Hayyim Nahman Bialik

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Hayyim Nahman Bialik

The Russian-born author Hayyim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934) was the foremost Hebrew poet of modern time. He expressed the sentiments of his Jewish contemporaries, who had left the ghetto in search of a new way of life based on Judaism.

Hayyim N. Bialik was born in Radi, a village in the province of Volhynia, Russia. When he was 5, the family moved to the larger town of Zhitomir. His father, a pious man, eked out a living as a tavern keeper. At the counter he kept open a holy book, which he studied between serving drinks. His father died when Bialik was 7, and to support the family his mother spent her days peddling and her nights knitting. Bialik later wrote of her sorrowful lot in his poem "My Song."

At 16 Bialik was sent to the famous Talmudical academy of Volozhin, where he studied until 1891, when the czarist government closed the school. At this time Bialik began reading modern Jewish literature avidly and studied the Russian and German languages. During his last year at the academy, he published his first poem, "To the Bird," which expressed the intense longing of a suffering people for its ancient homeland.

By 1900 Bialik moved to Odessa, which was a center for modern Jewish literary activity. The poet soon became the moving spirit of a distinguished circle, which included the eminent novelist Mendele Mocher Sefarim and the philosopher and essayist Ahad Haam. In 1903 Bialik became coeditor of the leading Hebrew monthly, Ha-Shiloach. During this period he published poetry, short novels marked by earthy realism and humor (Aryeh, the Gross; Behind the Fence), and autobiographical sketches (Aftergrowth)

In 1903 Bialik went to Kishinev, Bessarabia, to report on the pogroms that had taken place there. Deeply shaken by this experience, he wrote his famous poem "In the City of Slaughter." This work not only described poignantly the terror and devastation of the pogrom but also castigated the victims for their passivity and timidity in face of the onslaught. It aroused Jewish youth to take up arms in self-defense against the anti-Semitic attacks in the turbulent days that followed the unsuccessful Russian revolution in 1905. "In the City of Slaughter" was the first of a series of poems, prophetic in mood and style, which marked the period of "sorrow and wrath" in Bialik's creativity. In "The Last Word," "Summon the Serpents," "Out of the Depth," and "The Scroll of Fire," he bewailed the lot of his people, whose long years of suffering had dulled its sense of pride and self-respect.

In "On the Threshold of the House of Prayer," "If Thou Wouldst Know," and "The Talmud Student," Bialik praised the spirit forged in houses of prayer and study, which enabled the Jews to endure suffering and degradation. In his epos, "The Dead of the Wilderness," and his collection of Bible stories, "And It Came to Pass," he linked the past with the present and imparted charm and wit to folk themes.

In 1921, following the Russian Revolution, Bialik and his fellow Hebrew writers were forced to leave Russia. He then lived in Berlin, where he founded the publishing house Dvir, through which he realized his lifelong dream of making available new editions of great works in Jewish literature. In 1924 he settled in Palestine, where he continued his literary and publishing endeavors. He also instituted many cultural activities. He played a large role in the development of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and in the Hebrew Writers' Club. His other literary works include the Sefer Ha-Aggada, a collection of Jewish legend and lore based on the Talmud and Midrash, and translations of literary classics into Hebrew.

Further Reading

Translations of Bialiks's writings include Complete Poetic Works, edited by Israel Efros (1948), and two anthologies of legends and stories: And It Came to Pass, edited by Herbert Danby (1938), and Aftergrowth, and Other Stories, translated by I. M. Lask (1939). Bialik Speaks: Words from the Poet's Lips, Clues to the Man, edited by Mordecai Ovadyahu and translated by A. ElDror (1970), is a concentrated, 50-page compilation of Bialik's conversations on varied topics. Some critical commentary on Bialik is in Meyer Waxman, A History of Jewish Literature (4 vols., 1930-1941; 5 vols., 1960), and in Shalom Spiegel, Hebrew Reborn (1957).

Additional Sources

Aberbach, David, Bialik, New York: Grove Press, 1988. □

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