Saul Tschernichowsky

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Saul Tschernichowsky

The Hebrew poet, translator, and physician Saul Tschernichowsky (1875-1943) was one of the fathers of modern Hebrew poetry.

Saul Tschernichowsky was born in Mikilovka in the Crimea. He was educated in a small town where liberal religious attitudes prevailed. At the age of five he studied Russian, and at 7 he took up Hebrew. Even as a youth, he was well read in the works of modern Hebrew literature, as well as in Russian literature. He soon mastered English, French, and German. In 1890 he went to Odessa and studied in a private business school. There he met literary critic and editor Joseph Klausner, who later published accounts of their first meetings. In 1894 he began translating Longfellow's Hiawatha and Evangeline. Two years later he completed his studies at the school, having mastered both Greek and Latin. It was then that he translated the poetry of Anacreon and the Symposium of Plato.

In 1899 the first collection of Tschernichowsky's poetry, Visions and Melodies, appeared, to which was added a second part in 1901. Between 1899 and 1904 he studied medicine at Heidelberg, and it was there that he wrote some of his most celebrated poems, such as "Baruch of Mainz" and "In the Presence of the Sea." In 1903 he went to Lausanne and in 1907 received his medical degree. That year he returned to Russia, only to be imprisoned for 6 weeks as a political suspect. Following his incarceration he wrote "My Imprisonment" and "All Is Shattered." He practiced medicine in the villages for 3 years, while managing to continue his writing. A visit to Finland prompted him to translate the Finnish epic Kalevala.

During World War I Tschernichowsky served as a military doctor. In 1919 he took up residence in Odessa, where he completed his translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In 1922 he traveled to Germany, where his translation of the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh and Sophocles's Oedipus Rex appeared. Between 1924 and 1934 his collected works were published in 10 volumes. He emigrated to Palestine in 1931, residing first in Jerusalem and later in Tel Aviv, where he practiced medicine in the municipal hospital. His last volume of poetry, Behold, Oh Land, was awarded the Bialik Prize in 1940. In 1942 his Thirty-three Short Stories appeared, and after his death an anthology of his poems entitled Distant Stars in the Heaven was published (1944).

The poetry of Tschernichowsky is the poetry of life, light, love, courage, and beauty. It abounds in a timeless energy which seeks out beauty and a perfected life of both physical and spiritual courage. He is a man closely tied to nature, in all its aspects. He sees nature as the real world of the poet, the soil nourishing his life: "I am the bud of a wildflower warmly kissed by drops of dew." He strongly identified with the natural world, and his poetry abounds in admiration for the wellsprings of strength and beauty to be found there.

The underlying philosophy of Tschernichowsky's poetry may be described as pantheistic. He is wholly committed to both the spiritual and natural life of the Patriarchs, and their spirit resounds in much of his work. He seeks the ideal Israelite from among the ancient Hebrews, a vigorous people with a wrathful god.

Further Reading

A comprehensive introduction to Tschernichowsky's poetry and a selection of his work in translation are in Eisig Silberschlag, Saul Tschernichowsky: Poet of Revolt (1968). A more general background on modern Hebrew literature is in Simon Halkin, Modern Hebrew Literature (1950; new ed. 1970), which includes a short chapter on the poetry of Tschernichowsky. □

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Saul Tschernichowsky

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