Hayim Nahman Bialik

The Jewish national poet.

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Hayim Nahman Bialik was born on January 9, 1873 in Radi, a small town in the Ukraine. When he was five, his father's business failed and the family moved to Zhitomir, the capital of Volhynia. Two years later his father died and his mother, unable to support the family, handed the children over to other relatives.

Early Years

Bialik was raised by his grandfather, a wealthy businessman and religious Jew who imposed a strict Jewish education on his wild and undisciplined grandchild. By the age of 13, Bialik had the reputation of an ilui--an intellectual prodigy--and was consulted on questions of Jewish law. At 17, he left to attend the famous yeshiva at Volozhin. There, he wrote his first poems and became attracted to the secular-nationalist writings of Ahad Ha'am.

Bialik soon became a full-fledged Zionist and--without telling his grandfather--left the yeshiva in the hopes of attending university or a modern rabbinical seminary. Bialik traveled to Odessa--the center of the new, secular Jewish culture. There he met Ahad Ha'am, Moshe Leib Lilienblum, and other cultural Zionist leaders. He began publishing--one of his first poems was El Ha-Tzippor ("To the Bird"), a lyric of longing for Zion--and was soon recognized as his generation's most promising Hebrew poet.

In 1893, Bialik returned to Zhitomir to marry Manya Averbuch and work for his father-in-law as a timber merchant. Alone in the forest for days on end, Bialik wrote prolifically. Alongside poems with pronounced nationalist themes, such as "Blessing of the Nation," he produced "Ha-Matmid," a depiction of a yeshiva student, in which Bialik worked through the theme of self-denial in pursuit of a higher ideal.

In 1897, after the collapse of the family business, Bialik moved to Sosnowiec, a town on the Prussian border, and from there, in 1900, back to Odessa. After working as a teacher and a merchant, in 1903 Bialik was appointed the joint editor of Ha-Shiloah, a Hebrew periodical founded by Ahad Ha'am. Following the first Zionist Congress of 1897, Hebrew poetry took on new importance, and despite the fact that most of his poems articulated not hope but grief and despair, Bialik was hailed as a prophet of Jewish nationalism.

City of Slaughter

In 1903, Bialik was commissioned by the Jewish Historical Society of Odessa to travel to Kishinev, a town in Bessarabia (now Moldova) where in the course of a three day pogrom 47 Jews had been murdered. His experience interviewing the survivors led him to write the epic "City of Slaughter," which reflects the poet's bitterness at the absence of justice and the indifference of nature, but also attacks the Jews who had done nothing to defend themselves in the face of the violence. The poem reads:

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.

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