“A twig alighted on a fence and dozed/So do I sleep/The fruit fell and what have I to do with my trunk/What with my branch?” – This short verse, A twig alighted (dated Odessa, 1911), is among the most famous poems ever written in Hebrew. It embodies its author’s, Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik (1873–1934), torn existence between many opposing poles. Bialik, one of the Hebrew renaissance’s leading figures, is considered to be Israel’s national poet. He is one of those very few whose own biography is also the story of an era, a movement, a history of something greater than themselves.
Born in Radi, Volhynia, to a commercially unsuccessful timber merchant, Bialik spent his youth in the nearby town of Zhitomir, where he attended a cheder. His growing acquaintance with Hebrew led to an uncomfortable diglossia with Yiddish, his mame loshn (“mother tongue”). After his father’s death in 1880, Bialik was taken in by his pious grandfather, who was impressed with his intellectual promise. His juvenile reading included, not only the prescribed Talmud and Mishnah, but also ethics (musar), Maimonides and Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi, ancient and modern legends, and the Jewish enlightenment (Haskalah). At the age of 16, Bialik enrolled in one of the most prestigious rabbinical academies (yeshivot) in the Jewish world at the time, Volozhin (now Valozhyn, Belarus). Though he gained the admiration of the head of the Volozhin Yeshiva for his religious knowledge Bialik became more and more attracted to the secular use of Hebrew in general, and to literature in particular; he began to write openly and soon acquired a name for himself amongst his fellow-students. During this time, Bialik also became involved with Zionism, his first ever publication being a manifest for the Volozhin Zionist student’s association.
Bialik left the yeshiva in 1891 and like many of the leading Jewish intellectuals of the time (and many aspiring Hebrew poets) moved to Odessa, the residence of Aḥad Ha’am and the centre of an emerging Hebrew Republic of Letters. Aḥad Ha’am had crafted what was dubbed the “Odessa style,” a literary style greatly admired by Bialik. In Odessa, Bialik managed to be introduced to Moshe Lilienblum (1843–1910, one of the most important Zionist leaders in Russia) on the strength of El Ha-Tzippor (“To the bird”), the only poem Bialik himself thought worthy of publishing. The poem’s national content impressed Lilienblum, more of a political figure than a literary connoisseur. Lilienblum procured an introduction to Aḥad Ha’am, who in turn sent Bialik to Joshua Ravnitzky (1859–1944); Ravnitzky, who would later collaborate with Bialik for most of his life, published the poem in his anthology Pardes.
Six months after his arrival, his grandfather’s illness recalled Bialik from Odessa to the stagnant provincialism of Volhynia. He took up his family’s timber trade, and, settled in the countryside, developed his observational skills and poetic craftsmanship. In 1896 Aḥad Ha’am established a new journal in Berlin, Ha-Shiloaḥ (1896-1927); Bialik became a regular contributor. His contributions, which combined a Zionist commitment with social satire, established him among the readership as a leading Modern Hebrew poet.
Like his father, Bialik failed to make a success of his trade. In 1897 he left for Sosnowiec to become a private Hebrew tutor. His literary output continued unabated, combining realistic, almost crude, prose and delicate, sophisticated and refined poetry. Ravnitzky, who edited of a new Yiddish journal, Der Yud (1899-1902), asked Bialik to participate. In a letter to Ravnitzky, Bialik endorsed the use of the Yiddish language and its role as a vehicle to reach the hearts of the Jewish masses.
In 1900 Bialik returned to Odessa, where he consolidated his position as the leading Hebrew poet and perhaps the most important figure of the Hebrew renaissance. Between 1902 and 1921, Bialik, together with Ravnitzky and the author/educator S. Ben-Zion (1870–1932), helmed the publishing house Moriah.
The Kishinev pogroms of 1903 shook Bialik and his friends in the midst of their pursuits. Bialik himself was sent to Kishinev to record the survivors’ testimonies and witness the pogrom’s aftermath. Here, he met the paintress Ira Jan (1868–1919). His impressions of this devastating pogrom were captured in his major poems Al Ha-Sheḥitah (“On the Slaughter”) and Be-`Ir Ha-Haregah (“The city of killing”). Later that year, Bialik was invited to Warsaw, the foremost metropolis of Hebrew and Jewish literature at the time, to help Joseph Klausner (1874–1958) in the editing of the highly reputed Ha-Shiloaḥ. Urgent issues regarding his Moriah publishing house, recalled him to Odessa.
In 1909 Bialik visited Palestine, the object of his longing, for the first time. He was received in Jaffa by thousands of members of the small Jewish settlement there. Back in Odessa he continued his writing and publishing. In Ha-Ḥatzotzrah Nitbayyeshah (“The trumpet was ashamed”, 1915) he perfected the use he made of his childhood memories, both to set up several scenes and to embed them within the greater national story of the Jews in World War I. 1916 seemed an ill-suited year to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Bialik’s El Ha-Tzippor, and the festivities were held mainly to boost to the war-stricken young Modern Hebrew literature, of which Bialik was now the acknowledged leading writer. Bialik was also a very popular speaker and a notable intellectual figure in the secular part of the Zionist movement, which needed a spiritual leadership in lieu of rabbinical authority. In the spirit of his teacher Aḥad Ha’am, Bialik himself accentuated the role of the future national home as a spiritual centre for Jews worldwide.
Amidst the devastation left by the Russian Civil War (1918-20) Bialik attempted to salvage Moriah, and initiated Dvir, since only a much bigger publishing house could, he felt, serve the national purposes he had in mind. The Dvir publishing house was led by Bialik until his death and is still part of one of Israel’s largest publishing corporations. Dvir was founded in Berlin, which emerged post-1918 as a centre of Jewish culture in Europe, and where Bialik worked for three years on popularizing old Jewish texts and drawing on them to provide the emerging Hebrew culture with a linguistic repertoire. In Berlin, and in his subsequent domicile in Bad Homburg, he wrote many of the poems for children which would make him a household name.
Bialik’s 50th birthday in 1923 saw him fervently celebrated; Bialik realized he had become a spiritual authority. The excellent sales of his collected work, published on this occasion, helped his decision to finally move to the Land of Israel. Within a few days of his arrival in Tel Aviv, a street was named after him, where he bought a piece of land; his house there was to become a landmark. True to his public role, he participated in almost every cultural venture he was invited to. Few new material was written, the emphasis now shifting to translation older texts into Hebrew.
Some younger writers, especially in Palestine, opposed and criticized Bialik for his bourgeois life-style and the public appearances which came at the expense of his writing. The young generation’s animosity towards Bialik was a matter of a generational artistic shift, but also had political aspects: his young adversaries also attacked him for not being totally committed to the Zionist idea of Hebrew and the Jewish home in Israel, and took offense at his favourable expressions towards the Diaspora and its culture (such as the Yiddish language). Reconciliation dominated, however, the 60th-birthday celebrations of 1933.
Bialik left Palestine several times, mainly for public affairs and especially for the sake of his cherished publishing enterprise, and, later, for health reasons. In 1934, he arrived in Vienna for a prostate operation. During his recovery he suffered a heart attack and died. His funeral in Tel Aviv’s Trumpeldor Cemetery was attended by 100,000 people, almost half of the Jewish population in Palestine.