I first encountered the name Nathan Birnbaum as a twenty-four-year-old student at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Yarnton, an agrestic English village a few miles north of the city of Oxford. I was enrolled in a class on Yiddish linguistics and had been assigned an essay by linguist Joshua Fishman from his book devoted to Birnbaum. Sitting with my classmates around a seminar table in an ancient wood-paneled room, part of the Jacobean manor that houses the center, we learned of the unusual decision made by this German-speaking cultural Zionist to embrace Yiddish as the foundation for a national renaissance midway through his life. In this unlikely setting in which to encounter an unlikely man, something about Birnbaum’s embrace of Yiddish piqued my interest. It was strange that a Zionist would be involved in a project that sought to bolster the cultural reputation of Yiddish, a language many of his colleagues dismissed as a demeaning badge of exile. After class I asked the professor what he knew about Nathan Birnbaum, and although I have forgotten the precise response, a few of the words stuck with me. As he put it, Birnbaum was indeed one of the first Zionists, he had organized the 1908 Czernowitz Yiddish conference (the topic of discussion in our seminar that day), and then he “founded the Agudas Yisroel.”
That last bit caught my attention. Founded the Agudath Israel? I was incredulous. Of course I knew the Agudah; the first widely successful Orthodox political party, it was (so far as I understood) anti-Zionist—indeed, it had been founded in large part in explicit opposition to Zionism. I thought the professor was mistaken; in my mind, no category existed at that time that would have made such a career feasible. Perhaps there was some other Agudath Israel; a rather generic name (Union of Israel), it could conceivably have been the name of some other organization lost among the dozens of Jewish political groups that appeared and vanished in pre-Holocaust Europe. But if it was the Agudah that he was talking about, it wasn’t the accuracy of the statement that sparked my skepticism but the transformation that, if true, such a change represented. In my mind, identities in the history of Jewish politics were fixed. Once individuals had made their mark in one area, there they remained. They may disappear, or their envisioned utopia may or may not come to pass (almost always the latter); they may survive their deaths remembered as important figures or be forgotten as insignificant ones, but, if anything, they were consistent.
What had not occurred to me then but seems so obvious now was how commonplace my attitude was. In fact, it is the default assumption of much biography and intellectual history. As writers and readers, we are interested in movement toward a goal. We like stories of people we know in the process of assuming their final, familiar form that makes them worthy of scholarly attention to begin with. If what my professor had said was true, Birnbaum was a marked challenge to this tendency. And what became clear to me after only a quick glance through Birnbaum’s few traces in the historiography of Jewish politics was that my professor was only partially incorrect. In fact, aside from a small detail (Birnbaum didn’t “found” the Agudah, but he did play an important role in its early executive) my professor was wrong only in that he understated both the profundity of Birnbaum’s transformations and the mark he had made upon each group in which he made his home. He was a legitimate founder of Zionism (and the man who literally coined the name of the movement—“Zionism”) some thirteen years before Theodor Herzl appeared as a Jewish nationalist; president of the Czernowitz Yiddish Language Conference; a major presence, ultimately, in the Agudath Israel, the first viable international Orthodox political organization. Each change was more surprising than the last, not the least because in each one, remarkably, Birnbaum’s conversion was followed axiomatically by his being welcomed to a leadership role with little difficulty.
The more I learned about Birnbaum, the more fascinated I became. The next year, I turned to Birnbaum with more attention. I was especially captivated by his last, most mysterious period, which few who had written about Birnbaum discussed in any depth: his turn to politicized, conservative religious Orthodoxy.1 This change was his most radical transformation. Several aspects of this turn in Birnbaum’s life attracted my interest, but the most compelling was my desire to understand the process that led to his decision to become religious, or a ba’al teshuva in Orthodox vernacular. By doing so, Birnbaum made an impossibly rare and daring decision for the early twentieth century. While religiosity is always a complex measure of identity—usually the categories blithely thrown about (religious, secular, Orthodox, traditional, and so forth) are weak shorthand for an innumerable variety of beliefs and practices—there is no question that the breadth of Birnbaum’s transformation was shockingly wide for its time and place. To a Jewish nationalist in the years before the destruction of European Jewry and the creation of the State of Israel, and even more as a committed fin de siècle rationalist, religious belief was no innocuous personal choice. From the perspective of many Jewish nationalists, the religion in which most had been steeped was at the very least an irrelevant distraction from the pressing needs of the Jewish people. Usually, though, it was viewed far more severely as a delusion that prolonged injustice within the Jewish community and blinded Jews to imminent threats to their survival. From the religious side, Jewish nationalism was considered no less than a competing form of core Jewish identity. Zionism was judged to be particularly pernicious: usurping the holiness of the Land of Israel to build a secular Jewish nation-state was, for many, heresy in its most egregious form.
Birnbaum’s turn to Orthodoxy, then, represented more than simply a religious awakening (although it was that, too). It was a fundamental change in the intellectual orientation that had directed his entire adult life. Despite this fraught intellectual climate, and for reasons no one had bothered to seriously explain, Birnbaum opted for this dramatic change. I wanted to understand, as much as could be done, why he made this decision. And even more compelling was that Birnbaum’s story was more than an unusual tale of one man’s spiritual quest, no matter how interesting it was. Within about a year of it becoming publicly known that he had become religious, Nathan Birnbaum was recruited into one of the most important political organizations in the Orthodox world, the Agudath Israel. Not just recruited, I would learn, but thrust quite enthusiastically into the spotlight by the movement’s leaders, his name recognition used as a tool for building the young organization, the story of his teshuva touted as a vindication of the eternal relevance of Orthodoxy and Torah, in particular against the Zionism from which he had come.
What began as a seminar paper quickly turned into a much larger project. I discovered that the embrace of Orthodoxy was but one of several significant transformations in a remarkably productive and dynamic life. More to the point, I discovered early that Nathan Birnbaum lived his full life in absolutes. As a precocious law student of seventeen, he committed himself to an ideology—Jewish nationalism—that guaranteed him pariah status among most of his classmates. Although a simple idea and one now taken largely for granted, that the Jewish people should consider themselves a national group and make their demands based upon that identity, in the Vienna of 1882, capital of a still absolutist Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was deeply suspect. At the very least it appeared brazenly ungrateful; most Jews of Birnbaum’s milieu considered themselves lucky, the recipients of largesse in the form of rights granted by Emperor Franz Josef almost unheard of in eastern and central European Jewish history. A decade and a half later, convinced that the vainglorious Theodor Herzl would destroy the Zionist movement, Birnbaum willingly sacrificed the influence he had garnered in the movement by leaving it. And when he turned in his last decades to religion, having opened his eyes (as he described it) just as surely and fully as he had to Jewish nationalism in his youth, he saw his notion through to its logical end: that this nation was uniquely chosen by virtue of its divine mission. In acknowledging that the Jews were bearers of this truth by virtue of their observance of divine command, he felt he had little choice.
Unfortunately, this remarkable life has proved to be of limited interest to Jewish historians. To the extent that he has been remembered in the broader academic literature, it is as a marginal figure, a difficult man, a minor contributor to modern Jewish history. A classic example of his reputation is offered by biographer Ernst Pawel. In Pawel’s estimation, Birnbaum was little more than a purveyor of “venomous anti-Zionism and ultra-Orthodoxy” who, among a “little band of uncommonly contentious and opinionated individuals,” was “hot-tempered” and “the most volatile and aggressive.”2 Of course, Birnbaum is hardly the only person in the querulous world of Jewish history whose contribution to the European Jewish experience in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been underestimated. But others whose luster has required polish, such as Ahad Ha’am, Moses Hess, or Leopold Zunz, have all had their defenders who have appropriately amplified their voices to ensure their continued legacies. But Nathan Birnbaum has had few such defenders. Precious few have assigned the appropriate significance to the massive volume of articles, essays, and manifestos produced by Birnbaum (which dwarfed those of Ahad Ha’am or Herzl in terms of the length of time they span, the subjects discussed, and the readership they garnered).
It could be argued that Birnbaum’s contribution was simply not significant or original enough to justify documenting in detail, despite its volume. But this reading does not take into account the fact that his contemporaries perceived him as one of the central creative forces in the embryonic development of at least three major manifestations of Jewish political life in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Zionism, autonomous Jewish nationalism, and Orthodox political organization. In the early years of his career, he was considered one of the founders not just of Zionism but of multiple forms of Jewish nationalism. As a journalist and essayist, known widely as the incisive, sometimes abrasive, but always uncompromising Mathias Acher, he was read widely and contributed to a staggering number of Jewish periodicals in central Europe—several of which, like the first Jewish nationalist periodical in the German language, Selbst-Emancipation, he founded and edited himself.3 He was sought out as a public figure across Europe and as an authority on Jewish national and cultural matters, his name featured in the popular “Jewish folksong evenings” from Vienna and Berlin to Prague and Krakow; he appeared as an invited lecturer throughout the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and German Empires and as far afield as New York’s Lower East Side. His name alone was famous enough that, in 1907, it could draw crowds of thousands in cities and towns across Galicia as he traveled the region, making campaign whistle-stops in his fight for a seat in the Austrian Reichsrat. When, at the age of fifty, he abandoned secular nationalism for religious Orthodoxy, his fame preceded him. After a very short period of full religious observance, he was ushered into the upper echelons of the most powerful Orthodox political party in Europe, the Agudath Israel. Because of his fame, he was thrust onto the stage as an organizer and public relations figure for the fledgling movement, traveling across Europe and even to North America. Throughout his life he was read, respected, admired, sometimes disliked, but almost always present in the Jewish public eye and mind.
The broad details of his life aside, there exist also any number of testimonies by friends and associates, both those who loved and despised him, who knew him intimately and distantly, that reveal again and again his presence. Let us consider just a sampling. Josef Maisl, an early follower, wrote of him: “In the chain that went from [Moses] Hess through [Leon] Pinsker through Herzl, Nathan Birnbaum created one of the most important links.”4 Berthold Feiwel, an important figure in early Zionist culture and politics, described the impression Birnbaum made on him as a young man: “I remember distinctly what his form and his effect for us was. . . . He was the first. And when the movement for national rebirth became a reality for the first time, it is impossible to forget, because he forged the path . . . and earned the thanks of his people; although he has revised and renewed his decisions constantly to be true to himself, it is he, Nathan Birnbaum, [whose] name remains nothing less than our symbol and lodestar.”5 Theodor Herzl, entirely ignorant of Birnbaum and his thirteen years’ worth of Zionist writing that came before Der Judenstaat, found to his frustration that he had no choice but to appease, and then try to co-opt, Birnbaum and his supporters in order to succeed in creating a mass Zionist movement. But as powerful as the reactions were to Birnbaum from those in the inner circles of Jewish nationalism, more compelling perhaps are those of figures on its fringes but who are remembered on a far wider stage. Franz Kafka, whose sparse meditations on Judaism have become far more prized in the popular imagination, compared Birnbaum’s nationalist ideals favorably to the “tepid” thoughts on Jewish peoplehood of Martin Buber.6 No less a canonic figure of Jewish intellectual history than Franz Rosenzweig, for whom Birnbaum’s turn to religiosity resonated and was an inspiration for his own, regarded him as “the living exponent of Jewish intellectual history.”7
But after his death in 1937, Birnbaum largely disappeared from historical memory. On the rare occasion that he is noted over the last fifty years of academic Jewish historiography, it is usually superficially and carelessly.8 His role in early Zionism is usually mentioned in passing, only in brief reference to his conflict with Herzl or in accounting the history of the word “Zionism.” His leadership in the First Yiddish Language Conference in Czernowitz, then but one of many of Birnbaum’s experiments, draws for the most part only the parochial interest of Yiddishists and linguists. The years after 1908 are hardly written of at all; indeed, it is fair to say that his last two decades, which he regarded as the apotheosis of his life’s work, are completely absent from modern Jewish historiography. In his time a dynamic and powerful figure on the Jewish nationalist scene, after his death he quickly faded, the significance of his lifetime of work neglected.
If there is any trend in Birnbaum’s mark on the historical record, it is that his is a cautionary tale. Those histories that discuss Birnbaum often cite the fact that he seemed to change his mind, as though his commitment to more than one idea during his life tainted and cheapened his contribution to any. First he was a Zionist, then a quasi-socialist nationalist, finally an Orthodox anti-Zionist and antisocialist; first an advocate of Hebrew and a Jewish state in Palestine, then of Yiddish and Jewish autonomy in eastern Europe, before discarding both to create a metaphysical nation of believers. With so many intellectual twists and turns, it is not surprising that his legacy is difficult to pin down. But this explanation does not account for the degree of erasure his legacy has suffered. On the surface, Birnbaum seemed to exhibit little consistency in his ideology; however, he was far from the only Jewish political thinker of his time plagued by an apparent ideological fickleness. Several of his contemporaries, none more prolific or influential in their time than he, changed their minds and allegiances yet were ultimately accorded a significant place in Jewish history. One need only consider such figures as the journalist and editor Abraham Cahan, a one-time utopian agrarian socialist and member of the Am Olam settlers, who abandoned his political position radically and openly as he made his own place on the American Jewish scene. Chaim Zhitlovsky underwent similar transformations, as did Yosef Hayim Brenner. Theodor Herzl himself, had he not undergone a conversionary shift in his thought, would likely be remembered only as a footnote in fin de siècle Viennese history, a gifted columnist but one creatively inferior to his contemporary Karl Kraus; a playwright, but one who suffered by comparison with competitors for the Viennese stage Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Arthur Schnitzler.9 Yet all of them are accorded more serious scrutiny and respect than Birnbaum. This is not a fate he deserves.
Clearly, Birnbaum was a figure who mattered to his contemporaries. This fact alone justifies serious engagement with his work, if only to come to some understanding of the reason for both his popularity and subsequent disappearance. As for the latter question, there is one reason, not often mentioned, that accounts a great deal for his disappearance: he lost. In a pattern repeated time after time, Birnbaum was a groundbreaking leader and pioneer in how he thought about the Jewish people and nation—be it in his conception of Zionism, autonomous nationalism, the embrace of Yiddish as a modern Jewish national vernacular, even in his novel approach to religion once he embraced Orthodoxy. Yet he too often picked the wrong approach, chose the wrong moment, offended the wrong people. Ahad Ha’am’s comment about Theodor Herzl—“fortunate in life and fortunate in death”—if inverted, perfectly describes Birnbaum.10 He was unlucky enough to embrace Zionism before the time was ripe in Vienna to spur a mass movement; unlucky, once it was, to rub the one person who could render him irrelevant to organized Zionism, Theodor Herzl, exactly the wrong way; unlucky to run for the Austrian Reichsrat in a district where the illegal election tactics of the Polish political machine worked. Finally, he was unlucky enough to embrace a worldview at the end of his life that, due to the course of historical events and the nature of Jewish historiography, almost guaranteed him posthumous obscurity.
But as each of his choices shows, even if he was frustrated at times by his luck, it was never his main concern. Rather, his deepest preoccupation was always, as Berthold Feiwel noted, that the ideology or tactic he embraced was true to his innermost belief. This does not mean that he was uninterested in public opinion or in garnering a following. On the contrary, he cared deeply about finding the authentic reserve of a common Jewish peoplehood that, once tapped, would naturally call others to his way of thinking. And in a way, he succeeded in doing so, though not as he would have liked or even perceived. In the end, what he might have seen as his greatest failure—to ever see one of his ideas embraced by a majority of the Jewish people—reflected his greatest discovery: European Jewry in the early twentieth century had not one but many deep reserves, many streams of commitment and ideology, all fundamental to Jewish existence. When Rosenzweig referred to Birnbaum as the living exponent of history, he was right on more than one level. On the surface, Birnbaum not only belonged to but often led in many of the major intellectual trends of pre- and interwar European Jewry. More deeply, though, he had an innate, if unconscious, sense, an instinctive drive to seek out and explore in the deepest and most intimate way the meaning of these many trends in his voluminous writings. This quality is of unique importance to Jewish historiography. Here is a man who participated and reflected, constantly, obsessively even, on his intellectual path from his youth, who was not afraid to reexamine his beliefs, even to contradict himself. It is a rare and valuable story, all the more so for its being unconscious on his part.
While the vicissitudes of Birnbaum’s life and legacy are crucial in understanding his elision from Jewish historiography, as well as the importance of ushering him back in, there is another factor contributing to his absence. This is related to his final intellectual choice: the embrace of Orthodoxy in his last decades. Every historiographic discipline has blind spots and weaknesses, and until relatively recently, modern Jewish history has shown a marked discomfort in dealing with Orthodoxy as a modern phenomenon. As Gershon Bacon, historian of Orthodox politics and the Agudath Israel has noted, this has shown itself in the form of reluctance by earlier generations of Jewish historians to confront seriously the “dark force” of Orthodoxy:
The historiography of East European Jewry does not question the survival of traditional Jewish society into the twentieth century. Having stated this, standard historical treatments of East European Jewry proceed to focus almost exclusively on those modernist movements which aimed to overturn or modify the existing order in Jewish society. . . . Whether out of identification with the movements they describe or due to the influence of sources at their disposal, historians have tended to assimilate the views of the opponents of Orthodoxy, who viewed the traditionalists in monolithic terms as a dark force which failed to understand that its time had passed.11
Mirroring general post-Enlightenment trends, modern Jewish thought has assumed that traditional society was in an irresistible state of decline and that when it finally collapsed, so would its religious traditions. Because of its political quietism and passivity, its seemingly outmoded ideology, it would eventually be swept away by the torrents of modernity to be replaced entirely by other, modern forms of Jewish identity. Carried over into the historiography of modern European Jewry, these assumptions have had a major impact on the ways that traditional Jews, a plurality, even a majority in central and eastern European Jewry before the Holocaust, have been understood. Despite their huge numbers and complex and varied cultural expressions, Orthodox and traditional Jews after the turn of the nineteenth century have been either ignored or essentialized. Not willing to or capable of accommodating themselves to modernity, nothing was left for them but to fade into obscurity.
It is precisely for this reason that Nathan Birnbaum poses a difficult problem. A friend and inspiration to many of the cultural heroes of modern Jewish history, he ended his life deeply engrossed in a group considered anathema to modern Jewish intellectual life. On the surface, his story is improbable: he epitomized the dynamism, even radicalism of modernist Jewish thought, yet in the end he rejected it in favor of the group from which his intellectual peers had by and large fled. Had this journey to belief been tempered, and displayed more overtly as a process of complex philosophical evolution, it might have been considered more seriously. As it was, the incomprehensibility of Birnbaum’s case to the modernist was compounded by the form his Orthodox Jewish praxis took. It found its most public expression in the Agudath Israel, a political movement seen as the model of everything negative about traditional Jewish life in Europe from a modernist perspective. It was an organization that aimed from its inception to undermine exactly the secular Jewish nationalism for which Birnbaum was most loyally remembered. In the interwar period, the Agudah lobbied vigorously to impede the progress of Zionism everywhere, from Poland to Palestine. It eschewed the overt activism considered more “honorable” among the revolutionary-minded modernists and embraced behind-the-scenes negotiation, reminiscent of traditional shdatlanut. It took every opportunity in the political realm to block the growth of non-Orthodox institutions and initiatives in Europe and Palestine and transgressed and disparaged all the advances into modernity that secular Jewish ideology felt it had made. While the motives of the Agudah were sincere and deserve to be considered on their own merits, it is not difficult to understand how Birnbaum’s movement into the Agudah was more than a mere change of political convictions in the eyes of secular Jewish nationalists. It was a complete betrayal of them.
But as Jewish history itself has developed since the end of the Second World War, the Orthodox-secular Kulturkampf, although still extant, has taken on other forms. The stakes have changed; the Jewish historian, by and large, is less embattled and in need of defending the foundations of the discipline. This has created a new opening for the examination of groups, such as the Orthodox, that have been left out of the historiographic record. Beginning with the work of Jacob Katz, historians, including Israel Bartal, Immanuel Etkes, Gershon Bacon, Shaul Stampfer, David Assaf, Marc Shapiro, and Michael Silber, have begun to produce a broad and vital historiography of Orthodoxy and traditional Jewry since the turn of the nineteenth century. Particularly in the Israeli academy, Orthodoxy in all its facets has become a field of sustained inquiry. Etkes’s work on the Gaon of Vilna and the traditional roots of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah), Stampfer’s work on the history of the yeshiva world and its origins in Lithuania, and Bacon’s work on the development of the Agudath Israel have all exerted influence on widening the scope of modern Jewish cultural and intellectual history to include serious consideration of the Orthodox. Due to this new trend of interest, Jewish historiography has moved toward a more sustained assessment of Orthodoxy. Historians have begun the task of excavating its culture and understanding it on a broad and detailed scale. It is no longer enough to dismiss figures who chose a worldview that was perceived to run against the grain of Jewish history; increasingly, they must instead be woven into the fabric of the larger Jewish experience.
Liberated from the bias of past Jewish historiography, historians are better able to deal with the complexities of a figure like Birnbaum and more fairly examine all periods of his life, opening up a renewed consideration of his Orthodoxy as a modern intellectual choice in its own right. Upon close examination, Birnbaum’s turn to religious belief can easily be viewed in continuity with the rest of his thought. This is not an entirely novel point: Steven Aschheim, in his study of German and eastern European Jewish cultural relations, points out that Birnbaum’s turn to Orthodoxy can convincingly be viewed as the “logical conclusion” of a lifetime of fascination with eastern European Jewish “authenticity.”12 Birnbaum certainly took his decision seriously and considered it deeply. His transformation was no whim but a highly cerebral and serious act thought out over several years. In his own description, increasingly dissatisfied with the “materialism” of his ideology, he began to search for answers. “I was attached by only a thread to disbelief, that last thread of the materialistic web of rationality I had woven around my soul. But that thread itself was unbelievably strong. . . . I just did not have the certainty of God. . . . Thus years passed until the day came—I do not remember anymore which day it was—that the thread was rent, as if by itself, and I knew God.”13
In his own mind religious belief was the consummation of several long-held preoccupations: the search for authenticity in eastern European, Yiddish-speaking Jewry; the desire for a foundation, a transcendent idea upon which to peg the essence of Jewish identity; and the political base from which to launch a grand organization of world Jewry. In turn, the gravity with which his Orthodox belief was taken by figures within Orthodoxy is even greater evidence of its significance. After a mere year and a half Birnbaum was brought into the Agudah and given a visible and instrumental role in the spread of its institutions in eastern Europe. Once Birnbaum entered Orthodoxy, he was a minor tour de force; many well-grounded and savvy Orthodox figures, rabbis, and lay leaders sought immediately to engage him and use him as a symbol of the religious renaissance possible among secular Jews. His writings on Orthodoxy were as important to his new constituency as those on nationalism had been to his old. As such, contrary to the old assumption of Jewish historiography, it is Birnbaum’s turn to Orthodoxy, his embrace of religious belief as one in a string of quintessentially modern ideologies, that makes him even more interesting.
The magnitude of the loss that Birnbaum’s elision from Jewish historiography has meant thus becomes clearer. But there are still other factors that make his story a crucial addition to it. One is the result of yet another accident of history: the survival of nearly all of Birnbaum’s papers. Although his story would be important regardless, its significance is compounded by the fact that we have in him an amalgamation of documentary evidence greater, perhaps, than that of any other figure of his milieu. Unlike many—most—whose legacies were wiped out by the disaster of the Second World War, Birnbaum’s entire written life has been preserved by his descendants. Squirreled away in the basement of an unassuming suburban home in Toronto is virtually every scrap of paper relevant to Nathan Birnbaum’s life, every letter he received, every draft of every speech he made or essay he published, along with the publications themselves, and scores of photographs of him and his family taken during his life. Birnbaum’s eldest son, Solomon Asher, who, like his father, adopted Orthodoxy as an adult during the First World War, was an academic and careful custodian of his father’s legacy. When Nathan and his wife moved to Scheveningen in 1933, Solomon Asher and his family moved to London; when his father died in 1937, he secured and protected his father’s library and all of his papers. Thus was this unique collection of materials preserved. After an ocean crossing when the family relocated to Toronto in the 1960s, the materials, collected along with Solomon’s own papers into the Nathan and Solomon Birnbaum Family Archive, found quiet repose and have been only lightly used by scholars until now. The depth and importance of this archive cannot easily be exaggerated. Aside from complete editions of most of the newspapers Birnbaum was involved in editing and to which he contributed, there are shelves of files that contain as complete a set of articles about Birnbaum written during his life and after as possible (and Nathan Birnbaum’s grandson David, who maintains the archive, continues to add materials when they appear). The file cabinets of letters, numbering in the tens of thousands, contain missives from figures ranging from Theodor Herzl to Franz Rosenzweig to S. Y. Agnon to Ahad Ha’am—among dozens of other correspondents whose writings are of equal importance. Thousands upon thousands of pages of brown newsprint, oblong and covered with Birnbaum’s unmistakable script, sit carefully filed away in boxes, documenting draft upon draft of everything Birnbaum wrote, untouched for decades. Scribblings, poems, personal notes, even the typescript of three one-act plays, inflected with fin de siècle expressionist artifice and Ibsenian melodrama, no doubt written in a quiet moment after his young sons were put to bed late at night in Birnbaum’s Leopoldstadt flat, are all collected together in one remarkable home. Without the generosity of access to the materials provided by the Birnbaum family and their time in answering my questions, which continue to this day, in particular from David and his wife, Jytte, this book could not have been written.
This same wealth of material and richness of Birnbaum’s life experience give understanding his intellectual life an even deeper importance. It is not limited to Birnbaum alone but is the product of the genre of the intellectual biography. In the introduction to Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey describes the biography as a little bucket “which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen” from the sea of historical information, which can be “carefully and curiously” examined in order to discover historical truth in the modern age. In the modern age, with its overwhelming amalgamation of information impossible for any historian to understand comprehensibly, it falls to the historian to adopt “a subtler strategy. He will attack his subject in unexpected places, he will fall upon the flank, or the rear; he will shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto undivined.”14 While Strachey underestimates the possibilities of historical scholarship, his observation remains useful. The study of a discrete subject, particularly of an individual, remains an unparalleled aperture into the fabric of history. Plutarch’s portraits give us insight, even with their flaws, that cannot be garnered from the narratives of Herodotus and Thucydides; in the modern era, Boswell weaves a tapestry of unparalleled color and detail, so much so that the fame of his study of Samuel Johnson has surpassed that of its subject in popular and academic interest. In the twentieth-century proliferation of biography, the genre has proved again and again its instrumentality in understanding the course of history. Today, as historians have largely eschewed the grand synthesis of their predecessors with a preference for microscopic detail, be it the history of a given small group, a city, an object, or an idea, the individual has remained the standard entrée to an intimate portrait of an epoch. And the reason for its success and perseverance as a method of history is, exactly as Strachey writes, its usefulness in casting an oblique light into history’s corners, revealing details otherwise obscured.
As much as this is true about biography in general, it is all the more the case with the study of those marginalized by history, where a figure such as Birnbaum in particular becomes a crucial subject of historical investigation. As his case shows, the saga of such a figure is seldom happy. Those whom history remembers as its central actors pass easily into immortality; though the nature of their significance in the world is discussed and analyzed, it is always taken for granted. To their lives and legacy scholars devote volumes; even the most insignificant residue they leave behind receives intense scrutiny. As Andrew Delbanco in a biography of Herman Melville notes with some amusement, the stature of Melville is such that even an obscure photograph of the author on Staten Island provokes pages of discussion and debate—even though the picture likely does not depict Melville at all. If, as Strachey asserts, the individual life can cast light into the forgotten corners of history, so much more does the marginal occluded figure, who leaves little of his own shadow over historiography. This figure provides a nuance in his illumination that principal actors cannot duplicate, detailed relief that has the potential of changing the interpretation of events radically. In some cases, especially those in which it is not the contemporary importance of the figure that is in question but the individual’s place as it has filtered through a sometimes flawed historical record, this potential is huge.
In Jewish historiography, the searchlight of biography has a long and distinguished past. In this discipline, the individual life story has proved to be a tool of understanding that lends significant texture to almost all its periods. Yet it has been singularly lacking in the academic study of Orthodox Jewry, and it is here, arguably, that it may make a great contribution. And as true as this is for the study of individual Orthodox figures in general, so much more so is it the case with a liminal figure such as Birnbaum. For Nathan Birnbaum, the light of his intellectual biography is particularly bright. His life intersected with and had an impact upon many important figures and events, but its trace has been lost due to the forgetfulness of historians. Even more astonishing, his whole life’s history, both in his own words and in the words of his friends and contacts, is preserved in one comprehensive and accessible archive.
The reasons for many of the most important choices Birnbaum made in his life will forever be mysteries: why he turned to Jewish nationalism at such a young age and with such tenacity; why, at a time when he had significant support and had built a legacy over a decade in the Zionist movement, he threw it all away rather than find a means to work within the movement; why he was never able to parlay the wide respect he earned as a voice of authority and moderation within the Jewish nationalist camp into a more tangible accomplishment. And of course, the biggest why: why he turned his back on the “materialist” worldview he had held until middle age, replacing it with an almost messianic religious conviction, one he maintained faithfully until his death. The questions are not answerable in any sort of rational or scientific way; they are the personal debates and discussions that occur in the innermost self. It is not the job, or the right of the outsider, even the historian, to answer them; and any attempt to do so will inevitably appear cheap and tentative compared to the awesome depth of the individual life and its convictions.
As interesting as these questions are, answering them is not the most important goal of a deep study of Birnbaum. Rather, his intellectual portrait will bring to the surface a constellation of ideas and images of modern Jewish history that have long been submerged. The sheer volume and completeness of the archive provide a unique level of access to the mind of a significant modern Jewish intellectual figure. Aside from the details of Birnbaum’s life themselves—who he was, what he wrote, whom he encountered—it will cast light upon why these very details made him so compelling a figure in his day. This alone is an essential function, for it will enable us to understand the motives of his contemporaries as well as his own. Additionally, by uncovering and analyzing the details of his later life, hitherto ignored, we can lend to Birnbaum’s story understanding of a little-understood, yet increasingly important, phenomenon: the embrace of traditional, Orthodox religious philosophies and categories as one possible choice for a modern intellectual. Finally, and most important, his story provides a uniquely powerful account of depths of not one but many of the central intellectual trends of modern Jewish culture and politics. If inconsistent on the surface, this was the one deep consistency of his intellectual life that makes him uniquely valuable to Jewish historiography: a commitment to pursuing with all his means his deepest sense of personal authenticity, regardless of where it took him.