Poem of the Week 'What Is Love?'

One of Israel's most famous poets confesses a secret.

Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden
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Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden

Take Me Under Your Wing

Hayyim Nahman Bialik

Take me under your wing
and be to me mother and sister,
your breast will shelter my head
nest of my distant prayers.

In time of mercy, twilight hours,
listen to the secret of my pain:
some say there is youth in the world –
where is my youth?

and I’ll confess one more secret:
my soul was consumed in flame;
some say there is love in the world –
what is love?

The stars deceived me,
there was a dream – but it too slipped away;
now I have nothing in this world –
not a thing.

Take me under your wing,
and be to me mother and sister,
your breast will shelter my head,
nest of my distant prayers.

--1905

Translated from Hebrew by Gabriel Levin.

***

Hayyim Nahman Bialik (January 9, 1873 –July 4, 1934) is and was ubiquitous. Nearly every Jewish locale in Israel has a street named after him and there is even a town called Kiryat Bialik north of Haifa.

Born in a shtetl and raised from the age of 7 in Zhitomir in the Pale of Settlement, he went AWOL from the Volozhin Yeshiva in Lithuania to Odessa, where he became an active Zionist and began publishing his poetry. To avoid his strict grandfather’s deathbed wrath, he returned to the Pale, where he married. Subsequently, in Odessa again, he founded the Dvir publishing house with some friends, then went on to Warsaw and Berlin before coming to settle in Tel Aviv in 1924, where he was already a celebrity and had a powerful presence in the cultural scene of Palestine.

His Hebrew works (though not his writings in Yiddish) are everywhere, from pre-kindergartens to the high school curriculum to celebrations, ceremonies and the radio, as many of the poems have been set to music. He has been called Israel’s “national poet,” though this is not an official title.

“Take Me Under Your Wing” is commonly read and taught in one or more of at least three ways: as a love poem (apparently, when it was written, in 1905, Bialik was having problems with his wife Mania and in a phase of his long affair with his mistress, Ira Yan); as a poem of longing for Zion; and as a poem about his ambivalent relationship to religion, in which case the “you” of the poem would be the Shekhina, the winged female manifestation of divinity in Jewish mysticism.

Bialik was a formalist with respect to sound. In the original of this poem, the second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme. Hebrew grammar makes rhyming relatively easy but since English works quite differently, translator Gabi Levine has preserved the musical feel by employing internal rhyme (breast/nest), imperfect end-rhymes (sister/prayers), assonance (pain/flame/away) and an end-rhyme (wing/thing). Bialik wrote in Ashkenazi Hebrew, enabling metric lines of a stressed syllable to be followed by an unstressed syllable (trochees), a rhythm that is lost in the modern Israeli language based on Sephardic Hebrew.

A number of composers have set this poem to music. Listen to Arik Einstein sing a version that is an Israeli classic, from a 1980 album with Miki Gavrielov – here:

Musings:
*How does Einstein appear to interpret the poem in his rendition?

Bialik, Ahad Ha'am and the crowd celebrating, laying the cornerstone Ha'aretz.Credit: Beit Bialik Archive
Gabriel LevinCredit: Courtesy

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