Israel’s National Poet
1. Bialik was born in the village of Radi in the Ukraine in January 1873. In 1880, his father died, and he was sent to Zhitomir to be raised by a stern grandfather. He had a traditional Jewish education, but was attracted to enlightenment ideas, which he explored on his own while attending a Talmudic academy in Lithuania.
2. At the age of 18 he went to Odessa, then the center of modern Jewish culture in the Ukraine. He studied Russian and German and earned a living by teaching Hebrew. He joined Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) and was befriended by Ahad Ha’am (see my blog post of April 21), who influenced his Zionism. In 1892, his first poem was published – “El Hatzipor” (To the Bird), a lyric of longing for Zion. His first volume of poetry appeared in 1901, to great critical acclaim.
3. Following the Kishinev pogrom, he was commissioned by the Jewish Historical Society of Odessa to interview survivors. His famous poem “In the City of Slaughter” came out of that experience. It reflects the poet’s anguish at the absence of justice and the indifference of nature, but it also condemns the Jews who did not defend themselves. His bitterness against this passivity is said to have influenced the formation of Jewish self-defense groups across Russia. The degeneration of the Jewish nation in exile and the possibility of a new destiny became hallmarks of Bialik’s national poetry.
4. He visited Palestine for the first time in 1909. He wrote to his wife, “The people regard me as someone worthy of respect, but I know that I am nothing, a nobody.”
5. With a group of friends, he established a Hebrew publishing house which issued classics and school texts. He, himself, translated into Hebrew such texts as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Schiller’s William Tell, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and poetry by Heine. In addition, he edited the poems of Ibn Gabirol (see my post of January 23) and of Moses ben Ezra.
6. With Y.H. Ravnitzky, he published The Book of Legends (Sefer HaAggadah, 1908-11), a 3-volume edition of the folk tales and proverbs scattered through the Talmud and midrashic literature. For him, this project was the ingathering of Jewish literature which he felt would lead to the development of a Jewish national consciousness.
7. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, he obtained permission to leave the country. He moved to Berlin, where he joined a group of well-known authors and publishers who met at the Cafe Monopol, which had a Hebrew-speaking corner. Bialik was a luminary among luminaries in Berlin, which was a center for Yiddish and Hebrew publishing in the early years after the first world war. In January 1923, Bialik’s 50th birthday was celebrated in the old concert hall of the Berlin Philharmonic, bringing together everybody who was anybody.
8. He founded the Dvir publishing house, which was later to put out the first scientific journal in Hebrew.
9. In 1924, he made aliyah and settled in Tel Aviv. He delivered the address that marked the opening of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and he served on its Board. In 1927, he became the head of the Hebrew Writers Union, a position he held for the rest of his life. On his 60th birthday, there were celebrations nationwide, and school children were brought to him to pay their respects.
10. Most of his poetry was written before 1908. In addition to nationalistic poetry calling for a reawakening of the Jewish people, he wrote love poems both tender and passionate, nature poems rich in imagery, and charming songs for children. In his personal poetry, he struggles with the conflicts of modernism, particularly his own ambivalence toward tradition vs. the enlightenment. His poetry is marked by a staggering array of Jewish sources, from the Bible, through Talmud and midrash, to medieval and modern poetry. He quotes, he paraphrases, he uses them in misplaced contexts. For example, his “Scrolls of Fire” (1905), a 9-section prose poem, weaves Talmudic legend, the Song of Songs, memories of a childhood fire, and an extramarital affair.
11. By writing in Hebrew, when it was far from clear that Hebrew would be the language of the Jewish community, he contributed significantly to the revival of the language. He pioneered free verse and prose poetry in modern Hebrew. He was always conscious – as storyteller, editor, publisher, translator, compiler and commentator – of forming a national identity.
12. He died in July 1934 of a heart attack while on a visit to Vienna. His poems have been translated into at least 30 languages and set to music. They are part of the education and culture of modern Israel. Here’s a link to a few of them:
Two streets in Tel Aviv are named after the poet – Bialik Street and Hen Boulevard. In addition, there’s Kiryat Bialik, a suburb of Haifa, and Givat Hen, a moshav bordering Raanana.