More Than a National Poet: On the 140th Anniversary of Haim Nahman Bialik's Birth

In his work as a storyteller, editor, linguist, commentator and 'guiding light,' Bialik was a figure everyone looked to for guidance on matters of national identity.

In a graveside address on the 78th anniversary of Haim Nahman Bialik's death last July, prize-winning poet and translator Meir Wieseltier spared no praise for Bialik's contribution to his generation and those that have followed: "Bialik's poems did and, in my eyes, continue to do divine work with respect to the language of the new Hebrew poetry," he said, as reported in Yedioth Ahronoth. But in the same breath, Wieseltier also raised the question: "Is there a point to insisting on continuing to call Bialik by the old, well-known phrase 'national poet'? ... Perhaps we will make do with another term - a great poet, say, the greatest of the new Hebrew poets." Eighteen years before Wieseltier, poet Moshe Ben-Shaul also spoke at Bialik's grave. Along with words of praise on behalf of "the most important of the Hebrew poets in the modern era," Ben-Shaul, as quoted in Maariv on July 8, 1994, also reasoned that he was perhaps "no longer the national poet. Bialik speaks to everyone, including the youth ... In this label, 'the national poet,' there is immediately something that sows division; every political leadership is ready and capable of co-opting it."

Even during Bialik's lifetime - and he was born 140 years ago, next week - there were those, foremost among them poet David Frishman, who took issue with the national and prophetic element in his work, and gave preference for various reasons to his lyric poetry. But the decline in the legitimacy of nationalism in contemporary times must be seen in a greater context, not just a literary one. It stems above all from the crushing victory in the West of liberalism, which is rooted in the supremacy of the individual. From here emerges the suspicious examination of any collective value (including the national one ) that could nullify or restrict individuality or the individual's choice. Nationalism became associated with discrimination, wars and genocide. Hence also the tendency to downplay the deep-rooted nature of the phenomenon of nationalism, and even to define it as something "imagined."

"The authentic national poet - who is he? He in whom the national and the universal are combined. And in the place where you find his nationalism, you will also always find a universal element," Bialik once wrote to his friend, author Nathan Bistritzky. In this respect, Bialik was no different from the liberal prophets of national liberation and revival of the 19th century, such as Mazzini, Masaryk and also Herzl.

The ostensible contradiction between the personal and the national, which has become a consensus in our time, was not accepted by Bialik. Indeed, along with his support of the poet's freedom and independence, he emphasized the self-evident: that no individual stands in a space devoid of a formative cultural context, national as well as universal. Furthermore, the "crown" of the national poet was not devoid of meaning in his eyes or in the eyes of his generation, as it is today, for his life's work, poetic and otherwise, was inseparable from the national revival enterprise of the Jewish people.

Indeed, looking exclusively at Bialik's poetic works, while ignoring his greater endeavors, minimizes his stature. After all, along with being a poet, Bialik was also a storyteller, translator, editor, publisher, compiler, linguist and commentator - with all of these abilities serving at once as components in building the renewed national culture. And above all, throughout his life, Bialik served as a moral and political "guiding light," not only for his fellow authors and intellectuals, but also for the public of all stripes and ages, from left and right, from religious and secular backgrounds, and from different diasporas. Everyone looked to him when faced with dilemmas concerning the formation of the national identity.

Thus, for example, Yona Shulman, a young man from the Jezreel Valley, confesses to Bialik in a letter from November 9, 1929 (today in the Bialik Archives ), that he is pained by the utterly mundane commemoration of the holidays where he lives, and the void he feels due to alienation from sources of Jewish culture and customs: "We have lost all the national values. We have lost all of the great positivity, which is the pride of our people and its culture, because we do not recognize it, and everything is like a book closed before us. And the question awaits resolution ... The Sabbath shall come to Nahalal. It is possible and positive that the youth shall gather from all over the valley and devote a special encounter to it - and you shall run it. I wait with baited breath for your arrival, and to speak with you about this."

'Ingathering' enterprise

Bialik's roles as a creator of culture and as someone to whom were addressed the wishes of the generation, in the twilight period that followed the break with religion and loss of faith-based wholeness, were not seen by him as occupations of any less value than writing poems. To wit, his dedication over more than 30 years to the enterprise of "ingathering" the treasures of Jewish culture. The flagship of this enterprise was "Sefer Ha'Aggadah" ("The Book of Legends" ), which he co-edited with his colleague Y.H. Ravnitzky; the national aspect of this mammoth work was paramount in Bialik's mind.

"The third part of the renewed 'Book of Legends' is close to its final arrangement," Bialik told a friend, not long before he died (in "Igrot Bialik," ed. F. Lakhover; Dvir, 1939 ). There he stresses: "This section, in terms of its subjects, which are all national in content, is greater than all the others, and there is no national book in Israel to rival it."

And indeed, as national poet, and within the framework of his literary, cultural and public endeavor as a whole, Bialik gave voice to the plight and hopes of the individual and the collective in Palestine and the Diaspora, and as "quasi-president" of the generation, even issued rulings on various fundamental issues of the day. As such, Bialik saw the Land of Israel, not the Diaspora, as the arena for national revival. He made a decisive contribution to the revival of Hebrew, added his own innovations to it and worked to have it be declared the sole national language rather than its rival, Yiddish. He was harshly critical of the passivity of Jews at the time of the Arab riots in Palestine in the 1920s, and appealed to them to organize for self-defense. He did much to bridge the gap between tradition and modernity, and also called for preserving and nurturing the authentic cultural assets of each and every Jewish ethnic group - whether from Poland, Spain or Yemen - and not to pour them into a single cultural mold that would blur their uniqueness.

Moreover, Bialik was actively involved in all areas of life. His "green" doctrine - in which he stressed ecological and aesthetic issues that needed to be attended to - was published in October 1932 in Yedioth under the headline "What to do to improve Tel Aviv." As part of his widespread cultural activity, he founded the illustrious institution of Oneg Shabbat in Tel Aviv, which strove to fill Shabbat with modern contents derived from Jewish heritage, history and culture. Oneg Shabbat went on operating in his spirit for decades after his death.

Bialik's identification as the national poet was aided by his warm, folksy personality, the simplicity of his demeanor, his openness and his willingness to help anyone in the country, from the rector of the university on Mount Scopus to the peddler in the Carmel Market. Thus, all seemed to feel they had a share of him.

Bialik also preached the path of national responsibility at the writers' conference in Jerusalem in the spring of 1930, as set forth later in his Devarim She'be'al Peh" (Dvir, 1935 ): "Some people think that the artist-writer-poet discharges his duties in his work, and that he is above the 'Code of Jewish Law' and the mitzvot; that he is exempt from all national obligations and only a 'mere' mortal is bound by them. I have never granted such a privilege to the Hebrew artist."

This stance was also part of Bialik's educational doctrine, and found expression, among other places, in the speech "Keren Kayemeth and the national mitzvot," which he delivered at the Ben Shemen children's village in 1927: "Religion has become diminished in education. I shall not say whether this is or is not a good thing, but we must fill the empty place with a national teaching, connect the national problems to education ... We must educate the child in practical national mitzvot. The children must not be educated solely around the private matters ... The national tithe, the donation to benefit national institutions - the work on their behalf needs to be made a major element of education."

Various genres

The identification of Bialik as the national poet is generally related to his poems of Zion (such as "El Hatzipor" and "Basadeh" ), his beit midrash (house of Torah study ) work (such as "Lifnei Aron Ha'sefarim" and "Hamatmid" ), and also his poems of rebuke and fury, from "Ahen Hatzir Ha'am" (1897 ) to "Re'ithem Shuv Bekotzer Yadhem" (1931 ).

But beside these, Bialik also wrote nature poems, love poems, Ars Poetica poems, folk songs, children's songs and more. In his "In a Foreign Corner" (Davar, 1938 ), poet Elisha Rodin points out, among other things, the national dimension he felt in Bialik's "Zohar": "It is a mesh of memories, geographic experiences, [the] personal and biographical-national ... and in that same mesh of the individual and the tribal, I read about Bialik's childhood, and sense how his childhood intertwines with the childhood of my nation."

For her part, poet and author Lea Goldberg saw "Zohar" and the story "Safiah," as works in which "Bialik gave the people of Israel back its childhood" (Mishmar, July 1944). She went on to add praise for the resurrection Bialik affected in the Hebrew language, and for the national poet's special accomplishment in writing folk songs: "This miracle that Bialik worked, is what raises the poet to the level of the national popular title more than all his poems of reproof." .

In the spirit of that same association between the personal-national-universal, Nathan Bistritzky wrote on December 29, 1971, in the Kol Ha'am newspaper, that "Hachnisini Tachat Knafech" was Bialik's most nationalist poem, because "in its crammed mental sketches, there is the dramatic summation of the lyrical standing of an individual and the history of his universe; and this ... also exhausts, in and of itself, in a lyrical manner, the drama of a national collective, whose tragedy thereby comes to light instantly in a very human portrait, which is to say, universal."

In June 1933, at a writers conference in Tel Aviv, Bialik discussed the righteousness and moral purity incumbent upon the writer (from "Devarim She'be'al Peh" ): "The writer is also entitled to be a member of any organization and party he so chooses, but as a writer he must not become enslaved to any idol. He shall be free. His own conscience shall be his guide, and not that of the party. And the writer's conscience and moral measure are none other than his absolute loyalty to his own truth, his commitment to his talent and self, not to forge his seal through deceit and winks, so as not to market counterfeit bills of words."

In 1929, at the age of 57, Bialik closed another such conference with the following words:"works of literature that were intentionally written for Palestine and for various institutions are a disgrace to us. Will you make our writers into beadles? I would oust such writers. Everyone is useful to the people, if he acts in accordance with his capacity and work. The usefulness is if the writer is free, and that is more beneficial to both the people of Israel and the writer."

Shmuel Avneri is director of the Bialik Archive in Tel Aviv.