Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Hayyim Nahman Bialik
Bialik was born in Radi , Volhynia in the Ukraine to Yitzhak Yossef Bialik, a scholar and businessman, and Dinah (Priveh) Bialik. Bialik's father died in 1880, when Bialik was 7 years old. In his poems, Bialik romanticised the misery of his childhood, describing seven orphans left behind - though modern biographers believe there were fewer children, including grown step-siblings who did not need to be supported. Be that as it may, from the age 7 onwards Bialik was raised in Zhitomir by his stern Orthodox grandfather, Yaakov Moshe Bialik.
In Zhitomir he received a traditional Jewish religious education, but also explored European literature. At the age of 15, inspired by an article he read, he convinced his grandfather to send him to Volozhin, Lithuania, to study at a famous Talmudic academy under Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin , where he hoped he could continue his Jewish schooling while expanding his education to European literature as well. Attracted to the Jewish Enlightenment movement (haskala), Bialik gradually drifted away from yeshiva life. Poems such as HaMatmid ("The Talmud student") written in 1898, reflect his great ambivalence toward that way of life: on the one hand admiration for the dedication and devotion of the yeshiva students to their studies, on the other hand a disdain for the narrowness of their world.
At 18 he left for Odessa, the center of modern Jewish culture in southern Russia, drawn by such luminaries as Mendele Mocher Sforim and Ahad Ha'am. In Odessa, Bialik studied Russian and German language and literature, and dreamed to enroll in the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin. Alone and penniless, he made his living teaching Hebrew. The 1892 publication of his first poem, El Hatzipor "To a Bird," which expresses a longing for Zion, in a booklet edited by Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky (a future collaborator), eased Bialik's way into Jewish literary circles in Odessa. He joined the so-called Hovevei Zion group and befriended Ahad Ha'am, who had a great influence on his Zionist outlook.
In 1892 Bialik heard news that the Volozhin yeshiva had closed, and rushed home to Zhitomir, to prevent his grandfather from discovering that he had discontinued his religious education. He arrived to discover his grandfather and his older brother both on their deathbeds. Following their deaths, Bialik married Mania Averbuch in 1893. For a time he served as a bookkeeper in his father-in-law's lumber business in Korostichev , near Kiev. But when this proved unsuccesful, he moved in 1897 to Sosnowice , a small town near the Prussian border. In Sosnowice Bialik worked as a Hebrew teacher, and tried to earn extra income as a coal merchant, but the provincial life depressed him. He was finally able to return to Odessa in 1900, having secured a teaching job.
For the next two decades, Bialik taught and continued his activities in Zionist and literary circles, as his literary fame continued to rise. This is considered Bialik's "golden period". In 1901 his first collection of poetry was published in Warsaw, and was greeted with much critical acclaim, to the point that he was hailed "the poet of national renaissance." Bialik relocated to Warsaw briefly in 1904 as literary editor of the weekly magazine Hashiloah founded by Ahad Ha'am, a position he served for six years.
In 1903 Bialik was sent by the Jewish Historical Commission in Odessa to interview survivors of the Kishinev pogroms and prepare a report. In response to his findings Bialik wrote his epic poem In the City of Slaughter, a powerful statement of anguish at the situation of the Jews. Bialik's condemnation of passivity against anti-Semitic violence is said to have influenced the founding Jewish self-defense groups in Russia, and eventually the Haganah in Palestine. Bialik visited Palestine in 1909.
In the early 1900's Bialik founded with Y. H. Ravnitzky, Simcha Ben Zion and Elhanan Levinsky, a Hebrew publishing house, Moriah, which issued Hebrew classics and school literature. He translated into Hebrew various European works, such as Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Schiller's Wilhelm Tell, Cervantes' Don Quixote, and Heine's poems; and from Yiddis S. Y. Ansky 's The Dybbuk. In collaboration with Ravnitzky Bialik published Sefer Ha Aggadah (1908-1911, The Book of Legends), a three-volume edition of the folk tales and proverbs scattered through the Talmud. For the book they selected hundreds of texts and arranged them thematically. The Book of Legends was immediately recognized as masterwork and has been reprinted numerous times. Bialik also edited the poems of the medieval poet and philosopher Ibn Gabirol and began a modern commentary on the Mishna, the oral law.
Bialik lived in Odessa until 1921, when Moriah publishing house was closed by Communist authorities, as a result of mounting paranoia following the Bolshevik Revolution. With the intervention of Maxim Gorki, a group of Hebrew writers was given permission by the Soviet government to leave the country. Bialik then moved to Berlin, where together with his friends Ravnitzky and Shmaryahu Levine he founded the Dvir publishing house. In 1924 he relocated with his publishing house to Tel Aviv, devoting himself to cultural activities and public affairs. Bialik was immediately recognized as a celebrated literary figure. He delivered the address that marked the opening of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and was a member of its board of governors, and in 1927 he became head of the Hebrew Writers Union, a position he retained for the remainder of his life. In 1933 his 60th birthday was celebrated with festivities nationwide, and all the schoolchildren of Tel-Aviv were taken to meet him and pay their respects to him.
Bialik died in Vienna, Austria, on July 4, 1934, following a failed prostate operation. He was buried in Tel Aviv: a large mourning procession followed from his home on the street named after him, to his final resting place.
Works and influence
Bialik wrote several different modes of poetry. He is perhaps most famous for his long, nationalistic poems, which call for a reawakening of the Jewish people. However no less effective are his passionate love poems, his personal verse or his nature poems. Last but not least, Bialik's songs for children are a staple of Israeli nursery life. From 1908 onwards, he wrote mostly prose.
By writing his works in Hebrew, Bialik contributed significantly to the revival of the Hebrew language, which before his days existed primarily as an ancient, scholarly toungue. His influence is felt deeply in all modern Hebrew literature. The generation of Hebrew language poets who followed in Bialik's footsteps, including Yaakov Steinberg and Yaakov Fichman , are called "the Bialik generation".
To this day, Bialik is recognised as Israel's national poet. His home at 22 Bialik Street in Tel Aviv has been converted into a museum, and functions as a center for literary events. There is even a city named after Bialik in northern Israel, Qiryat Bialik. His poems have been translated into some 30 languages, and set to music as popular songs. Bialik's poems - and songs based on them - have become an essential part of the education and culture of modern Israel.
Selected bibliography in English
- Selected Writings (poetry and prose) London, Hasefer, 1924; New York, New Palestine, 1926; Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1939; New York, Histadrut Ivrit of America, 1948; New York, Bloch, 1965; New York, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1972; Tel Aviv, Dvir and the Jerusalem Post, 1981; Columbus, Alpha, 1987
- The Short Friday Tel Aviv, Hashaot, 1944
- Knight of Onions and Knight of Garlic New York, Jordan, 1939
- Random Harvest - The Novellas of C. N. Bialik, Boulder, Colorado, Westview Press (Perseus Books), 1999
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