Hebrew poet Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik (left) and poet and translator Sha’ul Tchernichowsky, Odessa, 1907. (Asher Barash Gnazim Institute, Tel Aviv)

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Bialik, Ḥayim Naḥman

(1873–1934), foremost modern Hebrew poet. Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik was born in the village of Radi, near the city of Zhitomir in Ukraine. After his father’s timber business failed, the family moved to Zhitomir when Bialik was about six years old. His father opened a tavern in a suburb but died after about a year. Because of her own poverty, his mother sent him to be raised by his grandfather.


Fun tsar un tsorn (About Sorrow and Rage), by Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik (Odessa: Kadimah, 1906). Illustrated by M. Solomonoff. The book includes “In shkhite shtot,” the Yiddish version of Bialik’s Hebrew poem about the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, “Be-‘Ir ha-haregah” (In the City of Slaughter). (YIVO)

While living with his grandfather, Bialik was immersed in studies in heder and the bet midrash (study hall), but also received a taste of Haskalah literature. He attended the prestigious yeshiva of Volozhin at the age of 17. There he combined traditional religious education with the acquisition of secular knowledge. Along with his devotion to the study of Talmud, he began to read Russian literature and was especially enthusiastic about the work of the Jewish Russian Shimen Frug. The earliest of Bialik’s surviving poems were written in Volozhin in 1890. During his stay at the yeshiva, he was a member of a secret society of Ḥoveve Tsiyon. An article that he wrote about the activity of the organization, which was printed in Ha-Melits in April 1891, was his first published work.


In late 1891, Bialik left Volozhin for Odessa, with the goals of meeting the admired Hebrew and Yiddish authors who lived there and getting his poetry published. His poem “El ha-tsipor” (To the Bird), which was written in Volozhin, pleased Mosheh Leib Lilienblum and Ahad Ha-Am. With their support, Bialik submitted it to Yehoshu‘a Ḥana Ravnitski, who published it in Pardes in 1892. The poem was widely noted and praised, marking the beginning of Bialik’s long-standing connection with the writers of Odessa. Meanwhile, Bialik returned to Zhitomir and, in 1893, married, moved to the town of Korostyshev, and worked in his father-in-law’s timber business. For about four years, he vacillated between poetry and commerce, until the business failed.


In 1897, Bialik accepted a teaching position in Sosnowiec in southern Poland, where he remained for some three years. During that time, his poems were published in periodicals and his fame grew, especially due to his participation in the monthly Ha-Shiloaḥ, the most respected Hebrew periodical of the time, edited by Ahad Ha-Am. In the mid-1890s, Bialik’s letters expressed a desire to go beyond the boundaries of short lyric poetry to broader compositions, and the first fruit of this ambition was the long poem “Ha-Matmid” (The Talmud Student; 1898), based on the lives of yeshiva students. In 1899, he tried his hand at prose for the first time and published the story “Aryeh ba‘al-guf” (Aryeh the Strong Man). In that year, he also began to publish poems in Yiddish. He moved to Odessa in 1900, and worked as a teacher in a modern heder established by a group of writers and activists.


Grininke beymelekh (Little Green Trees), no. 7 (May 1914). The first Yiddish journal for children to appear regularly, it was published in Vilna from 1914 to 1939. Its title was drawn from the Yiddish poem Unter beymer (Under Trees) by Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, an excerpt of which appears at top left: “Under the little green trees / Play Moyshele, / Shloymele . . . Oy, how precious to me, Jewish children / Are your pure little eyes!” (YIVO)

The first years of the twentieth century were the most productive and creative in Bialik’s life as a poet, both in quantity and quality. At the end of 1901, his first anthology appeared, and in 1902 he established the Moriah publishing house, beginning intense activity in the realm of publishing that continued until the end of his life. In 1903, he took part in an investigation of the Kishinev pogrom, and from this came the long poem “Be-‘Ir ha-haregah” (In the City of Slaughter), which shocked its readers with the power of its condemnation of the behavior of Jewish victims. This long poem is commonly seen as the motivating force behind the formation of the movement for self-defense among Jews in Russia, as well as one of the factors that gave rise to the Second Aliyah movement.



In early 1904, Bialik accepted the task of editing the literature section of Ha-Shiloaḥ, and for that purpose he lived in Warsaw for about a year. After his return to Odessa, he and Ravnitski began to carry out a plan of collecting, translating, and organizing the legends of the Talmud, taking an educational and national slant. The result was Sefer ha-agadah (Book of Legends), the first volume of which appeared in 1908, and Bialik continued to expand it as a life project. Sefer ha-agadah played an important role among generations of secular readers of traditional Jewish literature. The second volume of his poetry was published the same year; frequently reprinted, it contains the best of his poetry. The book was illustrated by the female artist Ira Jan, with whom Bialik had an intimate connection for several years, a liaison that was revealed only decades after his death. 


Bialik’s literary activities expanded and became more varied at the beginning of the twentieth century. He wrote lyric verse and long poems on personal and public subjects, lyrics for songs and adaptations of folk songs, children’s poetry, prose poetry (Megilat ha-esh [The Scroll of Fire; 1905]), poems in Yiddish, stories, essays, and literary criticism, translations, a commentary on the Mishnah, textbooks—in addition to his extensive activity as an editor and publisher. In these years, his status as the foremost poet of the Jewish people was firm, and he became a literary patron for young writers who arrived in Odessa and sought his company or asked him to approve their early works.


Beyond the confines of Jewish culture, Bialik’s name became known when his poems were translated into Russian, especially by Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky. In 1909, Bialik visited Palestine for the first time and was received with great honor. That year, he resigned as editor of Ha-Shiloaḥ, and in the following years, including World War I and the Russian Revolution, he concentrated on his activities as a publisher, especially in developing his kinus (gathering) plan, which he laid out in 1913. The plan was to publish the greatest spiritual treasures of Jewish literature. He was especially committed to publishing poems of the Golden Age of Spain (especially those of Shelomoh ibn Gabirol and Mosheh ibn Ezra). During the second decade of the twentieth century, his production dwindled, and he wrote poems only on rare occasions.


In 1921, with the help of his admirer, the author Maksim Gorky, Bialik obtained an exit visa from Soviet authorities for himself and a group of Hebrew writers and their families. That summer, when they sailed from Odessa to Istanbul, the curtain fell on the important Hebrew literary center that had existed in Odessa for decades. From there, Bialik continued to Germany, where he spent about three years, firmly establishing the Devir publishing house and preparing to transfer the center of his activity to Palestine. During the time he spent in Germany, his fiftieth birthday was celebrated all over the Jewish world. A deluxe anniversary edition of his works was published in four volumes, including his poems, stories, essays, and his translations of Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Schiller’s play Wilhelm Tell. In addition, a volume containing Bialik’s Yiddish poetry also appeared.


In 1924, Bialik moved to Palestine and built a house in Tel Aviv on a street that was named after him in his lifetime. He quickly became a central figure in the public and cultural life of that city and in Palestine in general. He traveled to Europe on occasion, and once, in 1926, to the United States. On his trips abroad he dealt with public causes and with matters concerning the Devir publishing house; he also received medical treatment. Especially noteworthy was his extensive tour in late 1931 to dozens of cities in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, on a mission to promote the circulation of Hebrew books. His visits were always a deeply moving experience for the Jewish public, which received him with excitement. Another motive for his trip was to evaluate the situation of the Jews of Eastern Europe. In light of the social and economic degradation that was revealed to him, his conclusions were gloomy.


During his years in Palestine, Bialik was occupied with collecting the Hebrew poetry of Spain, expanding Sefer ha-agadah, and creating original adaptations of legends connected to kings David and Solomon. He also was engaged with writing for children, with publishing, with extensive public service, and with the establishment of the Union of Hebrew Writers. Among the few poems that he wrote while living in Palestine, most prominent is the autobiographical series Yatmut (Orphanhood), published in the last year of his life.


Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik (2nd from left) and others, including Mojżesz Schorr (2nd from right), Marienbad, Czechoslovakia, ca. 1930s. (YIVO)

At the end of the 1920s, Bialik became the target of a group of younger poets headed by Avraham Shlonsky, as part of their effort to establish modernistic, postromantic poetics. In 1933, his sixtieth birthday was celebrated as a national holiday and a final edition of his poetry and prose was published. Seriously ill, he went to Vienna for an operation, after which he died on 4 July 1934. His writing has appeared in many editions since his death, including a comprehensive academic edition of his poems (Miron et al., eds., 3 vols., 1983–2000). His house in Tel Aviv still serves as a museum and archive dedicated to his life and works.


The beginnings of Bialik’s poetry are tied to the norms of the Ḥibat Tsiyon generation, with national themes and sentimental means of expression. However, from the start his struggle to free himself from those norms is evident. Thus, for example, rather than a sea of worn-out literary tears, he speaks of one heavy and true tear that flows from an authentic experience of suffering and bears with it the power of an experienced impression. In his poetry, for the first time in Hebrew, a true romantic poetics took shape with the speaker in concrete time and space, as the basis for plunging into the depths of the soul or to rising to the heights of imagination and myth. The romantic yearning for lost or desired perfection is embodied in his poetry, for example in the important place he accords to the world of childhood. However, that world is portrayed ambiguously, as both a bright and joyful paradise and as a dark period of humiliation and distress, because of the experiences of orphanhood, poverty, and abandonment.


The same ambivalent attitude characterizes Bialik’s relationship toward most matters. For example, he composed hymns of praise and encouragement for the young Zionist movement and for the first settlers in the Land of Israel. Yet at the same time, he wrote poems expressing a desire to leave the public arena to withdraw into a private domain. On the one hand, he expresses feelings of physical strength and powerful sensuality that seek to take life by storm and devour it. On the other hand, he frequently probes the seductive power of death, which promises repose and total oblivion. He communicates a desperate longing for the love of a woman, but also displays a deep aversion to the full implementation of erotic love, and shows feelings of remorse and revulsion after the fact. He wrote poems of praise for the bet midrash as a bastion protecting the national spirit, but at the same time describes it as a prison that stifles and petrifies the spirit of the young men trapped within it.


With Bialik’s innovations, Hebrew poetry for the first time conveyed a poetic voice of a living, complex person, full of paradoxes, emotion, doubt, and torment. This persona was no longer an allegorical and national voice. Nor did he serve as an emissary, a sentimental complainer, a spokesperson for views, or a bundle of ideological formulations. Instead, the speaker in Bialik’s poetry was portrayed as a real person with a concrete biography and unique sensibilities, urges, psychological complexes, inner energies, distresses, strengths, and weaknesses.


From Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik in Odessa to Abraham Liessin, editor of the Yiddish-language journal Tsukunft, in New York, 12 February 1914, expressing his support for the journal and promising to submit something when he has the time. Yiddish. Hebrew and Russian letterhead: H. N. Bialik, Odessa, Vignerovskii per. 4. RG 201, Abraham Liessin Papers, F103 Bialik. (YIVO)

Bialik introduced far-reaching poetic changes to Hebrew poetry. He perfected the short lyric poem, based on a series of concentrated experiential moments, into a figurative, musical, and rhythmic whole. He also introduced the long, lyrical reflective poem—a respected genre in European romanticism—into Hebrew poetry (an example being “Raze laylah” [The Secrets of Night; 1899]). Following a sensitive speaker’s contemplation of himself and the world, poetry was used for expressing existential thought. He also altered the character of the long poem in Hebrew by changing the traditional model of a dramatic poem with a plot into a new model of a descriptive poem focused on static–cyclical contemplation of a puzzling object (for example, in “Mete midbar” [Dead of the Desert; 1902] and “Ha-Berekhah” [The Pool; 1905]). He created the prophetical poem of anger, written as a powerful dramatic monologue and delivered by an individual who reproves the public for its sins and errors. In addition and by contrast, he developed the artistic folk song, imbued with motifs from Jewish folklore and, with affection and irony, presented popular figures immersed in innocent desires.


The descriptive language in Bialik’s poetry contains images unprecedented in their concreteness. His contemporaries were especially amazed by his highly vital descriptions of nature, which also served as a dynamic reflection of the speaker’s mood. The pictorial and figurative scope of his poems is very broad—from soft and enchanted descriptions of the atmosphere (yam ha-demamah polet sodot [the sea of silence utters secrets]) to grotesque images and powerful, expressive demonic visions (giv‘ole eshtakad [the stalks of yesteryear]; ‘al levavkhem she-shomem [on your heart, which is barren]).


Alter Druyanow (left) with (left to right) writers Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, Yehoshu‘a Ḥana Ravnitski, Mendele Moykher-Sforim, and Yitsḥak Dov Berkowitz, Odessa (?), ca. 1910. (Asher Barash Gnazim Institute, Tel Aviv)

Bialik’s poetic lines are often characterized by their well-formed proverbial character, and many have become a part of the consciousness and associations of Hebrew speakers. The power of his language also derives to a great extent from the complex intertextual play with Jewish sacred literature, especially the Bible. From the beginning of his career, Bialik also excelled in prosody (meter, alliteration, and rhyme), both by perfecting the possibilities of the use of the syllabic tonal meter, which had just been absorbed in Hebrew poetry, and also by creating a free, quasi-biblical meter mainly characteristic of his later poetry.


The canonical corpus of Bialik’s Hebrew poetry contains only 130 poems, but these works form the foundation of modern Hebrew poetry. They are an integral source for readers of Hebrew literature. His 79 children’s poems, some of which were very popular, are the most significant starting point for Hebrew children’s poetry. Less significant is his poetry in Yiddish, but there, too, many of his works arouse great interest; these include the parallel works he created for his Hebrew poetry of rage: “In shkhite-shtot” (the Yiddish version of “Be-‘Ir ha-haregah”; 1906) and “Dos letste vort” (The Last Word; 1901). Generally, Bialik’s Yiddish poetry is more conventional and folk-oriented than his work in Hebrew.


Though Bialik’s stories did not gain as central a place as his poetry, they represent one of the most mature and perfected examples of the linguistic–descriptive literary style (known as nusaḥ) developed by Mendele Moykher-Sforim in Hebrew fiction. On the surface, the stories appear to be realistic works, descriptions of traditional life, with characters motivated by a combination of personal impulse and historical process. The subjects of the stories are typical of the popular themes of that generation: a portrait of the earthy Jew, with strong urges (“Aryeh ba‘al-guf”); a young Jewish man who is attracted to a Christian girl (“Me-aḥore ha-gader” [Behind the Fence; 1909]); and the multifaceted contemplation of a village childhood from the viewpoint of a mature narrator (“Safiaḥ” [Aftergrowth; 1908–1923]; “Ha-Ḥatsotserah nitbayshah” [The Trumpet Was Ashamed; 1915]). Nevertheless, the essential uniqueness of Bialik’s stories is found in their layered and expressive language, with reverberations and allusions to the full range of Jewish culture. The structure of symbolic images in his stories—some of which are basic personal symbols that appear in Bialik’s poetry as well—remove them from realism and transfer them into the realm of myth.

Suggested Reading

David Aberbach, Bialik (London, 1988); Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, Shirim, 1889/90–1897/98, ed. Dan Miron et al. (Tel Aviv, 1983); Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, Shirim, 1898/99–1933/34, ed. Dan Miron et al. (Tel Aviv, 1990); Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, Shirim be-yidish, shire yeladim, shire hakdashah, ed. Dan Miron et al. (Tel Aviv, 2000); Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of Hayim Nahman Bialik, ed. and trans. Atar Hadari (Syracuse, N.Y., 2000); Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, Ha-Shirim, ed. Avner Holtzman (Or Yehudah, Isr., 2004); Sara Feinstein, Sunshine, Blossoms and Blood: H. N. Bialik in His Time; A Literary Biography (Lanham, Md., 2005); Dan Miron, Ha-Peridah min ha-ani he-‘ani: Mahalakh be-hitpatḥut shirato ha-mukdemet shel Ḥayim Naḥman Byalik, 1891–1901 (Tel Aviv, 1986); Dan Miron, Bo’ah, lailah: . . . ‘Iyunim bi-yetsirot Ḥ. N. Byalik u-M. Y. Berdits´evski (Tel Aviv, 1987); Esther Nathan, Ha-Derekh le-Mete midbar: ‘Al po’emah shel Byalik veha-shirah ha-rusit (Tel Aviv, 1993); Uriel Ofek, Gumot ḥen: Po‘alo shel Byalik be-sifrut ha-yeladim (Jerusalem, 1984); Gershon Shaked, ed., Byalik: Yetsirato le-sugeha bi-re’i ha-bikoret, 2nd enl. ed. (Jerusalem, 1992); Ziva Shamir, Ha-Shirah me-ayin timatse: Ars Poetica bi-yetsirat Byalik (Tel Aviv, 1987); Uzi Shavit, Ḥevle nigun (Tel Aviv, 1988); Adi (Eddy) Zemaḥ, Ha-Lavi ha-mistater: ‘Iyunim bi-yetsirato shel Ḥayim Naḥman Byalik, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem, 1969); Samuel Werses, Ben gilui le-khisui: Byalik be-sipur uve-masah (Tel Aviv, 1984).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 107, Letters, Collection, 1800-1970s; RG 201, Abraham Liessin, Papers, 1906-1944; RG 204, David Pinsky, Papers, 1893-1949; RG 208, Chaim Zhitlowsky, Papers, 1882-1953; RG 218, Ezekiel Leavitt, Papers, 1890-1945; RG 422, Lazar Kahan, Papers, 1908-1940s; RG 602, Shalom Asch, Papers, ; RG 713, Herman Bernstein, Papers, 1897-1935 (finding aid); RG 833, Peretz Hirschbein, Papers, 1900-1957.

Author

Translation

Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green