NathanBirnbaumNathan Birnbaum and Jewish Modernity : Architect of Zionism, Yiddishism, and Orthodoxy, by Jess Olson. Stanford University Press, 2013.

In this volume, Dr. Jess Olson, Associate Professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University, presents us with a study of Dr. Nathan Birnbaum’s involvement in various and disparate elements of the modern Jewish experience.  Olson analyzes Birnbaum’s impact on the Zionist movement (Birnbaum coined the word “Zionist”); he describes Birnbaum’s  role in the Jewish cultural autonomy movement which resulted in the First International Yiddish Language Conference;  and he provides us with an exhaustive portrayal of Birnbaum the Baal Teshuva, the orthodox Jew and leader in the Agudath Israel movement.

Olson succeeds in shedding much new light on the final chapter in Birnbaum’s life, a period of particular interest to the YU reader.  Using the Birnbaum family archives in Toronto, a unique archive that chronicles the complete career of this important personality, Olson uncovered correspondence between Birnbaum and orthodox leaders and activists, including Rabbi Tuvia Horowitz of Sanok, Poland, and Mr. Jacob Rosenheim, leader of the World Agudath Israel.
Olson also helps us to understand Birnbaum the spiritual master who tried to create a unique Jewish spiritual grouping called Oylim, a fellowship devoted to spiritual growth and Jewish renewal within an orthodox framework.

In addition to a well-documented study of Birnbaum the Zionist, the linguist, the political leader who was a candidate for the Austrian parliament, the Baal Teshuva, the leader of the Agudath Israel, Olson offers us a window into the inner life of a spiritual seeker, an organic figure who is striving for meaning as a Jew in modern times.

Posted by Zalman Alpert.


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