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March 16, 2017 10:00 am

Fresh Perspective on Hayim Nahman Bialik

avatar by Jack Riemer / JNS.org

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Hayim Nahman Bialik. Photo: Zoltan Kluger via Wikimedia Commons.

Hayim Nahman Bialik. Photo: Screenshot via Wikimedia Commons.

JNS.org – I have questions about some of the subjects that have been chosen for the Jewish Lives book series from Yale University Press. I wonder what Sarah Bernhardt or Benjamin Disraeli or Groucho Marx would think if they found out that they were all featured in a series of biographies about significant Jews. But I must admit that the writers chosen to produce these books are first rate, and they enable us to see their subjects in a whole new way.

Such is the case with Avner Holtzman’s new biography, Hayim Nahman Bialik: Poet of Hebrew.

I thought that I was fairly familiar with the so-called “Hebrew national poet,” but I didn’t know, for instance, that his father died when Bialik was just seven, and that his mother abandoned him soon afterwards, because she could not cope with the responsibility of raising him. Now go read his poems about loneliness.

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I didn’t know that Bialik was married off by his grandfather, knowing almost nothing at all about his soon-to-be wife, a fact that changes his poems about yearning for love.

I didn’t know that he was trapped between his life as a lumber merchant and his longing to be a poet, dual-worlds that gave his writing a unique earthiness.

I never fully understood what it meant for him to spend his formative years studying in the beit midrash (Jewish study hall) and then at the yeshiva of Volozhin, caught between his fierce desire to enter the modern world and his sympathy for the traditional world of Jewish piety and learning. Now, I better appreciate Bialik’s grief in bidding farewell to that traditional life, which he saw dying before his eyes. I also never totally grasped that he saw the Kishinev and Odessa pogroms up close, which explains the fury with which he condemned not only the perpetrators, but also the passive and timid victims of those awful events.

And above all, I never really understood the Jewish ingathering project to which Bialik devoted his last years was his vehicle for preserving and recasting the best of a lost world in a way that could speak to the new generation taking form in Europe, America and especially in pre-state Israel.

Until this biography reminded me that Bialik was childless himself, the pathos behind his charming children’s poems and textbooks were somewhat lost.

Monolingual Americans ought to stand in awe before the generation of young people like Bialik, who wanted desperately to break through to the modern world, and who could only do so by teaching themselves Russian, French, German or Polish — all without any access to formal schools, only by reading books in the libraries of private collectors. Those who treat tradition casually should understand what the people of Bialik’s generation went through to break away from their old culture to enter modernity; they felt a guilt over what they had done and a yearning for what they had left behind for the rest of their lives.

Bialik’s life was triumphant. He was famous before he was 30, and he remains the most revered post of the Hebrew-speaking world. Avner Hoffman describes how Bialik’s train would be met by throngs of admirers whenever he traveled in Eastern Europe; they would threw flowers at his entourage and walk behind his carriage as they escorted him to his hotel. I cannot think of a society that treats its poets in this way other than the People of the Book.

But, in another sense, Bialik’s life, as Hoffman makes clear, was tragic. His literary creativity dried up, writing nearly nothing in his last few decades. The people thronged about him, but they gave him no rest with their never-ending calls for his help on behalf of a thousand different projects. In pre-state Israel, he saw the first blossoming of Jewish life in Tel Aviv and on the kibbutzim. Yet, he also saw the fierce fighting between the Right and Left on political issues that sickened him, the exploitation of the German Jewish refugees who arrived in the land and the rise of a generation that sensed no connection with the heritage of the past. He suffered excruciatingly painful physical illness in his last years, which warped his spirit and hampered his efforts to accomplish his goals.

If you read this biography, you will encounter a Bialik who was much more complex than the one we learned about as children, and you will meet a Bialik who left behind not only a rich legacy of writings, but an unfinished task that we are called upon to continue.

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