The World Convention of YIVO (Yiddish Scientific Institute) upon the Tenth Anniversary of Its Founding,



Held in Vilna between 14 and 19 August 1935

Seventh Meeting, Second Scholarly Session (Sunday, 18 August, 5:00 P.M.) [1935] [ . . . ]

Professor Fishl Shneerson (Warsaw): Out of great respect for YIVO I do not want to give the lecture I have prepared on “The Emancipation of Yiddish Scholarship” now; although it is purely academic, it may not be suitable for the contentious atmosphere of this convention. After all, we have gathered to celebrate YIVO, which has had the luck to work in a fiery milieu that reacts strongly to every statement. Even purely academic lectures arouse heated discussions. Gogol’s story “Taras Bulba” depicts how Taras tries to fight with his two sons, the Cossacks. But the two sons give their father a good beating, and the more they beat him, the more the father rejoices and cries out, “good Cossacks!”

The activists of YIVO should be pleased that people are not indifferent toward them and they receive beating after beating. This room is filled with good Cossacks!

But let us not forget the most important thing, that YIVO’s main task is the emancipation of Yiddish scholarship; this burning question of Jewish world culture is now on the historical agenda.

The process of emancipation, the struggle for national independence, first began in Yiddish literature and then immediately spread to Yiddish pedagogy and public health, and to a variety of research branches. In these fields emancipation has successfully awakened and allowed the expression of the creative powers of the people. Yiddish literature has emerged rapidly and is often translated into other languages; the enormous achievements of Yiddish pedagogy and public health arouse much admiration. Thus, the time has come for the general emancipation of Yiddish scholarship, which is, after all, the basic foundation of the steadily growing Yiddish culture.

But here we are facing an unanticipated difficulty. It turns out that scholarship, which creates methods for all its fields, skipped itself, forgot about itself as a whole. It has not yet given an answer—in fact, it has not even posed the question: how do we instill an appreciation of scholarship in a collective? What are the methods and the principles? And in the case of a newly emerging culture such as ours there is an additional question: does Yiddish scholarship as such already exist? So far there have been individual research projects in some fields—are these nothing more than the work of individuals, or do they constitute the beginnings and part of an organic collective creation?

In the history of scholarship there have been only a few endeavors in this direction. As is well known, the creator of sociology Auguste Comte established the law of the three periods in the development of scholarship (teleological, metaphysical, and empirical). It appears that scholarship has its own, immanent developmental tendencies that one has to take into consideration in the construction of scholarship. We will go a step further. Regardless of how you relate to Comte’s much contested division, it is clear that he failed to see the fourth period of the history of scholarship, the current one that can be called the political period. The pull of historical events in the modern period is so strong that scholarship, just like art, must adapt itself, even if only in a very correct, “kosher” way. Not, God forbid, through deceit, as it is done only by the outcasts of scholarship in every regime, but by bringing to the foreground from the numerous equally accepted fields and methods those that are more suited to the given social conditions and by putting better (but not exclusive) emphasis on them.

A second endeavor in this direction was undertaken before the war in Germany by [Hans] Schmidkunz, who established academic pedagogy [Hochschulpäda-gogik] as a separate discipline and gave it the special name andragogy (the science of educating adults as opposed to pedagogy, the science of educating children). What Schmidkunz created was only the beginning. We also need to separate the field of popular education [folksbildung] or folk andragogy (popular universities, evening courses, etc.), and the most complicated and valuable field, the national pedagogy of scholarship (or, allow me to use such a difficult expression, the natiogogy [natsyogogik] of scholarship). This refers to the methods for instilling an appreciation of scholarship in a national collective.

If we look at how scholarship developed among various nations we can inductively establish some principles and tendencies that have practical significance for us, too.

The first principle is the primacy of philology and history within scholarship. It is a fact that language and history are the first weapons of a national culture’s emancipation. Philologists and historians are its natural vanguards and spokesmen. Together with all their tremendous accomplishments the latter bring with themselves a dangerous inclination to hypertrophy or one-sided overemphasis on philology and history at the expense of other branches of scholarship. Still in the previous century in Germany, the famous natural scientist Wilhelm Ostwald struggled with the all-powerful philologists who pushed natural science to the sidelines. But in the case of nations that have a state, social conditions are favorable for the development of natural sciences—they are brought to their proper place by real life itself. Minority nations, however, such as Jews and Ukrainians, direct their attention to natural sciences in the ruling culture, whereas in their own culture they let themselves be unilaterally dominated by historical-philological scholarship. This happened at the Ukrainian Society, and the same thing is happening at YIVO, where after ten years of existence there is still no section for public health, whereas pedagogy and psychology are sandwiched together in one of YIVO’s four sections.

It is worth recalling a characteristic episode. The first founding meeting of YIVO took place in Berlin, hosted by Shteynberg and attended by Shtif, Lestschinsky, Tsherikover, and myself. When Shtif read out the program, I objected and asked him why he philologized Yiddish scholarship. Lestschinsky’s response was: What do you mean? Would you rather that it be psychologized?

But let us inductively highlight the tasks and principles of scholarly emancipation.

The first task is to make scholarship accessible to the people. Equally important is the second task, to make the creative powers of the people fertile for scholarship. The first task is not purely utilitarian, i.e., [the goal is not only] to enlighten the folk masses and arm them with the heavy weaponry of scholarship in their difficult existential struggle. It is no less important that popular education will bring spiritual-intellectual nourishment to the people, awaken and satisfy the higher interests of the folk masses. [ . . . ] If the natural desire of the soul cannot be satisfied by higher intellectual-spiritual interests, individual and social life will both suffer from neurosis and degeneration. Therefore, scholarship for the people is not just an ideal to strive for but a requirement of the psychological health of the people.

The second task, making the creative powers of the people fertile for scholarship, is closely connected to this. It can best be illustrated by the following fact in the history of scholarship: when the English scientist [Humphry] Davy gave popular lectures on science, one of his listeners, a certain [Michael] Faraday, who was a bookbinder by profession, got very interested in his lectures and became an assistant in Davy’s laboratory. He learned and developed there, and later became the creator of modern physics. Who knows how many Fara-days are in the midst of our folk masses who could be awakened and drawn to scholarship by its emancipation. In short: scholarship for the people will bring the people to scholarship.

We will briefly mention the principles that are in agreement with the above-mentioned tasks. The first step of emancipation pertains to the vernacular [folksshprakh]. Scholarship must be written in the vernacular of the people, as this will allow scholarship to put down roots into the national ground. [ . . . ] Not works of Jewish scholars written in various languages, but scholarly works written in Yiddish will further the emancipation of our scholarship. The second principle is being realistic. This means that the emerging scholarship should concentrate primarily on those fields that are connected to the life of the people [folkslebn ], because only in this way will scholarship take root in the life of the people. That is why we argue that the current issues of Yiddish schooling (pedagogy), public health, sociological, psychological, and psycho-pathological problems must have their respective sections in YIVO if the institute wants to be in touch with the totality of the people’s life. In connection with this comes the principle of creativity, i.e., the stimulus to original creation. On the one hand, an enormous amount of material has been gathered in every field and still awaits scholarly treatment. (There is a well-known saying about the overzealous student who studies so much that he has no time to know anything. The same way, our institutions are so deeply involved in their daily work that they have no time left to process their own findings in a scholarly fashion.) On the other hand, there are enough talented and able-bodied people in every field who should be given access to original scholarly work.

And now we have come to the last important point: the principle of creativity cannot, in fact, be realized in a national culture without the decisive step of overcoming “external” authority. Here the national pedagogy (natiogogy) of scholarship encounters the general problems of education. It is natural that every educator inspires authority. Reactionary, compulsory education forces authority upon the people, whereas with free education the authority of the beloved teacher is internally recognized. But every authority restrains creative initiatives—this is the dialectical obverse of education. Shatzky’s free educational movement in Russia is actually directed against this suppressive authority, which, according to the law of dialectics, is the essence of education. Thus, he demands “education without an educator.” This problem is even more acute with regard to the emerging national scholarship, which initially must adopt and learn a lot from the more advanced nations whose authority will unnoticeably become ingrained and will oppress the creative initiative of the people. Thus, we must set up our own national authority [folksoytoritet] against it early on, and we must immediately claim the right to “ordain” our scholars. Prizes should be given not for good translations but for daring original works. From this point of view it is harmful that there are so many external authorities on YIVO’s board of directors. Only faith in our own national strength will bring us the glory of national creativity [folksshafung] and the true emancipation of Yiddish scholarship. [ . . . ]

Eighth Meeting

Session of the Convention (Monday, 19 August, 10:00 A.M.)

Max Weinreich opens the meeting, apologizes for the delay—some of the delegates were busy working in the commissions until 6:00 A.M.; he reads the greetings of several people, among others Professor Korododzhini, Professor Marian Dziechowski, Sholem Asch, Borukh Glazman, Sh. Niger, Mane Katz, and from Jewish immigrants on their way to South America. (Applause) [ . . . ]

Gershon Pludermakher (Vilna): He begins with the analogy that Yiddish schools are the first floor [of the building] and YIVO is the second floor. The comparison does not hold well. It is more appropriate to say that Yiddish schools and YIVO are children of the same mother. At one time people had planned to create a general cultural center. This mother left behind two children: YIVO and the school system. Until 1925 it was YISHO [the Yiddish school system] that determined Yiddish orthography, represented Yiddishism in the world, and carried out enlightenment work. Ten years ago YIVO took over these functions. It is clear that the two should have established some contact [with each other]. This did not happen, though, and the lack of contact was very harmful. YIVO has not satisfied our cultural needs. For example, YIVO did not create and publish a Yiddish grammar for the Yiddish schools. YIVO activists maintained that this was the task of the teachers, and the teachers thought it was YIVO’s job. The result is that children in the Yiddish schools know Polish grammar better than Yiddish grammar. There is a new subject, demography; the textbook for this subject had to be compiled by the teachers themselves. It is necessary to publish an academic edition of the Yiddish classics with explanations for the teachers and the intelligent reader. Due to the lack of such an edition, some teachers have actually suggested taking Mendele out of the curriculum because his works were outdated. But YIVO is not thinking about how to combat such contemptuous attitudes toward our classics because there is no connection between the institutions, for which they are both to blame: YISHO is not active enough to fight for its needs and YIVO is dominated by an aristocratic attitude. YIVO argues that no cheap popular literature should be published—they need to think about publishing good material. This abnormal relationship between YIVO and YISHO must come to an end. The result of this relationship is that the weakest section of YIVO is the Pedagogical-Psychological Section. The secretary of this section, Leibush Lehrer, is in America and does not come here; he has been alienated from us. Every article had to be sent to the other side of the ocean and then back, and then the proofs had to be sent back again. [ . . . ] At this point Dr. Max Weinreich said that YIVO must be willing to face problems of real life, and it has not been facing the part of life called the Yiddish School Organization.

I suggest that we do not adopt a general resolution such as “we must conduct enlightenment work among the masses” or something similar; instead, we should accept specific proposals. I propose that we establish a section for schooling and education within YIVO. This section’s task should be to deliver scholarly services to the schools. YISHO is not in a position to do this even with the best of its intentions. We cannot maintain two separate centers. This new section will have to carry out the suggested work. YIVO must help write the necessary textbooks, publish popular scholarly literature, and publish educational material for the masses about the value of Yiddish. YIVO’s work coordinated with YISHO should create the Yiddish cultural center, the [Yiddish] Cultural League [Kultur-lige].

Sh. Bastomski (Vilna): The activists of YIVO are afraid of any kind of criticism. YIVO has grown into an enormous authority in our life, a powerful stronghold. [ . . . ] You are producing scholarship, but for whom? Take for example the standardized rules of Yiddish spelling that you have adopted. They are very good rules, but Noyekh Prilutski’s journal is published in the most outdated orthography. Spelling rules must be enforced. The naturalization of Hebrew words in Yiddish has been introduced sporadically; it has been done in Argentina, for instance, but you are lagging behind, and you are not even trying to explain why you are not carrying out the decision of the spelling conference that took place in 1931. YIVO must be willing to address the real-life needs of the Yiddish-speaking masses and the Yiddish schools. [ . . . ]

Dr. Yaakov Shatzky: I have heard many complaints against YIVO, but once YIVO’s task is clarified, there will be no more complaints. It seems like YIVO has become an institute for remedying social problems. The moment YIVO loses its academic character it loses everything. YIVO is declining, especially in America—both financially and morally. What happened to YIVO’s theological spirit? Where is it now? YIVO’s job is not to publish popular literature but to prepare material and research it in a scholarly fashion. No one will launch the kind of complaints against the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences that they have against YIVO. YIVO should be addressing the people’s real-life needs! But when this issue was raised by some speakers, the majority of the audience left the lecture hall. (Interruption: Not true!) It is true, I saw it myself.

I am in favor of the naturalization of Hebrew, but if it were carried out by YIVO, which does not have state power, it would be a disgraceful failure because such a thing can only be carried out by a state, as it was done in the Soviet Union. Making compromises is a sign of life. When I heard how delegates of YISHO spoke in America I thought I was listening to preachers raising funds for an orphanage.

Yaakov Pat: This is malicious gossip! But I understood them because one often needs to enter into compromises for the sake of the goal. We are not so sensitive, we can listen to criticism, but it should be objective criticism, not demagogic and semi-demagogic assaults.

Y. Shargel (Haifa): I ask that my words not be interpreted as hatred of the country where I come from. I have come on a pilgrimage from Jerusalem to the Jerusalem of Lithuania in order to be rejuvenated, to gain strength, to absorb the atmosphere of this illustrious gathering of Yiddish scholars, writers, and cultural activists about which I have been dreaming for so long. I come from a land where one can be beaten bloody just for speaking Yiddish in public. I come from a land where the bosom buddies of our American friends such as Comrade Shmidt, the Histadrut, passed a law saying that two years after their arrival to the country workers are forbidden to utter a single word in Yiddish, not even if they come to ask for a day of work. I come from a land where one of the most important workers’ leaders, Y[itzhak] Ben-Zvi, justified a pogrom carried out at a movie theater just because some Yiddish songs had been sung there. This is how Hebrew writers write about our language in serious Hebrew-language publications over there. (He reads excerpts from one of R. Zeligman’s articles published in Gilyonot, in Sivan 5685.) [ . . . ]

Yr. Shapiro (Vilna): The demands made on YIVO remind me of the demands made by out-of-town in-laws at a wedding where they did not receive the appropriate honor. Compromises must be made; even Botoshanski agrees with that. YIVO must research the impact of Hebrew-language education on the Jewish child, and compare the physical development of Jews in the diaspora and in the Land of Israel. When Jews in the diaspora achieve records in sports it is worth researching that topic, too.

Trembovelski (Chortkov [Chortkov/Czortkow, then in Poland, now Ukraine]): You have to live in Galicia in order to understand in what kind of mood we came here to Vilna to this celebration of Yiddish culture. Close to three decades have passed since the Yiddish Language Conference in Chernovitz [today, Chernivtsi, Ukraine], but, just like back then, participants are still divided in their opinions and have an unclear attitude about the struggle for Yiddish and secular Yiddish culture. Those of us who do practical cultural work know full well that without compromises no work can be accomplished. But the compromises should not affect the fundamental essence. The fact that YIVO did not take a stance on the persecution of Yiddish in the Land of Israel and the fight for the secular Yiddish schools in Poland is more than a compromise. YIVO must not be just an institute of Jewish studies in Yiddish. We live in completely different cultural circumstances than other peoples. For us Yiddish is the national attribute and YIVO is the world Yiddish cultural center; as such, YIVO must be the final judge in all questions and problems that have to do with Yiddish creativity and Jewish life in Yiddish. [ . . . ]

Dr. E. Ringelblum (Warsaw): A. Tsherikover criticized Dr. R. Mahler because the Marxist line was missing from his work Der tsol-register fun 16tn yorhundert [The Customs Register of the Sixteenth Century]. And yet Dr. Mahler does have a Marxist influence on young historians. It is due only to Mahler that we have today in Poland a whole array of Marxist intellectuals. At the International Congress of Historians in Warsaw, Mahler’s lecture was the center of interest. The difference between Marxists and non-Marxists is not what topics they work on. A study of the customs register can utilize the Marxist approach, too. We are not against working together with intellectuals whose approach is different; we need to stay in touch even with Western European Jewish historians. It is regrettable that we are not in contact with historians in the Soviet Union. It is impossible to research the history of Jews in Poland without being familiar with the archives over there. Now some closer relations are becoming possible. There is a commission whose task is researching social movements during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This Polish commission is part of an international commission active within the International Historians’ Commission, the initiator of the Congress of Historians. [ . . . ]

The Polish commission is currently working on two [sic] areas:

1) Registering archival materials of social content from the second half of the nineteenth century; 2) collecting materials regarding the strikes in Poland starting in the 1880s; 3) collecting materials from workers’ correspondence that have been published in the workers’ press.

Thus, cooperation with the Soviet Union will be very fruitful.

Popularization work does have to be carried out, and in an organized fashion. In this regard I do not agree with Shatzky. Popularization will stimulate research. [ . . . ]

Yaakov Pat: [ . . . ] During the discussion there has been criticism of the delegates of YIVO and the elements they represent. Mr. Reisen rebuked us for not doing enough for YIVO and therefore we have no right to criticize. In fact, we are doing the same work but in two different cultural sectors. Since we represent the secular Yiddish school system in Poland, we do have a right to voice our concerns here. The existing popular libraries [folks-biblyotekn], popular universities [folks-universitetn], thousands of cultural events (throughout the year), lectures—these are all the achievement of the same sector. Thus, Mr. Reisen’s reproach was inappropriate. Here you have heard the statements of a whole array of old cultural activists—you should listen to what they are saying. If they have complaints, it is a sign that the complaints are justified. The question is: What is YIVO’s character? When our ancestors created Wissenschaft des Judentums, Jewish culture—they were directed by the shekhinah, a divine light. Ahad Ha‘am followed a divine light, too—the survival of the Jewish people. But what is your guiding principle? What inspires you? YIVO’s guiding principle should be none other than the shekhinah of socialism . [ . . . ]

G. Urinski (Pruzhene [today, Pruzhany, Brest region, Belarus]): [ . . . ] The persecution of Yiddish in the Land of Israel has been much talked about here. But YIVO has not protested against the pogrom on Yiddish in Poland, either. You should know that children in the Tarbut schools are raised not only with the hatred of Yiddish but of culture in general (Interjection: Not true! Applause.) We are going to survive these difficult times because we are working with faith, but we have to plan and set objectives for our work. The Yiddish school system is in a disastrous situation because of the dire shortage of Yiddish studies teachers.

Engineer M. Shrayber (Vilna) delivers greetings from the Association of Jewish Engineers in Vilna and the Yiddish Technical School of ORT. During its short fifteen years of existence the technical school was possibly the first to produce technical literature in Yiddish, and YIVO played an extraordinary role in this. The speaker describes this one-and-only Jewish technical school in Poland where the language of instruction is Yiddish. It is modeled on the most famous technical schools in Germany; nevertheless, it is not a copy but an original, completely Jewish learning institution, adjusted to the conditions of Jewish life and the situation of Jewish youth in those countries where graduates of the school may be placed to make use of the knowledge they had acquired. A special, broad program had to be designed, both theoretical and practical; they had to produce the necessary textbooks in Yiddish, and build a whole array of mechanical and electro-technical workshops. All this has been achieved with fifteen years of hard work . [ . . . ]

Sh. Mendelson: [ . . . ] It is impossible to build culture in Poland without a cultural struggle. More than sixty schools have been closed, and more than half a million subsidies cut. If you give this some thought, you will understand why we are so nervous. We, the entire delegation of YISHO, did not come here to cause bad blood, but because we noticed that the feelings of the workers toward YIVO were cooling and we are afraid that YIVO might lose its attractiveness to the entire Jewish population. We are one organism, and if one part is sick, it poses a danger for the entire organism. We have been accused of coming here to stick a rod into the wheel of the wagon, but when the wagon is going downhill, it is a good thing to do that.

Dr. M. Sudarsky (Kovno): YIVO is facing too many demands. People want YIVO to be everything: an academy, an educational institute, a pedagogical seminar. All these institutions are necessary, but the possibilities are limited. I can understand the feelings of the teachers and cultural activists who work under such unbearable conditions. But YIVO must limit itself to scholarly work. Professor Fishl Shneerson made a good joke: the caretaker of the synagogue flogs every member of the community with whom he is angry once a year. Here it is the other way round: every member of the community gathered here in order to beat the caretaker. Everybody sinned against YIVO. Scholars were compelled to tear themselves away from their work in order to raise funds—this should not have been allowed to happen. People should have sent in their contributions voluntarily. And the same applies to the Yiddish schools. Very few people are concerned with and provide for Yiddish culture; thus, everyone bears responsibility for our cultural downfall. When everyone comes together to support the institute, the difficulties will be eliminated and there will be no more complaints. [ . . . ]

Yoysef Aronovitsh (Vilna): [ . . . ] I am in favor of Mr. Virgili-Kahan’s position according to which the institute must stand on a broad foundation, but the coalition must be supported by friends of the working class, and the interests of the working class must be of primary concern. We do not require any partisan allegiances, but we must always keep the working class in mind. [ . . . ]

Noyekh Prilutski: If YIVO weren’t an independent organization but a state academy, only scholars and guests would be attending this meeting. But we also have delegates here. From a certain point of view this is a democratic phenomenon. But this brought about a situation where our nonscholarly friends keep demanding various things from YIVO. People come to YIVO like they go to the rebbe. They launch their criticism uncritically. Are the activists of YIVO magicians? Is YIVO in a position to do anything when schools are closed? The activists of YIVO understand that what they do must produce tangible benefits. A cultural struggle [kultur-kamf ] is taking place, and YIVO is the staff headquarters. If the headquarters is hit, all is ruined. As our highest cultural position, YIVO must be taboo, armed, and must not mix directly into the political struggle.

Translated by


The World Convention of YIVO (Yiddish Scientific Institute) upon the Tenth Anniversary of Its Founding, edited for our volume by Zvi Gitelman, from Altveltlekher tsuzamenfor fun yidishn visnshaftlichn insitut: tsum tenyorikn yoiivl fun YIVO (Vilna, 1936), pp. 109–26. Courtesy of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 8.

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