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December 25, 1987 - Image 40

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1987-12-25

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PURELY COMMENTARY

Yiddish Authors

Continued from Page 2

Yiddish. Yiddishism was urn-
bilically tied to the fate of the
Yiddish language. But Yiddish
was not a "world-imperialist
language." Preoccupation with
the precarious survival of Yid-
dish was at once the strength
and the weakness of Yid-
dishism. As Emanuel Goldsmith
points out in Architects of Yid-
dishism, "The Holocaust
brought an end to that sector of
the Jewish world, without
which Yiddish remained bereft
of the principal source of its
vitality and influence. In the
Soviet Union, what Hitler failed
to accomplish was achieved by
Stalin and his henchmen, who
viewed Yiddish and Yiddish
culture as embodiments of
Jewish separatism and interna-
tionalism?'
The Jewish catastrophes
under the aegis of Hitler and
Stalin, and the linguistic
assimilation that seems to be an
inexorable hallmark of Jewish
modernization, in a few decades
transformed Yiddish from the
folk language of the Jewish
masses to a classical Jewish
language of mainly historical
significance. The ingathering of
exiles in the State of Israel con-
tributed to this transformation,
for even though Yiddish has en-
joyed a limited and sentimental

revival there in recent decades,
it will never evoke the resonance
among the majority of Israel's
population, which stems from
the Sephardic and eastern com-
munities, that it finds in com-
munities that are of
predominately Ashkenazic
origin.
The living source of Yiddish
(at least of secular Yiddish
culture) is drying up, although,
as several of the authors of
Great Yiddish Writers of the
Twentieth Century observe, the
fruits of Yiddish writings are
now being translated into
Hebrew and other languages.
A second theme of Great
Yiddish Writers of the Twentieth
Century is "faith in a generation
of disbelief." As we have observ-
ed, Yiddishism had strong ties
to modern Jewish secularism,
including Jewish Marxism. This
secularism was expressed in a
rejection of theology, a
positivistic agnosticism, and
sometimes in a belligerent op-
position to religious observance
— a heritage of the impact of
Russian radicalism on young
Eastern European Jews from
the 1860s on. Irving Howe, in the
introduction to his anthology of
essays by Yiddish writers entitl-
ed Voices from the Yiddish,
speaks of the ardor with which

East European Jews had turned
at the end of the nineteenth cen-
tury to the idea of secular
humanism: "Turned, one might
even say, with religious intensi-
ty to the idea of secular expres-
sion."
The demise of militant anti-
religiosity is a poignant note in
Great Yiddish Writers of the
Twentieth Century. A sensitive
spokesman for openness to the
spiritual dimensions of life is
Daniel Tcharny, who quotes
Samuel Nigger that "we are no
longer enslaved to our free-
thinking:' The Yiddishists who
explored aspects of spirituality
in these essays were certainly
not baalei teshuvah; they were
not repentant Jews returning to
formal religion. But in the
spiritual abyss of recent moder-
nity they felt a profound Jewish
need for something
transcendent.
Great Yiddish Writers of the
Twentieth Century is a book to
be perused, savored bit by bit.
Leftwich has brought together
essays sentimental and ironic,
historical and factual, poetic
and allusive, memoiristic and
exhortative. Each is written in
an individual voice, but all are
voices with a Jewish accent.
Depite its consciously modern
literary concerns, Yiddish in-

tellectualism constitutes a con-
tinuation of an old Jewish love
for ideas — ideas proposed and
refuted and interpreted and
debated with passion and
sharpness.
Much of Great Yiddish
Writers of the Twentieth Cen-
tury was, at one point, good con-
versation that generated much
disagreement, "controversy for
the sake of Heaven:' But there
was a unity too, expressive of a
certain moment in the modern
history of Jewishness. In his
essay on the virtues and faults
of the great writers, Aaron
Zeitlin qotes the Maharal of
Prague: "Contrasts belong to
one category or they would not
be contrasts:' The writings in
Great Yiddish Writers of the
Twentieth Century represent a
"category:' They are "a classic
Jewish style": modern, intellec-
tual, disputatious, secure, com-
mitted, East European,
Ashkenazic — a style that we
will sorely miss.
Due acclaim is expressed here for a
very great book. The memory of-Joseph
Leftwich will be enhanced with digni-
ty and appreciation for his many
literary accomplishments, greatest em-
phasis now being given to his last work,
the translations of some 100 Yiddish
writers of this century. It is truly a very
important and great book.

Nathan Birnbaum: Engraved In Jewish History

N

athan Birnbaum is not a name
too frequently mentioned in
communal and historical
discussions. Yet the eminent personali-
ty was so deeply involved in many
Jewish movements and ideologies that
his record is indelibly engraved in
recorded history.
He not only was a pioneer Zionist:
The very term Zionism was of his mak-
ing. Yet in later life, after associating
with Theodor Herzl as the latter's
secretary in the first World Zionist Con-
gress he became an Agudat Israel anti-
Zionist extremist.
As a . political scientist and
sociologist born in Vienna, he never-
theless became the antagonist of Ger-
manized Jews, was a leader at the
Tchernovitz Yiddish Conference and
became the world leader in advocating
priority for Yiddish.
The remarkable story ()this life is
told in Ideology, Society and Language:
The Odyssey of Nathan Birnbaum
(Karoma Publishers, Ann Arbor) by
Joshua A. Fishman.
The biographer's role is important.
Dr. Fishman is research professor in
social sciences at Yeshiva University.
His major works are devoted to the ad-
vancement of Yiddish. Dr. Fishman's
authoritative linguistic teachings are
evidenced in the Birnbaum biography.
Odyssey is an appropriate designa-
tion for the biography of the scholar
who turned from Zionist leadership to
the antagonistic extreme of Agudat
Israel. He was the nationalist never-
theless, and with Yiddish as his major

40

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 25, 1987

Nathan Birnbaum

theme he left impressive marks on the
Jewish history of his time. His influence
continues to evidence itself to this day.
Early Zionist history fully accredits
to him the creation of the term
"Zionism." Dr. Fishman provides the ex-
planation for the origin of it in a
ideological resume in which he
describes the evolutionary trends in
Zionist experience. Dr. Fishman ex-
plains this experience historically as
follows:
Birnbaum was merely 19
years old when, as a confirmed
pre-Herzlian Zionist, he began
attending courses at the Univer-
sity of Vienna, first in "orien-

talistics" and then in
jurisprudence. Much before
Herzl came on the scene (and,
most particularly, much before
the Dreyfus affair of 1894 shock-
ed the sensitivities of all Western
Jewish intellectuals), he gave
public talks and published
brochures for Jewish students
stressing that Jews were
members of "a- Jewish people, a
people whose renaissance
depended on the Land of Israel:'
He literally coined the word
"Zionism," both in German and
in Hebrew, and, together with a
few other students at the same
university — all of the others, by
the way, Eastern European — he
organized the first university-
linked Jewish student organiza-
tion, Kadimah (1883) and found-
ed, edited and published its
journal Selbst-Emancipation!
(1885), a publication that soon
reached far and wide among
"Jewish ethnonationally"
oriented students and other
readers among German-
speaking Jewry.
He championed the nded for
unity among Jews, holding that
otherwise no goals could be at-
tained and no improvements in
Jewish life were securable. He
bitterly criticzed those whose
Jewishness was merely the
byproduct of anti-Semitism and
who were kept from escaping
from their own people only by

the hatred of Jews among their
co-territorial neighbors. He
argued that genuine cultural
creativity was possible for Ger-
manized Jews only on their
assumption of deep bonds with
their own people and its culture.
Otherwise they could attain no
more than pale, inauthentic im-
itations of German culture,
given that Christianity was a
basic ingredient of that culture.
Jews could evolve to new
moral heights (he was an oppo-
nent of Jewish urbanism and
commercialism from his earliest
writings, considering them both
to be moral negatives), he believ-
ed, only if they cultivated
Judaism and settled on the soil
of the Land of Israel.
Iconoclastically, he stressed
that socialism would not result
in a better world as long as it did
not support the aspirations of
small peoples, the Jews among
them, for ethnonational
recognition.
On the contrary, he
predicted socialism would mere-
ly lead to a new kind of bar-
barism unless, like the Jewish
prophets of old, it became
associated with the principles of
ethics and justice between na-
tionalities. He felt that America
could not save the Jewish soul
because that soul could become
strong and creative only on the
soil of its historic homeland

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