening speech traced Yiddish’s developing importance in communication of the masses; he also proposed translation of the Bible into Yiddish to include tradition in the blossoming language. Peretz emphasized Yiddish’s significance as the unifying language of the Jewish national identity: "We no longer want to be fragmented, and to render to every Moloch nation-state its tribute: There is one people – Jews, and its language is – Yiddish."30 Peretz’s speech, the second one of the evening, made a great impression on the delegates and guests and was repeatedly interrupted by enthusiastic ovation. "Peretz’s appearance on the platform," one Chernowitz reporter wrote, "evoked tremendous applause and indescribable joy." 31
On the third day of the conference, Mieses delivered a linguistic paper describing Yiddish as a unique linguistic structure and examining the history and sociology of the language from that prospective. The speech was revolutionary in scope and objective evidence and was used as the scientific basis for many of the Conference’s resolutions. Mieses was later criticized for masking pseudo-linguistics with convincing rhetoric, but at the time of the Conference, many of the delegates were overwhelmed by the scientific evidence for their ideology.32 However, Mieses’ perceived anti-Hebraist views caused much agitated debate on the Conference floor. Denouncing Hebrew as a dead, ineffective, and decaying language, he elicited many angry repartees from delegates and guests.33 One newspaper reported that after the speech, "the Hebraists began to whistle loudly and the Jargonists [Yiddishists] were ready to defend Herr Mieses’s address with their fists . . . One of the shouting Hebraists sat down in the corner, began to cry terribly and was unable to calm himself." 34
This extreme response illuminated one of the most controversial issues of the Conference, that of the dichotomy of Hebrew and Yiddish as Jewish national languages.35 Both Hebraists (proponents of Hebrew as the Jewish national language) and Yiddishists agreed that the power of the religious aspect of Judaism has declined, so language and culture should serve as the primary bond of the people. However, Hebraists believed that Hebrew should be the language because of its Biblical and Talmudic origins, whereas Yiddishists, as shown earlier, believed Yiddish should be promoted because of its current widespread use among the masses.36 "For us, Hebrew is the holy tongue," Birnbaum wrote in 1919. "Yiddish is loved and cherished by us because it is the language of our fathers and mothers, the language that the Jews of Eastern Europe have spoken for hundreds of years and into which they have permeated with their Jewishness."37 (See Figure 16-18)
Because of the tensions between radical Yiddishists and more moderate Yiddish supporters, debate over the last item on the original agenda projected in the invitation, "the recognition of the Yiddish language," took up a large portion of the Conference. The formulation of the final resolution stumbled upon every word. Frumkin, the Bundist delegate, demanded the formulation of Yiddish as "the national language" of the Jewish people, thus expunging Hebrew as an alternative Jewish language. The majority, however, agreed on the following resolution, substituting "a" for "the": "The first conference for the Yiddish language recognizes Yiddish as a national language of the Jewish people and demands for its political, communal and cultural equality. In this connection the conference deems it necessary to declare that each participant in the conference, as well as each member of the future organization, retains the freedom to relate to the Hebrew language according to his personal convictions."38 The Conference also resolved to form an official organization to promote the acceptance the equal rights of Yiddish in linguistics, education, literature, and theater.39
For various reasons – such as the lack of funds, impending war, and ineffective leadership – the resolutions of the Conference never materialized in any tangible way.40 However, the exhibition does not seek to examine the direct effects of the Conference or evaluate its success. It is my hope that the visitor will leave with a good understanding of the climate, people, and issues of the Conference. The Conference Hall leads back to Ringplatz room, so the visitor gets a sense of accomplishing a mini-odyssey of the Yiddish struggle. If sufficient funds and space are obtained for the exhibition, I propose an ideal closing segment for the exhibition. After exiting the exhibit, the visitor will be able to shop and look around in an "Yiddish Culture Room" or "YIVO room." YIVO, whose creation was strongly influenced by the Chernowitz Conference’s ideas, is one of the world’s leading proponents of Yiddish culture and education. Many argue that the Conference was an organizational disappointment, too chaotic to resolve any significant issues and unable to carry out its own resolutions. Descriptions of the YIVO and other Yiddishist groups’ ongoing projects, concerts and lectures, shelves stacked with Yiddish books and recordings should serve as a silent, but very suggestive, indication of the Conference’s indirect success (See Figures 19-21). Because school groups will probably comprise a large portion of the exhibit’s visitors, it is very important that children learn something from the exhibition (besides the fact that adults can sometimes argue about incomprehensible things). I would like to design an "Alef-Beys" room, where through several hands-on activities, children can be exposed to Yiddish language and culture. Ideally, before going through the exhibition, children would get a lesson in Yiddish alphabet and learn a short Yiddish song, with emphasis placed on the richness of Yiddish language and cultural tradition. The exhibition is also easily adaptable as a virtual gallery, a project I may work on with Professor Iosif Vaisman, the creator of the Virtual Shtetl website.41 Photographs could be used as backgrounds for text, with links to more pictures, descriptions, and musical clips. It is my hope that visitors will leave the exhibit with a feeling for the city of Chernowitz, having understood the Conference’s architects and the Conference itself. Hopefully, they will go on to carry the spirit of the Chernowitz Conference of 1908 to further their studies in the rich world of Yiddishkayt.
A Jewish city with no Jews . . .
I remember the last time I visited Chernowitz. In 1991, when we were packing to leave for US, my mother wanted to say good-bye to the city of her childhood, that intimate, cozy, comfortable Jewish Chernowitz she remembered so well. We visited some friends, who were also packing to leave for Israel. We took a walk on Herrengasse (now called Kobilyanska Street), its hauntingly empty shops with long lines for meat and milk. My mother kept looking around in hope of seeing a familiar face – she prided herself on knowing every Jewish person in Chernowitz at one time. But Jews have left the city. The windows of its aged Austrian-style stone buildings are empty of Jewish spirit and song. Ukrainian authorities have new challenges in front of them, and for once, the centuries-old Jewish question is probably not one of them.
Places and people intertwine to create history. Take one away, and history is invisible, gone, with only scraps of memory scrambling to remind us of the past. . .
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Peretz, Isaac Leib. “Speech at the 1908 Czernowitz Language Conference.”
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Rabinovitch, Eddie. Interview by the author. Upper Saddle River, NJ, April 13, 1998.
Sitwell, Sacheverell. Roumanian Journey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Vaisman, Iosif. Phone interview by the author. Chapel Hill, NC, May 7, 1998.
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