Where they burn books, at the end they also burn people

Heinrich Heine

Hayim Nahman Bialik-biography

Hayyim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934) - name also transliterated Chayim Nachman Bialik

Poet, translator, essayist, storyteller, editor, one of the greatest Hebrew poets of all time. Bialik is considered Israel's national poet, although he did not live to witness the birth of the State of Israel. Several of his poems have been set to music and gained wide popularity as songs. Some of his works Bialik wrote in Yiddish but most of his important writings are in Hebrew. In many poems Bialik depicted the suffering of his people, but he also could ridicule the weakness and passivity of his fellow intellectuals.

You have not changed, you're antic old, There's nothing new I think; Friends, let me join your club, well rot Together till we stink. (from 'On My Return')

Hayyim Nahman Bialik was born in Radi, in Volhynia, Russia. He was the youngest of seven children of Reb Yitzok Yoissef Bialik, a scholar and unsuccessful businessman, and Dinah (Priveh) Bialik. After his father's death in 1880, he was raised in Zhitomir by his learned, sternly Orthodox grandfather Reb Yaakov Moishe Bialik. The loss of his father at an early age and life in new surroundings shaped Bialik's thought and later his poems about exile also echoed his personal feelings of rootlessness.

Bialik received a traditional Hebrew education, but was also influenced by his mother's interest in Russian and European literature. At the age of eleven he read the Kabbalistic literature of the Middle Ages. Some years later he began to study the Talmud, and spent much time in the beth hamidrash, the traditional house of learning. In 1890 he moved to Volozhin in Lithuania to study at its famous Talmudic Academy (yeshiva). Next year he went to Odessa and devoted there himself to the study of Russian and German. During this period he composed poems which reflected the themes and styles of the Jewish enlightenment (haskalah). Among his friends and mentors was the early Zionist ideologist Ahad Ha'am (1856-1927), whose thoughts influenced his writing.

In 1892 Bialik returned to Zhitomir and married Mania Averbuch. His business venture in the lumber trade with his father-in-law failed and he moved in 1897 to Sosnowice, a small town near the Prussian border. There Bialik worked as a teacher and tried to earn extra income as a coal merchant without much success. However, Bialik's fame as a poet had started to grow and he returned to Odessa, a center of Hebrew literature. At a time when most Jews were forbidden to live in Moscow or St. Petersburg, Odessa had many times more Jews than any other city in the Russian part of the empire. Later the people of its famous ghetto, the Moldavanka, was celebrated in Isaak Babel's Tales of Odessa (1931).

Bialik worked in Odessa as a teacher, and continued his activities in Zionist and literary circles. Bialik's first volume of poetry appeared in 1901 in Warsaw. He visited Palestine in 1904 and 1908 and also spent some time in Warsaw (1903-05), editing the magazine Ha-Shiloah, which had been founded by Ahad Ha'am. In the early 1900's Bialik founded with Y.H. Ravnitzky (1859-1944) a Hebrew publishing house, Moriah, which issued Hebrew classics and school literature. He translated various European works, such as Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Schiller's Wilhelm Tell, Cervantes' Don Quixote, and Heine's poems. In collaboration with Yehoshua Hana Ravnizsky Bialik published Sefer Ha Aggadah (1908-1911, The Book of Legends), a three-volume edition of the folk tales and proverbs scattered through the Talmud. For the book they selected hundreds of texts and arranged them thematically. The Book of Legends was immediately recognized as masterwork and has been reprinted numerous times. Bialik also edited the poems of the medieval poet and philosopher Ibn Gabirol and began a modern commentary on the Mishna, the oral law.

Bialik's first long poem, 'Ha-Matmid', published in Ha-Shiloah, established his fame as one of the most important Hebrew poets of his time. It presented the Taldumic student as a heroic force of Judaism and depicted the rapidly vanishing life of traditional orthodox Jewish past. Bialik's early poems often dealt with the gap between modern life and religious faith, and the bitterness of exile. He used biblical language and images, but did not slavishly imitate earlier writings. Although his best-known poems are about the tragedy of the Jewish people and national and individual redemption, he also produced passionate love poems. Apathy and inability to act he mocked in such poems as 'On My Return' and 'Summer is Dying', in which he wrote: "The heart is orphaned. Soon a rainy day / Will softly tap the pane." The poem continues with another voice, which wakes up the day-dreamer: '"Look to your boots, patch up your coats, go fetch / The potatoes again."' With his call for a reawakening and modernization of language Bialik deeply influenced the Renaissance period of Hebrew literature on its way from Europe to Palestine.

Rise and go to the town of the killings and you'll come to the yards and with your eyes and your own hand feel the fence and on the trees and on the stones and plaster of the wall the congealed blood and hardened brains of the dead. (from 'City of the Killings', trans. by Atar Hadari) 'City of Killings' concerned the Kishinyov Pogrom, during which about 50 people were massacred. The poet guides the reader through the horrible sights of the slaughter and asks: "And who else is like God and earth and can bear this in silence?" It is said that Bialik's castigating passivity against anti-Semitic violence furthered the idea of founding Jewish self-defense groups in Russia, and eventually the Haganah in Palestine. His other famous poems include 'Metei midbar' (Dead of the Desert), 'Ha-Berekhah' (The Pool), and 'Mgilat haesh' (1905, The Scroll of Fire), set in the time of the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem. From 1908 Bialik wrote more prose than poetry.

After the Bolshevik Revolution the Communist authorities viewed with suspicion Bialik's work for the Hebrew culture, and the publishing house Moriah was closed. With the help of Maxim Gorky, Bialik received a permission to emigrate. He moved in 1921 to Germany, where he established the Dvir publishing house. In 1924 he moved to Tel Aviv - at that time Palestine was administered by Britain under a League of Nations mandate. During the last decade of his life, Bialik participated in a number of cultural pursuits. He delivered the address that marked the opening of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was a member of its board of governors, visited the United States on behalf of the Palestine Foundation Fund, toured in Poland, and founded the weekly philosophical and literary discussions in Tel Aviv, which he called "Oneg Shabbat" (Enjoyment of the Sabbath). Bialik died in Vienna, Austria, on July 4, 1934, following a surgery. He was buried in Tel Aviv. Bialik's poems have been translated into some 30 languages. His home, designed by Yossef Minor at 22 Bialik Street in Tel Aviv, was later opened to the public as a museum. Bialik's poems - and songs based on them - have become an essential part of the education and culture of modern Israel. They are read at schools, and his verses and expressions are frequently recited in festivals and all kinds of public events.

For further reading: H. N. Bialik and the Prophetic Mode in Modern Hebrew Poetry by Dan Miron (2000); Li-netivah ha-ne`elam: `ikvot parshat Irah Yan bi-yetsirat Byalik by Zivah Shamir (2000); Byalik ben `Ivrit le-Yidish by Yitshak Bakon (1987); Mivhar shire H.N. Byalik: `im sheva` hartsa'ot `al shirav / me-et Pinhas `Sadeh by Hayyim Nahman Bialik (1985); World Authors 1950-1970, ed. by John Wakeman (1975); After the Tradition by R. Alter (1969); Byalik be-shirato by Zvi Adar (1966); The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself, ed. by S. Burnshaw (1965); Ritmim be-shirat Biyalik by Zusha Shapira (1965); Pirke zikhronot by Manya Auerbach Bialik (196-); Mar'ot shetiyah be-shirat Byalik by Elieser Kagan (1959); Bialik by Fischel Lachower (1944-49); Hayyim Nahman Bialik by Israel Isaac Efros (1940); Chajjim Nachman Bialik; eine Einführung in sein Leben und sein Werk. Mit einigen Ubersetzungsproben und Gedichtanalysen by A.E. Simon (1935); Hebrew Reborn by S. Spiegel (1930) - For further information: Chaim Nacham Bialik - Hayyim Nahman Bialik - Note: I wish to thank Mirkku Ben-David (Israel) and Orly Orava (Kuusankoski, Finland) for their help in writing this page. Selected works:

  • 'Ha-Matmid', 1898 (written) - The Talmud Student
  • 'Al haSchechitah', 1903
  • 'Ha-Berkhah', 1904 - The Pool
  • 'Be Ir HaHaregah', 1904 - In the City of Slaughter / City of the Killings
  • 'Mgilat haesh', 1905 - The Scroll of Fire

ed.: Sefer Ha Aggadah, 1908-1911 (with Jehoschua Hana Rawnitzky) - The Book of Legends

  • Law and Legend: or Halakah and Aggada, 1923
  • Poems from the Hebrew, 1924
  • Kitve H. N. Bialik umivchar tirgumav, 1926 (4 vols.)
  • Selected Poems, 1926
  • Vayehi HaYom, 1934
  • Safiah, 1934
  • Lider un poemen, 1935
  • Igrot H. N. Bialik, 1937-39 (5 vols.)
  • And It Came to Pass, 1938
  • Knight of Onion and Knight of Garlic, 1939
  • Aftergrowth and Other Stories, 1939
  • Far over the Sea: Poems and Jingles for Children, 1939

ed.: Di yidishe agode, 1948

  • Schriften, 1946
  • Complete Poetic Works of Hayyim Nahman Bialik, 1948 (only one vol. published)
  • Selected Poems, 1965
  • And It Came to Pass, 1975
  • Halifat mikhtavim ben Hayim Nahman Byalik u-ven Vladislav Harfustah, 1976
  • Selected Poems, 1981
  • The Poems of Bialik, 1987
  • Shirot Bialik: A New and Annotated Translation of Chaim Nachman Bialik's Epic Poems, 1998
  • Random Harvest: The Novellas of C. N. Bialik, 1999

Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of Hayim Nahman Bialik, 2000 (ed. by Atar Hadari)

Article author: Zipora Galitski
Article tags: Biography
The article is about these people:   Hayim Nahman Bialik

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