Hayim Nahman Bialik was born in a small town in Ukraine in 1873. He was just 7 when his father died and his mother, who was unable to support him, sent him to live with his grandfather, a stern, religious Jew. Thereafter Bialik grew up in an Orthodox house in which he received a strict Jewish education and was immersed in religious texts. It quickly became apparent that he was a very talented child and by 13 he was considered an “illui,” a term for a young Talmudic genius or prodigy.
As he got older, Bialik explored European literature as well as religious texts and became attracted the Haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment movement. By his late teens he was writing poetry. He was also an avid reader, particularly of the work of Ahad Ha’am who was a secular Jewish nationalist writer and early Zionist thinker. Bialik was so influenced by Ha’am and another Odessa-based Jewish writer, Mendele Mocher Sforim, that he moved to the Ukrainian port city at the age of 18. Then part of the Russian Empire and home to a large Jewish population, Odessa was a center of modern Jewish culture. Among notables, the city produced Isaac Babel, one of the most celebrated Russian Jewish writers of the 20th century.
Bialik was increasingly drawn to Zionism and to the Haskalah in Odessa. Having previously written only in his native Yiddish he began to write poetry in Hebrew and his first Hebrew work was published in 1901. Two years later, the Jewish Historical Commission in Odessa dispatched him to Kishinev to interview survivors of the city’s infamous pogrom. Kishinev, which is now the capital of Moldova, was the scene of two of the most notorious and bloody anti-Jewish massacres of the early 20th century. More than 70 Jews were murdered and over 700 injured in the course of the two pogroms. Bialik was so shocked by the survivors’ testimony that it became the basis of his most famous work, the epic poem “City of Slaughter.”
For God called up the slaughter and the spring together,
The slayer slew, the blossom burst, and it was sunny weather!
Then wilt thou flee to a yard, observe its mound.
Upon the mound lie two, and both are headless—
A Jew and his hound.
The self-same axe struck both, and both were flung
Unto the self-same heap where swine seek dung;
Tomorrow the rain will wash their mingled blood
Into the runners, and it will be lost
In rubbish heap, in stagnant pool, in mud.
Its cry will not be heard.
It will descend into the deep, or water the cockle-burr.
And all things will be as they ever were.
Descend then, to the cellars of the town,
There where the virginal daughters of thy folk were fouled,
Where seven heathen flung a woman down,
The daughter in the presence of her mother,
The mother in the presence of her daughter,
Before slaughter, during slaughter, and after slaughter!
Touch with thy hand the cushion stained; touch
The pillow incarnadined:
This is the place the wild ones of the wood, the beasts of the field
With bloody axes in their paws compelled thy daughters yield:
Beasted and swiped!
To the graveyard, beggars!
Dig up the bones of martyred father and brother,
Fill your sacks, sling them on backs
And hit the road to do business at all the fairs;
Advertise yourselves at the crossroads so everyone sees,
In the sunshine on filthy rags spread the bones
And sing your hoarse beggar song, beg the decency of the world!
Beg the pity of goyim!
Bialik was heartbroken by the events in Kishinev, and his words reflect that. But while there was heartbreak, there was anger too. The poem was so scathing and resonant that it is credited with helping to lead to Jewish self-defense groups in the Russian Empire. Bialik’s condemnation of Jewish passivity in the face of violent Russian anti-Semitism even shaped the Israeli consciousness. As the late Israeli author Amos Elon recalled “a Hebrew textbook, widely used in Israeli high schools until at least the late fifties, which included the following analysis of the Hebrew poet Bialik’s great lament on the Kishinev pogrom of 1903: ‘This poem depicts the mean brutality of the assailants and the disgraceful shame and cowardice of the Jews of the Diaspora shtetl.’”
Elon points out Bialik’s words captured the anger and shame Israelis had in their “cursed past.” He notes how Zionist education reflected the anguish and feelings of guilt that haunted many early Israeli politicians, as well as Bialik’s poem. “The City of Slaughter” quickly became Bialik’s best-known poem and was widely circulated in Yiddish and Hebrew.
From Odessa, Bialik moved to Berlin. Then in 1924 he made his defining move and settled in Palestine. By that time he had established a reputation as perhaps the most important poet of the Jewish nation (as opposed to the most important Jewish poet). And the next year, in 1925, Bialik gave the opening address at the newly created Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on whose board he sat. When he turned 60 in 1933, schoolchildren from all over Israel were taken to meet him in Tel Aviv.
Bialik preferred Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he said, because “our hands have built it from its foundation to the roof. This after all is the purpose of our national renaissance: to cease being indebted to others, to be our own masters, in body and spirit.” In Tel Aviv, he was consulted on and involved in virtually every cultural development of pre-state Israel. He was a major literary figure whose views would shape the course of Israeli culture. And in one poem, “After My Death,” Bialik addressed his influence and posthumous legacy:
Say this when you mourn for me:
There was a man – and look, he is no more.
He died before his time.
The music of his life suddenly stopped.
A pity! There was another song in him.
Now it is lost
While of course he was right that “another song” was lost with his passing, he produced plenty of work in his lifetime. And the poems and writings he did share have had an enduring effect on both on the Jewish state, Israel, and on the Jewish nation around the world by shaping Zionist identity internationally. This is reflected in the rare recognition his name received. His former home in Tel Aviv—the address of which is 22 Bialik Street—is now a museum and literary center, while a suburb of Haifa (Kiryat Bialik) and a moshav a little north of Tel Aviv (Givat Hen) are both named for him. He is the only person for whom two streets in Tel Aviv—Hen Boulevard as well as Bialik Street—are named, while there are schools in Montreal, Toronto, Brooklyn, Argentina and Venezuela.
Bialik is the most significant poet of the Jewish nation for two reasons. The first is his work, which some critics compare to Wordsworth and is generally considered of the highest order. The second significance is an extension of his work—it is the influence his writings have had on Israeli culture and Jewish national identity in Israel and elsewhere. Bialik was an ardent Zionist at a time when other Jews in the Russian Empire were being butchered or moving to America or elsewhere in the west. His nationalist poems engendered a national consciousness among Jews that was linked to a return to their ancestral home.
As important as what Bialik wrote was the language in which he wrote it: Hebrew. Bialik wrote Hebrew poetry at a time when the language’s modern revival was in its infancy. There was no guarantee the revitalization of an ancient tongue that had been used only in religion would become once again a living, breathing everyday language. Language begets culture, just as thoughts beget words. As well as forming Hebrew culture through his mastery of the language, Bialik inverted this paradigm by helping to create a language through culture. His words, as beautiful as they could be harsh, contributed to the creation of a unifying Israeli culture for Jews brought together from disparate cultures of around the world. Quite simply, the poetry of Hayim Nahman Bialik helped make Hebrew a vital part of modern Jewish life.