Nearly all Israeli preschoolers can warble Hayyim Nahman Bialik's ditties "Seesaw," "Run, Little Horse" and "Bird's Nest," even though most of them probably do not know who wrote them. Prof. Ziva Shamir, who has to her credit 30 years of Bialik research, is not pleased, to say the least, about Bialik's status in the consciousness of Israeli readers, especially young ones.
Shamir - former head of the literary studies committee at the Ministry of Education - is very critical, particularly of the way the poet is taught in schools, and especially in high schools, which, she says, alienates students from Bialik (1873-1934) instead of trying to bring them closer to his world.
Dr. Nili Levy, chief inspector for literature at the Ministry of Education, notes that in junior high schools, teachers are instructed to teach poems by Bialik (of their own choosing) without the texts. Shamir complains that Dvir Publishing, Ltd. (now owned by Zmora-Bitan Publishers, Ltd.), which owns the rights to Bialik's poetry, does not permit the Education Ministry to print his poems in textbooks on the ridiculous grounds that this hurts the sales of Bialik's complete works.
"This is an absurd situation because students do not purchase the books but photocopy from them," says Shamir. Furthermore, she adds, it is not possible to find Bialik's complete works on the shelves of every bookstore, so that in effect, instead of encouraging and promoting Bialik's poetry among young audiences, the publisher is ensuring that it will be ignored.
Publisher Ehud Zmora believes that in the past, Bialik's poems were treated as if they were public property because he is considered the national poet. After many years during which the poems were given to anyone who wanted them, Zmora explains, that policy has changed: His concern is the sales of the books.
"I do not think that I must give the rights away for free," he says. The fact that students do not purchase the books en masse because of this policy does not affect his opinion - but he hints that if he is approached again, the matter will be examined.
After years during which high-school students all studied the same one long poem and five shorter poems by Bialik, during Shamir's day, a certain change was instituted when it was decided to allow teachers to select the poems themselves. Nowadays teachers can choose, out of a large selection, which poems of Bialik's they wish to teach. But this mini-revolution is no longer acceptable to Shamir. She believes that a general overhaul of the teaching of Hebrew poets and writers is now in order, especially in light of new studies that have revealed facts that were not known in the past.
In this respect, Bialik is just a test case; in Shamir's opinion, other modern Hebrew poets, such as Natan Alterman (1910-1970), have been done even greater injustice.
"Of the poets of his time," says Shamir, "Bialik was a unique phenomenon, and supposedly he is greatly respected and an attempt is made to glorify him. Paradoxically, though, there is no attempt to get to the bottom of the phenomenon."
She is especially incensed by "the attempt to confine the poet in the narrow mold of nationalism and ignore the profundity and extent of his knowledge and his writing. Bialik has earned what no other poet, writer or playwright in Israel or the world has earned - neither Shakespeare, Victor Hugo nor Cervantes: He has been crowned with the title of national poet, and it is compulsory to teach him in high schools. However, the respected title has turned into a disadvantage, as he himself is forgotten, up there."
Many people, notes Shamir, attend memorial events at Bialik House. Music is still being composed for his poems, and the bookshelf of research into his poetry is constantly expanding.
However, she says, for the most part the focus is only on the superficial and obvious level of his work, and - what is more problematical - with time, a uniform version of his life and work has been created: "It is generally considered that Bialik is crystal clear, and apparently this is the reason he speaks to people so well, but this clarity is only a thin envelope, beneath which seethes a very dense and complex artistry."
Therefore, the argument that Bialik is outdated is out of place. Shamir believes that Bialik is a modernist.
In recent years, Shamir has taken an interest in what she calls "the deceptive identities" of writers and poets. This is the issue she treats in her most recent book, which she is currently engaged in writing at the Shalem Center research institute. As hard as it is to think of Bialik, whose round and somewhat complacent face peers forth from his photographs, as the figure of the tortured poet, Shamir depicts him as a contradictory character far from the authoritative and respectable image that the education system takes care to promulgate and maintain.
She believes, for example, that he created a myth from his life story, a kind of legend that is based on a fictional rather than a real biography. Bialik's mother was not a market scold, as he wrote in one of his poems, and his father was a respected lumber dealer for most of his life, and not a publican at an inn (which he was for only a few months). Nor did he have seven siblings.
Bialik, to put it plainly, came from a prosperous merchant family, and not, as he tried to depict it to his readers, from the lower classes and a poor home. Alongside his literary activity, he had a charcoal business and a publishing house, and he had enough to live on.
"Bialik was part of the Zionist revolution. He wanted to create a basis for identification among readers who suffered from poverty and wanderings, and to be seen by them as a man of the people. And he succeeded in this," explains Shamir. "This is apparently the reason he became a national symbol. But whether he was happy with this is a different question."
According to Shamir, Bialik was ambivalent by nature, sometimes to the point of passivity. This "dancing at both weddings" phenomenon is also clear in his attitude toward the role that he had assumed willingly at first; but later poems reflect his sense of bearing a heavy burden and the desire to flee from the false image.
In the same manner, information that Shamir defines as folklore were spun about Bialik - such as his supposed abhorrence of the Jews from the Muslim countries, which she says, is totally unfounded - and distanced him from a large audience: "Natan Zach claims that Bialik had a narrow nationalistic outlook, whereas Saul Tchernikovsky (1875-1943) had broader horizons and was a pacifist and tolerant. This is a flawed understanding of his work and his character."
The more human dimension of Bialik's personality, with its complexity and contradictions, is not presented to students. In her last book, "A Track of Her Own" (Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, Ltd.), Shamir revealed Bialik's secret love for Ira Yann, the first female "Hebrew" painter, who followed Bialik wherever he went until she died penniless in Israel.
Shamir wove the story of the affair from a packet of letters the two had written each other, which was found several years ago and concealed at Bialik House so as not to damage the poet's image. The letters contributed to a new understanding of many of his poems.
Shamir is not suggesting that Ira Yann be taught in kindergartens. However, she does believe that in high schools, instead of perpetuating the superficial and traditional interpretations of Bialik's poetry, it is possible to remove the poet's masks, and reveal the attraction and the hesitation that mingle in his poems, and to teach the distinction between the speaker in the poems - the "persona" - and the poet himself.
"A place must be given to several versions of the biography and, of course, the truth must be told about the poet's life in a way that can broaden the students' understanding," she says. Her approach may be compared to that of the "new historians," whose research and opinions about the national version of history do not reflect the mainstream and often stir up tempests and reactions. In the field of history, it is customary to talk about different narratives. Why not in literature?
Dr. Nili Levy, the chief inspector for literature studies at the Education Ministry, rejects Shamir's arguments on the grounds that there is no restriction on the interpretation of poems, and every teacher can teach in his or her own way. According to her, concepts from literary theory have no place in the high school: "In high school, the aim is to bring the students closer to the literary works, and not to teach literary research."
It would seem that the real reason for the rejection of Bialik, as of other poets, to the margins of students' consciousness, has its source in something quite prosaic. Levy represents a sort of struggle of poets and writers of Bialik's generation with more contemporary writing for a place in students' hearts. In other words, the desire to include in the curriculum works that are more relevant to the students' lives (and perhaps in this way, to encourage them to like literature as a subject), is pushing the classics aside.
Thus, included for the first time in the curriculum that was instituted in the schools only last year, are poems by Tchernikovsky, Uri Zvi Greenberg (1896-1981) and Alterman, as required reading. This is an innovation, says Shamir. But is it enough to teach one poem by any given poet?
Shamir does not want Bialik to be made into a national saint. Her dream is that rock music adaptations of his work will be composed, that he will be treated like Shakespeare and that his works will be mined for raw material: "Perhaps if there is one teacher who will see Bialik's human side he will cause students to fall in love with him and start creating."