Hayim Nahman Bialik

The Jewish national poet.

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Bialik's writing was influenced by many factors happening around him: the ambiance of the Russian Pale of Settlement, the new traditions of hasidism and haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), the Romantic Movement, ongoing anti-Semitism, and growing Zionism. His poetry was marked, perhaps above all, by the use of a sweeping array of Jewish sources, from the Bible, through Talmud and Midrash, to medieval and modern poetry. These sources were quoted and paraphrased, often ironically or in a misplaced context, to achieve artistic richness and to thrill an audience itself imbued with a deep knowledge of the tradition.

Bialik's primary literary influence was the pioneer of Hebrew and Yiddish fiction, Mendele Mokher Sefarim (S.J. Abramowitz). The older writer shared Bialik's experience of orphanhood and abandonment by his mother, and the two developed a close emotional bond. On the ideological front, Bialik was decisively inspired by Ahad Ha'am and his calls for a Jewish cultural renaissance. Some have argued that the poet's creativity was stunted by Ahad Ha'am's didactic, ideological approach to art.

Forays into Publishing

Bialik's poetic output dropped off in 1906 as he focused on his publishing business. He began to collaborate with Y.H. Ravnitzky on Sefer Ha-Aggadah, a comprehensive compilation of legends culled from Talmudic and midrashic literature. The book was part of Bialik's project of kinnus, or ingathering, an attempt to collect the fragments of Jewish literature from all countries of Diaspora. He believed they would bring about an emergent Jewish national consciousness.

But Bialik's conflicted preference for the personal over the public found expression again during a visit to Israel in 1909. He tried to give readings of his more personal work, but audiences insisted on hearing his poetry of hope and national revival. The acclaim he received aroused the same bitter feelings evident in many of his poems. As he wrote to his wife from Jaffa, "The people regard me as someone worthy of respect, but I know that I am a nothing, a nobody."

Bialik's despair grew. As he wrote to a friend in 1909, "Sometimes I think I'm going mad. I lack nothing, it seems, but I have no peace of mind. What is it? I don't know. Big and little sins gnaw at me like worms. At night I don't sleep. I'm worn out by ugly idleness, and I feel that I'm wallowing in a filthy pit." In "A Twig Fell” (1911), the poet is obsessed with death, seeing himself as a broken, useless twig, hanging from a branch.

Dramatic historical events of 1917-1920--the Bolshevik revolution, the Balfour Declaration, and pogroms that swept Eastern Europe in the wake of the First World War--prompted Bialik to leave Russia. He traveled to Berlin and in 1924 settled in Palestine.

Lasting Legacy

In Tel Aviv, Bialik reorganized his life. He reestablished the publishing house he had started in Odessa, served on the board of the Hebrew University and as the honorary president of the Hebrew Writers' Union, and traveled to the United States as an emissary for the World Zionist Organization. He edited collections by the medieval Hebrew poets Moses ibn Ezra and Solomon ibn Gabirol, and he published poems, songs, and reworkings of biblical stories for children.

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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.