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The Complex Greatness of the Jewish National Poet, Part One

In December 1903, Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik burst to fame and notoriety in a storm of rage at Jewish passivity; by 1910, his poetic career had stalled.

Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik. Jewish Chronicle/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik. Jewish Chronicle/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

Observation
Aug. 29 2017
About the author

Hillel Halkin’s books include Yehuda HaleviAcross the Sabbath RiverMelisande: What are Dreams? (a novel), Jabotinsky: A Life (2014), and, most recently, After One-Hundred-and-Twenty (Princeton). 


This essay is the seventh in a series by Hillel Halkin on seminal Hebrew writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The first six dealt with the novelists Joseph PerlAvraham Mapu, and Peretz Smolenskin, the poet Yehudah Leib Gordon, the essayist and Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am, and the writer, journalist, and intellectual Micha Yosef Berdichevsky.

We present this essay in three consecutive parts. The second part appeared WednesdayAugust 30, and the third and final part will be published on Thursday, August 31.

In April 1903 a pogrom erupted in the city of Kishinev—today the Moldovan capital of Chişinău and then a largely Romanian-speaking town in the Russian province of Bessarabia, northwest of Odessa. When two days of rioting and pillage were ended by a tardy military intervention, 49 Jews had been murdered and many hundreds injured. Over a thousand Jewish homes and stores were looted and destroyed.

The Kishinev pogrom was but a sign of things to come: far worse anti-Jewish violence was to take place in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, well in advance of the Holocaust. But there had been nothing on this scale since the mass killings of Jews during Bohdan Chmielnicki’s Cossack rebellion in Ukraine in 1648-49, and the shock waves were great. One of the first Jewish responses was a commission of inquiry from Odessa to report on what had happened. Appointed to head the commission was the Hebrew poet Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik.

The thirty-year-old Bialik, already a celebrated figure in the Hebrew literary world, arrived in Kishinev immediately after the pogrom and spent over a month interviewing survivors and witnesses and taking extensive notes. In the end, he never wrote his report. Instead, he composed a long poem that he finished in late summer. Called by him “In the City of Slaughter,” its name was changed to “The Burden of Nemirov” at the insistence of the tsarist censor, a baptized Jew named Israel Landau, who wished it to appear that the poem concerned distant rather than contemporary events. (Modeled on such prophecies of Isaiah as “the burden of Egypt” and “the burden of Babylon,” the title referred to the site of a notorious massacre by Chmielnicki’s forces.) Subsequently, the original name was restored.

“In the City of Slaughter” did not need Landau to link it to biblical prophecy. Its opening line clearly echoed such calls as the book of Jonah’s “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it” and the book of Ezekiel’s “Arise, go to the valley and there I will talk with you”:

Arise, go to the city of slaughter, and come into its yards,
And look, and see, and run your hands over the boards
Of fences, and the stone of houses, and the plaster, and the wood,
And the clotted brains of victims and their dried blood.

These words hit us with a gale force that we have had no time to prepare for and that does not abate until the poem’s end. But who is speaking them? Is it God addressing the poet? Or is it the poet addressing us?

From there proceed to the smashed kitchens and the battered walls
Of the wrecked rooms with their gaping holes
Bludgeoned and bashed by the sledgehammer’s blows,
Their blackened stones and bared flesh of charred bricks
Screaming like mouths of dark, open wounds
That no one can mend and no one can fix.
Sink your feet into the feathers of torn pillows and the mounds
And heaps and piles of broken things, of books and scrolls,
The herculean labor of the ages—
And then, leaving behind the ruins of their pages,
Step outdoors and smell, against your will,
The heathen incense of the acacias’ perfumed bloom,
And while a thousand golden arrows of the sun
Pierce you to the quick and every glitter
Of shattered glass gloats at your doom,
Be not unpleased that spring has come,
For the Lord has summoned it and death together:
The sun, the blossoms, and the slaughterer.

Whoever the speaker is, the day is balmy as the poet is taken, or takes the reader, on a tour of the pogrom’s devastation. How awful to enjoy the spring sunshine! Already then Bialik must have known that the report would have to wait. What was he to have written in it? There were bloodstains everywhere; the floors were littered with torn books and ripped pillows; and the incongruously fine weather, which the writer of this report is ashamed to admit he took pleasure in, only made things worse? One can imagine the frown in Odessa.

A poet should write poems. This one goes on to describe a dog and its owner, both with their heads chopped off, and ascends to an attic in which Jews sought unsuccessfully to hide: corpses swing from a rafter, a man lies killed by nails driven through his nostrils into his brain, a lifeless infant presses its mouth to its mother’s cold breast. We climb back down and then descend another level deeper into the inferno, to one more failed refuge:

And now go down to the dark cellar holes.
There, on each daughter of your people, amid junk and old tools,
Seven uncircumcised savages piled,
Despoiling child in front of mother, mother in front of child,
Before, and as, and after their throats were slit.
Touch the red-stained pillow and the gory sheet,
The satyr’s cesspit and the wild pig’s sty;
See the bloodied ax, and then espy,
Crouched behind barrels and moldy hides,
The husbands, the brothers, the betrothed of young brides,
Peering through peepholes at bodies that writhe
And choke, befouled on their blood,
Beneath rank donkeys, passed round like the food
Shared by the brute goy workman at his lunchbreaks;
Ask how, too scared to move and cowering in shame,
They managed to keep sane and failed to rake
Their eyes out with their nails—yes, even prayed,
“Dear God, just let me get through all this unscathed.”

This is unbearable. Who would believe that Kishinev could have witnessed something more terrible than the bestiality of its pogromists? And yet, the poem tells us, it did: the cowardice of its male Jews, so great that they could think only of their own lives as they watched wives, daughters, and sisters raped and killed. How could any people breed such a contemptible race of men?

There is no time to ponder this question, however, because we are now being led to a stable where, as though the Middle Ages had never ended, Jews have been lashed to wagon wheels, their limbs broken one by one until they died. From there, the voice drives us unsparingly on to the Jewish cemetery:

And now leave the city and go, unseen and alone,
To the graveyard and silently stand
At the foot of each martyred child, woman, and man
In the freshly dug, crumbly ground
While you shrivel with shame and with pain;
For I will strike you dumb;
Though you would weep, no tear will come;
And should you want to bellow like an ox
Beneath the knife, you will not even groan,
For I will harden you and turn your heart to stone.
Here it lies, the butchered flock.
You ask for restitution? What?
Forgive me, you wretched of the earth:
Your God is destitute like you,
Poor in your life and poorer in your death.
And if you knock upon my door to claim your due,
I will open it and say: “Come, look about:
There’s nothing here—I’ve been cleaned out!”
My heart goes out to you, my sons, truly, it does.
You died in vain, and neither you nor I
Know what you perished for or why.
Your deaths were just as pointless as your lives.

At last we know who the relentless voice belongs to. It is God’s—and the poet’s. Or rather, it is the poet’s impersonating a God he does not believe in—a God who promised Isaiah to make the deaf hear and the blind see, who breathed life into the bones of the dead for Ezekiel, and who raised Jonah from the belly of a whale but who cannot save the Jews of Kishinev because He no longer exists. Knock on His door and there is nothing there. We have been guided through Kishinev by a ventriloquist.

“In the City of Slaughter” ends with a memorial gathering. Prayers are recited by the survivors for the dead. A cantor chants the Avinu Malkeynu prayer. “Our Father, our King! Act in the name of the slaughtered! Act in the name of the infants! Act in the name of the beloved children!” There are sniffles and sobs. For what have the Jews of Kishinev been punished? Why is it always the Jews? God has no idea. “Why are they pleading with Me?” he asks the poet.

Speak to them! Get them to thunder at Me!
Make them shake their fists at Me for what I’ve done
To all their generations, from first to last,
And smash the heavens and My throne!

But the Jews of Kishinev do no such thing. A speaker gives a trite speech. Someone yawns. It is getting late. Soon, the event over, all disperse. The poet, the pretense of speaking in God’s voice wearing thin, thinks:

Let them go. The stars are out tonight.
Stricken, abased, they slink away like thieves,
Each to his home; each with his own griefs;
Each more bent of back and desolate
Than he was before; each to his own bed,
Bone-weary and his heart consumed by rot.
And should you take tomorrow to the road,
You will see, outside the doors and windows
Of the rich, a moaning, groaning crowd of Jews
Hawking their wounds like peddlers their wares,
Here a maimed hand, there a dented skull,
With outstretched arms, their bruises bared,
And eyes, the eyes of beaten slaves, that tell
Their benefactors: “See? My head’s a bloody pulp.
You owe me for a martyred father, too, so help!”
And our merciful rich Jew takes a long pole,
Ties to it provisions in a sack,
Holds it out the window for each soul,
And warns the solaced beggars, “Don’t come back!”

In Hebrew, the entirety of “In the City of Slaughter” is rhymed. This is an implausible way for the God of the Bible, which knows nothing of rhyme, to express Himself—and yet were it not for the tight leash on which its rhymes hold the poem’s metrically irregular lines, one feels they would fly apart from sheer fury at a people so shameless and degraded that it treats its own victimhood as so much merchandise to turn a profit on:

To the graveyard, beggars, to exhume
Your martyrs’ bones and fill your sacks with them,
And shoulder them and take them everywhere,
To every marketplace and country fair!
Find yourselves a roadside stop or shrine,
Spread them out on filthy rags in broad sunshine
For all to see, and wheedle till you’re hoarse with wheedlery.
Pray for the pity of the goy! Cry for the world’s sympathy!
Beggars you’ve always been—beggars you’ll always be.

“Wheedlery?” There is no such English word. But neither is there any such Hebrew word as shnorer, which Bialik borrowed from Yiddish and turned into the phonetically awkward verb l’shnorēr in the caustic line v’kha’asher shnorārtem tishnorerū, “And as you have schnorred, so you will go on schnorring.” With this line, the last illusion of biblicity is punctured.

Held up by additional problems with the censor, “In the City of Slaughter” did not appear in print until December 1903. (Landau, despite having converted to advance his career, considered himself a loyal Jew, and the lines he most objected to, ironically, were not those describing the pogrom’s savagery that the Russian authorities had failed to stop in time but the lines mocking Jewish religious faith.) Even before then, however, knowledge of the poem spread among Russian Jews and generated an excitement that grew greater after its publication, especially once a Russian translation by Ze’ev Jabotinsky appeared in March 1904 and a Yiddish one by Bialik himself two years later.

There was nothing like it in Hebrew literature. Of dirges for Jewish suffering at Gentile hands and calls for God’s vengeance, this literature was full; their prototype was the book of Lamentations. But “In the City of Slaughter,” though its opening lines might appear to place it in this tradition, was a violent attack on it. It was a diatribe, not a dirge; its anger was directed more at Jewish passivity than at Gentile brutality; and it blamed Jews for their misfortune not because they had sinned against a punitive God but because they had depended on a powerless One. If it had Hebrew predecessors, these were to be found in some of the poems of Yehudah Leib Gordon, especially “Zedekiah in Prison.” Yet not even Gordon had gone so far in denouncing East European Jewry’s emasculation by its own religion and culture. The j’accuse of “In the City of Slaughter” was a je nous accuse, a pitiless Jewish self-indictment.

Was it justified? Some thought not. Bialik’s poem, they protested, was unfair and inaccurate, scandalously insensitive to Jewish feelings and blind to the fact that many of Kishinev’s Jews had behaved bravely and fought to defend themselves. The Hebrew author Y.D. Berkovitz, a son-in-law of Sholem Aleichem, relates a conversation held in Odessa in 1906 with the great Hebrew and Yiddish novelist Mendele Mokher Sforim. In it, Mendele, an admirer of Bialik and his poetry, said in the name of the pogrom’s victims, of which he was not personally one:

To this day, I can’t forgive [Bialik] for that poem about the Kishinev pogrom that the whole world talked about. . . . Good grief! Wild beasts, the dregs of humanity, set upon me, my wife, and my children, kill and murder me in the most abominable ways, put me to every conceivable torture—and along comes [Bialik] and berates me like a stump preacher, sowing salt in my wounds.

Indeed, Bialik’s notes from his stay in Kishinev, which were finally published in 1991, make it clear that he knew his descriptions of Jewish cowardice, though not untrue, were unbalanced; recorded by him, too, were cases of Jews who armed themselves with guns and clubs, stood their ground in pitched battles, and repulsed the rioters in some places. A Hebrew poet writing about Kishinev might have chosen to emphasize these cases, or at least to give them equal weight. “In the City of Slaughter” did not mention them.

But this, of course, was the main reason that Bialik had to write a poem. He was writing from a place of strong emotion—and of deep conviction. Like most Hebrew writers of his age he was a Zionist, and he believed that Jewish life in exile, and specifically, in the Eastern Europe that he was a product of, was incurably deformed. The pogrom in Kishinev was both a goad to stating this belief and an opportunity for doing so, and this called for treating the facts selectively. It could not have been done in a commissioned report.

Nor could any such report, however eloquent, have had “In the City of Slaughter”’s electrifying effect. The poem became required reading for young East European Jews and helped spur them to form self-defense groups throughout Russia. Berkovitz was speaking for them when he wrote:

Mendele’s fierce reaction to “The Burden of Nemirov” surprised me. For me, as for all the members of my generation, Bialik’s poem of protest was like a torch burning in the night, summoning us to a life of dignity and courage, of awakening, of rebellion.

“It was at this point,” writes Avner Holtzman in a recent biography of Bialik, “that Bialik became a national poet in the eyes of large segments of the [East-European Jewish] public.” He had already been called that prior to Kishinev. The first to do so, it would seem, was the future Hebrew novelist Yosef Ḥayyim Brenner, who as an eighteen-year-old wrote to a friend in 1899 about “our national poet, Ḥ.N. Bialik.” Bialik merited the epithet, Brenner thought, because, at a time when “tens of thousands of young Jews are thirsting for . . . answers to the terrible questions [confronting them], and our people . . . are either eternally spiritless slaves or wretched savages,” no one gave voice more than Bialik to “our feelings, our aspirations, the throbbings of our hearts.” Others agreed. When Bialik’s first volume of verse appeared in 1902, it was hailed as the work of a Jewish “national poet” by two contemporary critics of Hebrew literature, Yehoshua Ravnitzky and Yosef Klausner.

The term had been used by Hebrew literary critics before; it reflected the alliance of Hebrew literature with Jewish nationalism, and especially, Zionism, that was forged in the late 19th century. If Russian had its Alexander Pushkin and Polish its Adam Mickiewicz as supreme expressions of national consciousness, Hebrew deserved no less—and because poetry had a vatic status not accorded to prose, it deserved it in the form of a poet.

Already in the 1880s, Hebrew critics had debated whether the title of “national poet” belonged to Gordon; the objection to granting it to him centered less on his not being a good enough poet than on his not being a true Zionist. But Gordon, for all his merits, fell short of poetic greatness, as a later generation of critics acknowledged. Although he was the best that 19th-century Hebrew verse had to offer, he remained bound to its neoclassical diction and stale prosody. R’uven Brainin, in his introduction to an 1899 edition of the minor Hebrew poet Shimon Shmuel Frug, classed Gordon with Frug as representing the “old poetics.” “The new poet,” he wrote rhapsodically, “the prophet of the future, is on his way. I feel his breath, his approaching presence. Perhaps he is already walking among his people and we will soon hear his redeeming voice.”

Such were the expectations when Bialik’s first book of poems came out, soon to be followed by “In the City of Slaughter.” The crown was waiting for a head to be placed on. How heavily it would weigh on the head of a young poet with barely ten years of published verse behind him was not a question being asked.

 

2.

 

Mentally, Bialik had been preparing to write “In the City of Slaughter” long before the Kishinev pogrom. In 1895, in a letter to Ravnitzky, he had said of the Jewish tradition of lamentation:

Once, when our more innocent and “spiritual” ancestors believed in their God and lovingly accepted His decrees as atonement for their sins, . . . every disaster was considered a divine reminder of God’s ways and Jews responded by vindicating it with pleas and threnodies and praying for better times and redemption. Now, though, [Jewish youth] has had enough of this. . . . Let [today’s poets] write about the despair, the absence of God, the rebellion against suffering, and the refusal to go on living the wretched life of dogs that characterize our generation.

Remarkably, the twenty-two-year-old writer of this letter was still outwardly a traditionally observant Jew who had just cast off the long gabardine of his ancestors for modern garb—a change facilitated by the fact that he was then living by himself in a forest of which he had been put in charge by his new father-in-law, Shevaḥ Averbukh, a lumber merchant. Bialik’s childless marriage to Averbukh’s daughter Manya was an arranged one, agreed to under family pressure, and although it lasted a lifetime on a foundation of mutual caring and respect, there was never any passion in it.

His own father, Yitzḥak Yosef Bialik, was in the lumber business, too, in the small Ukrainian village of Radi; Bialik’s childhood there was to be remembered by him as a period of never-to-be-repeated happiness. Radi was, he wrote in an autobiographical sketch composed while he was in Kishinev at the request of Klausner, who had just replaced Ahad Ha’am as editor of the Hebrew journal Hashiloaḥ and wished to write a long article on the poet,

a place of woods and meadows, an oasis of humble beauty in which a simple and hale Nature was content to be itself and make do with its modest endowments—the brilliance of its sky, the expanse of its fields, the stillness of its forests, all posing a riddle that said “Solve me!”. . . To this day, the memory and vision of them are for me like morning dew on the grass.

When Bialik was six, his father’s business failed and the family moved to the nearby town of Zhitomir, where Yitzḥak Yosef reluctantly opened a tavern in which Bialik recalled him serving his rowdy customers with an opened volume of the Mishnah on the counter, trying to shut out his surroundings with it. Soon afterward he died, and Bialik’s mother, burdened with three children and no means of supporting them, put Bialik in the care of his grandfather—“a stern, frightfully old man,” he wrote Klausner, “who studied sacred books all day long. Obviously, he and I, a spirited, mischievous orphan given to emotional outbursts, didn’t for the most part get along.”

In the ḥeder that his grandfather sent him to, his teacher did not spare the rod. “If I shinnied up a telegraph pole—wham! If I went sliding on the ice—whack! If I climbed the teacher’s roof at night and crowed like a rooster—drawing and quartering were too good for me.” Yet eventually a more liberal schoolroom was found in which he proved to be an outstanding student who encouraged his grandfather’s ambition for him of growing up to be a rabbi and a scholar. Still too young to leave home for a yeshiva at the time of his bar-mitzvah, the age at which ḥeder education ended, he was given a place in the local beyt hamidrash or study house—in effect, a synagogue equipped with an extensive library of religious texts that Jews of different ages spent their time with.

By the 1880s, however, the study houses of Eastern Europe were languishing; the young rarely frequented them and their older occupants were dwindling. “I was,” Bialik wrote Klausner,

the only boy from the vicinity in the study house. The one person apart from me was the local dayan [halakhic judge], who spent half the day there praying and studying. Most of the inhabitants of the area were merchants who thought and lived for nothing but money and had sons like themselves. . . . I had no one to talk to or share my inner world with. Sometimes I felt that I was God’s only child and the darling of His Sh’khinah. She was with me, spreading her wings over me and guarding me like the apple of her eye.

In near total seclusion, he spent the next four years in this cloister “alone with my thoughts, my doubts, and the secret workings of my mind, sitting for days on end by the bookcase and pausing from time to time from my studies to fantasize and daydream.” At the same time he began surreptitiously to read Haskalah literature, which introduced him to the skepticism of modern thought. Torn between a sense of religious duty and devotion on the one hand, and a hunger for new experience on the other, he enrolled in the renowned Lithuanian yeshiva of Volozhin, the rabbinic Harvard or Oxford of its day that had a reputation for harboring clandestine cells of budding freethinkers. Yet his hopes of finding intellectual companionship there were disappointed. “There wasn’t a trace of [interest in] the sciences or literature,” he wrote in his sketch. “There were only young yeshiva students like myself, some better and some worse, studying Talmud, Talmud, Talmud all day long. To hell with it, then! I would study Talmud, Talmud, Talmud, too, and become one more rabbi.”

For a while, he kept it up while beginning to write his first poems, including his earliest published effort, “To a Bird”—an ode to a migrating songbird returning to Russia from Palestine for the summer. With such lines as “Do you bring me greetings from brothers in Zion,/ My brothers so far yet so near?/ Ah, happy are they! Can they possibly know/ Of all of my suffering here?”, the poem was no different from the sentimental Zionist verse of now-forgotten 19th-century Hebrew poets like Frug, Eliakim Zunser, and Menachem Mendel Dolitsky. Yet its appearance in a literary review in 1892 gave its author a sense of poetic vocation that heightened his alienation from his Volozhin surroundings:

I stood for hours on end by my lectern, surrounded by . . . hundreds of fervently chanting mouths. But though I chanted like them “Thus said Abayey” and “Thus said Rava,” my mind was somewhere else. When spring came, I would slip away from the yeshiva and run like a madman through the streets, my soul beating against its bars like a caged bird. I had to get away, away!

He chose Odessa, the mecca of would-be Hebrew writers. Once again, life let him down.

A shy, inarticulate half-savage, with no knowledge of Russian or of city ways or manners, I arrived there without a penny, with nothing but my own feeble hopes—feeble because I sensed right away that nothing would come of them. The city was too big for a youngster like myself, who could only get lost in it, unnoticed by anyone. And so it was: for six months I wandered through Odessa like a stray lamb, hungry, wretched, living in tubercular cellars—and no one paid the least attention.

His stay there was cut short by word received from Zhitomir that his grandfather was dying. He arrived to find his older brother on his death bed, too.

There was a smell of death in every corner. I went to the study house. Once again I found myself standing on the threshold of the place I had spent so many years in. It was empty; not a soul was there. After a while, some local inhabitants began to arrive for the morning prayer and greeted me. “Hello there! Sholem aleykhem! How are you?” One of my uncles slapped me on the back and said with a laugh, “So, Ḥayyim Naḥman! You’re back. . . .”

Which meant: “You’re one of us now.”

Half a year later, I was indeed one of them—I had a wife. My brother was dead, my grandfather was dead, and I, at the age of nineteen, was a married man with a good and respectable life to look forward to.

Bialik’s sketch for Klausner ended here. To it he added a postscript that read in part:

One thing I should mention is that my marriage did not put a sudden end to my development. On the contrary: in its aftermath, because of my solitude in the forest that I was put in charge of, I had time to read a great deal and continued to grow. . . .

And I’ll say one last thing: all the events of my life have been like notes played by different instruments, each on its own. If they’ve added up to a melody in spite of everything, this is nothing less than a miracle.

 

3.

 

What were these “notes played by different instruments”? One can list some of them as they are found in Bialik’s poetry and hinted at in his letter to Klausner:

  • The bliss of a child’s dawning consciousness of the world and of nature; the struggle to recover or recreate it in later life.
  • The loss of a father, and in effect a mother, at a young age; the permanent feeling of being an orphan in the world.
  • The ecstasy of Jewish religious study and of its service of God; the disenchantment with it and the inner emptiness caused by its abandonment.
  • The rebellion against one’s social surroundings and their conventional values; the sense of social responsibility that leads to the failure of this rebellion, and to the frustration and anger that ensue.
  • The search for the love not provided by marriage; the inability to integrate sexual passion with such love.
  • The calling of poetry; the obstacles in its way.

Simply stating these themes is enough to suggest that they were more interconnected than Bialik gave them credit for being. Some can be grouped together as dealing with loss and the dream of its restoration; some with deep ambivalences in social and sexual relationships; some with high ambition and its thwarting. Clusters of associations join group to group.

Consider Bialik’s long poem “The Pond,” written in 1904-5. An evocation of a pond in a forest at different times of the day and year, it is divided into unrhymed stanzas of varying length. In the third stanza the setting is a moonlit night, whose radiance makes it seem as if

Many-wiled, the forest bore the secret
Of an ancient kingdom, grand and courtly,
In which, on a bed of gold and hidden from all eyes
In the innermost of castle keeps,
A queen’s daughter of a time gone by,
Forever young and of a beauty rare,
Innocently slept under a spell,
And it, the forest, was the castle’s keeper,
Sworn to guard her every breath
And her sacred grail of maidenhood
Until a prince, her lover and redeemer, came to wake her.

With its sleeping beauty and primeval, Druidic forest, this scene taken from the world of the European fairy tale is un- and perhaps even pre-Jewish, suggestive of a stage of human consciousness, whether in the life of the individual or of the race, that has yet to awake from the magic spell of natural religion. Yet further on, in the poem’s sixth stanza, we are told by the poet how, as a young adolescent,

I, a boy in the fairest season of his life,
When the Sh’khinah’s wings first beat above him
And he longed and wondered wordlessly and sought
A sanctuary somewhere for his prayers—
I used to wander in the heat of day
Through the mighty, peaceful kingdom
Of the forest’s depths.
There, beneath God’s trees that never heard an ax ring,
On trails trod by none but wolves and hunters,
I roamed for hours,
Alone with God and my own self until I came,
Stepping carefully between gold snares of light,
To the Holy of the forest’s Holies, that small, bright orb.

Now, appropriately for a boy who has passed the age of his bar-mitzvah, the imagery is Jewish: the God of Creation by whom the forest was made; the Sh’khinah, His immanence in the world, depicted in rabbinic tradition as a tender female presence, hovering like a mother bird over its nest and balancing the Creator’s stern masculinity; the Temple-like “Holy of Holies,” the forest’s inner sanctum in which lies the pond’s “small bright orb.” Moreover, in ḥasidic legend, and especially in the stories of Naḥman of Bratslav, who was fond of fairy-tale motifs, the Sh’khinah is often depicted as a bat-melekh, a “king’s daughter” or princess, exiled from her father’s celestial realm to the lowly world of humanity. Not that “The Pond” seeks to Judaize its fairy tale; the two sets of images remain separate, side by side; but a bridge has been thrown between them.

A bridge leads, too, from “The Pond” to Bialik’s poem “Alone.” Written in 1902, it describes an adolescent’s solitude in a study house deserted by all but him for new horizons and opportunities:

All borne upon the wind, all swept up by the light—
For all, life’s morn new harmonies did sing.
But I, a stripling of a lad, remained
Under the Sh’khinah’s broken wing.

Alone! And she, her limp throb of a wing
Beating above me, also was alone.
Our two hearts met. Mine knew the fear in hers
For me, her only son.

Driven from everywhere, she still had left
One last, small, secret, forlorn room:
The study house—and there I shared
Her sorrow in the gloom.

And when my soul yearned for the window’s light
And felt imprisoned by its servitude,
She laid her head upon my shoulder and a tear
Wet my Talmud.

Silently she clung to me and wept
While her lame wing shielding me shook,
“All borne upon the wind, all gone far away,
And me they forsook, they forsook. . . . ”

And like the end of an ancient lament,
And like an anxious, prayerful plea,
I heard her hushed sobs and her tears
Fell hotly now on me.

The same maternal spirit that protected the boy in the forest still arches her wing over him, but now the wing is crippled and she is in need of protection herself. And this wing appears in yet another poem that was to become one of Bialik’s favorites with his readers:

Take me under your wing,
Be mother and sister to me,
Let my lost prayers rest on your breast,
My head upon your knee.

And at mercy time, in the dimming light,
Let my lips sadly muse in your ear:
“They say there is youth in this world.
How did mine disappear?”

And let me murmur this to you, too.
“My soul burned away long ago.
They say there is love in this world.
Is it so?”

The pale stars cheated me.
I had a dream—it too has flown
And left me behind by myself,
All alone.

Take me under your wing,
Be mother and sister to me,
Let my lost prayers rest on your breast,
My head upon your knee.

Is “Take Me Under Your Wing” a love poem? It is and it isn’t. It is spoken by a man to a woman he can only love, and be loved by in return, as a mother and sister—a Sh’khinah-figure. His head on her knee, he kneels waiting for a tender caress. He does not reveal to us what his flown dream was. To be a prince in a forest?

We return to the image of the pond that faithfully but changeably mirrors its surroundings—now those of a moonlit night, now of a sunny morning, now of a dark, flashing thunderstorm, now of the milky light of dawn. The oft-resorted-to image of art as a mirror, whether as a metaphor for art’s mimetic powers or for the capacity of the artist’s mind to register and erase endless impressions, is as old as Plato, though it is hard to say whether Bialik was aware of its place in the history of aesthetics when writing “The Pond.” In his poem, in any case, both aspects of the metaphor apply. Like mimetic art, the pond reflects endless moments that are the infinite fragments of the All—and like the mind, it is played on by each moment as though on a different instrument, each sounding its note that joins the others in a unity found in the pond’s depths:

There is a silent language of the gods, a secret tongue,
Unspoken and unvoiced but endlessly expressive. . . .
In it God is known to His chosen,
The World Spirit thinks its thoughts,
And the artist crafts his realizations
And unlocks his unarticulated dreams.
Shall we call it the language of mirrors?
It is spoken by each expanse and patch of the blue sky;
By pure, silvery cloud puffs and black thunderheads;
By the tremulous golden wheat and the proudly upright cedar;
By the snow-white flapping of the dove‘s wings and the capacious beating of the eagle’s;
By the beauty of the human form, the brightness of a human look;
By the sea’s tantrums and the playful laughter of its wavelets;
By night’s plenitude, mute with falling stars;
By the clamor of the light and the fiery oceans of its sunrises and sunsets.
In this, the tongue of tongues, the pond, too,
Spun its eternal riddle for me,
Hidden in leaf-shade, clear, still, and tranquil.
It was all-seeing, and all was seen in it and all kept changing.
I thought of it as the wide-open eye
Of the mysterious, long-ruminating Lord of the Forest.

“Lord of the Forest” in the Hebrew is sar haya’ar. A sar is a ruler subordinate to a higher one, and in rabbinic lore it is an angel empowered to preside over some feature of the world. The lord of Bialik’s forest can be a pagan god or a Jewish God’s, as one wishes.

 

4.

 

The stars once made you a promise and cheated you—and not just you, Ḥayyim Yosipovich! And do you know why? They’re taking revenge for being cheated by human beings.

Don’t cheat the stars and you’ll see how they twinkle at you! The most beautiful, the brightest stars! They’ll give you the strength not to cheat.

“You’re a strange woman,” you said when we parted. That was said by a first-class poet.

Do you know what my strangeness consists of? Of not wanting to cheat the stars.

The woman who wrote this in a letter to Bialik as she was about to leave Russia for France was Ira Jan, the name by which the Kishinev-born Russian Jewish painter and illustrator Esphir Yoselevitch was known professionally and to her friends. Jan and Bialik first met when Bialik was in Kishinev to report on the pogrom. They struck up a friendship and a correspondence, and the relationship intensified when Jan contracted to illustrate Bialik’s poem “The Dead of the Desert” and his prose poem “The Scroll of Fire.” Although she could not read Hebrew, these and other poems of his were put into Russian for her. (A first Russian edition of Bialik’s poetry appeared in Jabotinsky’s translations only in 1911.) Among them, with its “cheating” stars, was “Take Me Under Your Wing,” written, as was Jan’s letter, in 1905.

Separated from her husband, raising a small daughter, and frequently on the move, Jan was a cultured, witty, romantic, impulsive, and unconventionally minded woman, especially for the times. Although she never openly declared her love for Bialik, it is apparent in her letters, which were published after decades of being suppressed by his literary executors; his cautiously phrased replies, only a few of which have survived, leave room for doubt whether the feeling was fully reciprocated. Certainly, he enjoyed Jan’s company and their artistic collaboration; he had never before met a woman who was intellectually and creatively his equal, and he was flattered by her enthusiasm for his work. She was, he told others, “a magnificent human being.” But there is no evidence of a sexual attraction to her on his part, and it is always she in their correspondence, never he, who asks for more—more letters, more openness, more boldness in his life and poetry, perhaps even (though this remains implicit) more of a willingness to leave his wife for her.

As time went by, Jan’s letters to Bialik grew frustrated and impatient. He was not, she scolded him, a truly free spirit; he was a prisoner of his surroundings, trapped by social conventions; he was sacrificing his happiness and poetic genius to them. In February 1908, two days before departing for Palestine in the hope of starting a new life there, she wrote him from Switzerland, berating him for having chosen the “good little boy” in himself over the childhood rebel he, too, had been. The letter was finished in Jerusalem. Alluding to “Take Me Under Your Wing,” which she may have thought (perhaps correctly) had been written to her, and to “The Scroll of Fire,” which opens with an apocalyptic account of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jan said:

Ḥayyim, when you’ll be my guest on the rooftop [of her Jerusalem apartment], I’ll let you be that little boy again. (You know which one: the good one.). I’ll let you play on the rug and shout “Fire!” at night to the far ends of Jerusalem. All its inhabitants will come running to ask, “Where’s the fire? Where’s the fire?” And I’ll step forward and tell them not to be afraid, because the man who shouted is a good person who has just had a little too much to drink and the fire was long, long ago. Yes, I’ll tell them that once this grown man was a wonderful little boy with a fire in his breast, in his brain, in his whole world, because he had lit it himself in every corner of his fevered imagination. And now he’s grown up and is a poet—a poet who wants a soft pillow. A “sister.” A “mother.” “Oh, just be good to me!” That’s what he wants—he who could have set the world on fire!

Her teasing tone notwithstanding, Jan was writing in anger; she had never made the distinction in her own mind between the person who was not prepared to be her lover and the poet who, so she thought, had let die the furious energy of poems like “In the City of Slaughter.” Yet she was not wrong about Bialik’s poems about women. Most are either wistful plaints to a woman related to as a comforter or fellow sufferer, or harsh recoils from a woman with whom sexual intimacy or the thought of it has bred remorse and recrimination. To the first class belongs a lyric like “I Lay in Wait Outside Your Room,” written in 1901:

I lay in wait outside your room
Last night and saw you sad and still.
Perplexed, you searched for your lost soul
As you sat by the window sill.
You sought the promise of fled youth
And did not see, my love,
How at your window my soul throbbed,
Timid as a dove.

A window connects while separating in “At Sunset Time,” too. Joined by their isolation and longing, a man and woman look through it at a world they feel strangers in:

Come to my window at sunset time,
And gently face me;
Lay your hand on my neck, rest your head against mine,
And thus embrace me;

And tightly clasped, let us lift our eyes
To the gathering night;
And sending forth our hearts’ thoughts to rise
On the ocean of light,

Let us watch them soar like a throbbing of doves
To the heavens’ end,
Then wheel back once more o’er the red isles and coves,
And there descend.

Those are the isles, the faraway isles
We have dreamed of, whose spell
Has made of us outcasts under the skies
And our lives into hell.

Those are the fabled islands of gold
We are homesick for,
And have seen the beckoning beams of the cold
Stars tremble o’er.

And there shall we, twin flowers wind-tossed,
In the wilderness stand,
Two travelers looking for what they have lost
In an alien land.

“At Sunset Time” was probably written in 1898. A year before, Bialik wrote a poem, “Those Eyes That Hunger,” that was one of his few to deal openly with sex—and that did so with a frankness unprecedented in the Hebrew literature of the century then ending. Nothing is known about the apparently older woman to whom it was addressed or whether she belonged to a time before or after Bialik’s marriage. She is unlikely to have been purely imaginary.

Those eyes that hunger even as they eat;
Those thirsty lips that call out for more kisses;
Those tender roes, your breasts, that cry: caress us!
That hidden place, sweet and insatiate;

This carnal pleasure house from which you’d slake me
All this rich muchness, all this copiousness,
Spoon-fed me from your secret springs of bliss:
If only you knew, my love, how tired they make me.

Yea, I was chaste, unsullied by the heat
Or storm of passion till you breathed on me.
And I, fool that I was, did wantonly
Cast all my young life’s flowers at your feet.

For one brief fleeting moment did I bless
Your hand that meted out sweet pleasure’s pain.
Ah, never can it be the same again:
How dear the price exacted by your flesh!

Is this the same woman spoken to in “A Single Ray of Sun,” written in 1901, in which there is an even greater sense of sexual revulsion? Surely not, for now the poet is describing someone younger. Rather than appreciating her still innocent beauty, he can think only of the ravages that sexual experience will inflict on it:

A single ray of sun
And you were fully ripe
As on the laden vine
Is the lushly swelling grape.

A single night’s fierce squall
Blasting bud and fruit
And the alley dogs will smell
From afar your beauty’s rot.

As a poem, this is superb; as a sentiment, it is ugly. Bialik never again wrote anything quite so vicious about sex. It was to his credit, though, that he did not shrink from including “A Single Ray of Sun” in his 1902 collection of poems, from which he omitted others he had written. He must have known it was too good to leave out.

After Jan’s move to Palestine, where she would die in 1919, she and Bialik met again only once, during a visit of his there in 1909. It was a rushed and unsatisfying encounter, squeezed into the national poet’s busy schedule. In her last letter to him, mailed from Tel Aviv in 1912 and addressed to “My dear, good friend,” she wrote:

Tonight is Hoshana Rabba [the last day of Sukkot]. It’s a night on which [according to Jewish folklore] an angel comes to each of us with the gift of something good for the coming year. We’ll meet again, then—and since this will happen not in reality but only on the wings of the imagination, it will be a meeting so poetic and beautiful that we’ll go on remembering it for the rest of the year. Can we agree on that? . . .

You know, I sometimes sit by the sea and amuse myself by throwing a pebble onto the rim of sand by the water and watching what happens. A wave sweeps over it, moves it a tiny bit to the left or to the right, forward or backward, and retreats impotently. And so it goes, wave after wave, one after another. And then suddenly, a huge breaker hits the shore and carries the pebble to a distance. That’s your poetry. It’s just waiting for that big wave. I know it will come. . . .

[I’ve been told that] you’re planning to come [to Palestine] for Passover. I don’t know whether to be happy or not. To see you again as I did three years ago, entrapped by a whooping, tactless, intrusive, vulgar crowd of people? In such depressing circumstances? You seemed so helpless in them. Don’t ever make your peace with them. You’re more of a poet than even you imagine.

The Passover visit never took place. Two years previously, in the summer of 1907, Bialik, knowing of Jan’s plans to settle in Palestine, had written a poem to her. Although it had themes and images found in other poems of his (the guardian star, the Sh’khinah-like mother, the disgust with carnality), it sounded a note never heard from him before:

You’re going from me—then go and be well,
And may what you want for yourself be your guide
And help you find peace wherever you are.
And me? Don’t worry about me.
As long as the sun still rises and sets in its splendor,
And God’s stars have not tired of speaking to me,
I won’t be alone. . . .

…………

And I have my pure angel—the thought of you,
Watching over me like a sign of God’s love
And whispering its tremulously pent blessing
Like the secret tear shed by a mother
In the tranquil, holy hush of lighting Sabbath candles. . . .

…………

And this I know, too:
There will come summer nights
Draped over the earth like gold-spangled awnings of indigo—
Feverish, soundlessly sweet summer nights
Blackly swooning with stars,
Each star a gold pome, a gold pome;
And weary of wanting, its thoughts rife with sin,
The world will recline in their lap
Until suddenly swept by a shudder of lust
In the vast silence;
The stars will be shaken, whole clusters of them at a time,
From their place and fall bit by bit
Like golden leaves in the leaf-fall;
And burning with hunger and thirst,
Each concupiscent soul will grope the walls blindly,
And hug the rocks, and throw itself on the ground
To crawl in search of one gold crumb of love or happiness
From what its star cast down.
If then, faint with longing,
You wander, hopeless and befogged,
In your quest for happiness or God—
Gaze up as I do at the sky above you
And learn from it to calm your heart.
Look:
Every night it loses so many and so many of its stars
And still it’s there—as peaceful and as plenteous as ever,
And as unaware of its own loss
As if it had been left with no less gold.

These are stars that no longer cheat because they no longer promise a thing. They shine and fall and are replaced by others, and they speak to their beholder of a stoic acceptance of what is, not of the hope of transcending it. At this point in his poetic career, which stalled permanently toward the end of the first decade of the 20th century, Bialik knew the great wave would never come.

Continued in part two here.

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