Originally published in the Forward February 14, 2003.
The first words intoned at last week’s memorial in Houston for the fallen astronauts of the Columbia space shuttle were in Hebrew: “ Acharei moti sifdu kacha li ”
After my death, thus mourn for me:
There was a man, and see — he is no more.
This man died before his time.
His life’s song was stopped in mid-refrain.
It is so very sad; for one more song he had…
And see now, the song has perished,
His song is lost, gone for good.
These sad, simple words, from the poem “ Acharei Moti ” (“After My Death”) were penned in 1904 by the great Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934). The poem was ostensibly in memory of a literary colleague, though many interpreters read into it that Bialik, distraught over the paucity of discerning Hebrew readers, was prophesying his own literary obscurity and demise.
President Bush, appearing before the nation a few days earlier to announce the loss of the Columbia, had also chosen to quote a Hebrew poet, though from a very different time: the biblical prophet Isaiah.
The words of Isaiah have long been canonized by both Jews and Christians. His prophecies, however differently they are interpreted, still form part of the shared Judeo-Christian scriptural canon. By contrast, the great poetic corpus created by Bialik — Zionism’s poet laureate — totters on the brink of literary extinction. Few Jews today have ever heard of the greatest modern Hebrew poet, and fewer still are actually familiar with his verse. That is not just a great shame; it is symptomatic of the decline of Jewish literacy in our day and the narrowing directions in contemporary Jewish education. In my university, I have encountered more than one Hebrew day-school graduate who had never heard Bialik’s name. These students are studying Mishna and Talmud, Rashi and Maimonides. They are also familiar with the important works of many modern Jewish masters — from Rabbis Moses Feinstein and Joseph Soloveitchik to novelists Saul Bellow and Philip Roth — but Bialik is a complete stranger to them.
Amazingly enough, the situation is not much better in Bialik’s own city, Tel Aviv, where his verse is almost entirely absent from school curricula. The Jewish state’s educators discovered some decades ago that, because his language is so steeped in biblical and rabbinic idiom ? and because his rhyme and meter are predicated on the archaic Ashkenazic pronunciation of Hebrew ? Israeli students did not rise easily to the challenge of reading Bialik. So, except for a couple of his earliest, most simple and patriotic short verses, the poetic conscience of Zionism was largely removed from the syllabus of the Jewish state. Imagine if American or British schools employed such shallow standards to dispose of Shakespeare or Milton.
Things were very different not so long ago. In the 1960s, when I was a camper at Camp Massad in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal, we began each day at “ mifkad, ” or roll call, raising the Canadian and Israeli flags to the stirring tune of Bialik’s “ Shirat Ha’Am ” (“The Song of the People”), an anthem that I still find more powerful than “Hatikvah.” Memories of “ Shirat Ha-Am ” awoke in me when I listened to Shimon Peres’s eulogy at the state funeral for the martyred Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin:
Quoting Bialik’s anthem, Peres said of Rabin: “ Hu haya min ha-alizim, mitronnenim ” —
“He was one of the proud, singing champions of his people.”
On Friday evenings at Camp Massad, before the kiddush was chanted in the dining hall, we all sang Bialik’s beautiful “ Shabbat Z’mira, ” “ Ha-chama meyrosh ha-ilanot nistalka ” — “The sun is disappearing behind the tree tops, let us go out to greet the Sabbath bride.”
The juxtaposition of the modern, secular Hebrew poet’s likening of the peacefulness and inspiring natural beauty of a Friday sunset to the supernatural biblical creation narrative with which the kiddush begins, joined together the timeless words of ancient and modern Israel. It was the particular genius of Bialik that he, like no other Jewish writer whom I have ever encountered, could capture this distinctly Jewish timelessness.
Bialik was not simply the bard of the modern Jewish national awakening. He was more than just the poetic voice of Zionism. He wrote of the Jews’ yearning for Zion, but also of the yearning for love; the awe of nature, the universal, desperate human search for transcendence. Above all else, Bialik captured exquisitely the pains and joys, the terror and excitement, of being a Jew in modern times.
Some two decades after those halcyon summers singing Bialik in the Quebec mountains, it was in his remarkable poem “ Lifnei Aron Ha-Sefarim ” (“Before the Book Closet”) that I finally found a satisfying evocation of my own inner struggle to make peace between a deep affection for Jewish tradition and simultaneous rejection of the tenets of Orthodoxy. Bialik had spent his youthful days studying the Talmud and rabbinic codes at the great Volozhin Yeshiva; for many years after his departure from the yeshiva world, he continued to revisit and struggle with it in his poetry. I had never before been able to find words that made some sense of the painful process of loving my religious past while violating its norms. Bialik not only depicted that struggle; he dignified it and gave it a beautiful poetic voice. Like a lover yearning for a partner he had lost on account of his own unfaithfulness, Bialik implores the sacred Hebrew books to talk to him again:
Bear up under my greetings, old scrolls
And accept the kisses of my mouth, ancients of dust.
From wandering the foreign isles my soul’s returned
And like a homing pigeon with tired wings, and scared
It beats again upon the gates of its youth’s nest.
Do you still know me? I’m So-and-so,
Child of your bosom and abstinent of life.
Of all the graces of God on the multifarious earth
Only you alone loved me in my youth.
And now, after the changes of the time,
When I am furrow-browed and furrow-souled,
The wheel of my life has returned me
And stood me up again before you, hiding in the closet,
Descendants of Lvov, Slavita, Amsterdam and Frankfurt,
And once more my hands caress your parchments
And my eyes strain, tired, through your lines
While I seek desperately to rediscover in the crowns of your letters
The first inspirations of my youth’s soul….
My soul still seeks a resting place and sanctuary of lasting peace
In you, you stars of the Divine, faithful interpreters of my true heart.
Please answer me, scrolls, stars of God, for your silence makes me grow sad.
Bialik has so much to teach Jews today: strength in times of trouble; faith in times of doubt; introspection and self-criticism in the face of today’s triumphalist Orthodoxy and strident Jewish nationalism. More than any other modern Jewish writer I know, Bialik’s words can inspire, fortify and enlighten Israel in her time of crisis. It is a tragedy of Jewish culture today and a scandal of contemporary Jewish education — both here and in Israel — that his voice has been rendered mute. As Bialik wrote in “ Acharei Moti ”:
And it is so very sad — a harp this poet had,
A living, humming instrument
Through which the poet’s words could reveal
All the secrets of our hearts….
Round and round his fingers played.
But one string of his harp was still,
And in our days, silent it has stayed.
Allan Nadler, a frequent contributor to the Forward, is professor of religion and director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University.