Hayim Nahman Bialik—the National Jewish poet who spent his childhood in Zhytomyr

Hayim Nahman Bialik

Ze’ev Volkov, a tour guide and employee of Bialik House [Tel Aviv], talks about the poet who spent his childhood in Zhytomyr following the death of his father, and eventually became a national Jewish poet.

Iryna Slavinska:  Who is Hayim Nahman Bialik and where was he from?

Ze’ev Volkov:  Hayim Nahman Bialik is a national Jewish poet.

Iryna Slavinska:  Now we must make sense of this because this national Jewish poet was born in the Zhytomyr region, which we now consider Ukraine. At the time, it was the Russian Empire. He lived in various cities and various countries.

Ze’ev Volkov:  Let’s proceed in a different way. Yes, birth in the Zhytomyr region, that’s understandable. You must understand that this was an area of shtetls. He was born into a very poor family, and his father died prematurely. If it is necessary to talk about such families. We understand that when a breadwinner dies in the nineteenth century, everything turns bad, and that is why Bialik is sent to be raised by his grandfather. He lives with his grandfather, who has a large number of grandchildren, and the grandfather is indifferent to little Hayim. Where can he run? Where can the little boy escape in the city of Zhytomyr? He escapes to wherever he can, he escapes into books. He escapes into books, and from his childhood he begins to study, he begins to read. Every small Jewish character is for him. Jewish characters are very visual, they can give rise to some awesome visions. And in Bialik every letter assumes such a vision.

Iryna Slavinska:  It is probably necessary to specify whether this is about Yiddish or Hebrew. This is also a separate subject.

Ze’ev Volkov:  First of all, it is not about Russian, and Ukrainian is a completely side issue, but for Bialik, Yiddish is the language of conversation. He studies in Hebrew. In order to understand Bialik, it is necessary to recognize that he knows two languages: Yiddish and Hebrew.

Bialik is a clever little pupil, he wants to obtain an education. In general, many children in the shtetls and in the Pale of Settlement dreamed of acquiring a good education. And he finds out that somewhere there is a village called Volozhyn. It’s a shtetl. He learns from a newspaper, from an article, I believe, by Smiliavsky, that in this Volozhyn people are studying jurisprudence. And he goes to Volozhyn. He arrives, and there is a strange thing in Volozhyn. In Volozhyn he winds up in a yeshiva, where, of course, jurisprudence is not taught at all.

Iryna Slavinska:  What do they teach there? Is it religious education?

Ze’ev Volkov:  The Talmud, the Talmud, the Talmud, and the Talmud. It is only a myth that it teaches jurisprudence, but they teach the Talmud there. Believe me, it is very difficult to study it. There are four hundred boys there, sitting elbow to elbow and mumbling the Talmud for seventeen hours a day. And Bialik ends up there at the very moment when things are difficult for him and he had wanted to study jurisprudence.

There are recollections of him that he was very merry and noisy; reminiscences that sometimes he lay in bed for weeks singing sad Ukrainian songs. We know for sure that he sang. So, he does not want to study the Talmud, it is absurd for him to study that. But at night they teach something about which no one knows anything. They teach the Russian language there. And Bialik becomes acquainted with the Russian language. In the late 1880s, when the young Bialik is 18 or 17, he becomes acquainted with the Russian language. At this point he, of course, learns about [Mykhail] Lermontov, his beloved poet. At that moment, yes, this romanticism of Lermontov is simply play.

Iryna Slavinska: For some reason, I thought that [Fyodor] Dostoevsky would blow his mind; it’s wonderful reading for a young man.

Ze’ev Volkov:  Оh! If you want a laugh, I will tell you that within a year we will know definitely that en route to Odesa he reads Dostoevsky. But at first it was Lermontov and also the poet Shimon Frug. Today he is not known, today he is considered an epigone of [Semen] Nadson. But at the time he was a very great poet. In general, we do not know Nadson today.

So, at any rate, the young Bialik writes poems. I want to read a poem of his because it is very, very important. It’s a pity that we can’t put on a recording; I would also play a song. I will read it in [Samuil] Marshak’s translation because Marshak was a famous Zionist.

Greetings, little bird! Greetings, dearest!
You have flown to me from the south…
My soul, missing your native songs,
Has long been languishing, friend!…
Tell me, darling bird,
Is it dreary and difficult in radiantly happy lands,
As it is here?…
Do you bring greetings from the brothers of Zion,
Distant and passionately loved?
Tell me, have they heard my groans,
The sobs of the persecuted brethren?
And do they know how many merciless foes
Encircle me in the foreign land?
O, sing anon of welcome valleys,
Where the bright sun shines!

This is a really great verse. People who know Lermontov know that Bialik is under the strong influence of [Lermontov’s] text, “The Palm Branch of Palestine.” But you have to realize that this is for those who know Lermontov. For Jewish poetry this is a giant step foreward. Bialik simply introduces Romanticism into the whole poetry of enlightenment that the Jews have, and this is really great. By the way, he has a Jewish—Yiddish—version. What I read was a translation from the Hebrew.

Iryna Slavinska:  He translates himself from the Hebrew into Yiddish, and the reverse? Do other people translate it?

Ze’ev Volkov:  He wrote twelve poems in Yiddish. He spoke in Yiddish all the time. He wrote twelve poems in Yiddish; all the rest he wrote in Hebrew. He has one text that will be in the Russian language. It will be translated often into Yiddish, when it gets older. But what we have is in Hebrew. And that is what is interesting about this poem because it is very likely that he had not read [Nikolai] Nekrasov yet, and we know the changes that were made to this poem. Well, this is very interesting; these are two poems together, so passionate was Bialik about Russian poetry.

Then he arrives in the city of Odesa, and in the city of Odesa everything goes badly for him. He writes: “Odesa is so big that it could eat me up.”

Iryna Slavinska:  But he actually goes to Odesa from the yeshiva, which he did not like. In fact, he runs away from it, if I understood correctly.

Ze’ev Volkov:  Yes, he runs away; you understand correctly. He arrives, he lives with a man who dies from the flu on the balcony; there’s some uncertainty. But there is a man whose name is Ravnitski, Yehoshu‘a Ravnitski, and Ravnitski publishes the first edition of Hebrew poets [i.e., the first issue of the Hebrew literary journal—Trans.] called Pardes. And Bialik comes to Ravnitski and Ravnitski says: “I have done everything already; the proofs are nearly ready.” Bialik tells him: “Here’s the poem.” And Ravnitski looks at the poem, removes his own, and puts in Bialik’s poem. From that moment we acquire the great, young poet Hayim Nahman Bialik.

Iryna Slavinska:  Does fame follow immediately after this first publication?

Ze’ev Volkov:  A big problem occurs after the first publication, because he finds out that his grandfather, who lives in Zhytomyr, is sick. He must return. He goes back, and everything is bad in Zhytomyr. The wood trade that he detests.

But a good thing happens there. He gets married. He marries Mania. It is a marriage that is called shidduch in Hebrew. He did not see his wife before marriage, he falls in love with her along the way, as they say. This is a wonderful thing. But he is living in that Zhytomyr, and that’s it. But he writes poems there, everyone is yelling at him. “Bialik! Bialik, come to Odesa.” Ravnitski writes to him all the time, everyone writes to him, yet he still cannot leave. He was stuck in Zhytomyr for eight years. He suffers from depression, we see this in everything. I think that is when Dostoevsky was playing around in his head.

But he returns in 1901, and he returns as a great poet. The greatest man [Joseph] Klaussner, who lives in Odesa and is engaged in the study of literature, is one of the first to call Bialik a national poet. If there is time, we can chat about the question of what a national poet is. But Bialik writes. Bialik writes, many different things have an impact on him at one and the same time. In his creative work during this period he managed to cross over from Romanticism to decadence because [Charles] Baudelaire was finally translated into Russian.

Iryna Slavinska:  Now there is something to read.

Ze’ev Volkov:  Bialik becomes acquainted with Baudelaire, he reads The Flowers of Evil, and we get Bialik with decay and everything that should be in decadence. He switches, creates the Jewish folk song…. We did not have the folk song [genre], he creates it. In general, he creates styles, and during these ten years he simply ran through all these styles. It is awesome to see how this, that, and the other is blended in a single poem of his.

Iryna Slavinska:  We are continuing to talk about the formation of this poet, and have already concluded the conversation with the thesis about the process by which a national poet emerges. I would like to ask how this happens. Perhaps the poet expressed particular themes or problems. As regards the territory of the Russian Empire at the time, there is a very problematic history—the pogroms.

Ze’ev Volkov:  Pogroms are happening all the time. You have to realize that there is one pogrom that changes everything. This is the 1903 pogrom in Kishinev; it is completely different. Around fifty people died there. But at that very time everyone realized that this is something new because there is support for the pogrom from the state. It is no ordinary pogrom that took place in Kishinev. In Odesa, the Odesa Committee tells Hayim Nahman Bialik: “Go to Kishinev, write down everything that’s happening there, talk to everyone. You’ll write an article, and we will publish the article, we will present the journal to those who suffered during the pogrom.” Hayim Nahman Bialik goes off, he records everything, but afterwards he is silent. Hayim Nahman Bialik remains silent for half a year. That’s bad. Then Bialik published a poem. I will read only the first part, but I want your listeners to become acquainted with this poem somehow.

Iryna Slavinska:  I have to ask again: this is a translation?

Ze’ev Volkov:  I am reading [Vladimir] Zhabotinsky’s translation. This is important because Hayim Nahman Bialik will say that Zhabotinsky turned him into a national poet. Bialik writes in Hebrew, but far from everyone can read Hebrew, and that is why Zhabotinsky translates it—this is an important work.

…Get up and walk through the city of the massacre,
And with your hand touch and lock your eyes
On the cooled brain and clots of blood
Dried on tree trunks, rocks, and fences; it is they.
Go to the ruins, to the gaping breaches,
To walls and hearths, shattered as though by thunder:
Concealing the blackness of a naked brick,
A crowbar has embedded itself deeply, like a crushing crowbar,
And those holes are like black wounds,
For which there is no healing or doctor.
Take a step, and your footstep will sink: you have placed your foot in fluff,
Into fragments of utensils, into rags, into shreds of books:
Bit by bit they were amassed through arduous labor—and in a flash,
Everything is destroyed…
And you will come out into the road—
Acacias are blooming and pouring their aroma,
And their blooms are like fluff, and they smell as though of blood.
And their sweet fumes will enter your breast, as though deliberately,
Beckoning you to springtime, and to life, and to health;
And the dear little sun warms and, teasing your grief,
Splinters of broken glass burn with a diamond fire—
God sent everything at once, everyone feasted together:
The sun, and the spring, and the red massacre!

This is the beginning [of the poem]. It is a strange poem and a gruesome poem. It is not just about the pogrom. In essence, if you read the poem, what I just read, “God sent everything at once,” it means, “God created everything at once.” For the first time Bialik said an awful thing: Jews, your pogrom was created by your Jewish God. Until that time no one had permitted himself to say this.

Iryna Slavinska:  What does this mean as a political statement? After all, the pogroms, I can assume, appear to be rather comprehensible history. We exist and they exist. There are executioners and there are victims. And here is a thesis about “your Jewish God.”

Ze’ev Volkov:  There is something generally interesting in Bialik’s work. He began from Romanticism, then he went far away. Then he looked at our people as a people of supra-Romanticism. He tells us that for two thousand years you are promising to leave for Jerusalem, yet you go nowhere. And then he gave God that slap. The text is quite harsh, and he did a rather strange thing. Today historians of Israel say that the Second Aliyah, the second immigration to Palestine, which took place from 1903 to1914, is the resettlement of this poem.

I want you to understand:  Bialik influenced a huge number of people to quit their homes and move to Palestine. This does not happen. He is a man who gave a speech, hit the people very hard, because this poem exposes the worthlessness of the people, and the people wanted to answer him: “Yes.”

Iryna Slavinska:  How is this text disseminated? 

Ze’ev Volkov: [David] Ben-Gurion recopied it using pens. Then it was published, but tsarist censorship even banned…

Iryna Slavinska:  This is precisely where the question lies. At the beginning of the twentieth century not so many people know how to read. How did such a large number of people, who eventually decide to emigrate, become acquainted with it?

Ze’ev Volkov:  Reading is pretty well developed among Jews. Even if we are talking about Great Russia, I don’t know the percentage there, but in the late nineteenth century we see the development of reading. And Jews are reading. The problem is: In which language are they reading, whom are they reading? But there are three languages that are used here, in the territory. It is Yiddish into which Bialik translates himself.

Iryna Slavinska:  In other words, this is self-translation.

Ze’ev Volkov:  Hebrew, which is read and understood because during this period there is a vogue for circles devoted to learning Hebrew. In Odesa, Bialik is part of such a circle. And the Russian language.

It is interesting that Bialik knew the Russian language so poorly during this period, in the 1890s, that he could not teach Hebrew to a girl in Odesa because he did not know Russian well and couldn’t talk to her. You must understand that already in 1910, when he comes out in Zhabotinsky’s translation, everyone knows Bialik. He is known by the entire Silver Age. For example, what they write, the greatest poet that you know: “O, this night! He himself pulled despair tighter and tighter. From my crying and laughter the mug of the room twisted in horror. And in a vision arose the face gone from you, with your eyes you gaped at his carpet, as though a new kind of Bialik had invented a dazzling princess of Zion of the Jews.” This is Vladimir Mayakovsky. In other words, everyone knows Bialik. In essence, Bialik is our poet of the Silver Age.

Iryna Slavinska:  But is this context not anti-Semitic? The early twentieth century in many countries, not just in the Russian Empire, is a period of difficult relations among various nationalities within the framework of a single country. How is he perceived in the literature of the Russian Empire at the time? Where does this love come from?

Ze’ev Volkov:  After every pogrom poets sat down and translated his poem into the Russian language. That is why our poem “About the Massacre” exists in seven or eight different translations. To translate Bialik—this was a serious Judaeophile occupation.

Bialik writes his great poems in 1910, but Bialik as a great prophet became a blank in 1912; he stopped writing poems. He had made [his contribution] … This is generally very interesting. He had written everything that he possibly could have written. Subsequently he wrote little, but this was not important.

Iryna Slavinska:  What did he do after this?

Ze’ev Volkov:  He published books, he has a publishing house in Odesa. He labored over the works of Spanish Jewish poets, he worked a lot with Ravnitski. They published the book Haggadah. This is a book of Jewish tales, because before that Jews worked on the Halakhah, these are laws. Bialik says: “No, no, no. In order to understand laws, you must understand tales. In order to understand tales, you must understand laws.” And that’s why he works on this. He is a patron of culture, he creates a very important thing. He says that we should create a new collection of Jewish books, and he creates…well, he asks everyone to provide him with their books, and all these historians and philosophers give Bialik books, so that he will publish these books and create a Jewish collection. He has amazing things; Bialik is a magnificent orator.

Iryna Slavinska:  He is also a translator. He translates Shakespeare, Schiller, Cervantes.

Ze’ev Volkov:  Yes, yes, yes. He translates Shakespeare, Cervantes. You must understand that he generally…. He translates Shakespeare a bit better, with a biblical subtext. But he never translated Russian poetry. Mayakovsky liked him, but Bialik was not fond of him. Not to say that he didn’t like him, he just did not translate him.

Here’s another very important point. Bialik gave children Jewish poetry, because before Bialik no one wrote Jewish poems for children, but Bialik did. In other words, he created childhood for Jewish children, and today every Jewish child running around in Israel knows this Bialik since childhood.

And later, in Tel Aviv, Bialik becomes a non-religious rabbi of Tel Aviv.

Iryna Slavinska:  In fact, I wanted to ask about this. Bialik moves to Tel Aviv. What is Bialik’s move about, and where [does he go]? Why a non-religious rabbi?

Ze’ev Volkov:  In 1925 Bialik comes to Bialik Street. I want you to understand. Bialik moves to Bialik Street, where Bialik House had been built for him.

Iryna Slavinska:  Which was already named [after him]…

Ze’ev Volkov:  Yes, yes, yes. This is a house-temple in its purest form. And Bialik is viewed as a rabbi. Bialik himself does not walk around the city. Bialik goes outside and onlookers come to him, and Bialik can walk around the city, pluck some man out of the crowd, and sit down and talk with him. Bialik—these are his memories…. You cannot even imagine. It was a kind of city core. Female owners of bazaar stalls came to him with their problems. Women ran to him after a child was born, asking him how to name it. Heads of companies rushed to him, asking him how to name their firms. Bialik offers a name. Bialik introduces new words into Hebrew.

In this house where he lives he does not write poems, but creates a very important thing, the Oneg Shabbat. He says there is no monopoly on Judaism in Jerusalem, and one can talk about Judaism anywhere. That is why he establishes Oneg Shabbat, where people come and talk about the Sabbath.

Bialik smoked on the Sabbath, so a religious nut writes him a letter asking how he can smoke on the Sabbath. And Bialik answers him in a classy way. Citing Rabbi Kook, he says that the Jews had a temple, and in the temple was the Holy of Holies, a place of God’s emanation, where the non-material becomes material. The high priest could enter there only once a year, but no one else could enter. But when the temple was being built, people were walking in that area in their dirty sandals and placing bricks, building this chamber. Like that: We are building this chamber. The time will come when the high priest enters. But in the meantime, let us build it.

That’s the kind of man—complex man—he was. It is interesting to see how Israel has museumified him. It has museumified him, stripping him of his life for a long time. You know, great poets do not go to the toilet. There are no anecdotes about Bialik—it’s funny. And he was raised onto such a pedestal that it is very difficult to bring Bialik into contemporary life. But today he is in fashion. And believe me, people are constantly visiting Bialik House, not just groups but ordinary people from all over the world, and each time that I’m at the museum I rejoice that people who speak different languages come to look at Hayim Nahman Bialik. In other words, I see that he is needed, and this is very interesting.

This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian and Russian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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