The language as nation

A new book presents the life of Hayim Nahman Bialik and shows the inner rift the renowned poet experienced between his inclinations as an artist and his national aspirations.

Hayim Nahman Bialik (photo credit: ZOLTAN KLUGER,GPO)
Hayim Nahman Bialik
(photo credit: ZOLTAN KLUGER,GPO)
By nature of its circumstances, the life of Hayim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934), who is still regarded as Israel’s “national poet,” was intimately interwoven with Zionist and Jewish national history.
Therefore, it is natural that in his new book about the poet’s life and experiences, Prof. Avner Holtzman (an expert on Modern Hebrew literature at Tel Aviv University) chooses to open with the city of Vienna, a place that was one of the most important and fascinating stations in the development of modern Jewish nationalism.
This is where Bialik eventually met his death. Indeed, this biography, Hayim Nahman Bialik: Poet of Hebrew, starts with a funeral – and what a funeral it is: Bialik’s body is transported from Vienna to Trieste, Italy, where the Jewish community has a ceremony to honor the acclaimed poet, then Cyprus, where again a ceremony is performed, and from there he is carried with the escort of Jewish Palestine’s political leadership, including David Ben-Gurion, all the way to the coast of Jaffa, where the body is paraded around the young city of Tel Aviv, until it finally reaches the Trumpeldor cemetery, where other iconic figures were also laid to rest.
This long funeral march attests to the unique significance Bialik represented for the national revival of the Jewish Zionist communities and for the Jewish modern national projects as a whole.
How is it that a poet climbed to such status in the minds and hearts of so many people? What is it that made him surpass the limited confines of the Hebrew literary scene and made him part of the nation’s founding fathers? As Holtzman shows in his book, Bialik’s mission, as the disciple of Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginzburg), was the creation of a Jewish national culture, one that would continue the traditional Jewish cultural corpus, but at the same time offer a secular, humanist frame to that tradition. This was a search for the building blocks of the reviving nation.
According to Ahad Ha’am, who stood in many ways contrary to Herzl, the Jewish political revival and the Jews’ establishment in their own land was not possible without first achieving a full cultural revival that would consist of Hebrew science, Hebrew literature, Hebrew thought, etc. In other words, you can’t have a country of your own before knowing how to explain evolution in Hebrew, quote Shakespeare in Hebrew translation, and write philosophical tractates in the tongue of the Israelites.
For Ahad Ha’am, literature and art were crucial in this process of nation building through an ethos that would eventually lead to some sort of national independence.
The young poet Bialik, who combined in his poetry, and especially early poetry, the mourning over the lost past, and on the other hand, a longing for the return to the Land of Israel, was a perfect fit in Ahad Ha’am’s worldview. He personally encouraged the young man and helped in his way to Hebrew’s central stage at the time, the periodical Hashiloah, of which Ahad Ha’am was founder and editor.
Later, Bialik became an editor himself, and even a publisher of Hebrew publications, with a special focus on Hebrew education and anthological projects, such as the famous Book of Legends (a carefully comprised collection of the best-known midrash stories in adapted modern form).
Indeed, Holtzman emphasizes Bialik’s role as a cultural entrepreneur, revealing, for example, that Bialik used to identify himself as a publisher, when asked about his vocation, rather than a writer or poet.
ALTHOUGH BIALIK managed to secure recognition as “the best Hebrew poet” at a very early age, according to Holtzman, the turning point in Bialik’s wider acceptance as a truly national figure took place due to non-literary violent events: the Kishinev pogroms in 1903. Bialik’s involvement in the documentation of these events, according to Holtzman, was crucial to his recognition by wider circles. Until then he was known to only a few thousand.
As an immediate reaction to the pogroms, Bialik wrote his famous poem “Al Hash’hita” (“On the Slaughter”). But that was only his initial, spontaneous reaction. He later took part in a delegation sent to document in detail all that happened there, a project he never saw through, but influenced him and his perceptions greatly.
“On the Slaughter” was published a few months after the traumatic pogroms and helped secure Bialik’s stature in the growing Jewish Zionist international community as its undisputed star poet.
Throughout the book, Holtzman tries to present readers with the rapture between the image of “the national poet” as a “proper bourgeois” kind of man, and the young poet’s often confused spirit and inclinations.
Holtzman shows this discrepancy through a few instances in Bialik’s life.
This is perhaps emphasized most of all through the comparison between his wife, Manya, who spent many years apart from her husband (who was a frequent traveler) and his friend/lover Ira Jan – a painter and artist, who led a very different life and who was one of the Bezalel Art Academy’s first teachers.
Bialik’s choice of Manya over a “woman of his stature” as Holtzman puts it, is supposed to be representative of many aspects in his long career path. The picture that Holtzman paints is that of a man who chose the role of a “respectable” national poet, over a romantic adventurous artist who roams the world.
Manya over Ira Jan.
At around the age of 38, Bialik stopped writing poetry almost entirely, and devoted himself to the life of a publisher, leading some of the most important cultural endeavors of the emerging modern Hebrew nation, and of what would become the State of Israel. One of his better-known projects, for example, is Dvir Publishing house – which still operates today.
One thing that is not always clear in the book is Bialik’s sources of income.
Even though Holtzman does mention occasionally his publishing business, he rarely, if at all, delves into the technical yet essential details of the monetary success of that business.
IT IS interesting that Israel’s national poet is not buried in Jerusalem, but in Tel Aviv. This is no coincidence, as Holtzman shows. The Zionist leadership wished him to be buried in a designated place (with an interesting history of its own) on top of Mount Scopus, where the university’s wonderful, small, botanical garden is situated today, overlooking the desert.
Manya refused, insisting that her husband be buried in Tel Aviv, in a place he believed in, and with which he identified ideologically.
Bialik didn’t choose to live in Jerusalem either, preferring to live in the modern, brand-new, first Hebrew city.
In a way, this is symbolic of Bialik’s entire image. He was a “poet of Hebrew” as the book’s subheading reads, not of Judaism. He saw himself as taking part in the revival of the Hebrew culture in particular, not just the Jewish one.
Through Bialik’s life story, one can truly understand the important role the ancient language’s revival played in the national revival in general, and why, for Bialik, one could be an eager Zionist and live in Europe until the very last minute possible, as an active and resolute patron of the language. In his worldview, the revival and development of Hebrew advanced the entire Jewish people, through its very heart and most basic ID – its daily tongue.