Sunday, 1 February 2015


NOSN BIRNBOYM (NATHAN BIRNBAUM) (May 16, 1864-April 2, 1937)
He was born in Vienna.  His father, Menakhem-Mendl, a minor industrialist, descended from a Hassidic family in western Galicia and his mother from a family of rabbis in Hungary.  In a short autobiographical essay, he described his father as "a bit of a maskl" (a shtikl maskl)--i.e., somewhat modern in outlook but who, nonetheless, led a traditional, religious life; he cared, therefore, that his only son should privately study Jewish subjects, while attending public school.  When Birnboym was eleven years of age, his father died, and he proceeded to study in public secondary school, and he gradually drifted away from religious observance, later becoming a socialist-atheist.
Opposed to assimilation which was the norm in his circle, Birnboym from his mid-teenage years popularized the consciousness that Jews were a nation among his youthful friends in Central Europe.  In 1882 when he had just arrived the University of Vienna, he founded, together with two friends, the first Jewish National Student Association in Austria: Kadima (Onward/Eastward).  At the age of twenty, he published the periodical Selbstemanzipation! (Auto-emancipation!) in German (1884-1894).  In 1884 he also published an attack on assimilation Die Assimilationssucht; Ein Wort an die sogennanten Deutschen, Slaven, Mayoren etc. mosaischer Confession von einem Studenten jüdischer Nationalität (Assimilation mania, a word to the so-called Germans, Slavs, Magyars, etc. pof Mosaic faith by a student of the Jewish nation).  He formulated in writing and orally a series of fundamental issues: the problem of a Jewish national state and the problem of modern Jewish culture.  With his writings and social activities, he became the spokesman for new national-cultural tendencies among Jewish youth in Central and Western Europe.  He graduated from the law faculty in 1887.  For a short period of time, he practiced law.  Soon, however, he began to devote himself—entirely now—to literary and social work.  In the early 1890s, he moved to Berlin, published a periodical (Jüdische Volkszeitung, successor to Selbstemanzipation!), in which he spiritedly stood up for the Zionist idea, using the term “Zionism” which he had cpined in 1890, a good while before Herzl appeared on the scene.  In that period he was decidedly influenced by Perets Smolenskin, Dr.  Leon Pinsker, Aḥad-ha'Am, and Lilienthal, among other ideologists of the Lovers of Zion movement.  In 1897 he participated in the First Zionist Congress in Basel.  He was one of the principal speakers on the topic of Jewish culture.  He was selected as general secretary of the newly created Zionist Party, but following the Second Zionist Congress, he left the movement, which he had helped to establish, markedly separating himself from the concept of “negating the Diaspora.”  He began preaching the notion that Jews, especially those in Eastern Europe, should launch a struggle for their national rights and national culture in the Yiddish language, to be recognized as a "nationality" among the other "nationalities" within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, based on the principle of cultural autonomy.
In Vienna and in other Central European cities, he started to organize “Jewish evenings” (Jüdische Abende).  He held lectures on Yiddish and Yiddish writers, and he translated into German writings by Sholem-Aleichem, Y. L. Peretz, Sholem Asch, and others.  In accordance with his initiative, in 1905 he founded in Vienna the first student organization for Yiddish (Jüdische Kultur).  He began to popularize a plan for a broader writers’ conference which would enhance the dignity of the Yiddish language and Yiddish culture.  To that end, he traveled to the United States in 1908, and there he gave speeches on Yiddish literature and theater, forged ties and won to his idea of a conference important spokesmen among Yiddish writers in America.  Birnboym’s plan was realized in August 1908, the historic language conference held in Czernowitz, where he remained until 1910.  He published Dr. birnboyms vokhnblat (Dr. Birnboym’s Weekly News), six issues in all, and later in German: Das Volk (The People).  He opened a Jewish bookshop and founded a Jewish theatrical association.  In 1911 he made a legendary trip through the largest Jewish centers in Russia, Poland, and Lithuania; he lectured on Diaspora nationalism, Yiddish, and Yiddish literature.  When in St. Petersburg, in a spiritual awakening, he came to the realization that had been germinating for some time: the central role that religion played in the existence of the Jewish people.  At the outbreak of WWI, he and his whole family who were living in Berlin made their way back to Vienna.  His three sons were mobilized into the Austrian army; he experienced the events of that time very deeply.  In Fun an apikoyres gevorn a maymen (From Freethinker to Believer), he formulated his ideas of the religious task of the Jewish people.  In 1919 he became the first secretary-general of Agudas Yisroel (Agudat Yisrael), the Orthodox Jewish organization.  On assignment for this organization he made lengthy trips throughout Europe and the United States.  In 1923 he settled in Hamburg, then in Berlin.  With Hitler’s coming to power in 1933, he moved to Holland.  During the last years of his life, he suffered from a serious illness, though he never ceased his work.  In his final months, he found time to publish a selection of his articles under the title Rufe (Calls) (Antwerp, 1936), 90 pp., originally published in the journal Der Ruf.  He died on a Friday night, the final day of Passover, in 1937.
Birnboym began to oublish in Yiddish around 1906.  He published in: Yidishe velt (Jewish World) in St. Petersburg and Vilna; Haynt (Today), Moment (Moment), and Der yud (The Jew) in Warsaw; Tageblat (Daily Newspaper) in New York; as well as in many of the periodicals that appeared before and after WWI in Galicia.  His complete writings (and much of his correspondence) in Yiddish (as well as in German) are in the Nathan & Solomon Birnbaum Archives (Toronto).  Over the years 1885-1937, he edited and published a number of periodicals in German.  Among his books in Yiddish: Der yikhes fun yidish (The Pedigree of Yiddish) (Berlin, 1913), 23 pp.; Gots folk (God’s People) (Berlin, 1921), 47 pp. (in German as Gottes Volk, 1918); Fun an apikoyres gevorn a maymin (Warsaw, 1926), 32 pp. (in German as Vom Friegeist zum Gläubigen, 1918); Der farband fun oylim (The "Ascenders" Association) (Berlin, 1931), 9 pp.; Glaykht oys a veg (Make Level the Way) (Lodz, 1937), 44 pp.; Et laasot, geklibene ksovim (Time to Act, Selected Writings), prepared for publication by his son Shloyme Birnboym (Lodz, 1938), 240 pp.  Birnboym’s letters were published in: Fun noentn over (From the Recent Past), edited by M. Shalit, issue no. 2; in Yivo-bleter (Pages from YIVO), issue no. 15, pp. 124-35; and in Buletin fun der yivo-biblyotek (Bulletin from the YIVO Library), issue no. 2 (1939).  In Tel Aviv were issued (in 1943 and 1948, respectively) Ketavim nivḥarim (Selected Writings) and Am hashem (God's People).  There appeared as well in New York and London brochures by Birnboym in English translation (e.g., Confession, a translation of Gots folk).  His translations into German of Y. L. Peretz, Sholem-Aleichem, Sholem Ash, and Sh. Gorelik were published (1905-1913) in Berlin and Prague.  Among his writings for the stage: Far di elterns zind (For the Parents’ Sin), staged in 1909; Ikh bin shloyme (I am Solomon), a one-act play, performed in his own translation on the German stage.  Over the years 1908-1914, he published reviews of staged productions in Yiddish.  The main pseudonym he used was “Mathias Acher.”
A nearly complete bibliography of his works (up to 1924 only) appears in Vom Sinn des Jutentums--Ein Festschrift zu Ehren Nathan Birnbaums (Frankfurt a. Main, 1925).  It contains over 100 items in Yiddish (mostly dated in or after 1908); and about 575 items in German.  There is no detailed bibliography from 1925 to 1937, but there is a useful list of major items in: Jess Olson, Nathan Birnbaum and Jewish Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013),
A man with a fierce temperament and an endlessly unsettled, searching spirit, Nosn Birnboym experienced in his life a series of spiritual transformations: from “Lover of Zion” to political Zionism, to Diaspora nationalism, Yiddishism, and finally to Orthodox Judaism, while still retaining his love of Yiddish.  Through all of his metamorphoses, he remained a thinker of profound convictions, an uncompromising man without bias.  In the final phase of his development, he expressed his own stance with the idea of the Messiah: “The Messiah is not the symbol of cheap  humanism.  They [the Jews] know of him as the great conqueror of time and of the world....who will provide people with this final, everlasting help, that will bring a total realization of God’s light and love.  He will elevate human history, which is in reality not much more than natural history, to a history in which man--no longer subject to the laws of Nature--will be subject to the laws of the supernatural.”

Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1; Z. Zilbertsvayg, Teater-leksikon, vol. 1; Algemeyne entsiklopedye (General encyclopedia), vol. 5 (New York, 1944); Gershom Bader, Eybike emesn fun sforim un funem lebn, kleyne mayses un sharfe bamerkungen (Eternal truths from religious works and from life, short tales and sharp observations) (Vienna, 1927), pp. 171-75; Bader, Medina veḥakhameha (The state and its sages) (New York, 1934), pp. 37-39; Shloyme Bikl, Detaln un sakhaklen, kritishe un polemishe bamerkungen (Details and sum totals, critical and polemical observations) (New York, 1943), p. 169; Dr. Shloyme Birnboym, in Fun noentn over (Warsaw) (April-June 1938); Bal-Makhshoves, Geklibene shriftn (Selected works), vol. 3 (Warsaw, 1929); A. Gurshteyn, “Sakhaklen fun der mendele-forshung” (A summing up of Mendele research), in Tsaytshrift (Minsk, 1928); H. D. Nomberg, Mentshn un verk (Men and work) (Warsaw, 1930), pp. 203-10; Shmuel Niger, in Tsukunft (July 1934 and May 1937); Zalmen Reyzen, in Yoyvl bukh keneder odler (Jubilee volume of Keneder odler) (Montreal, 1938); M. Shalit, Literarishe etyudn (Literary studies) (Vilna, 1920), pp. 66-82.
B. Tshubinski
Special thanks to David Birnbaum for numerous emendations, additions, and corrections: David Birnbaum, Nathan & Solomon Birnbaum Archives, Toronto.

No comments:

Post a Comment