Hayim Nahman Bialik

The Jewish national poet.

Print this page Print this page

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!

Eternal beggars!

Bialik's criticism resonated with the Zionist goal of effecting a revolutionary transformation of the Jews into a proud, even warlike, nation. The poem circulated in Hebrew and Yiddish versions, as well as in a Russian translation by Revisionist Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky.

In these years, Bialik realized his full power as a poet, raising Hebrew lyric to the level of the great European romantic poets. Alongside "City of Slaughter" and other "poems of wrath," whose inflammatory tones influenced not only Zionists but a generation of Jewish Communist revolutionaries, Bialik composed poems about nature and lost love. Yet even his love poetry was marked by disgust and despair at the failure of passion:

I was innocent, no storm of lust

          had fouled me

Till you came. I, foolish boy,

cast down at your feet, mercilessly,

my purity of heart and soul, the tender flowers of my youth.

(From Hungry Eyes, 1897)

Confession of Loss

In 1905, Bialik published "Scroll of Fire," a nine section experimental prose poem. The poem weaves Talmudic legends into a romantic allegory of national and personal trauma.

"Scroll of Fire" begins with a powerful depiction of the destruction of the ancient Temple, yet the poem was also inspired by the burning of Odessa in 1905, the memory of childhood fires, and an intense extramarital relationship. Drawing on a Talmudic legend and the Song of Songs, Bialik describes the words of the last surviving boy--a character representing Hope--to the only girl not to commit suicide in the wake of the catastrophe:

All my life my soul cried out to you in a

thousand voices, and in tens of thousands of ways,

crooked and invisible, fled from you to you

Even as a baby in the black of night, I saw

your beauty and covered your hidden light ...

With the sorrow of a mother the golden light

of your eye rested on me ... at night

like a weaned child on his mother’s lap

I made my love known and I waited.

"Scroll of Fire" is a confession of loss, and reflects Bialik's ambivalence about his public role. It begins with a national catastrophe but uses this event to address deeply personal issues, and articulates the poet's guilt about subordinating a greater issue to a merely--but more powerfully--personal event.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.