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Cahan, Ya‘akov

(1881–1960), Hebrew poet and playwright. Born in Slutsk, Ya‘akov Cahan moved with his family to the vicinity of Łódź, where he was educated at a progressive Jewish school. Largely self-taught in world literature and Hebrew, he wrote poetry and criticism in that language at a young age, and also translated poems from German. Acclaimed for his style by Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, Cahan earned his reputation as the most purely lyrical of modern Hebrew poets.

Cahan’s first books of poetry appeared after he moved to Bern, where he earned a doctorate in 1909 for his dissertation, Zur Kritik des Geniebegriffs (A Critique of the Concept of Genius), which was published in 1911. According to Avraham Shaanan, Cahan’s poetry reflects the “vitalism” of his close friend Ya‘akov Klatzkin and of Henri Bergson, as well as the symbolism of Stefan George and Maurice Maeterlinck (Shaanan, 1967, pp. 52–57). His attraction to the nonrational may account for Cahan’s movement from his “silk-like” lyricism (Bialik, in his essay “Shiratenu ha-tse‘irah,” 1907) to poems that dealt with cultural revolt, and to affirmations of militarism and Revisionist Zionism. Typical are the famous lines from his poem “Biryonim” (Hooligans; 1903): “Through blood and fire did Judea fall / Through blood and fire will Judea arise.”

Cahan was also extremely prolific as a playwright and translator. His nearly 30 plays—most of them characterized by expansive philosophical verse—highlight major personalities such as David, Solomon, Elijah, and Aḥer (Elisha ben Abuyah) and their mythical significance for Jewish destiny. These plays and others, such as Ha-Nefilim (The Fallen Titans) and ‘Ezra u-Neḥemyah, capture Cahan’s preoccupation with Zionism as a call to greatness and to resisting the inertia of the bourgeois values presumably found in the Diaspora. According to Gershon Shaked, most of Cahan’s plays are “melodramas of ideas, which have an added dimension of the folk tale,” and are, for all their poetic virtuosity, rather pedestrian in content (Shaked, 1970, p. 135ff.). In his play Be-Luz (In Luz), for example, about a legendary city whose inhabitants were immune to dying, Cahan concludes by affirming, rather than controverting, inescapable realities. Unlike Shaked, critic Yeshurun Keshet acclaims the significance of Cahan’s dramatic poems such as Agadot Elohim (Legends of God) and ‘Of ha-ḥol (The Phoenix) as well as his verse dramas, Ha-Nefilim, Be-Luz, and Le-Yad ha-piramidot, in which “epic and lyric elements are fused, and it is this fusion which is Cahan’s hallmark” (Keshet, 1971, col. 17). By all accounts, Cahan was a master stylist. His translation of Goethe’s Faust (1943) is considered a masterpiece.

In interwar Europe Cahan was a central figure overseeing the development of advanced Hebrew education throughout Poland. From 1927 to 1933 he lectured on Hebrew literature at the university level in Warsaw, and was a founder in 1931 of the Berit ‘Ivrit ‘Olamit, an organization promoting Hebrew culture in the Diaspora. As an editor, he contributed to the journals Ha-Tekufah in Warsaw (where he arrived about 1919), and Keneset in Palestine after his emigration in 1934. Politically, he was a major activist in Revisionist Zionism until Vladimir Jabotinsky withdrew from the World Zionist Organization in 1931. Cahan remained loyal to the World Zionist Organization. In Palestine Cahan was no longer involved in politics, but only in literary activities such as editing, serving on the Hebrew Va‘ad ha-Lashon (Language Committee) and as the head of the Israeli chapter of the literary organization PEN; he also worked toward the publication of the 10 volumes of his collected works (beginning in 1948).

Suggested Reading

Stanley Nash, “The Hebraists of Berne and Berlin circa 1905,” in The Great Transition: The Recovery of the Lost Centers of Modern Hebrew Literature, ed. Glenda Abramson and Tudor Parfitt (Totowa, N.J., 1985), pp. 44–59; Avraham Shaanan, Ha-Sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah li-zeramehah, vol. 4 (Tel Aviv, 1967); Gershon Shaked, Ha-Maḥazeh ha-‘ivri ha-histori bi-tekufat ha-teḥiyah (Jerusalem, 1970); Eisig Silberschlag, From Renaissance to Renaissance, vol. 1 (New York, 1973).