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.
- Sasha Abramsky: Continuities
- Howard Schwartz: Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets
- With an Iron Pen: Twenty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry, edited by Tal Nitzan and Rachel Tzvia Back
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.