Yiddish, in place and time

The 1907 election to the Austrian parliament in a photograph taken in Buchach, the Ternopil Oblast city of 65,000 people located 385 kilometers southwest of Kyiv, The tall bearded man with a black hat in the front is Nathan Birnbaum, who worked with Theodor Herzl, considered the founder of modern political Zionism.

CHERNIVTSI — I wanted to hear Yiddish.

The Yiddish that Wolf Moskovich – professor emeritus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, board member of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter and Chernivtsi native – spoke about only days before at a spectacular talk in Stockholm.

The Yiddish of the programs of the Israeli radio station Kol Israel that Moskovich recalled from his youth in the 1950s that emanated from one open window to the next as he walked the streets of Chernivtsi, the Ukrainian city of 262,000 people located 500 kilometers southwest of Kyiv. (It was an obvious sign of protest as by that time Jewish culture was suppressed in the former Soviet Union and the leading Yiddish writers and poets had been executed or exiled to the gulag).

The Yiddish that defined generations of Jews who inhabited the lands of Bukovyna, and other regions of contemporary Ukraine, creating a cultural and literary landscape singularly unique.

That Yiddish I knew was long gone but, reflecting on Moskovich’s lecture on a warm Chernivtsi night, I wanted to hear it anyway.

Speaking in Stockholm at Paideia, The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, Moskovich described the intersection of German and Yiddish, a linguistic dance that defined Chernivtsi’s place in the Jewish world and gave rise to some of its most important cultural movements and literary figures.

Although Yiddish had existed since the twelfth century as an offshoot of German and was for centuries the dominant language of Central and Eastern European Jewry, the global spotlight shone on the language in 1908. It was that year when an international conference was held in Chernivtsi in support of the language and its role in Jewish life. The city was chosen because the situation for Jews was better there than in other parts of Eastern Europe. (For much of its history, the city was referred to by its German name Czernowitz. In Ukrainian it is Chernivtsi, and in Yiddish it was known as Tshernovits.)

“Czernowitz was famed in the Jewish world as a place of interethnic tolerance,” remarked Moskovich.

The conference organizer was Nathan Birnbaum, a Jewish educator, philosopher, and essayist, who is “unjustly” forgotten today, said Moskovich.

“He is the man who coined in 1890 the term Zionism.”

Birnbaum was the first secretary to Theodor Herzl, considered the father of modern political Zionism. His political biography underscores Birnbaum’s passion for finding a way to give Jews a political voice at a critical time for the nationalities that inhabited the sprawling lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the constitutional monarchy of Central and Eastern Europe between 1867 and 1918. A large southwestern swath of contemporary Ukraine, including Bukovyna and Halychyna (Galicia), was once part of the empire.

Although Yiddish did not have the status of the national language of Jews in the empire, it was one of the principal tongues spoken in Chernivtsi, where 50 percent of the population was Jewish.

The first mention of Jews in Chernivtsi dates back to 1408. Their numbers increased substantially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By the nineteenth century, Jews had embraced the dominant German language and culture, which facilitated social progress and acceptance.

At its peak, Chernivtsi had a population of approximately 150,000 residents.

Geography played an important role in the socio-economic standing of Jews. Hugged by hills and perched on the Prut River, Jews who settled in the lower part of Chernivtsi near the banks of the river spoke Yiddish. Those living further up the hill, and who were better off economically, spoke a mixture of Yiddish and German. Those inhabiting the top spoke German.

Despite this Germanic linguistic dominance, a unique characteristic of Bukovyna was that no one ethnic group dominated political life.

“This is why Bukovyna was such a place because no nationality had a majority. Everybody was a minority,” said Moskovich. “They had to find a common language. That was not an easy thing to do.”

Birnbaum worked to create political alliances, including with Ukrainians. Indeed, in 1907, the year before the conference, he proposed his candidacy for the Austrian Parliament in Buchach, in Halychyna. Both Ukrainians and Jews voted for him.

The local Polish authorities “made all kinds of machinations to allow other candidates to win,” said Moskovich. Odesa’s famed Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky also believed cooperation with Ukrainians was politically necessary. He also lost his bid for a seat in the Russian Duma under similar circumstances in Volhynia.

The conference, which lasted from 30 August to 4 September 1908, brought together a wide range of individuals, from communists to intellectuals and literary figures. Birnbaum did not achieve what he had hoped – a consensus that Yiddish was “the” national language of the Jews. Instead, in a final document, conference attendees stated Yiddish as “a” national language of the Jews alongside Hebrew.

The conference nonetheless left its mark.

“It was so important that when we talk about Jewish culture, traditional culture, secular Jewish culture mainly, then we remember Czernowitz.”

Birnbaum was in some ways a prophet, Moskovich said. “He saw the path into the future. He saw what could have materialized in Europe if things went another way. Cultural autonomy for the Jews.”

Although the prospects of Yiddish were destroyed with the Shoah, it has left its linguistic mark. It is still spoken by over a million Jews around the world. Yiddish has also permeated many languages, including Ukrainian.

“Many Ukrainians knew Yiddish,” said Moskovich. “When I was a child, I was able to walk the streets of Czernowitz and not use any other language than Yiddish.”

Because of its high cultural level, Chernivtsi produced major literary figures. These include the writers Paul Celan and Rose Auslaender, both German-language poets, and Itzik Manger, a renowned Yiddish-language poet and playwright.  There were of course others, but Manger was exceptional.

“Manger’s poetry is such that one doesn’t know if it is written by one person or if it is a folk song,” said Moskovich.

It is something to contemplate, Moskovich said, that Czernowitz produced Celan and Auslaender, widely considered to be the best 20th-century poets in the German language.

“Why that is so scholars can’t explain even today,” Moskovich said. (Top class German poets appear in the city even after it ceased formally to be in the realm of the German cultural space.)  Moskovich suspects it has something to do with how Jews treat memory.

“Jews preserve very often things… from many generations before. The same ways that German culture was preserved by Jews. They saved the traditions for a longer time than other nationalities.”

For a decade now, Meridian Czernowitz, an international poetry festival, has taken place in Chernivtsi, honoring the city’s rich literary and cultural legacy. The Paul Celan Literaturzentrum has become the focal point for Chernivtsi’s (and perhaps Bukovyna’s) literary life and has hosted some of the brightest literary stars from Ukraine, Europe, and Israel. Poetry readings have taken place at the former Jewish National Home (which houses a small Jewish museum, opened in 2008, a century after the Czernowitz conference, by Chernivtsi native, former political prisoner and head of Ukraine’s VAAD Josef Zissels), the Jewish cemetery (many of the headstones are works of art), and the city’s synagogue (which has undergone in recent years an impressive restoration).

“Czernowitz is not an ideal place, but the memory of Czernowitz as an idealized place continues to this day,” Moskovich said near the conclusion of his Stockholm lecture.

Those words resonated on a warm Chernivtsi night. At midnight, the doors of the local cinema suddenly flew open, shattering the silence, as a flurry of young people engulfed the street. Arms linked, they spoke a multitude of languages – Russian, Romanian, and so much Ukrainian that I was amazed. As they strolled along Olha Kobylianska Street, named after the feminist Ukrainian writer, I felt joy in their laughter and the melody of their languages. I could imagine a Czernowitz of the past, but not the Yiddish.

And then it came.

It came late at night, when the noise of the city subsided, and the murmurs of other languages disappeared. In the night’s quiet, I could imagine the Yiddish of Czernowitz. It was there in the songs of the crickets, in the woodsy smell of the night. It was there in the memory of time, embodied in the photos of the famous Jewish authors from Czernowitz/ Tshernovits/Chernivtsi that adorn the walls of the Paul Celan Literaturzentrum. I had once met two of those writers – Aharon Appelfeld, the renowned Israeli writer born in nearby Stara Zhadova and who died near Tel Aviv; and Josef Burg, Chernivtsi’s last Yiddish-language poet, born in Bukovyna’s Vyzhnytsia and who passed in Chernivtsi. Both had spoken Ukrainian with me.

It was there in the audiences of young people who filled the auditorium of the former Jewish National Home to listen to contemporary Ukrainian, German, and Swiss poets. It was there in the poetry of Israeli poets who, for five years now, have come to Chernivtsi, each time building stronger bonds between this city and their homeland. And it lives in Moskovich himself.  After emigrating to Israel in the 1970s, since the late 1980s, Moskovich has returned annually to Chernivtsi to teach and lecture. In 2018 he and Zissels were instrumental in organizing there a major international conference with a Week of Jewish Culture dedicated to the 110th anniversary of the Czernowitz conference.

The Yiddish language was there because those people who left it, still love it. The Yiddish language was there because even though I couldn’t physically hear it, it is still of this place and time.

Natalia Feduschak
Director of Communications
The Ukrainian Jewish Encounter

Originally appeared @The Kyiv post