Nathan Birnbaum (b. 1864–d. 1937), also known by the pseudonym Mathias Acher (“another Mathias”), was a journalist, theorist of Jewish nationalism, and political activist. Birnbaum was a pioneer in the emergence of both secular Jewish nationalism and Orthodox political organization. Deeply affected by his exposure to rising anti-Semitism in fin-de-siècle Vienna and alienated by what he would term “assimilation mania” (Assimilationssucht), Birnbaum’s ideology was shaped early by two themes that developed throughout his career: belief that there was an intrinsic, unique Jewish identity, and that this identity could be activated as a solution to the oppression afflicting European Jews. Birnbaum’s early work integrated models of central European nationalism filtered through the writings of Moses Hess, Peretz Smolenskin, and Leon Pinsker. In the wake of anti-Jewish violence in Russia in 1882, Birnbaum and other Jewish students at Vienna University founded Kadimah, the earliest Jewish nationalist organization in central Europe. He cultivated an important presence among central European Jewish nationalists, and he was a significant influence on a young generation of “cultural” Zionists. In the early 1890s, he coined the term “Zionism” (Zionismus) to describe Palestine-oriented Jewish nationalism. When Theodor Herzl arrived in Zionist circles in 1896, he sidelined Birnbaum along with nearly everyone else who had preceded him in the movement, but Birnbaum’s opinion on the nature of authentic Jewish identity was already evolving. He eventually became an internal, and ultimately outside, critic of Zionism, concluding that an organic Jewish identity already existed in the folkways, Yiddish language, and communities of eastern European Jews. As an extension of this, he led in organizing the first conference of the Yiddish language in 1908. In the aftermath of the conference, Birnbaum deepened his engagement with the Yiddish language and eastern European Jewish culture and increasingly turned his thoughts to issues of spirituality and religion. After the outbreak of the First World War, Birnbaum announced himself a “ba’al teshuva,” a penitent returnee to Torah-observant Judaism. He was embraced by the Agudah, and his skills as a journalist and activist were put to use in Agudah organizing. Now Birnbaum revolutionized his understanding of the foundation of Jewish identity. Maintaining the ideal of Jewish authenticity as the only route to Jewish cohesion, Birnbaum rejected his earlier ethno-nationalist understanding of Jewish identity, replacing it with Orthodox religious observance and belief in the Torah. He aligned himself with a Hasidic religiosity that was an organic extension of his admiration for eastern European Jewry. A transformation that earned him respect in the Orthodox world and derision among the secular nationalists he had left behind, Birnbaum considered his change consistent with his views on Jewish authenticity. As the situation of European Jewry declined in the late 1920s and 1930s, Birnbaum felt vindicated in his dim view of the possibility of Jewish life outside of a religious identity, and wrote in this vein for the rest of his life. He died in Scheveningen, The Netherlands, in 1937.
Birnbaum’s work has attracted modest interest from Jewish historians and biographers, and there are a few works dedicated to detailing his life, political ideology, and contributions to Jewish political and cultural thought. Birnbaum 1964, Herrmann 1914, Kürschner 1936, and Rayzen 1928, are based upon both surveys of Birnbaum’s work and their own personal encounters with Birnbaum. Doron 1988, Kühntopf-Gentz 1990, and Wistrich 1989 represent earlier critical evaluations of Birnbaum’s work, but center largely on his earlier phases (Zionism and nationalist autonomism) while engaging little with his later, Orthodox period. Shanes 2010 and Olson 2013, the most recent studies, deal more evenly with all the major phases of Birnbaum’s work.
Birnbaum, Solomon. “Nathan Birnbaum.” In Men of the Spirit. Edited by Leo Jung, 519–549. New York: Kymson, 1964.
Written by Birnbaum’s oldest son and life-long intellectual interlocutor, Solomon Birnbaum’s short biography of Nathan Birnbaum offers a subtle, incisive, and evenly-structured account of his life and work. Although part of a compendium of biographies oriented toward a devotional rather than scholarly readership, as a linguist and academic, Solomon Birnbaum’s account is highly informative, in particular with regard to his descriptions of Nathan Birnbaum’s later work in the Orthodox Jewish community.
Doron, Joachim. Ha-guto ha-tsiyonit shel Natan Birnbaum. Jerusalem: Ha-sifriyah ha-tsiyonit al-yad ha-histradrut ha-tsiyonit ha-olamit, 1988.
Study of Birnbaum’s early work in Zionism, Doron’s book utilizes extensively his published essays on nationalist thought, attitudes toward “practical” settlement in Palestine, and places his work in the context of other early Jewish nationalists and Zionists.
Fishman, Joshua. Ideology, Society and Language: The Odyssey of Nathan Birnbaum. Ann Arbor, MI: Karoma, 1987.
Linguist Joshua Fishman was fascinated by Birnbaum, emerging from his work in Yiddish linguistics. Fishman’s sociolinguistic analysis of the 1908 Czernowitz conference anchors this collection, along with a collection of biographical essays. It is the first academic text to take Birnbaum’s later embrace of Orthodoxy seriously as a part of his larger intellectual legacy. Fishman presents a collection of Birnbaum’s writings from multiple points of his career, giving the reader a broad sense of his ideological development.
Herrmann, Leo. Nathan Birnbaum, Sein Werk Und Seine Wandlung. Berlin: Jüdischer Verlag, 1914.
A short intellectual biography of Nathan Birnbaum published by the Jüdischer Verlag, a central publisher of cultural Jewish nationalist texts founded by Martin Buber, Chaim Weizmann, among others. Herrmann, a cultural Zionist with close connections to the Verlag circle, presents Birnbaum as a central figure in the emergence of early Zionism and as a model of cultural Zionist activist.
Kühntopf-Gentz, Michael. “Nathan Birnbaum. Biographie.” PhD diss., Fakultät für Kulturwissenschaften der Universität Tübigen, Dusseldorf, 1990.
An unpublished dissertation evaluating the early career of Birnbaum. It is one of the earliest detailed syntheses of Birnbaum’s journalistic output. The author explores Birnbaum’s published articles primarily from the periodicals Selbst-Emancipation, Jüdische Volkszeitung, Ost und West, among others. The text is primarily focused on Birnbaum’s interaction within Zionism and his departure from the World Zionist Organization after the turn of the century, but does not explore in significant depth his work after 1910.
Kürschner. “Birnbaum, Nathan.” In Grosse jüdische National-Biografie. Edited by S. Winninger, 379–381. Cernauti [Chernivtsi, Ukraine]: Druck “Orient,” 1936.
An encyclopedia of Jewish nationalist biographies, Kürschner’s entry on Birnbaum discusses his career in Jewish nationalist politics in the context of his contribution to Zionism and Yiddish autonomism.
Olson, Jess. Nathan Birnbaum and Jewish Modernity: Architect of Zionism, Yiddishism and Orthodoxy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013.
In-depth biography of Nathan Birnbaum. This intellectual history identifies the coherent threads that draw together the three primary political orientations Birnbaum adapted: secular cultural Zionism, Yiddish-oriented national autonomism, and Orthodox political activism. It makes extensive use of the Nathan and Solomon and Nathan Birnbaum Family Archives (cited under Archives). Aside from printed and published materials, this book utilizes the personal correspondence of Nathan Birnbaum that is preserved in the archives.
Rayzen, Zalman. “Birnboym, Nosn.” In Leksikon fun der yidishe litertur, presse un filologiar. Vol. 1. 101–104. Vilnius, Lithuania: Vilner farlag fun b. Kletzkin, 1928.
Entry in Rayzen’s classic biographical encyclopedia of contributors to Yiddish culture. Contains detailed entry on Birnbaum with particular focus on his work on Yiddish culture and Jewish autonomist nationalism.
Shanes, Joshua. “Birnbaum, Nathan.” In YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, 2010.
Substantive biographical sketch of Nathan Birnbaum’s life and work written by a historian of Jewish politics in Austria-Hungary. The text offers an ideal introduction to Birnbaum’s career and intellectual life for quick reference.
Wistrich, Robert. “The Metamorphoses of Nathan Birnbaum.” In The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph. By Robert Wistrich, 381–420. Oxford and New York: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1989.
A biographical survey by an Israeli historian of central European Jewish history and anti-Semitism, part of his volume of essays on Viennese Jewish history. Features important biographical details, focused primarily on Birnbaum’s work in Zionism and autonomous nationalism.
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