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The Complex Greatness of the Jewish National Poet, Part Three

Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik’s faith in a Zionist-led Hebrew renaissance never faltered; nor did his labors on its behalf. Yet he also became, so he felt, Zionism’s prisoner.



Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik. Culture Club/Getty Images.
Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik. Culture Club/Getty Images.
Observation
Aug. 31 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.

The essay appears in three consecutive parts, of which this is the third and final one. The first part, comprising sections 1 through 4, was published Tuesday, August 29; the second, containing sections 5 through 7, appeared Wednesday, August 30.

 

8.

 

Bialik kept writing poetry, although less and less of it, until 1911; then at the age of thirty-eight, he stopped almost entirely. The last poem he wrote before that moment expressed his awareness and fear of impending poetic sterility:

Trailing on a fence, a small branch sleeps—
And so sleep I.
Its fruit is gone. What matters then the trunk,
What matters then the tree?

The fruit is gone and who recalls the flower?
Left is the leaf—
And soon the storm will bring that, too,
To grief.

And after that will come dread nights
With no sleep at all.
Alone in darkness I will bash
My head against the wall.

And when spring comes again
Still will I droop,
A naked rod, with neither bud nor bloom,
Nor leaf, nor fruit.

There may have been other reasons for Bialik’s lapse into poetic silence at this time. Fichman, who was friendly with him in Odessa, recalled it as a period in which “he was buffeted by life. His publishing house had eaten up all of his savings . . . and left him with a pile of debts and endless troubles. The harder he struggled to gain some sort of freedom, the greater grew his worries, and there wasn’t a day that didn’t bring new tribulations.”

But Fichman, too, thought that the main cause of Bialik’s poetic paralysis was a public image he had let himself identify with and now felt trapped by. His readers wanted “the word of God” from him, “but he felt far from God. He felt that something in him had been irremediably broken.” Blocked poetically, “he turned to prose and wrote [his story] ‘Beyond the Fence.’”

Already in 1899, Bialik had published a lengthy short story, “Tough Aryeh,” a portrait of a swaggering, Falstaffian Jewish lumber dealer in a shtetl like Zhitomir. Now, he returned to the same milieu. Once again he chose an ebulliently physical type for a protagonist—this time, however, a boy, Noyakh, a lumber dealer’s son.

“Beyond the Fence” has a second main character: the orphan Marinka, a Russian girl Noyakh’s age and his next-door neighbor. Marinka lives with her foster mother, a woman with the jaw-breaking name of Shkuripinshchikha, on the other side of a high fence separating the two houses. Shkuripinshchikha is the last Russian holdout in a neighborhood, known as lumber town, into which Jews, mostly wagon drivers and lumber dealers like Noyakh’s father Khanina-Lipa, have been moving. Relations between her and lumber town’s Jews are bad, and she and Khanina-Lipa periodically engage in aerial battles in which, each hidden from sight, they hurl junk at each other over the fence. Shkuripinshchikha—she is named for her feared watchdog Shkuripin—is not a nice person. She periodically beats Marinka, requires her to do endless chores, makes her sleep in a shack in the yard, and forbids her to leave the property, a large one with an orchard full of fruit trees.

Noyakh and Marinka are five or six years old when they first meet. Marinka has no one with whom to share her unhappy life except Shkuripin—until one day she and Noyakh, whose family is new in lumber town, discover each other through a crack in the fence and become friends. Their friendship, which they keep secret because they know it will not be tolerated, starts out as one of childhood playmates, develops into an adolescent pre-romance, and becomes fully sexual at the story’s end.

Between the plot’s twists and turns, Noyakh turns into an increasingly rebellious child. A poor and unwilling ḥeder student who hits his teachers back when they raise their hands against him, he eventually, after a perfunctory bar-mitzvah, is allowed to run free, and when not spending his time with Marinka, whom he now climbs the fence to get to, he spends it with the Russian boys in the next neighborhood. From them he learns to ride horses and swim in the river, and their acceptance of him is complete when he fights on their side in a pitched brawl with the Jewish boys of lumber town. For this, Khanina-Lipa beats him senseless, but for the last time. From now on, he gives Noyakh up as untamable, a lost cause.

Noyakh and Marinka’s happiest hours together are spent in Shkuripinshchikha’s orchard. The first time Noyakh enters it, he breaks into an exuberant run.

Light daubs of sunshine skimmed his face, his head, his clothes, scampering up and down, up and down, like golden mice. Their pleasant warmth tickled his cheeks. The dog [Shkuripin] took the lead and ran ahead, tangled in twining nets of light and shadow in which he flopped and floundered. Low-bent boughs, burdened with large apples, knocked Noyakh’s cap to the ground when he bumped into them. Apples, apples, apples! Apples above, apples below, apples scattered on the ground and in the grass. . . . From the tops of the cherry trees, a few stray, forgotten, blacker-than-black fruits peered out with the furtive cunning of animal eyes, while half-visible behind a green leaf in a low bush humbly hid a single silky gooseberry.

Noyakh felt drunk. The cool shadows, the smells of the fruit, the chatter of the birds—it all overwhelmed him and made his head throb. He picked and ate, picked and threw away, picked and stuffed his pockets, picked and trampled underfoot. Far from protesting, Marinka showed him how to choose the ripest fruit, pointing out the best varieties and helping him to whole armfuls of them.

This is supple, fluid prose, worlds apart from that of “The Scroll of Fire.” It seems so natural that one can forget while reading it that its author spoke Yiddish in daily life and rarely engaged in Hebrew conversation. How far we have come from the struggles of writers like Peretz Smolenskin, a mere generation previously, to write this way! Bialik’s prose owed much, of course, to authors who came after Smolenskin, especially to Mendele, who had worked wonders in creating a contemporary Hebrew narrative style. But his manner in “Beyond the Fence,” though Mendelean, was his own. One can almost feel its relief at not having to strain to be poetry.

The pull of the orchard and Noyakh’s sexual attraction to Marinka, which grows greater as he grows older, are linked throughout the story, culminating on the summer night when, now in their late teens, they finally make love. They have arranged their tryst in advance. Noyakh tells his parents that he is going to sleep in the stable in which his father keeps a dray-horse and climbs to its second story, where a window faces a large apple tree beyond the fence. He waits there for his parents and the neighbors to go to bed.

At last the neighborhood grew quiet. Noyakh listened carefully. The tree outside the window, so it seemed, was rubbing stealthily against it. He rose and stuck his head out. The tree held out a scepter with two ripe, red apples as if to say: “Take them, they’re yours.”

Noyakh leaps into Shkuripinshchikha’s garden and finds Marinka waiting for him with Shkuripin. The shack is nearby. “In another minute,” we are told, “the neighbors’ children were inside. Shkuripin stood guarding the door.”

There is barely a page left to the end of the story. What will happen to Noyakh and Marinka now? What can happen in a page?

What happens is this:

And so Noyakh eloped one night with Marinka?

I see you don’t know the Jews of lumber town. On the Sabbath of Hanukkah, Noyakh was wed to a good Jewish girl, the daughter of a tax collector. The match was an arranged one and the wedding was presided over by a rabbi with all the trimmings. In late spring, Noyakh came with his new wife to spend the holiday of Shavuot with his parents. A fine time was had by all and when, following the traditional dairy meal, the young couple lay down to rest on a wooden deck prepared for it in back of the house. Marinka stood beyond the fence, a baby in her arms, peering through a crack.

It is a stunning (in both senses of the word), cynical, and bitter ending. Once we get over the shock of it, we feel almost as betrayed as is Marinka. How could Noyakh have done it? And yet, Marinka aside, hadn’t Bialik done it, too?

 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. . . . I, at the age of nineteen, was a married man with a good and respectable life to look forward to.

Not that Marinka is an extra in “Beyond the Fence.” Although touchingly innocent and the more sexually passive of the two youngsters, she is still the alluring Gentile who stands in the male Jewish imagination for sexual freedom and social emancipation from the burdensome restraints of being a Jew. “Beyond the Fence,” like Berdichevsky’s “Two Camps” (in which the social aspect is more important than the sexual), was one of the earliest works of modern Jewish fiction to explore this theme. And like “Two Camps,” it ends with the young woman’s abandonment and the hero’s surrender to the chains he has sought to throw off—the difference being that for Berdichevsky’s Mikha’el, this surrender is an emotional and psychological disaster, whereas for Bialik’s Noyakh, it is a comfortable accommodation to social realities. As opposed to Mikha’el and Hedwig, who could have led a life together in Germany, what future could a couple like Noyakh and Marinka have had in Russia? And yet far from making Noyakh’s decision less shameful, this only makes it seem more so. He has let himself be tamed.

There is a postscript to all this. Between the writing of “Beyond the Fence” and its publication, Bialik undertook his 1909 trip to Palestine. On the whole, his reactions to the country were favorable. He was impressed by its Zionist farming villages and their Hebrew-speaking youth, and when informed that the first building lots in the new city of Tel Aviv were soon to be raffled off, he asked, contemplating making his future home there, to be included in the lottery.

But at the same time, lionized by the public and surrounded everywhere by the crowds that Ira Jan would mention in her letter, he felt oppressed. He had been presented with so many bouquets of flowers, he wrote Manya from Jaffa, that he had had to throw them, petal by petal, out the windows of the trains he traveled in. The religious sites he had seen—Rachel’s Tomb, the Western Wall—had failed to move him. Perhaps this was because “there were always people with me. I’m not only embarrassed to cry in front of them, I’m embarrassed to feel anything at all.”

Worse yet, wherever he went, he, the national poet, was asked when he would write the grand poem about Zionism’s accomplishments that was expected of him. Now that he had seen them with his own eyes, there was no excuse not to do it. Bialik was infuriated by such urgings: what made anyone think he could be told what to write? At a farewell party given him at the end of his visit, he let his feelings show. He had agreed to read something new as the evening’s main event, and when the time for it came, he read “Beyond the Fence.” The dumbfounded audience, which had been awaiting the hoped-for Zionist poem, interrupted him with cries of indignation. Was this what it had come to hear—a story about a shiksa and her Jewish boyfriend in a Ukrainian shtetl?

It had a right to be indignant. Bialik was thumbing his nose at it. What it didn’t realize was that he was being even harder on himself. This is what I have let you do to me, he was saying. Yes, I’m one of you now—damn you all!

The postscript had a postscript. In 1913, Ira Jan, then living in Tel Aviv, published a story in Hashiloaḥ, still edited at the time by Klausner, that was signed “Dina Dinar.” Its heroine was a romantic-minded woman in a Palestinian farming village whose dull life with her husband, a pedantic schoolteacher, and her three children who look and act like him, has led to a severe depression. If only, she thinks, she had at least one child who resembled herself!

Advised by the village doctor to take a vacation, and hearing that the famous Hebrew poet Weiler is visiting Jerusalem, where interesting events are being held in his honor, Dina travels there and rents a room. One night, she finds herself at a social gathering on the rooftop of the hotel at which Weiler is staying. All evening she steals glances at him; she can feel him looking at her, too. After the other guests have departed, she remains with him on the roof. The summer night is chilly; he offers her his jacket; she refuses, then agrees to share it with him. They huddle beneath it and talk; the conversation becomes personal; they feel a rapport. “We’re really old acquaintances, you and I, aren’t we?” Weiler says. “Why, we’ve known each other for twenty years, since the day I dreamed my first dreams of life and love! Where have you been all this time? I’ve waited so long for you.”

Dina feels she is in a dream herself. “I loved you the moment I saw you,” Weiler goes on. But she can’t respond as he would like her to. “I don’t love anyone,” she tells him. “I can’t love. That feeling has gone dead in me. It’s been murdered forever.” All she longs for is a child who is like her. Perhaps Weiler. . . .

The poet stares at her, wondering if she is mad. Yet sexually aroused, he tells her he will go to his room to make sure no one is there and return for her. While she waits for him, she climbs onto the roof’s parapet. He returns smiling. The room is empty.

He walked quickly toward her. Dina flailed her arms. Either she had lost her balance, or . . .

With a terrible cry, she plummeted three floors to the street below.

This was all Jan’s fantasy, of course, its final scene suggested by her having imagined hosting Bialik on her Jerusalem roof. Was it her revenge on him? She had illustrated “The Scroll of Fire” and surely knew she was paraphrasing it. My sister, is that you? In my childhood’s dawn I glimpsed your beauty and craved its hidden light! Had she thought those words were meant for her? Was she now mocking them? And perhaps she was telling Bialik (she knew he would read the story in Hashiloaḥ), “Yes, you may have loved me, but you lacked the courage to say so and you killed my love for you. You killed me.”

Had she really dreamed of having his child?

And the strange name Dina Dinar! No, not strange at all. I went looking for your farthing and I lost my sovereign: in Hebrew, we have seen, Bialik’s sovereign was a dinar. In the end, it was all connected: Bialik’s marriage, and his coronation as national poet, and the “The Scroll of Fire,” and “Evening,” and Noyakh and Marinka, and the man who averaged barely a poem a year between 1911 and his death in Tel Aviv in 1934, and the woman who wrote him: And now he’s grown up and is a poet—a poet who wants a soft pillow . . . he who could have set the world on fire!

 

9.

 

“Beyond the Fence” is a modern Hebrew classic. So is “Aftergrowth,” Bialik’s narrative of a shtetl childhood, written in sections between 1908 and 1923.  Though he did not produce much Hebrew fiction, he was one of its modern masters.

As he was also of the modern Hebrew essay. Here, too, his output was slim but remarkable: “The Pangs of Language,” “Revealment and Concealment in Speech,” “Halakhah and Aggadah”—these and other essays dating to the 1910s and 1920s are gems of thought and expression.

Take “Halakhah and Aggadah.” Published in 1917, it has not, a century later, lost its power to surprise. It begins:

Halakhah frowns. Aggadah laughs. The first is strict, exacting, harder than steel—the principle of rigor. The second is mild, forbearing, more yielding than oil—the principle of leniency. The one lays down the law and knows no half-measures; its “yes” is yes and its “no” is no. The other suggests but no more; it measures each man by his capacities; its “yes” and its “no” are both “maybe.” On the one hand, the body, the deed, the outer shell; on the other, the soul, the intention, the inner core. Here—fossilized tradition, duty, enslavement; there—perpetual renewal, the right to choose, freedom.

This is a Bialik we have not seen before. It is not the poet of many registers or the genially relaxed prose narrator. It is Bialik the intellectual. His language is an aphorist’s, cut and polished like a diamond. It is confident, assertive. It does not say, “Let us think about this together.” It says, “Trust me. I know.”

But what does it know that we don’t? Aggadah has always been a place of freedom from halakhah in rabbinic texts. This is its function in the Talmud, where it alternates with passages of legal dialectics to let the tired mind relax in the playground of the imagination. For the serious talmudist, like the ascetic burner of the midnight oil in Bialik’s early poem Ha-Matmid, “The Steadfast Student,” aggadah can seem superfluous, a distraction. For the more casually minded, however, let alone for the poet or the dreamer, it can be an oasis between one dry stretch of halakhah and the next. When, in 1910, Bialik revisited the study house and its heavy volumes of the Talmud in his poem “Before the Bookshelf,” it was halakhah that he was thinking of:

Now, my soul lined by the years that line my brow,
Life’s wheel returns me to you and I stand
Once more before you, you shelf-dwellers from Lvov,
Slavuta, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt.
Again I turn your heavy vellum pages
And my eye gropes wearily between their lines,
Searching dumbly in their labyrinth of words
For some traces of myself and of the path
Taken by my soul when, in its native home,
It set out haltingly with its first steps.
And yet, you testimonials to my youth,
I feel nothing and no tear trembles on my eye’s rim.
I look at you, you Ancient Ones, as if I didn’t know you,
Nor do your letters return my gaze
With that clear-eyed sorrow of the ages
That once penetrated to my inner depths.
Black beads spilled from a torn thread  is all they are to me,
Their pages mute and every word an orphan—
And if they murmur in a grave that no one visits,
Their whisper fails to reach me.
Have I forgotten how to see and how to hear you—
Or is it you, forever dead and rotted,
Who no longer have a place among the living?

And so in reading the opening paragraphs of “Halakhah and Aggadah,” we take its championing of aggadah for granted. Why prefer enslavement to freedom? Yet by the time we have reached the essay’s end, it has performed an astonishing about-face. How has it gotten from its first lines to its last ones?

Give us commandments!

Give us firm molds in which to mint our weak, incontinent wills in hard, lasting coin. We thirst for the bodies of deeds. Let life train us in them more than in words, in halakhah more than in aggadah.

We bow our necks: where is the iron yoke? Why do not the mighty hand and the outstretched arm appear?

In the biblical account of the exodus, the “mighty hand” and “outstretched arm” are God’s. Had Bialik recovered the lost faith of his youth?

Demonstrably not. The year “Halakhah and Aggadah” was published, he wrote a poem, his only one in all of 1917, based on a well-known midrash about four rabbis who ventured into the “orchard” of mystical experience—one of whom, Shimon ben Azzai, “peered and died.” (At what or from what, the midrash does not say.) Ballad-like, Bialik’s poem tells of a seeker of truth who sets out, torch in hand, to traverse the 50 gates that lead to Ultimate Reality. At long last, exhausted by his lifelong quest, he arrives at the 50th.

The gate swung open and his torch went out
As he peered in.
By its fag-end he collapsed and lay
On Nothing’s rim.

This is the same Void as the “There’s nothing here” of “In the City of Slaughter.” The argument of “Halakhah and Aggadah” is secular. It conceptualizes the two genres not as merely literary ones but as categories of Jewish life, two different ways of apprehending and dealing with the world—one poetic and one practical, one free to soar and one earthbound, one expansive and one contractive. Together they are the systole and diastole of Jewish existence—or, in Bialik’s own image, the water and the ice, two manifestations of a unity that is most apparent in the moments of transition between them. “Halakhah is the crystallization, the final and necessary reduction, of aggadah. Aggadah is molten halakhah.”

As an example, Bialik gives the Jewish Sabbath. This originated in antiquity, he conjectures, as aggadah—that is, as the visionary idea, at a time when no such thing existed, of a weekly day of rest. Gradually, this idea was given halakhic form by Judaism’s numerous Sabbath laws—and the Sabbath, having developed into a central institution in Jewish life, was then re-aggadized in various ways, such as being imagined by Jewish folklore as the Sabbath Queen who arrives once a week to spend a day with her followers. This folk-belief, in turn, was re-halakhized by such customs as the L’kha Dodi prayer in the Sabbath-eve service, in which the Sabbath Queen is welcomed, and so on and so forth.

Aggadah is concretized by halakhah and halakhah is revitalized by aggadah. The aggadist imagines a cathedral; the halakhist is the stonecutter, the mason, the glassmaker, and the sculptor who build it. The latter, too, are creative tasks. “When I think,” Bialik writes, “of all the ancients who labored on formulating the Sabbath laws, I say: ‘Here were artists of life!’. . . . And what was the outcome of all this monumental work? A day that is all aggadah!”

The problem of post-religious Jewish existence, Bialik’s essay contends, is that it has lost the dynamic balance between halakhah and aggadah. For the Jew quit of his religious duties, freedom has become everything. “We live in times that are all aggadah, aggadah in literature and aggadah in life.”  The subjective has triumphed over the objective; the inward over the outward; feeling over form; taste over its justification; self-expression over communication; individual wants and needs over social norms. Yet aggadah that is not accompanied by halakhah is “onanistic” and has no staying power.

There has developed a Jewishness that is all choice. It may make demands on us in the name of Jewish nationalism, Jewish rebirth, Jewish literature, Jewish creativity, Jewish education, Jewish thought, Jewish activity, but all these hang on the thread of likes and dislikes—for the Land of Israel, for the Hebrew language, for Hebrew literature—and what is the price of failing to live up to such bloodless preferences? Where are the obligations? From where will they come? From aggadah? But aggadah is by nature a matter of free choice. Its “yes” and its “no” are always “maybe.”

A Jewish life that is all aggadah is like iron from the forge that has not been tempered and hardened. Inner strivings, good intentions, mental stirrings, likes and dislikes: all are well and good as long as they lead in the end to deeds—cruelly obligatory, hard-as-steel deeds.

These are the reflections of a conservative. But Bialik’s conservatism was Ahad Ha’amist, social and cultural rather than political. Politically, he inclined during the last years of his life to the middle-of-the-road Zionism of Ḥayyim Weizmann, which was closer to the socialist left than to Jabotinsky’s Revisionist right. Politics in themselves never interested him much. The one time he found himself at the center of them was largely unintentional.

This was in 1931, when, following an international Zionist congress at which the Revisionists had helped block Weizmann’s re-election as head of the movement, Bialik published a poetic broadside, entitled “I Have Seen You in Your Impotence Again,” against those Zionists who talked much and did little. Although he denied having had the Revisionists in mind, the poem was taken as an attack on them and led to angry ripostes, one by Jabotinsky himself. The incident, however, blew over and did not drag him any deeper into the political arena.

“Halakhah and Aggadah” does not speculate about what a secular halakhah might be like. It is not a programmatic essay, and it tells us more about Bialik’s state of mind when he wrote it than about his conception of a new Jewish social order. He himself, after all, was a ba’al-aggadah, an aggadist. He had spent years researching and collecting aggadah. His poetry had frequent allusions to it, and as a poet he had every reason to identify with its processes more than with halakhah’s. In “Before the Bookshelf” he had expressed his alienation from the literature of halakhah. Whence his unexpected upholding of it?

Perhaps he was seeking to reestablish a sense of halakhah in himself—not the halakhah of ritual observance, which he never returned to, but the halakhah of duty, of the obligation to be or do what one did not necessarily want to be or do because it was one’s responsibility to be or do it. He had been and done what he did not want to be or do all his life, but always with a resentment that colored his emotions and his work, frustrated by an existence that was not the one he had dreamed of. These dreams were aggadah. But life, for all the honors it had bestowed on him, had not worked out as he would have liked it to. “Halakhah and Aggadah” was his coming to terms with this. He had been living a life of halakhah all along. Now he embraced it.

 

10.

 

Bialik settled in Palestine, in Tel Aviv, in 1924. The national poet was now living in the national home—in his own home, too, a large house with a Moorish façade built on a street renamed Bialik Street. A small and informal town, Tel Aviv clasped him to its bosom and Bialik, a convivial man who had found it hard to say no, let it do so. As described by Fichman, who had taken up residence in Tel Aviv five years previously, “his home was open to all. There wasn’t a day when it wasn’t besieged by people from all walks of life, each with his requests and grievances: the novice author looking for a patron, the bankrupt merchant, the peddler unable to get a municipal license, the widow whose house had been foreclosed on by the bank—all asked for his help and took him away from his work.” He was a one-man academy of language. “Whoever opened a shop or restaurant, a company or a pub, pestered him to give it a Hebrew name. Every workman demanded Hebrew terms for his tools.”

He bore it gracefully. Besides entertaining with Manya at Bialik Street, he spoke and appeared at numerous cultural and literary events; managed the important publishing house of Dvir; worked on scholarly editions of the medieval Hebrew poets Shlomo ibn Gabirol and Moshe ibn Ezra; wrote more essays and parts of “Aftergrowth”; composed words for folk songs and children’s songs, some of which remain popular to this day (there isn’t an Israeli parent who hasn’t sung Bialik’s “Up and Down, Up and Down” to a child on a seesaw or swing); and instituted and presided over the practice, called by him oneg shabbat, of public lectures, readings, and discussions on Saturdays to give secular cultural enhancement to the Sabbath. When he died of an embolism following prostate surgery at the age of sixty-one, Tel Aviv gave him the largest funeral in its history.

Many of his activities were related to the project that he called kinus, “Gathering.” Kinus meant taking inventory of the Jewish literary and cultural heritage, much of which had been neglected or even forgotten over the ages and relegated, sometimes literally, to the nation’s attics; combing through it, as he and Ravnitzky had done with aggadah, for whatever was of enduring value; and issuing this in popular editions prepared by scholars.

It was as if, in preparing for the great move from the Diaspora back to the Land of Israel, Zionism needed to sort out the Jewish people’s accumulated belongings, from the biblical apocrypha to post-biblical Hebrew poetry and from medieval Jewish philosophy to the ḥasidic folktale; pack whatever was worth keeping; and prepare open shelves for it in its new home. A patrimony that religious Jewry had largely lost interest in would thus be put at the service of a new, secular, Hebrew high culture. Although Bialik was never able to get a comprehensive plan for kinus adopted and funded, much of what he envisioned has been implemented on a piecemeal basis over time.

In 1933-34, shortly before his death, he returned to the writing of poetry with a series of verse narratives about his childhood that never was completed. As if also going back to his childhood’s first book, he wrote in the cadences, and with the internal parallelism, of biblical verse:

I did not see much of my father. His days by my side were not many.
I was but a slip of a boy who still had not had his fill of him.
I still was in need of his kindness, of his sheltering hand on my head,
When he was taken from me by death and separated from me forever.

These poems had their poignant lines, but their language was tired. By now, Bialik had long been under critical attack by a fresh generation of young modernist poets. Two decades after being hailed as the voice of the new Hebrew poetry, he was being assailed as outmoded.

There are those who have held that Bialik was never at his best in his longer, narrative verse and that his finest work is to be found entirely in his short lyrics. Frischman was the first of these. Bialik was truest to himself, he wrote, when he was “the great poet of small things.” He should never have tried going beyond them.

This was the cavalier judgment of an aesthete. “In the City of Slaughter,” “The Dead of the Desert,” “The Pond”—these are powerful, lasting poems that had and still exert an impact that no short poem can emulate. Yet Frischman was on to something. The “purest” Bialik, the Bialik whose wistful minor-key music we recognize from a single stanza as we recognize some composers from a single phrase, is the Bialik of poems like “Take Me Under Your Wing” and “At Sunset Time.”

And of the first ten lines of “The Summer Is Dying.” This was a poem that Bialik wrote in the early autumn of 1905, immediately after finishing “The Scroll of Fire.”

The summer is dying in orange and gold
And the fiery flood
Of fallen leaves and an evening sky
Bathed in a sea of blood.

The parks are empty. Only a few
Lonely figures out for a walk
Still cast a thoughtful glance at the last
Lingering flight of a stork.

The heart is an orphan. Soon a drizzly day
Will knock on the window pane:
“Have you patched your coats? Have you cobbled your shoes?
It’s time for potatoes again!”

One’s first reaction to the poem’s last two lines, which almost clownishly destroy the lyrical mood that has been created, is letdown. Potatoes indeed! Why did Bialik deliberately mar something so lovely?

But the fall from peak experience to commonplace existence is what the poem is about. In effect, Bialik took Frischman’s advice. After the “The Scroll of Fire,” he never again, until the 1930s, attempted anything major. In his more self-pitying moments, he blamed the Hebrew-reading public for being unworthy, not only of him, but of the national rebirth whose poetic symbol it had made him:

And if my strength happened to fail,
The fault lies with you, not with me.
Wherever it drove in a nail,
My hammer hit on decay.

Written in 1911, these lines come from a poem called “Seer, Flee!”—words spoken in the Bible by the Judean king Amatsiah to the prophet Amos. Bialik’s reign as the national poet was already then ending. If this went largely unnoticed at the time, it was because he now increasingly held sway, with no less prestige and authority, as the nation’s immensely versatile man of letters.

His faith in a Zionist-led Hebrew renaissance in Palestine as the one sure anchor of a modern Jewish identity never faltered; nor did his labors on its behalf, even as they shifted from poetry to other areas. Yet he had also become, so he felt, Zionism’s prisoner. This is always a danger for creative artists who are identified closely with a national or ideological cause. The private “I” becomes entangled in a public one. It is given buoyancy by it but hindered from diving deeper into itself.  The greater the depths, the more stands to be lost.

He wrote what could have been intended to be his epitaph. People meeting him for the first time often commented on the fact that he did not look like their idea of a poet. His plain, simple face, they said, was more like a businessman’s. This pleased him. He had always been in business—first, when young, as a lumber dealer (he had also briefly traded in coal), and then, for the rest of his life, as a publisher. The cost and quality of paper, the choice of print, debating a graphic design, negotiating with authors and booksellers—he enjoyed the practicality, the solidity, of these things. Poetry, he liked to pretend, was a side pursuit. In 1923, he wrote, resorting for one of the last times to the simple quatrains he always had favored (the third line of the second stanza is a rephrasing of Amos’s answer to Amatsiah):

You have crushed me
With the burden of your love.
You have made of me your rattle,
A tin kettle on your stove.

Why did you poach on my grounds?
What wrong had I done, or what good?
No poet or prophet was I,
But a simple cutter of wood.

A woodcutter, a man of the ax,
Performing my daily chore.
But the day is done, and my arms are weak,
And the dull-bladed ax cuts no more.

More about: Arts & Culture, Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Hebrew literature, History & Ideas, Israel & Zionism, Literature