July 31, 2014
Hayim [Chaim] Nahman Bialik
Hayim [Chaim] Nahman Bialik (Russia [Ukraine])
Born in Radi, Volhynia (then Russia, now Ukraine) to a traditional Jewish family, Yosef and Dinah, Hayim Bialik studied at a yeshiva in Zhitomir. His father died when he was seven years old, and throughout his life Bialik romanticized the difficulties of his childhood, noting the “seven orphans left behind”; contemporary biographers doubt the quantity of his siblings.
In Zhitomir, the young poet was raised by Orthodox grandfather, Yaakov Moshe Bialok. At 17 he was sent to the renowned Talmudic academy in Volozhin, Lithuania, where he focused on the Jewish Enlightenment Movement (Haskala). Joining the Hovevei Zion group, the young man gradually shifted away from yeshiva life, reflecting his ambivalent feelings about his “narrow” way of life in his early poem from 1898, “HaMatmid” (“The Talmud Student”).
At 18 he left for Odessa, the center of modern Jewish culture in Ukraine, becoming active in literary circles there. In Odessa he also met Abad Ha’am, who influenced Bialok’s Zionish outlook for the rest of his life, as well as Mendele Mocher Sforim. The young poem studied Russian and German languages, dreaming of enrolling in the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin. During this period he also published his first poem, “El HaTzipor” (“To the Bird”), reflecting his growing Zionist feelings.
In 1892, hearing that the Volozhin yeshiva had closed, he quickly returned to Zhitomir in order to prevent his grandfather from discovering that he had discontinued his religious studies there. Upon his arrival he discovered both his grandfather and his older brother dying.
After their deaths, Bialik married Mania Averbuch in 1893. For some time he worked as a bookkeeper in his father-in-law’s lumber business near Kiev. In 1897 he moved to Sosnowiec in southern Poland, working as a Hebrew teacher while earning extra income as a coal merchant. But the provincial life deeply depressed him, and he returned to Odessa, having secured a teaching job there.
For the next two decades Bialik taught and continued his activities in Zionist and literary groups. In 1901 he published his first collection of poems in Warsaw, which received some acclaim, including being hailed as “the poet of national renaissance.”
He moved to Warsaw for a brief period of time in 1904, where he became the literary editor of the weekly journal, HaShiloah, founded by his friend Abad Ha’am.
In 1903 he was sent by the Jewish Historical Commission back to Odessa to interview survivors of the Kishinev pogroms. As a result of his findings, Bialik wrote an epic poem In the City of Slaughter, an expression of the anguish felt by the Jews. So powerful was his attack against anti-Semitic violence that it is thought to have influenced Jewish self-defense groups in Russia and the Haganah in Palestine. In 1909 Bialik visited Palestine.
During this early period he founded, with others, a Hebrew publishing house, Moriah, which focused on Hebrew classics and texts for school students. He also translated numerous European works, including Shakespeare, Schiller, Cervantes, Heine, and Ansky. Bialik also published 20 of his own Yiddish poems and collaboratively published Sefer HaAggadah (The Book of Legends), a three-volume publication the folk tales and proverbs embedded in the Talmud.
In 1921 Bialik moved to Berlin, founding the Dvir publishing house, which he moved to Tel Aviv in 1924, devoting himself to cultural activities and public affairs. While still in Germany he joined a community of Jewish authors that included Samuel Joseph Agnon, Simon Dubnow, Israel Isidor Elyashev, Uri Zvi Greenberg, Jakob Klatzkin, Moshe Kulbak, Jakob-Wolf Latzki-Bertoldi, Shaul Tchernichovsky, Martin Buber and numerous others. They met at the Hebrew Club (Beith haWa’ad ha’Ivri) or in Café Monopol, which had a Hebrew speaking corner.
In 1927 he became head of the Hebrew Writers Union which had been established six years previously. He retained this position until his death in Vienna in 1934 of prostate cancer.
Poems, Warsaw: Tushia, 1901); Shirim (Cracow: Hovevei Hashira Haivrit: 1907); The Writings of H. N. Bialik (Berlin: Hovevei Hashira Haivrit, 1924); Poems and Songs (children’s book) (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1933); The Writings of H.N. Bialik (four volumes) (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1938); Collected Poems Critical Edition (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1983 / 1990)
ENGLISH LANGUAGE TRANSLATIONS
Poems from Hebrew (London: Hasefer, 1924) / as Selected Poems (New York: New Palestine, 1926) / Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1939) / as Complete Poetic Works (New York: Histadrut Ivrit of America, 1948) / (New York: Block, 1965) / as Selected Poems (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1972) / as Selected Poems (Tel Aviv: Dvir and the Jerusalem Post, 1981) / (Columbus, Ohio: Alpha, 1987); The Short Friday (Tel Aviv: Hashaot, 1944); Knight of Onions and Knight of Garlic, Herbert Danby, trans. (New York: Jordan, 1939); Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of Hayim Nahman Bialik (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2000); Selected Poems (New York: Overlook/Duckworth, 2004)