A gathering of Jewish intellectuals in Kulautuva, Lithuania, 1920 or 1921. Those identified in the photograph include journalist Reuven Tsarfat (2, in fedora); Bal-Makhshoves (4, wearing white boater); Dovid Bergelson (6, on ground with his head on his neighbor’s knee), his wife (10, seated, second from left), and son (5, small child to Bergelson’s left); Zelig Kalmanovitch (7, with striped tie, center); Jakob Lestschinsky (8, to Kalmanovitch’s right); and Nokhem Shtif (9, to the left of Bergelson’s wife). (YIVO)

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Shtif, Nokhem

(1879–1933), linguist, literary historian, and political activist. Born in Rovno (mod. Rivne) to a prosperous family, Nokhem Shtif received both a Jewish and a secular education. Even as a student at a Russian secondary school and, later, at Kiev Polytechnic University (where he was enrolled between 1899 and 1903), he continued studying religious and modern Hebrew literature. He was the cofounder of a Zionist student group, Molodoi Izrail’ (Young Israel), and also participated in the 1902 Minsk Zionist Conference.

From Nokem Shtif in Kiev to Yoysef Opatoshu in New York, 6 February 1929, expressing his delight that Opatoshu is a reader of Di yidishe shprakh, unlike other Yiddish writers who, he claims, scorn all attempts to improve the Yiddish language and have fallen under the sway of the Yiddish of the masses and the popular press. He complains of the Russification of Yiddish and Yiddish linguistics, maintaining that most Yiddish scholars are “Litvaks” and that Polish Yiddish is being neglected. He asks if Opatoshu will have a look at some folk expressions from the town of Siedlce that were recently published in the journal; could he contribute additions or corrections? Yiddish. Russian and Yiddish letterhead: Di yidishe shprakh, Kultur lige cooperative press, Kiev, Red Army 43. RG 436, Joseph Opatoshu Papers, F271. (YIVO)

In his first article, which remained unpublished, Shtif pioneered an ideological concept later employed by the Zionist Socialist Party: emigration and colonization as a means of creating a Jewish proletariat, which, according to Shtif, could not exist in the repressive environment of Russia. In autumn 1903, he cofounded the Vozrozhdenie (Renaissance) Jewish socialist group in Kiev. Shortly thereafter, Shtif was arrested for his political activities and was expelled from the university. From late 1904 until early 1906, he lived in Bern, where he organized a local Vozrozhdenie group and agitated against the Bund. In April 1906, with other activists from Vozrozhdenie, he founded the Jewish Socialist Labor Party in Kiev. Its members, also known as Seimists, sought Jewish national autonomy in Russia and became committed Yiddishists.

Between 1906 and 1910, Shtif spent time in Kiev, Vilna, Vitebsk, and Saint Petersburg. He was a party agitator, an editor for modern Yiddish literature at the Kletskin publishing house in Vilna, and an employee of the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA). In 1910, he moved to Rovno, worked at a Jewish bank, and contributed to periodicals (usually under the pseudonym Bal-Dimyen [Dreamer]). Meanwhile, he graduated from the Iaroslavl’ Law School. During World War I, he worked for the Jewish Committee to Aid War Victims and other Jewish organizations based in Saint Petersburg.

After the February 1917 Revolution, Shtif was among the founders of the revived Folkspartey (Folks Party). Inspired by Simon Dubnow, the party had been first formed in 1907, but remained dormant throughout the following decade. In 1918, Shtif moved to Kiev, where he devoted himself to journalism. His writings—including the pamphlet Yidn un yidish, oder ver zaynen “yidishistn” un vos viln zey? [Jews and Yiddish, or Who Are the “Yiddishists” and What Do They Want?; 1919])—concerned the Jews’ future in the postwar world, which Shtif envisioned as a brotherhood of nations that included Jews as an autonomous national collective with a highly developed Yiddish culture. He left Kiev in 1920, spending a short time in Minsk, where he and Zelig Kalmanovitch lectured for Yiddish teachers. Subsequently, Shtif moved to Kovno (Kaunas), then a stronghold of the Folkspartey, but eventually settled in Berlin in March 1922. His book on pogroms in Ukraine was published in Berlin in Russian (Pogromy na Ukraine; 1922) and in Yiddish (Pogromen in Ukraine; 1923).

From 1908, Shtif’s interest in Yiddish philology was reflected in a number of articles and reviews. In Kiev and Berlin, he returned to philological studies, particularly of old Yiddish literature. A propagandist—pro-Yiddishist and anti-Hebraist—quality characterized all of his studies, such as his pamphlet Humanizm in der elterer yidisher literatur (Humanism in Old Yiddish Literature), published in Kiev in 1920 and reprinted in Berlin in 1922. His proposal for the creation of a Yiddish academic center (published in Vilna as Vegn a yidishn akademishn institut [On a Yiddish Academic Institute]) was realized by Max Weinreich and other scholars, who established the Yiddish Scientific Institute, YIVO, in 1925. Shtif, however—lured by the unprecedented scale of state-sponsored Jewish cultural development in the Soviet Union, particularly in Ukraine—left for Kiev in 1926. Even while still in Berlin, he, along with Bal-Makhshoves and Dovid Bergelson, had argued that Ukraine was the real cradle of Yiddish literary talent and apparently believed that Kiev could become the cultural and academic capital of the Yiddishist movement.

Shtif became the central figure in the Kiev Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture, as it was called in 1929 (previously known as the Chair for Jewish Culture at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, from 1926). Concurrently, a professional philological journal, Di yidishe shprakh (The Yiddish Language; from 1931 called Afn shprakhfront [On the Language Front]), edited by Shtif, was also launched. For a short time, he directed the Kiev Institute, but later headed only its philological section; Yoysef Liberberg, a Communist Party member, replaced Shtif as director. In 1928, both men were severely criticized for attempting to bring Simon Dubnow to Kiev as a guest of honor to a ceremonial opening.

From Nokhem Shtif in Kiev to Kalman Marmor in New York, 19 November 1929, wishing him well on his fiftieth birthday, which he has read about in the Yiddish newspaper Frayhayt. Although Shtif doesn't know Marmor personally, he has warm feelings toward him. They are of the same generation, which has achieved so many things, including Zionism and socialism and "war and revolution . . . enough for three generations!" He reminisces about writing revolutionary propaganda with Moshe Olgin about the Kishinev pogrom and Jewish self-defense in Kiev. Yiddish. RG 205, Kalman Marmor Papers, F253/19550. (YIVO)

Although Shtif continued publishing articles on the history of Yiddish literature and language, he and the entire Kiev center concentrated primarily on practical questions, most notably on language planning. While his works involving historical research (such as his 1928 article on the development of Yiddish spelling) remain important for contemporary academics, his language-planning proposals, most notably on issues of stylistics, played a rather insignificant role in reforms of Soviet Yiddish. Indeed, Shtif’s theories were often treated as retsidivn (recidivisms) of bourgeois Yiddishism.

Shtif’s suggestions mirrored his vision of language as an organic part of life. Thus in his 1927 article “Di pasive zatskonstruktsye” (Di yidishe shprakh 2), he argued that literary language must be cleared of passive constructions, since “‘Active’ and ‘passive’ are psychological notions, notions of the lifestyle, rather than solely of the grammar.” As a result, such “construction is incongruous with the revolutionary energy of our time, with the active nature of Soviet life.” One year later, he turned against using the suffix -bar, arguing that it was a harmful influence of German on Yiddish. Shtif published his controversial article “Di sotsyale diferentsiatsye in yidish” (Social Differentiation in Yiddish) in Di yidishe shprakh in 1929. Although his aim was not to outlaw all words and forms derived from Hebrew and Aramaic, he argued that a substantial number of them were redundant in Soviet—secular and denationalized—surroundings and, therefore, could be discarded and, to the greatest extent possible, excluded from the process of lexical innovation. According to Max Weinreich (“Nokhem Shtif,” Di tsukunft 6 [1933]), the publication of this article revealed “not only a philological, but also a psychological problem,” a scholar kowtowing to Soviet ideology. In fact, although the frequency of Hebraisms declined in newspapers and textbooks, poets and prose writers, particularly of the older generation, paid little attention to the recommendations of Shtif and other language planners.

Shtif edited Di eltere yidishe literatur (Old Yiddish Literature; 1929), a reader including works by Shloyme Ettinger, Ayzik Meyer Dik, Avraham Ber Gottlober, Yitskhok Yoyel Linetski, Avrom Goldfadn, and others. He also wrote Yidishe stilistik (Yiddish Stylistics; 1930), based on his articles in Di yidishe shprakh. Shtif died working in his office on 7 April 1933. Both Afn shprakhfront and YIVO-bleter published bibliographies of his writings in 1935.

Suggested Reading

Gennady Estraikh, Soviet Yiddish: Language Planning and Linguistic Development (Oxford, 1999); Itzik Nakhmen Gottesman, Defining the Yiddish Nation: The Jewish Folklorists of Poland (Detroit, 2003); David Shneer, Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture, 1918–1930 (Cambridge and New York, 2004).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1,1, YIVO (Vilna): Administration, Records, 1925-1941; RG 201, Abraham Liessin, Papers, 1906-1944; RG 202, Judah Loeb (Yehude Leyb) Cahan, Papers, 1920s-1930s, 1950s; RG 205, Kalman Marmor, Papers, 1880s-1950s; RG 223, Abraham Sutzkever–Szmerke Kaczerginski, Collection, 1806-1945; RG 227, Alexander Mukdoni, Papers, 1918-1958; RG 3, Yiddish Literature and Language, Collection, 1870s-1941; RG 436, Joseph Opatoshu, Papers, 1901-1960; RG 479, Benjamin Jacob Bialostotzky, Papers, ca. 1929-1963; RG 82, YIVO—Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (Vilna, Tcherikower Archive), Records, 1921-1943.