Hay­im Nah­man Bia­lik: Poet of Hebrew

Avn­er Holzman
  • Review
By – March 21, 2017

Hay­im Nah­man Bia­lik, often called the Hebrew nation­al poet, began life in a small Ukrain­ian vil­lage sur­round­ed by for­est, a place he recalled as my pre­cious cor­ner in the world.” His father, a gen­tle and pious man, died when Bia­lik was sev­en. Unable to sup­port her chil­dren, his moth­er aban­doned Bia­lik to his grand­fa­ther, a strict and obser­vant man who pro­vid­ed his grand­son a tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish edu­ca­tion and lit­tle super­vi­sion. But his grandfather’s gloomy house had a fine library, where the lone­ly Bia­lik devel­oped his strong knowl­edge of and love for Hebrew and Yid­dish texts. Thus began Bialik’s jour­ney from the hed­er to the sun­ny sands of Tel Aviv.

In recount­ing his rapid rise from a trou­bled and unhap­py child­hood to a much hon­ored and revered poet, Avn­er Holtz­man, a pro­fes­sor of Hebrew lit­er­a­ture at Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty, care­ful­ly fol­lows the devel­op­ment of Bialik’s think­ing and sense of mis­sion, rely­ing on exten­sive pri­ma­ry sources and Bialik’s cor­re­spon­dence and remarks in his many lec­tures and speech­es. At twen­ty-eight, just ten years after leav­ing his grandfather’s house for a yeshi­va in Lithua­nia and before his first book of poems was pub­lished, Bia­lik was rec­og­nized as the voice of Jew­ish nation­al­ism. Bialik’s work reflects the tumul­tuous and for­ma­tive years of Zion­ism, and Holtz­man cap­tures the vibrant influ­ence of Warsaw’s and Odessa’s intel­lec­tu­al cir­cles on Bia­lik, as well as the crush­ing hor­ror of the Kishinev pogrom, which he con­demned in the scathing and bit­ter poem On the Slaugh­ter,” and the harsh real­i­ty of the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion, which ulti­mate­ly led to his leav­ing Odessa for Tel Aviv.

Holtz­man also reports Bialik’s career as a poet, edi­tor, teacher, and, per­haps above all, pub­lish­er. Moriyah Press, the pub­lish­ing house Bia­lik helped found, pro­duced edu­ca­tion­al mate­r­i­al and Euro­pean clas­sics in Hebrew as well as con­tem­po­rary Hebrew works; in con­cen­trat­ing on mate­r­i­al for chil­dren, instruc­tion­al and lit­er­ary, he worked to lay the ground­work for a gen­er­a­tion of Hebrew speak­ers. Fear­ing that impor­tant tra­di­tion­al work would be lost, he poured his ener­gies and even his sparse funds into the preser­va­tion and dis­sem­i­na­tion of Hebrew and Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture. Active­ly engaged in all aspects of his com­mu­ni­ty, Bia­lik was a vital force in the shap­ing of a nation­al Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and spir­it free of reli­gious stric­tures but steeped in Jew­ish culture.

Thought­ful and well-informed, Holtzman’s biog­ra­phy cen­ters on Bialik’s career, but the com­plex­i­ty of his life can­not be ful­ly con­tained in an explo­ration of his work. Holtz­man gives read­ers glimpses of a warm and col­le­gial man and his strug­gle to over­come the dark shad­ow cast by his child­hood and sense of loss and long peri­ods when he was unable to write. Aspects of his life are large­ly bypassed — his long and child­less mar­riage marked by many years of liv­ing apart, a pass­ing ref­er­ence to his love for his moth­er-in-law and late rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with his moth­er, his love of chil­dren and men­tor­ing young stu­dents. Bia­lik is remem­bered for his many poems and sto­ries for chil­dren, of which Poet of Hebrew unfor­tu­nate­ly offers no examples.

But Bialik’s work tri­umphed over his laps­es into depres­sion and self-dep­re­ca­tion, his dis­ap­point­ments and the years when he could not write. In his work and in his poems he embod­ied the fusion of sec­u­lar Judaism and tra­di­tion­al texts that forged a new Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and helped estab­lish Hebrew as a lit­er­ary and spo­ken lan­guage. Loved and acclaimed, Bia­lik gave voice to a new spir­it and shaped a cul­ture that has informed Israeli life and insti­tu­tions. In sum­ma­riz­ing Bialik’s lega­cy Holtz­man ques­tions whether a soci­ety giv­en to indi­vid­ual expres­sion has a place for a nation­al poet. Nev­er­the­less, he observes, Bialik’s poems are required read­ing for Israeli stu­dents at all levels.

Chronol­o­gy, index, notes, select­ed bibliography.

Relat­ed Content:

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions