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Hebrew Literature

Bialik, Hayyim Nahman

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hayyim nahman bialik

BIALIK, HAYYIM NAHMAN (1873-1934), the greatest Hebrew poet of modern times, essayist, storywriter, translator, and editor, who exercised a profound influence on modern Jewish culture.

Born in the village of Radi, near Zhitomir (Volhynia), Bialik's development as a poet was influenced by his environment--the simplicity and fervor of a folk spirituality, which characterized Volhynian Jewry, and the hasidic ambience, alive with mystic lore, in which it was steeped. His father, Isaac Joseph, came of scholarly stock and had been engaged in the family timber trade and in flour milling before coming down in life through his impracticality. For his father as well as his mother, Dinah Priva, this was a second marriage, both having been widowed previously. Despite his family's dire economic circumstances, Bialik retained many happy memories of the first six years of his childhood in Radi. In some of his best poems, "Zohar" ("Radiance," 1901) and "Ha-Berekhah" ("The Pool," 1905), attempting to recapture the lost paradise of childhood, he idealizes the enchanted hours which he spent romping in the dazzling light of the fields and in the secret shade of the forest. Others have fewer happy references and are marked by loneliness, parental neglect, and the almost narcissistic withdrawal of a sensitive, artistic child, e.g., the prose poem "Safi'ah" ("Aftergrowth," 1908).

Childhood Period

When Bialik was six, his parents moved to Zhitomir in search of a livelihood and his father was reduced to keeping a saloon on the outskirts of town. Shortly thereafter, in 1880, his father died and the destitute widow entrusted her son to the care of his well-to-do paternal grandfather, Jacob Moses. For ten years, until he went to yeshivah in 1890, the gifted, mischievous Hayyim Nahman was raised by the stern old pietist. At first he was instructed by teachers in the traditional heder and later, from the age of 13, pursued his studies alone. He was a lonely figure in the almost deserted house of study on the edge of town, for the expanding modernization of Jewish life had restricted the traditional study of Torah to a secluded nook. Passionate and solitary dedication to study shaped traits of character that Bialik was to exalt: "A fertile mind, lively logic, a trusting heart when the knee falters." From this experience of his adolescence stems the sense of vocation of the chosen individual who dedicates his life to an ideal, sacrificing youth and the delights of the world in order to remain faithful to the last. This theme of vocation was to become central to Bialik's thinking and his poetry is a spiritual record of the paradoxical struggle to free himself from his calling and at the same time to remain faithful to it. During this period too his reading of medieval theology and Haskalah works stimulated ambitions for secular knowledge, moving him to seek a more comprehensive education. He dreamed of the rabbinical seminary in Berlin, and of acquiring the cultural tools that would give him entrance to modern European civilization.

Volozhin Period

Convinced by a journalistic report that the yeshivah of Volozhin in Lithuania would offer him an introduction to the humanities, as well as a continuation of his talmudic studies, Bialik persuaded his grandfather to permit him to study there. In Volozhin, a center of Mitnaggedim, his hopes for a secular academic training were not fulfilled since the yeshivah concentrated only on the scholarly virtues of talmudic dialectic and erudition. For a short time Bialik immersed himself in the traditional disciplines. In some of his poems the image of his stern grandfather merges with the image of the uncompromising rosh yeshivah, becoming a symbol of the burning imperatives of traditional Judaism. In the end, however, modernist doubts triumphed over traditionalist certainties. Bialik began to withdraw from the life of the school and lived in the world of poetry. At this time, he read Russian poetry and started his acquaintance with European literature. During the following year in Volozhin and later in Odessa, he was deeply moved by Shimon Shemuel Frug's Jewish poems, written in Russian, and many of Bialik's early motifs echo him. His first published poem "El ha-Zippor" ("To the Bird") was written in Volozhin. In the yeshivah Bialik joined a secret Orthodox Zionist student society, Nezah Israel, which attempted to synthesize Jewish nationalism and enlightenment with a firm adherence to tradition. Bialik's first published work (in Ha-Meliz, 1891) is an exposition of the principles of the society and reflects the teachings of Ahad Ha-Am's spiritual Zionism.

Ahad Ha-Am's Influence

Ahad Ha-Am, whose thinking had a profound impact on Bialik and his generation, first began publishing his essays in 1889. They provided a framework of ideas that helped his contemporaries translate their Jewish loyalties from a religious context into a modern, philosophically oriented humanist rationale for Jewish existence. Bialik recognized Ahad Ha-Am as his great teacher. He wrote of this period, "... the day a new essay of Ahad Ha-Am's appeared was a holiday for me." Bialik later wrote a poem in tribute to his mentor: "Receive our blessing for each seed of... idea/That you have sown... in our desolate hearts." But Ahad Ha-Am also had an inhibiting influence on Bialik's poetic imagination. Preferring a classical and lucid style, Ahad Ha-Am discouraged many of Bialik's ventures into more modernist or more experimental poetry.

First Stay in Odessa

The break with tradition occurred in the summer of 1891 when amid disruptions in the yeshivah, Bialik left for Odessa, the center of modern Jewish culture in southern Russia. He was attracted by the literary circle that formed around Ahad Ha-Am and harbored the dream that in Odessa he would be able to prepare himself for the entrance to the modern Orthodox rabbinical seminary in Berlin. Penniless, alone, unemployed, and hungry, he earned a livelihood for a while by giving Hebrew lessons. He continued to study Russian literature, reading and admiring the poetry of Pushkin and Frug, as well as the stories and novels of Dostoevski and Gogol. He was tutored in German grammar and read works of Schiller and Lessing. At first the shy youth did not become involved in the literary life of the city but when he showed his poetry to Moses Leib Lilienblum the latter commended the poem "El ha-Zippor" to Ahad Ha-Am who passed it on to Yehoshua Hana Rawnitzki to be published in the first volume of Ha-Pardes (1892, p. 219f.). The poem, a song longing for Zion written in the style of the poets of the Hibbat Zion era, was favorably received by the critics. During the six months he spent in Odessa, Bialik wrote several poems and made the acquaintance of prominent literary figures with whom he was to establish lasting relationships. He was especially close to Rawnitzki and their friendship was to develop into a unique collaboration in literary and publishing endeavors.

Source: Encyclopedia Judaica, CD-ROM


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