In the opening pages of “Hayim Nahman Bialik: Poet of Hebrew” (Yale University Press, 2017), Israeli scholar Avner Holtzman writes that the life story of Bialik (1873-1934) is “an epic tale of glory and triumph that is at its core tragic; the story of a poetic genius for whom poetry itself became an agonizing burden; a biography for the man who became the symbol of Jewish national revival but kept shrugging off the mantle of leadership placed on his shoulders.”
There is a certain irony in the fact that large numbers of Israelis consider Bialik to be their “National Hebrew Poet.” Although he is rightly credited with fashioning a rich and flexible literary Hebrew, based on his profound knowledge of the language of the Bible, Bialik wrote the vast majority of his poems in the Diaspora; he composed most of his cherished works while residing in the Black Sea port city of Odessa during the first decade of the 20th century.
For reasons still not understood, in 1911, when he was only 38 years old, Bialik stopped writing poetry on a regular basis. He and his wife, Manya, continued to live in the Diaspora until they finally emigrated to Palestine in 1924, where he spent the last 10 years of his life in Tel Aviv, dying almost 14 years prior to the establishment of the State of Israel.
A final irony is that contemporary Israelis, who speak Hebrew with Sephardic rhythms and pronunciation, cannot correctly read out loud the work of their “National Hebrew Poet” because – with few exceptions – Bialik’s writing resounds with the music of the Ashkenazi Hebrew he heard spoken in his native Eastern Europe.
Nevertheless, Bialik somehow managed to capture in his poems that elusive spirit of those early Zionists who sought to create a new kind of Hebrew-speaking Jew, secular at root, whose dream – to echo “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem – was to establish a free people in their own land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.
As Holtzman writes in his biography, Bialik “drew a distinct dividing line between Jewish existence in the Diaspora, in which Jewish attributes pertained to very specific aspects of life, and in Palestine, where any act, however trivial, pertained to an all-encompassing Hebrew culture of a people that dwells in its homeland and speaks its national language.”
Land and language: essential aspects of Israeli identity to this very day. Indeed, among the very first Hebrew words spoken to me in the summer of 1965, when I set foot in Israel for the first time, were: “Im atah rotseh l’hiyot Yehudi, atah tsarikh lagur po u’l’daber Ivrit [If you really want to be a Jew, you need to live here and speak Hebrew].”
Like many, indeed probably most, early Zionists, Bialik took a negative view of Diaspora Jewry – in particular what he considered to be its long-established passivity, caused by living for two millennia in galut, exile. In “Achen Chatsir Ha’Am” (“Surely the People is Grass”), written in 1897 in response to widespread Jewish indifference to the First Zionist Congress, Bialik, with the fury of a biblical prophet, chastises his fellow Jews:
“Thousands of years of a wandering life, exile too great to bear, /Has pushed the heart astray, lost in its own confusion. /Taught by the rod and the lash – can it feel the pain /Of the shame of its constricted soul as well as the thrashing on its back? /Or can it care about more than the worries of the day, /A people rolling in the valley of exile dark as the abyss?” (my translation).
Many Israelis consider Bialik’s “B’Ir ha-Haregah” (“In the City of Slaughter”) to be his most consequential poem. He wrote it in response to a savage pogrom that erupted on Easter Sunday in 1903, in Kishinev, then capital of the Russian province of Bessarabia: 49 Jews murdered, 86 Jews wounded, 1,500 Jewish stores and homes gutted. Witnesses supplied grim details: bellies ripped open and stuffed with feathers, splattered brains, tongues ripped out of mouths … and worse, far worse.
Bialik visited Kishinev shortly after the pogrom. His first response during a month-long stay was the poignant outburst in the 28 short lines of the Hebrew poem “Al ha-Shechitah” (“On the Slaughter”), which rages against a world that looks the other way when Jewish blood is spilled.
Bialik’s second response to Kishinev, “B’Ir ha-Haregah,” took more than two months to complete. In this poem, which approaches 400 lines, he turns his anger from the perpetrators of the pogrom to the victims. With bitter sarcasm, he expresses his contempt, his fury, his despair at the Jewish men who cowered in hiding places as their mothers, their wives, their daughters were raped, defiled and mutilated before their very eyes:
“They lay in their shame, and they looked – and they did not move, and they did not stir, /And they did not gouge out their eyes, and they did not go out of their minds” (my translation).
Almost 40 years before the Shoah, Bialik’s poem seems to scream out the words NEVER AGAIN!
Shortly after “The City of Slaughter” was published in Hebrew, Vladimir Jabotinsky translated it into Russian, while Bialik himself prepared a Yiddish version. In all three languages, the poem sounds a clarion call for Jews to end their self-destructive passivity and to defend themselves. Some scholars have argued that “B’ir ha-Haregah” is the direct stimulus for the formation of Jewish self-defense organizations in both Russia and Palestine.
This undeniable need for Israelis to defend themselves in their very tough neighborhood remains embedded in Israel’s collective identity and is a major reason why Israeli and Diaspora Jews have so much difficulty understanding each other.
Despite the troubling rise of anti-Semitism here in the United States, we American Jews do not face a consistent and credible threat of violence every day, as do our brothers and sisters in Israel.
As we American Jews continue to explore and expand our relationships with our co-religionists in Israel, we must never forget that our two communities are living with different levels of the threat of violence, and that this difference colors our often conflicting perspectives.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.