This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.
Why and how did Hayim Nahman Bialik become Israel’s national poet? Avner Holtzman, a professor of Hebrew literature at Tel Aviv University, poses this very question in his new biography, “Hayim Nahman Bialik: Poet of Hebrew”, published as part of the “Jewish Lives” series by Yale University Press.
According to Holtzman, nothing in the environment or circumstances of Bialik’s childhood could have explained or predicted his later importance. In fact, Bialik’s creative abilities were exhausted by age forty, and in the last twenty years of his life, he barely produced anything of great artistic significance.
Holtzman’s book reads like a fascinating novel, basing itself on a firm factual foundation and sharp analysis of Bialik’s poetry. The combination of facts and literary interpretations gives the reader a sense of both his inner and external life.
Bialik’s childhood wasn’t a happy one. His father, a wood merchant, died when Hayim Nahman was eight years old and left his family with nothing. His mother brought her son to his grandfather and left him there. He didn’t see her for over twenty years, until she was old and frail, when he brought her to live with him in Odessa.
Nevertheless, his childhood remained an important theme in Bialik’s poetry as a time of happiness and great hope. Bialik never had children of his own which caused him a deep sense of grief. He loved children, delighted in playing with them and dedicated a great deal of time and effort to improving Hebrew education. He wrote children’s songs in Hebrew and Yiddish. Although he spoke Yiddish all his life, Hebrew was his language of creativity. Ideologically, he was close to the circle of the “Odessa wise men” led by Ahad Ha’am, but he played no political role in the Zionist movement.
Bialik acquired a reputation in the world at large because of his poem, “In the City of Slaughter”, written after the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. This poem, which was translated into Yiddish, Russian, and Polish in his time, gave momentum to plans in 1905 among the younger generation of Jews to create a self-defense organization in order to protect Jews against pogroms; but the poem was sharply criticized by older Odessan writers, like Mendele and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, who viewed the poem as insulting to the Jewish victims.
Bialik spent his most productive years, from the end of the 1890s until 1911, in Odessa. This is where he, along with Ravnitzky, co-founded the publishing house “Moriah”, which realized Ahad Ha’Am’s dream of reinterpreting the ancient Jewish religious heritage into a modern secular culture.
Bialik was also involved in the activity of Hovevei Zion. In 1909, he and Ravnitzky visited Palestine, where he was welcomed with great enthusiasm by the Jewish pioneers. Bialik was invited to settle in the land and sing the praises of the pioneers’ accomplishments but he simply didn’t feel at home there.
After 1911, Bialik began feeling tired and weak. He was still involved in cultural work, even planned to travel with S. An-Sky on an ethnographic expedition, but decided that it would be too difficult for him. According to Holtzman, the question that bothered him was: How can we bring today’s secular Jews closer to their older religious cultural heritage? When he was young, Bialik also travelled the “enlightened” road, rebelling against the outdated religious observance by taking on a modern worldly Jewish identity, but he was later tormented by the feeling that the people were losing something essential and beautiful. These inner doubts are expressed in his poetry through various metaphorical images, for example an empty, broken branch of a tree – an image that was popular on gravestones at that time.
In 1917, the editor and literary critic, Nahman Mayzl, tried to explain the essence of “Bialik’s problem”: “The two elements – personal and national – are quite often varied and lead to completely separate paths.” Mayzl argued that the root of Bialik’s problem lay in his use of Hebrew: “Bialik is unwillingly disconnected from the real world because of the language… His Yiddish poems are more substantial, more playful and good-natured,” though the Hebrew works are more artistically polished.
Unfortunately, the reader learns almost nothing about the Yiddish-language side of Bialik’s creativity in Holtzman’s biography; how the Yiddish critics received him, or about his own translations from Hebrew to Yiddish. What’s important is not only Bialik’s contribution to Yiddish literature, which was quite significant, but also the fact that a completely different side of Bialik’s poetic personality, which was not visible in Hebrew, was revealed through his use of Yiddish.
In the introduction to the anthology of Bialik’s Yiddish poems, “Songs”, which was published in Berlin in 1922, Bal-Makhshoves characterized Bialik’s Yiddish language as “powerful, valiant, the type of language that the Yiddish literature has dimply not seen till now.”