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Lerner, Ya‘akov

(1879–1918), Hebrew poet. Ya‘akov Lerner was born in the town of Brzeżany in Volhynia to an affluent family of rabbinic pedigree. During his childhood, the family became impoverished and was forced to relocate to a village near the town of Kostopol, settling in Kostopol itself a few years later. Lerner attended heders and became engrossed in Judaic studies. He also studied Russian and French with private teachers. In 1901, he went to Warsaw, hoping to earn a matriculation certificate, and for the next five years he eked out a subsistence living as a teacher.

During this time, Lerner became acquainted with the poets Zalman Shneour, Ya‘akov Steinberg, and Ya‘akov Fichmann, who encouraged him to translate foreign literature. It was at this point that he tried his hand at writing poetry. The fruits of these labors were well received by Yosef Ḥayim Brenner, who published Lerner’s first poems in his monthly Ha-Me‘orer (1906). A second series of poems was published in David Frishman’s literary journals Reshafim and Sifrut (1908–1909), among others; from 1910 on, his pieces were also included in the monthly Ha-Shiloaḥ, edited by Yosef Klausner.

After marrying in 1907, Lerner devoted himself to teaching, a career that forced him to wander from place to place in search of a livelihood. Between 1907 and 1909 he lived in Berdichev, and from 1909 until 1911 in Grodno, where he took courses in pedagogy. In 1911, he was awarded a teaching position at a Jewish secondary school in Warsaw. Following the death of his father in 1915, he was summoned back to Kostopol. During the German occupation, Lerner was unable to return to Warsaw. Instead, he found a teaching position at the Jewish secondary school in the town of Romny. In 1916, he moved to Ekaterinoslav, where he taught Hebrew at the secondary school for Jewish war refugees from Vilna. He died in June 1918, a victim of the flu epidemic.

In 12 productive years, Lerner published approximately 50 poems, becoming one of the outstanding, albeit lesser known, personalities of the Bialik generation of Hebrew poetry. The uniqueness of his poetry—and the source of its intense power—can be pinpointed in its gloomy, dark, cold, and desolate atmosphere, as well as in the mood of despair and despondency that suffuses it. This mood is established through a series of typical images, such as pouring rain, an isolated juniper bush in the middle of the desert, and human beings wandering aimlessly across vast and empty spaces. These images, magnified through the use of a monotonous and meter-based rhyme scheme, reflect the existential feeling of the poems’ speaker, who is portrayed as engulfed in bitterness, self-abnegation, and self-loathing.

The influence of Bialik is most pronounced in Lerner’s autobiographical poems “Ha-Taḥanah” (The Mill; 1911), “Ta‘alulim” (Machinations; 1911), “Ba-Goyim” (Among the Gentiles; 1911), and “Be-Ya‘are Polesyah” (In the Polesian Forests; 1913), which depict episodes from his rural childhood. However, in contrast to the ecstatic, visionary dimension woven into Bialik’s poems, which “compensates” for the latter’s depressing childhood, Lerner adds no such element in his vivid portrayals of his own childhood. On the contrary, his epic account of rural experience is aimed at strengthening and reinforcing the elemental, universal feeling that even here everything is permeated by a sense of dreariness, misery, and rootlessness. This overwhelming feeling is given expression in a poignant and innovative manner in Lerner’s last work, the poem “Piaḥ Piaḥ” (Soot Soot; 1918), which describes the terrifying journey of a train as it hurtles across a desolate wilderness, plowing through the darkness amid a great uproar and a torrent of sparks, on a voyage to the unknown. Lerner’s poems were first anthologized in 1940, with an expanded edition published in 1974.

Suggested Reading

Aryeh Lerner, “Le-Toldot ḥayav,” in Shirim, by Ya‘akov Lerner (Ramat Gan, Isr., 1974), pp. 5–19; Zvi Luz, comp., “Mavo’,” in Shirim, by Ya‘akov Lerner (Ramat Gan, Isr., 1974), pp. 21–45; Dan Miron, Bodedim be-mo‘adam: Li-Deyokanah shel ha-republikah ha-sifrutit ha-‘ivrit bi-teḥilat ha-me’ah ha-‘esrim (Tel Aviv, 1987), pp. 215–224, 269–270.



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler