(1864–1937), author and publicist. Born in Vienna to moderately Orthodox parents, Nathan Birnbaum (who adopted the pseudonym Mathias Acher) grew estranged from observant Judaism in secondary school, but unlike his peers who felt themselves thoroughly German, Birnbaum declared that the Jews themselves constituted a distinct nation destined to reclaim Palestine as its national homeland. In 1883, with Reuven Bierer (1837–1931) and Moritz Schnirer (1860–1942), he cofounded the academic fraternity Kadimah, an early Jewish nationalist society whose first members consisted mostly of Galician Jewish students studying in Vienna.
Two years later, Birnbaum launched Selbstemanzipation, a Jewish nationalist periodical in which he later coined the term Zionism and that served (until 1892) as the de facto organ for Galician Zionists as well. Birnbaum maintained close ties with the Galician movement and struggled to steer it away from its growing Diaspora-nationalist orientation in favor of working toward the colonization of Palestine. In 1892, he founded the Zion Union of Austrian Associations for the Colonization of Palestine and Syria and promptly went on tour throughout Galicia to promote the foundation of local branches, successfully forming more than a dozen such groups.
Ironically, by the time of the first Zionist Congress in 1897, Birnbaum had moved to a cultural conception of Zionism; the following year he withdrew from Herzl’s organization to become a leading defender of Jewish national autonomy within Europe. Birnbaum now increasingly regarded East European Jewry as the embodiment of Jewish national authenticity. He began to advocate adopting Yiddish as the Jews’ national language, a language that he himself mastered only many years later.
Postcard with portraits of Hillel Zeitlin (left) and Nathan Birnbaum (right). (YIVO)
In addition to his continuing publishing activity, Birnbaum now threw himself into the political struggle for Jewish national rights in the Habsburg Empire. He was an early and well-known advocate of Jewish–Ukrainian cooperation in Galicia, frequently promoting this alliance against the dominant Poles in his short-lived paper Neue Zeitung (1906–1907). During the 1907 parliamentary elections, Birnbaum successfully rallied Jews in his father’s native Buczacz to pressure the Jewish National Party to replace its original candidate for that district with himself, a race he lost as a result of severe electoral abuses by local Polish authorities. The following year, Birnbaum initiated and served as a chief organizer of the Czernowitz Yiddish language conference, where Yiddish was declared to be a (but not the) Jewish national language, and in 1910 he led an unsuccessful campaign to win recognition for Yiddish as a legal language in that year’s census.
By now, Birnbaum’s deepening identification with East European Jewry led him to abandon secular Yiddishism as he once did Zionism, and in the years before World War I he slowly returned to observant Judaism. Throughout his remaining years, Birnbaum wrote tirelessly about the need to revitalize Jewry as a “people of God.” In a series of publications between 1917 and 1919, he outlined many of his ideas for realizing this national transformation as preparation for the coming of the Messiah. His proposals included the founding of a society of Ḥever ‘Olim (ascenders) who would spearhead this rejuvenation, as well as ideas in favor of teaching Jews agrarian skills as a means of avoiding the “pagan” influences of modern life (including those secular Jewish ideologies that he himself had formerly advocated).
Following the reestablishment of the Orthodox political party Agudas Yisroel in 1919, Birnbaum agreed to serve as its first General Secretary. In 1933, he fled Berlin, his home since 1911, and moved to Scheveningen, in The Hague, where he died on 2 April 1937. Most of Birnbaum’s countless publications are gathered in an archive in the home of his grandson in Toronto.
Nathan Birnbaum, The Bridge: Selected Essays, ed. Solomon A. Birnbaum, trans. Irene R. Birnbaum (London, 1956); Joshua Fishman, Ideology, Society and Language: The Odyssey of Nathan Birnbaum (Ann Arbor, 1987); Robert Wistrich, “The Metamorphoses of Nathan Birnbaum,” in The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph, pp. 381–420 (Oxford and New York, 1989).
RG 107, Letters, Collection, 1800-1970s; RG 204, David Pinsky, Papers, 1893-1949; RG 208, Chaim Zhitlowsky, Papers, 1882-1953; RG 223, Abraham Sutzkever–Szmerke Kaczerginski, Collection, 1806-1945; RG 275, Eliezer Schindler, Papers, 1930s-1950s; RG 360, Shmuel Niger, Papers, 1907-1950s; RG 3, Yiddish Literature and Language, Collection, 1870s-1941; RG 462, Koppel Pinson, Papers, 1930s-1940s.