When Theodor Herzl first stepped onto the Zionist stage in 1895, other actors were already on it, even in the city that served as the base of his operations. While most of the people who made up Vienna’s Jewish community of more than 100,000 were anything but Jewish nationalists, the city had for more than a decade been home to a small group known as the Kadimah Society, whose members proudly identified themselves as Zionists. The very word “Zionism” was, in fact, the invention of the central figure in this society, the editor of its newspaper, Nathan Birnbaum.
Naturally, when the literary editor of Vienna’s most prestigious newspaper, the Neue Freie Presse, unexpectedly took up their cause, the leaders of the Kadimah Society were extremely eager to make his acquaintance. Herzl, for his part, hesitated to meet with these marginal men. But Birnbaum insisted, and Herzl finally invited them to his apartment on March 3, 1896. After the meeting, Herzl had only disparaging things to say—in his diary, at any rate— about his new colleagues. “Birnbaum,” in particular, he wrote, “is unmistakably jealous of me. . . . I judge Birnbaum to be an envious, vain and obstinate man. I hear that he had already turned away from Zionism and gone over to socialism when my appearance led him back again to Zion.”
Birnbaum never confessed to having had the feelings Herzl ascribed to him, but who could have blamed him if he did? The two men were roughly the same age, came from roughly similar backgrounds, and had both earned law degrees at the University of Vienna before abandoning the legal profession to become writers. The difference was that Herzl was a real literary celebrity while Birnbaum scribbled away in obscurity. Herzl was also very well off (through both birth and marriage), while Birnbaum, the son of relatively impecunious and fairly traditional Jews, could barely make ends meet. It didn’t help that they resembled each other: Both men had high foreheads, impressive black beards, and a clear, penetrating gaze.
That this upstart near-lookalike was now climbing to the top of his movement must have been hard for Birnbaum to swallow. But whatever he might have felt, he could not refrain from writing to Herzl, the day after he met him, asking him for help:
I have had the misfortune to recognize the truth of Zionism—from which you have remained shielded—already by my sixteenth year. I have given my entire passionate personality to these ideals and have thus shut myself out of any other career in which I could have succeeded with my talents. I have pressed myself into a dark, obscure corner of literature—with the result being a constant degeneration of my financial situation. Dear honored doctor! . . . You have the influence, consideration, and power to help me. I beg you affectionately, send your advice! Although our acquaintance is still young, I believe that there is a bond woven between us that makes it acceptable for me to ask of you: save me from certain destruction, and preserve with me Zionism!
Herzl held his nose and gave him a small loan. In no time at all, Birnbaum was back, asking for more. It isn’t clear whether Herzl ever again gave him anything, but he did dangle the possibility of a paid position in his new and still very small Zionist movement. When Birnbaum eventually did obtain the post of secretary general of the Political Actions Committee of the World Zionist Organization, however, it was more in spite of than because of Herzl, who, by this time, neither trusted nor respected him. But Herzl didn’t have to put up with Birnbaum for long. By 1899 he was gone, not only from his position but from the Zionist movement altogether.
At first, Birnbaum didn’t completely reject Zionist goals. Rather, he folded them into a larger Jewish nationalist vision, one that gave priority to the political and cultural reorganization of the diaspora over the settlement of Palestine. This brought him into the ideological vicinity of Ahad Ha-am, whom he defended against Max Nordau in their bitter dispute over Herzl’s Old-New Land in 1902, but only by misrepresenting him, as Olson puts it, as someone who “had come to realize the essential value of exile on even a cultural level.” Birnbaum’s increasing involvement with the Jews of Eastern Europe eventually led him to a new appreciation of the potential of the Yiddish language as a “medium of national renaissance,” and, in the years before World War I, he shifted to the promotion of Yiddishkeit before finally making his way to Orthodox Judaism. For a time, Birnbaum even served in the upper echelons of the anti-Zionist Agudath Israel, and he ended his life as a fierce opponent of the movement he had once resented Herzl for taking away from him.
Birnbaum’s unusual trajectory has reduced the space that might have been assigned to him in the history of Zionism. David Vital, in his three-volume study of the period extending from the earliest roots of Zionism to the British Mandate, describes the initial friction between Herzl and Birnbaum, but doesn’t even bother to note the latter’s departure from the Zionist scene. In his biography of Herzl, Ernst Pawel speaks briefly and derisively of Birnbaum’s “career full of bizarre convolutions that led from traditional piety via Zionism and socialism to venomous anti-Zionism and ultra-orthodoxy.” Within the ultra-Orthodox world, to be sure, Birnbaum is still honored as one of the first modern ba’alei teshuvah, but—needless to say—this hasn’t led any of his pious admirers to attempt to understand what led him from heresy back to the correct path. Jess Olson has now written a book 408 pages long to bring to an end what he calls Birnbaum’s “elision from Jewish historiography.”
Olson is, perhaps, a little less than properly attentive to the historian Robert Wistrich, whose 1988 essay on Birnbaum’s “strange odyssey” may have been brief (if only by Wistrich’s own prodigious standards), but he is neither cursory nor dismissive. While Olson refers to Wistrich’s essay here and there in his footnotes, he largely overlooks Wistrich’s efforts to depict “Birnbaum’s metamorphosis from political to cultural Zionist, from Pan-Judaist and Yiddishist to Agudas Yisroel” as a manifestation of his “lifelong search for the roots of Jewish being.” This, indeed, is more or less what Olson himself has done, albeit in much greater detail, with much more nuance, and with considerable success.
Whatever part mutual distaste may have played in Birnbaum’s relations with Herzl, something deeper was always at stake. For Birnbaum, from the very beginning, Zionism was more than a proposal to solve the problems posed by anti-Semitism. He had always believed, as Olson puts it, that:
the main goal of Jewish nationalism was to restore a lost authentic Jewish culture. It would not resemble the western European Jewish world, nor the world of traditional Orthodoxy, but would be a modern rebirth of the national identity of pre-exilic Israel—or more precisely, the world of state, national culture, and language that Birnbaum and others imagined it to have been.
Such cultural ideals were far from Herzl’s mind, nor did he share Birnbaum’s overall attitude toward the diaspora. Moreover, even as Birnbaum envisioned a territorial and (as Herzl was aware) a socialist answer to the Jewish problem, he simultaneously “began to advocate activism not to achieve a distant goal but rather to secure a present state of safety and rights of the Jewish people.” By the time Birnbaum met Herzl, he had already “relegated the acquisition of a land for the Jewish nation to a secondary priority.”
Still, Birnbaum’s deep differences with Herzl did not require his departure from the new Zionist movement, as is evident from the continued presence within the World Zionist Organization of figures such as Ahad Ha-am, Martin Buber, and others whose outlook was closer to Birnbaum’s than to Herzl’s. What really drew him beyond Zionism were the fight for Jewish autonomy in parts of Central and Eastern Europe and his increasing appreciation for the exilic culture that he had previously derided. In 1907, he campaigned energetically as the Jewish National Party’s candidate (with Zionist support) for a seat in the Austrian legislature, representing a heavily Jewish district in Galicia. His defeat, due in part to electoral fraud, deflected him from politics into cultural activity, centering on the organization of the first Yiddish language conference.
From the outset of his career as a Zionist, Birnbaum, like most Zionists, had held Yiddish in disdain, characterizing it as a “mishmash” that was “not an appropriate language of a people, not the least for the language of a people that wishes to climb up from two thousand years of exile to the heights of national independence and its previous greatness.” In time, however, he came to believe that Yiddish was a “precious treasure,” entirely suited to serve as the vehicle for modern self-expression for great masses of Jews and, equally importantly, as a necessary means for the “national intellectual” to be in touch with “the soul of our people, the heart of our people, the life of our people.” Birnbaum didn’t turn his back on Hebrew, but he now contended that it was destined to remain for the foreseeable future the preserve of a small cultural elite. Within a year of his electoral defeat, he had changed “his language of epistolary communication with his most intimate associates (especially his son, Solomon), and even of publication, to Yiddish.”
This wasn’t an easy thing for him to do. Like most children of Yiddish-speaking migrants to a Western or Central European metropolis, Birnbaum didn’t really know the language. But he tried his best, with mixed results, at least at first. His opening speech at the First Yiddish Conference in Czernowitz in 1908 was received with both mockery and praise:
According to Gershon Bader, writing for the New York Yidishes Tageblatt, “As Birnbaum did not speak any Yiddish, he read out his speech from a paper, which had the words transliterated into German characters, and the impression was not a good one; in spite of that, the speech was applauded.” However, even Bader’s account is not representative: Barzel noted in [the Russian-language Jewish newspaper] Rasvet that Birnbaum “read his first speech in Yiddish fluently from a piece of paper. The appearance: pure Yiddish, it was somewhat pedantic and businesslike in style; he read his speech in the Galician dialect.”
The conference at which he delivered this speech, which was attended by many of the leading Yiddish writers of the day, was one where various grand (and incompatible) programs for the strengthening of Yiddish language and culture were presented. But, as Olson notes, it “yielded little” in the way of results, partly because Birnbaum was a poor organizer, partly because of the internal divisions among Yiddishists, but more because the Jewish world in general wasn’t interested. In its aftermath, Birnbaum launched a Yiddish periodical endearingly entitled Dr. Birnboyms Vokhenblat, but it lasted for only six issues. “Its demise,” Olson writes, “marked the nadir of Birnbaum’s life as a Jewish nationalist.”
He was within a few years to be reborn, however, as a Jew of a very different stripe. Birnbaum’s turn to Orthodoxy was at first a very quiet and private one, focused on mastering basic Jewish practices. Soon, however, under the tutelage of Tuvia Horowitz, a young Vishnitzer Hasid who became both his disciple and his guide, he emerged onto the Orthodox political stage—with a plan radically to transform the community he had entered. He attacked Orthodox Jews in the most abrasive manner for their passivity, insisting that they themselves “had been infected by the taint of modernity, manifested as self-involvement and selfish concern only for their own well-being.” They had to rise above themselves, he proclaimed (together with Horowitz), to become “oylim” (ascenders) toward true holiness if they were to perform the mission for which they had been chosen and help to hasten the advent of the messiah.
What led to his religious awakening is something Birnbaum attempted to explain on two different occasions, in 1919 and 1924, but in not very many words. Analyzing both of these somewhat divergent religious statements, Olson comes to the convincing conclusion that “Birnbaum’s turn was truly based in an intense period of internal debate and turmoil rather than solely a moment of conversionary inspiration.” This internal spiritual debate was one that culminated in Birnbaum’s realization that, in his words, “all of the self-invented objections” that he had once held about God “were but proofs of his inaccessibility, and did not cast doubt on his existence. . . . Now all was clear to me: my story of suffering over the years was but a single, great announcement of the All-Powerful before his entry into my consciousness.” In the end, Olson observes, “he saw each period, each affiliation” in his peregrinations as “one further step of discovery, of ascertaining a transcendent foundation for his understanding of the nature of the Jewish people and, by extension, his own identity.”
Birnbaum’s intellectual evolution is reminiscent of Leo Strauss’ famous description in 1963 of the way in which the narrowness of strictly political Zionism points to the need for cultural Zionism, which in turn, when it “understands itself,” turns into religious Zionism. “But,” Strauss wrote, “when religious Zionism understands itself, it is in the first place Jewish faith and only secondarily Zionism.”
Birnbaum’s path did not, of course, follow exactly this route. His political Zionism was never as purely political as Herzl’s, and his move beyond cultural Zionism led, before his return to Orthodox Judaism, to a unique secular nationalist conception of the “Jewish soul.” And of course when he did ultimately make his way to religion, it was not in the form of religious Zionism but religious anti-Zionism. Still, Birnbaum’s fallback on faith as the only solid support for Jewish peoplehood seems similar to the one Strauss outlined.
Olson makes it very clear, in addition, that Birnbaum’s anti-Zionism was not as far from religious Zionism as one might imagine. He was, indeed, deeply involved with the founders of Agudath Israel and served as secretary general of the organization, but this meant opposition to the World Zionist Organization, not every aspect of the Zionist project. Indeed, as a member of the Agudah he continued to champion his own Oylim movement, which aimed to recruit a vanguard of ideologically committed Orthodox youth to settle in Palestine. As he said in 1920, when the future fate of Palestine was still under discussion:
Precisely because we are Torah Jews, because it is in the Land of Israel that we will see the fulfillment of our Torah ideals, because [there] we will come to our own, we must state it clearly and frankly. Precisely because we will fight nonreligious nationalism with all our power, we must create a real religious nationalism in the land. Palestine must not be given to the Zionist organization; it must be given to the Jewish people.
Olson compares Birnbuam’s response to the travails of the interwar period to that of other Central European Jewish intellectuals (including the young Strauss). What they had in common was a “sense of crisis precipitated by the rise of the radical left.” This fear initially distracted Birnbaum from the mounting threat from the radical right, which he was inclined to regard until 1930 as “just another expression of the anti-Semitic agitation against which he had struggled his entire life.”
When Birnbaum did finally grasp the nature of the Nazi menace, he saw no hope for any direct political opposition to it. There was nothing for the Jews to do, he thought, but attempt to “diminish the surface friction between us and others through traditional Jewish earnestness and religiosity, and [to] live and strive for perfection.” Beyond this call for teshuvah, Birnbaum could only continue to recommend a return to the land of Israel, preferably in the spiritually healing role of agriculturalists, but not in collaboration with the unworthy and heretical Zionists.
Whether Birnbaum at this time gave any thought to moving to Palestine himself is something Olson does not tell us. But this is in keeping with his general neglect of his hero’s private life in favor of his thought and activities, apart from an occasional reference to his straitened circumstances. How his wife and his already fully grown children responded to his adoption at the age of 50 of an intensely religious lifestyle is something about which we are left wondering. We do learn, however, of Birnbaum’s somewhat unusual decision to adopt Tuvia Horowitz’s “own Hasidic minhag (the specific form of his religious observance).” Horowitz, for his part, lovingly displayed a portrait of Birnbaum until he got into trouble with some members of his community who mistook it for a picture of Theodor Herzl.
Nathan Birnbaum was fortunate enough to die in 1937, peacefully, in the Netherlands, before the Holocaust. Had he died a few years later at the hands of the Nazis, as his close contemporary Simon Dubnow did, his fate would no doubt have seemed to those who remembered him to represent history’s verdict on his ideas. As Birnbaum’s intellectual biographer, Jess Olson does not pretend to be his judge. He neither disparages nor acclaims Birnbaum, but he does insist that his life and work were significant and deserve to be rescued from obscurity.
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