Bialik Haim Nahman (1873-1934)

The greatest Hebrew poet of modern times, was also an essayist, storywriter, translator and editor who exercised a profound influence on modern Jewish culture.


Bialik was born in the village of Radi, near Zhitomir (Volhynia). His father, who came of scholarly stock, had come down in life through his impracticality in his business affairs. For his father as well as his mother, this was a second marriage, both having been widowed previously. Despite his family's dire economic circumstances, some of Bialik's best poems recall and idealize the enchanted hours which he spent as a child romping in the secret shade of the forest. Other poems recall loneliness and parental neglect.

When Bialik was six, his parents moved to Zhitomir in search of a livelihood and his father was reduced to keeping a saloon on the outskirts of town. Shortly thereafter, in 1880, his father died and the destitute widow entrusted her son to the care of his well-to-do paternal grandfather. For ten years the gifted, mischievous Hayyim Nahman was raised by this stern, pious old man. At first he was instructed by teachers in the traditional heder, but later, from the age of 13, he pursued his studies alone.

Convinced by a journalistic report that the yeshivah of Volozhin in Lithuania would offer him an introduction to the humanities as well as a continuation of his talmudic studies, Bialik persuaded his grandfather to permit him to study there. In fact, however, the curriculum of the yeshivah enabled him to immerse himself only in the scholarly virtues of talmudic studies. But in the end modernist doubts triumphed over traditionalist certainties. Bialik began to withdraw from the life of the school and lived in the world of poetry, reading Russian verse and European literature. While still in the yeshivah Bialik joined a secret Orthodox Zionist student society, Nezah Israel, which attempted to blend Jewish nationalism and enlightenment with a firm adherence to tradition. In this period Bialik was influenced by the teachings of Ahad Ha'am's spiritual Zionism.

In the summer of 1891 Bialik left the yeshivah for Odessa, the center of modern Jewish culture, in southern Russia. He was attracted by the literary circle that formed around Ahad Ha'am, and harbored the dream that in Odessa he would be able to prepare himself for entry to the modern Orthodox rabbinical seminary in Berlin. Penniless and alone, he earned a livelihood for a while by giving Hebrew lessons, while continuing to study Russian literature and German grammar. At first the shy youth did not become involved in the literary life of the city but his first poem, a song longing for Zion, was favorably received by the critics.

When Bialik learned, early in 1892, that the yeshivah of Volozhin had been closed, he cut short his stay in the company of the writers of Odessa, and hurried home in order to spare his dying grandfather the knowledge that he had forsaken his religious studies. On returning home he found that his older brother too was dying. The atmosphere at home embodied for him the despair and squalor of Jewish life in the Diaspora.

In 1893, after the death of his brother and grandfather, Bialik married Manya Averbuch, and for the next three years joined her father in the timber trade in Korostyshev, near Kiev. During the long and lonely stretches in the forest, he read very widely. In business, however, he failed, and in 1897 Bialik found a position as a teacher in Sosnowiec, near the Prussian border. But the pettiness of provincial life depressed him, and in 1900 Bialik finally succeeded in finding a teaching position in Odessa, where he lived until 1921, except for a year's stay in Warsaw (1904), where he served as literary editor of a Hebrew journal. Together with three other writers he founded the Moriah Publishing House which produced textbooks for the modern Jewish school. Throughout these years Bialik's reputation grew, and when his first volume of poems appeared in 1901, he was hailed as "the poet of the national renaissance."

Soon after, in 1903, the Kishinev pogroms deeply shocked the whole civilized world. After interviewing survivors of the atrocity, Bialik wrote "Al ha- Shehitah" ("On the Slaughter," 1903) in which he calls on heaven either to exercise immediate justice and, if not, to destroy the world, spurning mere vengeance with the famous lines:


Cursed is he who says 'Revenge!'
Vengeance for the blood of a small child
Satan has not yet created.


Later he wrote "Be-Ir ha-Haregah" ("In the City of Slaughter," 1904), a searing denunciation of the people's meek submission to the massacre, in which he is bitter at the absence of justice, and struck by the indifference of nature:


"The sun shone, the acacia blossomed, and the slaughterer slaughtered."


After three years in Berlin, Bialik settled in Tel Aviv in 1924 where he spent the rest of his life. He died in Vienna where he had gone for medical treatment.

Bialik was a very learned man in Jewish subjects and, together with Yehoshua Hana Rawnitzki, he compiled an anthology of the aggadah (Sefer ha- Aggadah, 1908--11) which is still a standard text in Israel's schools. He was very active in public affairs had traveled all over the world in the cause of Zionism and the Hebrew language. In his later years he took an increasingly positive attitude towards Judaism and initiated the popular Oneg Shabbat, a Sabbath study project.

Bialik's literary career was a turning point in modern Hebrew literature. He had a thorough command of Hebrew and the ability to fully utilize the resources of the language. To a large degree he anticipated the Hebrew spoken in modern Israel and influenced it a great deal. Very many of his poems have been set to music and are still very popular, particularly the poems he wrote for children. In Israel, he is considered to be the national poet and his position is much the same as that of Shakespeare in English-speaking countries.

Entry taken from "Junior Judaica, Encyclopedia Judaica for Youth" CD-ROM

by C.D.I. Systems 1992 (LTD) and Keter.


Reproduced with permission from ©Haaretz
Tue., January 18, 2005

The national poet and the new generation

By Shiri Lev-Ari

Everyone in the copyright and new media department of ACUM, the Association of Composers, Authors and Publishers of Music in Israel, breathed a sigh of relief. The end of 2004 marked 70 years since the death of national poet Haim Nahman Bialik, and his work entered the public domain.

Under Israeli law, copyright belongs to a writer's heirs for 70 years. Eli Moreno, the department's head, was very happy. For years he has received scores of applications per month asking to use Bialik's poems. "Bialik is a big hit here," he said.

"The greater a poet's popularity with the general population, the stranger the uses people want to make of his poetry. Someone is now putting poems on boxes of chocolate. There are poems on jars of honey. We ask the holders of the rights for permission to use the work in question and grant the license in return for royalties - NIS 82 for use of a poem in an edition of up to 1,500 copies."

After Bialik's death in 1934 the copyright belonged to the Dvir Publishing house, which was established by the poet and was acquired 20 years ago by Zmora-Bitan Publishers. Now it is possible to quote Bialik anywhere and anytime, without asking permission.

Developing new approaches

Until now, Dvir has made excellent use of its rights to the complete works of Bialik. Over the years it has published 34 books of his works - the complete works, the complete poems, academic editions, children's books, albums of songs, plays, collections of letters that he wrote and much more. During the past two years Zmora-Bitan has been quick to issue Bialik's book of children's poetry "Rutz ben sussi" (Run, My Colt) and the album of love poems "He yoshevet bahalon" (She Sits at the Window).

Two weeks ago, just before the copyright expired, Dvir published a new edition of Bialik's poetry - "Haim Nahman Bialik, hashirim" (Haim Nahman Bialik, the Poems), edited by professor Avner Holzman. Gathered in the book are Bialik's canonical poems, arranged according to the periods of his life and work. An introduction is appended to each poem containing information about its history, the context in which it was written and a suggestion for interpretation. Alongside the poems are glosses of especially difficult words, and at the end of the book there is a selection of Bialik's previously unpublished poems, a table that chronicles his career and a bibliography.

Is Bialik's work published today in a way that is relevant to Israeli readers and speaks to them in contemporary Hebrew? Holzman invested two years in the effort, which began as an initiative of the late Ehud Zmora. In the end, he compromised between the approach of the popular edition of Bialik's complete poems, which the poet himself edited in 1923, and the academic edition that was published in conjunction with Tel Aviv University.

"A large gap developed between the popular and the academic editions, a gap that I wanted to fill," Holzman said. "This gap developed because today we need new keys to appreciate Bialik."

Holzman did away with the traditional division of the poems into three categories, left Bialik's children's poems out except for "Behind the Gate, added 20 previously unpublished poems and divided them into eight chronological periods.

Why wait?

What will happen now that the works of the national poet are accessible to everyone? The Internet has already given its answer. At the beginning of this month, the Ben Yehuda Project uploaded all of Bialik's work. The project, at, started in 1999 and presents the works of Hebrew writers, poets and thinkers who died more than 70 years ago.

On January 3, 220 of Bialik's poems appeared on the site, as well as stories, essays, articles and oral works that were later put in writing. Assaf Bartov, 28, an undergraduate student in classical studies, began to type Bialik's poetry into a computer in 1999. All of Bialik's works on the site were entered and vowelized by Bartov and a team of volunteers. The site is run entirely by volunteers. In recent months, the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan has been providing facilities for the project.

Bartov plans to propose a change to the copyright law to reduce the period that heirs hold the rights to work. "There is a lot of old material by important writers and less popular material that has disappeared from the stores and is out of print, and thus is inaccessible to readers," he said. "Anyway, it does not pay financially for publishers to reissue them, so why wait 70 years?" he asked. He cited a line from a lecture Bialik gave entitled "The Assembly of the Spirit": "We cannot be nourished by the works of the most recent generation alone."

As for the publishing houses, some are glad for the opportunity to publish Bialik and intend to do so in the near future, and some are hesitating - if only because they expect many publishers to "seize the opportunity" and the market to be flooded with Bialik.

Some publishers will undoubtedly reissue Bialik, if only for the textbook market, an unfailing source of sales. Tens of thousands of literature textbooks are sold each year.

The danger is that publishers are likely to concentrate on his best-known poems, those taught in schools or poems for children - those sure to sell. "We don't have plans to publish Bialik," said Yehuda Meltzer, the publisher of Aliyat Hagag books, which works mostly in conjunction with Yedioth Aharonoth's publishing arm. "Those who will publish will no doubt use his most popular works, and all the rest will be forgotten. Or else they'll take his poems that have been set to music and publish them together with the music."

At Am Oved publishers they are considering publishing Bialik. "We haven't reached any conclusions yet," said CEO Yaron Sadan, "but this is a situation that has to be weighed seriously.

Hakibbutz Hameuchad publishing house is also interested in Bialik. "In the near future we will issue one of his children's books, a narrative poem with illustrations by Yossi Abulafia," CEO Uzi Shavit said. "At a later stage, we will publish a small selection of his poems designed for readers' pleasure, not for students. I don't think that this will commercialize Bialik; rather it will only be good for him."

Schocken Publishing is not planning to publish Bialik in the near future, because the market is liable to be saturated. "Usually overseas, when the rights to an author are about to expire, a lot of publishers leap at the opportunity," said Schocken publisher Racheli Edelman. "In France, when the copyright to [Marcel] Proust's work expired, five of his books came out at once. Here, the market is small and there isn't much room."

Keter Publishing is thinking more about Bialik's prose works. "There are enough editions of his poetry," said Shimon Adaf, Keter's literary editor. "An opportunity has now emerged to start a debate about his poetry - after all, his poetry became canonical without any debate. All of us naturally think of him as `The Poet.' It could be that precisely because the rights have now expired, it will be possible to discuss him and his status as poet."

Now, when nearly all of the national poet's works are available on the Internet, it is their added value that will determine the fate of the new Bialik books. The competition over Bialik, said Holzman, "demonstrates that his poetry is still living, and this is not a small matter."  


Biography (Encyc. Judaica for Youth)

Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
Biography, list of publications, anthologies and works in translation 

The Ben Yehuda Project
Works of Bialik online, Hebrew language database (ongoing)





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02 May 2005 / 23 Nisan 5765 0