First Yiddish Language Conference

August 30, 1908: The First Conference for the Yiddish Language opens in Czernowitz, Bukovina.

Bukovina (land of beech trees) was a sparsely populated crown land of the Aus­trian Hungarian Empire in the late 1700,’s and early 1800’s when the ruling Hapsburg family recruited German speaking people to settle its virgin forests. Lutherans from the Rhine-Palatinate and Württemberg in Germany and Catholics from the Bohemian Forest of Austria (now in the Czech Republic) migrated to Bukovina to farm and work in the glassworks. Although a minority in the multicultural country, they lived in ethnic German villages and communities preserving their language and customs.

Occurring at a time when more than a dozen other languages on three continents were also organizing their own “first” conferences (usually under non- or even antigovernmental auspices), the Czernowitz Conference was the brainchild of Nathan Birnbaum (1864–1937), an innovative, and peripatetic Jewish educator, essayist, philosopher, politician, and social organizer.

The Czernowitz agenda was a broad one and included the need for Yiddish schools and teachers; support for the Yiddish press, theater, and literature; reversing the growing tendency for young people to prefer Hebrew or their major coterritorial non-Jewish language to Yiddish; supporting the translation of canonical works from Hebrew and Aramaic into Yiddish; and the regularization of Yiddish orthography. One issue, however—as Pinski had anticipated in New York at the beginning of the year—was prominent: the status of Yiddish. The topic immediately came to the fore and practically monopolized the proceedings during the entire conference. The arguments waged in Czernowitz over whether Yiddish was “the” national language or only “a” national language of the Jewish people polarized and split the delegates irrevocably. The other items on the agenda that Birnbaum and Zhitlovski had hoped and diligently planned for gained little attention.

The philatelic example shown here is a postage stamp, ca. 1867-1874, from the Austrian Empire with a postmark from the town of Czernowitz.



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