Yiddish in Imperial Russia’s Civil Society

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Yiddish in Imperial Russia’s Civil Society

Gennady Estraikh

The transformation of Yiddish into a language of high modern culture - in Simon Dubnov’s words, “from ‘jargon’ to Yiddish”1 - is usually associated with remarkable achievements in such domains of Jewish life in late imperial Russia as literary and journalistic creativity (especially of the classical triumvirate, Mendele Moykher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz), and the socialist labor movement. This paper, however, focuses on the impact of Jewish philanthropic and mutual-aid organizations, whose role remains largely neglected in the academic discourse concerning history of Yiddish culture in the 19th and 20th centuries. Such neglect is hardly surprising given the fact that thousands of voluntary organizations that existed in the empire in its last decades remain the least researched elements of Russia’s civil society.2 Yet, the picture of Yiddish in Russia remains unfinished without these components of Jewish life. Although the reason d’être of Jewish philanthropic and mutual-aid organizations had little to do with Yiddish and many their activists even maintained that there was no such thing as the Yiddish language, they ultimately became a central force in defining its modern functions and status.

As the core of Jewish civil society in Russia, voluntary organizations contributed enormously to the process of national consolidation of various groups of Yiddish-speaking population divided by distinct dialects, customs, religious traditions, economic circumstances, and vectors of cultural gravitation. The consolidation also had a language-planning dimension, in particular for Yiddish, because the Jewish organizations had no choice but to use it in their activities and, as a result, facilitated standardization, lexical development, and – most importantly - recognition of the language.

Pillars of Jewish Philanthropy

Russia-wide consolidation of Jewish activities, initially in the form of lobbying before the state (shtadlanut), was facilitated by Emperor Alexander II’s edict of March 1859, which permitted the upper crust of Jewish financiers and industrialists, or “first-guild merchants,” to settle outside the Pale of Jewish Settlement. This edict, inadvertently, advanced the appearance of St. Petersburg-based Jewish national elite of men of riches and their intellectual entourage. From the 1860s onward, the capital housed several Jewish-owned banks, including the bank of the Gintsburgs, an enlightened, westernized “royal family” of Russian Jewry. The “Gintsburg Circle,” to borrow John Klier’s term, exercised control over the Petersburg Jewish community and had an impact on the whole of Russian Jewish life.3 To a significant degree, the Petersburg elite formed the nucleus for Russian-Jewish consolidation.

Advantageously, 1859 also was the year when the government began to relax its policy toward private charitable societies.4 Therefore it is no accident that in 1863 the Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment among the Jews of Russia, or OPE according to the Russian initials, was established in St. Petersburg by the Gintsburg Circle. The emergence of this first national non-religious Jewish organization in country, was logical in the atmosphere of Alexander II’s reign with its educational experiments aimed at selecting and refining people among ethnic and religious minorities for the process of building loyal citizenship.5 Benjamin Nathans writes about “selective integration,” or “the process by which the tsarist state hoped to disperse certain categories of Jews into the Russian social hierarchy.”6

Petersburg’s Jewish sophisticates tended to internalize the criticism leveled at the “non-productive” dweller of the Pale.7 At the same time, many members of the Gintsburg Circle were sincerely perturbed about the economic predicament of the Pale, particularly of artisans, who made up one-third of the empire’s Jewish population. Tailors, shoemakers, and other craftsmen were “productive” and as such they were nearer and dearer to the hearts of enlightened Jews than marketers, brokers, leaseholders, moneylenders, or people of indeterminate occupation, labeled later, at the turn of the century, as luftmentshn. The Russian government, too, viewed craftsmen as a useful segment of the Jewish population and made mastery a metric for their integration/amalgamation. According to the law of 1865, Jewish master-artisans could even seek permission to reside outside the Pale, in the so-called “internal” provinces of Russia, provided they possessed the necessary legal evidence of proficiency in their crafts.8

The reality was that Jewish master-artisans, whose number was rather limited, usually were relatively well-off financially in their hometowns, among their relatives and friends, and did not want to face the challenges associated with migration eastwards. In contrast with the state apparatus and enlightened Jews, traditional Jewish society placed artisans very low on the traditional hierarchical ladder, therefore successful artisans, intent on gaining respectability, often used their accumulate wealth for moving from handicraft to “non-productive” merchandising. On the other hand, the vast majority of those who plied the artisanal trade lacked sufficient skills to be allowed to leave the Pale and lived there in the vicious circle of penury, often surviving thanks to various charitable organizations, for the most part unofficial ones, which honeycombed every small Jewish community.9 By the end of the 19th century, up to one-fifth (in towns, one-third) of Russia’s Jews received, and often never weaned themselves from, support of various charitable organizations.10 A poor artisan was unable to meet the expense of his children’s prolonged education or training, which ultimately might entitle them to be “selectively integrated” into the larger society. In that climate, support of general and vocational education could be seen as a panacea, especially as until the 1880s it went hand in glove with the governmental policy of using education as a means of struggle against Jews’ “harmfulness.”11

In 1880, Nikolai (Noah) Bakst, an established scholar in the filed of physiology, persuaded several wealthy members of the Gintsburg Circle to set up the Society for the Promotion of Artisanal and Agricultural Work among the Jews in Russia, or ORT according to the Russian initials. (Scientists with aspirations of social reformers generally contributed a great deal to building civil society in Russia.)12 Bakst exemplified the trajectory of integration of Russian Jewish intellectuals born into enlightened families. His father, Isaac Bakst, owned the Zhitomir-based Jewish publishing house that brought out inter alia the pioneering Yiddish dictionaries compiled by Yeshue-Mordkhe Lifshits – a man of wide culture, whose outlook combined devotion to the language of the Jewish masses with strong desire to make them productive.13 Nikolai Bakst’s brainchild, the ORT, emerged as an offspring from the OPE, which supported students of higher education, writers, and scholars, but its original charter did not include the goal of educating craftsmen. The fact that the new society was modeled on the Prussian Gesellschaft zur Verbreitung der Handwerke und des Ackerbaus unter den Juden reflected the general tendency of borrowing Germany patterns for their implementation in Russia.14

The Jewish Colonization Association, JCA, formed the third – and ultimately most influential – centralized constituent of Russian Jewish civil society. The JCA’s pre-history also was associated with Bakst, under whose influence Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a western European Jewish businessman and philanthropist, had developed the idea of establishing in Russia schools for educating the Jewish youth. Ultimately, that project was blocked by the Russian government and Baron Hirsch’s attention turned to the Jewish colonization of the Argentine steppes. Bakst, a Russian patriot, was inherently incapable to justify emigration and until the end of his life remained at odds with the JCA. He did not change his attitude when the leadership of the Russian branch (established in 1892) succeeded in persuading the international board of the JCA to widen the focus beyond emigration by putting more emphasis on improving the economic situation of Russian Jews.15

In the hostile environment of the 1880s and 1890s, the ORT operated in the form of a bureaucratic office, the Provisional Committee, whose head, Bakst, was mindful of vexing the government with attempts to expand his organization’s activities. Instead, he concentrated his efforts on securing longevity of the ORT and on small but useful projects, such as training programs and financial credits on easy terms, aimed at alleviating poverty in the Pale and integrating “useful” Jewish residents into larger society. Following the death of Nikolai Bakst in 1904, a group of intellectuals took over the running of the ORT. In the aftermath of the 1907 constitutional coup, which saw the dissolution of the Russian parliament and the persecution of its socialist deputies, numerous activists were disillusioned by direct political activism and found a new home in civil society organizations, including the ORT. While Bakst and his like saw productivization and correction of other “defects” of Jews as prerequisites for integration into Russian society, the younger generation of activists had similar tactical objectives, but strategically they usually aimed at modern Jewish nation-building. Some of the younger activists moved to the ORT from the JCA. Among them was Leon Bramson, the director of the JCA’s central committee, and Boris (Ber) Brutskus, head of the agricultural department. They felt that the JCA, despite its impressive achievements, remained a remote, undemocratic, and bureaucratic structure. Bramson, a liberal politician who in 1906 was one of the Jewish deputies elected to the first Russian Duma, took part in formulating the ORT’s new statute that simplified the process of opening a provincial branch and made its membership available to people with low incomes. In actual fact, full transformation of the ORT from a philanthropic entity into a mutual-aid mass organization remained a pipe dream.16

The coordination of the St Petersburg-based organizations – the JCA, the OPE, and the ORT – helped to build a centralized system of Jewish civil society, whose components closely interacted with Jewish political groupings and formed a modern alternative to traditional structures of Jewish communities. The majority of activists of civil society organizations belonged to a new stratum that developed in the Pale. Some of them were known as “conscientious, or intellectual, workers” (soznatel’nye rabochie/bavustzinike arbeter), who had connections with illegal party groupings. While “conscientious workers” usually stemmed from poor families, many off-springs from more affluent, balebatishe, parents were Talmudic students turned into secular “semi-intellectuals” (poluintelligenty/halb-inteligentn), a term used by the “proper,” university educated intellectuals to refer to the “slightly educated” autodidacts. Both groups of activists had already severed their links with the traditional community, but due to their socio-economic position, education, and outlook had problems with finding a place in larger society.17 The civil society network also attracted numerous Jewish intellectuals steeped in Russian culture, who sought to find a place and purpose in the country that reared them for integration, but ultimately treated them as second-raters.18 The constituents of civil society competed with the old Jewish charitable bodies, hevras, which fulfilled many social functions in local communities.
Jewish Cooperatives

Jewish activists paid particular attention to credit cooperatives, or savings-and-loan associations. Traditionally, young Jewish men, including artisans, would start their own family and business life thanks to a dowry. A character in David Bergelson’s 1909 story “At the Depot” explains: “When you get your dowry, then you have your capital.” Nonetheless, from the 1870s onward craftsmen often needed additional starting capital for purchasing modern equipment.19 Receiving credit at reasonable costs could secure the existence of an artisanal or merchandizing business and protect it from loan-sharking usurers, known among Yiddish speakers as protsentniks or vokherers.20 To bypass the biblical and Talmudic injunction against charging interest on loans offered to Jews, lending for profit was legalized through the heter iska (literally meaning “exemption contract”), or a partnership (rather than a loan agreement) between creditor and debtor.21 Many Jewish communities had charitable organizations for gratuitous lending, gmiles khesed, but such free-loan associations, with capital donated by better-off members of the community, usually did not have adequate resources and, as a result, were of very limited effectiveness for financing a business project.

In the 1880s, an unofficial savings-and-loan association, called in Yiddish aktsye (share) or be(y)nkl (small bank), was part of Jewish life in many localities of the Pale. Such associations often emerged on the basis of a previously existing gmiles khesed.22 In June 1895, a special law facilitated the formation of small societies for mutual credit in the Russian Empire, and, in the next year, the first in the Russian Empire Jewish voluntary society of that type was established in the shtetl of Parichi (Parech) in Belorussia. In Vilna, “where the pulse of [Jewish] civic life [was] … stronger than in any other place of the Pale,”23 a similar society emerged in 1898 and was soon modeled in several towns, such as Dvinsk (Daugavpils), Bialystok, Gomel, and Mogilev. Russia became the first and only country, where the cooperative movement (most notably, credit cooperatives) developed among Jews into a mass movement.24 By 1912, over 600 cooperatives provided credits to over 400,000 Jewish members and by the beginning of World War I, 450,000 Jewish members of savings-and-loan associations and their families encompassed about 3 million people, or half of the empire’s total Jewish population. The appearance of independent funds reflected the increasing cultural and political maturation of Russian Jewish society, and created connections between corporate craft traditions and early forms of socialism.25 Indeed, early Jewish savings-and-loan associations would often form the basis for illegal trade unions, whose (kamf-)kases, or (struggle-)funds, provided means of support during strikes.26 The Bund, founded in 1897 in Vilna, eventually turned into a social-democratic party, but in its embryonic form it was a union of kases.27

The cooperative movement, with its unprecedented number of participants and its relative independence “from outside interference by either local authorities or orthodox elements of Jewish society,”28 became one of the principal secular agents in traditional communities, building a modern social and economic armature for Jewish life in Russia. Activists promoted cooperatives not only to protect the population from unrestrained market forces and stimulate self-help, but also to implant the principles of civic initiative. The cooperatives, which often sponsored libraries, schools, medical positions, and other social needs, also created an organized (through institutional links, conferences, and periodicals) environment for voluntary, part-time, or even fulltime job positions occupied by Jewish activists and professionals.29 This became particularly important after 1890, when Jews were deprived of the right to vote in elections of the zemstvo, an elected local self-government, whose institutions employed thousands of doctors, teachers, agronomists, and other qualified personnel.30

Meanwhile, from the 1880s onward, “[c]continuing economic development and the inroads of secularism were preparing even larger number of Jewish to give up their traditional ways and live a more ‘modern’ life, just as the policy makers of ‘amalgamation’ had hoped, but the tsars were no longer encouraging Jews to become part of Russian society.”31 Eugene Avrutin has shown that during that period racial categories increasingly replaced such categories as estate and religion and, as a result, even conversion to Christianity did little to improve significantly the Jews’ status in society. Symptomatically, after 1905 hundreds of baptized Jews returned to Judaism.32 As John Klier’s research demonstrates, the Russian authorities were, in general, not particularly committed to converting Jews to Christianity.33

In the atmosphere defined by state ideology of nationalism and anti-Semitism, disaggregation from larger society rather than integration into it dominated Russia’s Jewish civil society. Thus, according to Natan Meir’s case study, “[i]n the last decade before World War I, ethnic segregation in the realm of charitable work seemed increasingly to be true in Kiev.”34 Even the forms of cooperatives reveal clear signs of ethnic segregation in the Pale: Jews usually did not organize consumers’ cooperatives, while this kind of association became popular among non-Jewish residents, notably peasants, and was widely seen as an instrument in struggle with Jewish shopkeepers. In some areas of eastern Europe, consumers’ cooperatives had a devastating effect on Jewish trade, stimulating an increase in emigration.35 At the same time, savings-and-loan associations mainly had Jewish members. Despite various restrictions (e.g., barring from registration savings-and-loan associations established by shopkeepers), only about 10 per cent of such cooperatives’ members in pre-World War I Ukraine were non-Jewish, and even a decade later, in the early Soviet period, their average non-Jewish membership did not exceed 20 per cent.36

At that time, a segment of Jewish socialists began to promote “democratic forms of nationalism” and rejected assimilation, arguing that they accepted the logic of the eventual relinquishing of Jewish ethno-cultural peculiarities and blending into the international humankind (chelovechestvo) of the future, but could not justify incorporation of Jews into other nations.37 The integrationist idea of artisans’ migration from the Pale to the internal provinces also became outmoded. In February 1914, during the ORT conference in St. Petersburg, the economist theorist Boris Brutskus argued that resettling Jewish artisans was almost impossible under the existing administrative regime, therefore it was much more practical to concentrate efforts and resources on supporting Jewish craftsmen inside the Pale, finding jobs for them, and assisting them in selling their produce.38

The Language of Separation

In his analysis of attempts to integrate Jews in the Russian state system, John Klier comes to the conclusion that the “well-intentioned” state-sponsored experiments had failed because they “derived from abstract views of the Jews as ‘urban commercial elements’, or ‘unproductive exploiters’, or as a dichotomous group of ‘good and bad subjects’. […] Reforms rooted in such caricatures could not but fail, and failure produced disillusionment and counter-reform.”39 Failure also changed the vector of activities of Jewish civil society institutions, which had been established to facilitate integration of Jews by making them ‘productive’ and, generally, ‘good’. From the beginning of the twentieth century, local and national Jewish organizations increasingly concentrated on building, in fact, components of a parallel society and economy. The expansion of cooperatives, other voluntary organizations as well as the appearance of political (notably socialist) groupings altered the fabric of Jewish society, reinforced the separation of Jews, and left a lasting mark on language politics and practice.

Yiddish, which (according to Bramson) “more than anything else contributed to the isolation of the Jewish masses from the remaining population,”40 found recognition as an important marker of the separation. Over the course of the 1900s, Yiddish began to appear in political platforms of the Bund, Zionist Socialists, Folkists, and even Labor Zionists. At the same time, the pressure of practical need to use Yiddish, was a stronger factor than political discussions and resolutions. According to Max Weinreich (himself a Bundist in his youth): “The excess of practical achievements over theoretical clarification can best be seen among the Jewish socialists. Their role in strengthening Yiddish as a written and spoken cultural language is enormous, but they arrived at their role not so much by the logic of a preconceived program as by the logic of events. In the first circles … the language of instruction was exclusively Russian. When the movement … counted its followers in the hundreds,” it moved to “written and spoken agitation in Yiddish.”41 As early as the mid-1890s, interaction of intellectuals, semi-intellectuals, and intellectual workers brought to life the so-called “zhargon committees,” aimed at producing and distributing Yiddish literature in socialist-leaning proletarian circles.42 Activists of the committees usually joined the Bund, following its foundation in 1897. Some of them ultimately became committed Yiddishists, or Ashkenazic nationalists, dreaming about realizing a Diasporic or territorial strategy of building a modern Yiddish-speaking nation. The 1897 census also unwittingly raised the standing of the evreiskii iazyk, or “Jewish language” (which usually implied Yiddish), by listing it among other languages spoken in the empire.

To a considerable degree, Yiddishism developed in the climate of admiration of the “quasi-state” Jewish civil society, of believing that behind its scaffolds one could already see the edifice of modern Jewish nationhood. In 1907, Vladimir Grossman, who later made a career in Yiddish journalism and in working for the ORT, joined the office of the JCA in St. Petersburg. To his surprise, an association of this kind had established itself in the Russian capital, playing an exceptionally dominant role in the life of Russian Jewry and enjoying the respect of government circles. A “component of organized Jewish public life, the Petersburg chapter of the JCA was led and financed by the JCA’s central office in Paris […] and was, in fact, a Jewish government of sorts. […] The ORT organization emerged and developed from this close cooperation with the JCA.”43 A similar thought, also about components of a “Jewish government,” we find in a 1910 article by Jacob Lestschinsky, who mixed scholarship with political activism and at that time was known as the most serious social economist in the Zionist Socialist Workers’ Party. The party sought to direct the emigration from Russia to places of new territorial concentration with the ultimate objective of building a modern Yiddish-speaking socialist statehood.

It is remarkable that without having our own state or state institutions we still have our own bureaucrats who sit in their [state] “departments”: a ministry of finance and industry (JCA), a ministry of education (OPE) […]. It would be wrong to underestimate the role of these “departments.” This is a very original, rather than only peculiar, phenomenon, when organizations that have emerged on the basis of random heirlooms and exist thanks to sponsorship of several rich people make, nonetheless, such an impact on the economic and cultural conditions of a whole community.44
Wolf Latski-Bertoldi, one of the founders and leaders of the Zionist Socialist Workers’ Party, wrote that although the Jewish people did not have an own state, they had a sprawling bureaucracy whose members had not been democratically elected to their positions.45 While Lestschinsky, Latski-Bertoldi, and many other advocates of Yiddish language and culture criticized the Jewish administrative apparatus, they also appreciated its quasi-state role, because it dovetailed with Simon Dubnov’s scheme of Jewish communal autonomy.46 (As Lestschinsky admitted half a century later, their projects of Diasporic Jewish life were based on “the almost child-like faith in the steady advance of human progress and the impending triumph of Democracy throughout the world.”)47 Given the restrictions of the tsarist regime, the parties, which after 1907 shrank to small circles of diehards, often living in emigration, could not compete with the “departments” and other constituents of civil society for key roles in Jewish life in late imperial Russia.

Polarization of opinions concerning the role and status of Jewish languages crossed the boundaries of political currents and entered virtually all components of Jewish civil society. Granted, their discussions about merits and demerits of Yiddish, Hebrew or non-Jewish languages had a limited practical value, because the reality was that the whole structure of Russia’s Jewish civil society simply could not function without Yiddish. Activists of various currents realized that without using Yiddish their ideas could not percolate down to the general population. It’s no coincidence that the 1906 Zionist Congress in Helsinki formulated in its resolutions support for education and other public sphere functions in both Jewish languages, Hebrew and Yiddish.48 The cooperative movement, with hundreds of thousands of its participants, was even less fastidious. The movement had to use the dominant language of the masses for flowing through its network various kinds of information in the form of circular letters, pamphlets, and books.

Although Russian made impressive inroads in the Pale of Jewish Settlement, for the majority of the Jews it remained a foreign language. For instance, a pre-World War I survey in the Belorussian town of Bobruisk of 657 artisans who owned workshops (and were usually better educated than their mates and apprentices) showed that 339 of them could not read Russian. Moreover, the activists who had conducted the survey took its results with a pinch of salt, because some artisans were ashamed to bring to light their Russian illiteracy.49 Characteristically, Jewish troupes which performed in Russian and Hebrew (from 1883, the Yiddish theater was banned in Russia and had to disguise itself as a “German” one), attracted a rather narrow audience.50

A Jewish artisan could find an interesting material in the Yiddish press. The Petersburg Yiddish newspaper Fraynd, which emerged in 1903 as “the first Russian daily in zhargon,” featured a regular rubric entitled “Arteln un kredit-khevres” (Cooperatives and credit associations). The economic department of the paper was edited by Khaim Dov Hurwitz (Horowitz), known also as “A Soykher” (“A Merchant”), a pioneer of economics journalism in Yiddish and head of JCA’s department for savings-and-loan associations. Next year after the czar’s 17 October 1905 manifesto, which significantly liberated the press, five Warsaw-based Yiddish dailies had a combined circulation of ninety-six thousand.51 All Yiddish periodicals regularly provided coverage of events and discussions in cooperatives and other voluntary organizations. In 1913, the editors and publishers of the Warsaw-based Yiddish daily Moment founded a Jewish artisans’ club, similar to the club established in Lodz in 1911 by the Zionist activist Jan Kirschrot.52

Problems of education, general and vocational, also were in the focus of the press. Until 1914, the Russian authorities did not allow non-religious educational institutions to use Yiddish as a language of instruction. Yet, the issue of introducing Yiddish as a language of education began to be discussed in the early 1900s.53 In 1905, Der Tsayt-gayst, the weekly supplement of the New York Yiddish daily Forverts, wrote: “…under the powerful impact of reality, the zhargon has occupied the most important place in intellectual life of Russian Jews. The rise of the language reflects the rise of the nation.”54 The election for the Duma in 1906 and its associated debate about education and languages of instruction also played a role in raising the profile of Yiddish.55 Initially, the Jewish intelligentsia’ drive to Yiddish instruction often had little to do with any national programs/ideas. Rather, the intelligentsia followed the example of other ethnic groups of the empire’s population.56 Gradually, however, Yiddish attracted hundreds of enthusiasts who saw the language as an important, or even the most important, ingredient of modern Jewish nation building. The August 1908 Yiddish language conference in the then-Austro-Hungarian town of Czernowitz signaled that Yiddish had found advocates among representatives of various ideological currents. In 1909 and 1910, the rise in status of Yiddish had triggered the so-called “language wars” between Yiddishists and Hebraists. The December 1909 Hebrew language conference in Berlin, convened on the eve of the Ninth Zionist Congress in Hamburg, was one of the fist episodes in the “war.”57

Following the 1909 Vilna conference of educators working at vocational schools for Jewish girls, Lestschinsky – who advocated teaching in the mother-tongue -- wrote: “The language-related problem forms the foundation of our national life and one can’t avoid facing it in any discussion concerning our society.”58 The civic activist and journalist Joseph Roitberg reported from Kiev a strong interest to Yiddish education.59 By 1909, Yiddish was taught as a subject in some of the Jewish vocational schools for girls in order “to introduce them to modern Yiddish literature.”60 During the sittings of “the parliament of Jewish women,” as the Vilna conference was dubbed, “the question of Yiddish as a language of instruction had provoked hot debates. Some of the participants even demanded to use only Yiddish in the schools, but they remained a minority. Still, it was accepted that Yiddish, the students’ mother language, should be used for explaining serious issues.”61

Since the end of the 1900s, the JCA and the ORT had published methodical literature in Yiddish.62 Preceding the Czernowitz Yiddish Language Conference by over two years, the OPE’s decided to consider Yiddish equal to Hebrew and Russian. The OPE’s decision was initiated by liberals and Zionists, but without Bundists who refused to cooperate with the “antiquated bourgeois” OPE.63 No doubt, the decisions of the essentially non-Yiddishist educators and their sponsors, such as the OPE and the ORT, were in practical term more consequential than the resolutions of the Czernowitz conference, whose impact on the subsequent development of Yiddish was quite limited.64 Granted, OPE activists continued to favor Hebrew in its practical work. Thus, the pioneering Yiddish school in Demievka, then a Kiev suburb with a large Jewish population, could not win the OPE’s financial support, because the OPE’s functionaries and the teachers were an equal match for each other: the school did not give in to the OPE’s demands to introduce Hebrew lessons.65

In August 1913, two hundred Jewish cooperators were among the 1300 delegates of the Second All-Russian Cooperatives’ Congress in Kiev. The Jewish delegates influenced the resolutions of the congress, in particular on the forms of coordination of the cooperative movement. Together with the Ukrainian delegates, the Jewish representatives successfully championed the autonomy of each national group. Although the Ukrainians preferred territorial autonomy, the final resolution reflected the Jewish delegates’ predilection for non-territorial autonomy.66 The Jewish delegates met on the margins of the congress and decided inter alia to establish a commission for propagating ideas of cooperative movement among the Jewish population. The majority of the participants, including representative of the JCA, voted for Yiddish as the language of all publications, including a journal (32 supported this resolution, whereas 24 voted for using both Yiddish and Russian, and 10 preferred Russian as the only language). As a temporary measure, it was decided to use the journal Handl un Melokhe (Commerce and Trade), edited by the socialist educator and journalist Abraham Hersh Kotik (only two issues of this periodical came out in 1913).67 According to Christoph Gassenschmidt, an earlier journal entitled Der Kooperativer Kredit in Mayrev-kant (The Cooperative Credit in the [North-]West Region), was published in Minsk following the 1913 congress.68 In 1914, a new monthly journal, Di Yidishe Kooperatsye (The Jewish Cooperation), began to appear in St. Petersburg.

By that time, the new generation of Jewish activists, whom Barry Trachtenberg calls “the generation of 1905,” became increasingly visible within Jewish civil society. “This was the first generation to take seriously the possibility that Yiddish could serve as a means through which to communicate the entire range of human thought.”69 Representatives of that generation populated the apparatus of the Jewish relief network established during World War I under the umbrella of the Central Jewish Committee for the Relief of War Victims (EKOPO), which combined the efforts of such organizations as JCA and ORT. Among the people employed by this relief structure were scores of enthusiasts of Yiddish, including Wolf Latski-Bertoldi and Jacob Lestschinsky. During the war period, which saw the development of Yiddish schooling, many intellectuals of “the generation of 1905” became educators. In general, the spectacular achievements of Yiddish culture in the 1920s and 1930s would have been impossible without that cadre. “Children” of the 1905 revolution, they also were products of Russia’s Jewish civil society, which formed an environment where the zhargon of the shtetl community transformed into the Yiddish language.

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