Revistes Catalanes amb Accés Obert (RACO)

Bialik o el clam profètic

Eduard Feliu


Hayyim Nahman Bialik was born in 1873 in Radi, in the Ukrainian region
of Volhynia. Bialik?s father, a timber merchant whose business went bankrupt,
died in 1880 when the future poet was only seven years old. Unable to raise her
three children, Hayyim Nahman?s mother left him to be brought up in her parents?
home. In the family library, Bialik found the books that enabled him to
develop a prodigious intellectual capacity at the age of just 13. He left his grandparents?
home when he was 17 and spent 16 months living in a Talmudic academy
close to Vilnius, one of the most highly renowned establishments of its
kind in that part of the world.

In 1891, Bialik visited Odessa, where, influenced by the philosophical and political
ideas of Ahad Ha-Am, he joined a clandestine Zionist society set up by the latter.
In 1893, Bialik married Manya Averbach, the daughter of a wealthy timber
merchant for whom he worked for four years. The couple never had children, a
lifelong source of frustration and pain discernible in Bialik?s poetry, a scar that
love affairs could never heal or conceal.

It was during the period in question that Bialik wrote many of his more evidently
Zionist poems, in which he reproached the Jews for their apathy towards
new ideas and new feelings, crying out with prophetic indignation against the
indifference and blindness of his contemporaries.

In 1900, aged 27 and spurred on by Ahad Ha-Am and other writers, Bialik
went with his wife to live in Odessa, which had by then become a hub of Hebrew
literary life and a hotbed for the emerging Zionist movement. It was there
that he made the acquaintance of a number of leaders of the new Jewish political
movements, and his poems made a great impression on the men and women
of letters of that important city.

In May 1903, the Jewish Historical Society of Odessa sent Bialik to Kishinev to
talk to the survivors of the pogrom that had taken place there. Deeply affected by
what he saw and was told there, Bialik withdrew to the home of some relatives close
to Kiev and composed one of Hebrew literature?s most chilling poems,In the City of
, which consolidated his renown as the Jewish national poet, had a tremendous
impact throughout Jewish society in eastern Europe and instigated the process
that gave rise to a new Jewish identity. The poem?s criticism of the inhumanity and
lack of national dignity of the Jews at crucial moments had immediate effects.

In 1919, the Bolsheviks outlawed Zionist activities and shut down all Russia?s
Jewish institutions, which had enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy. November
1917 saw the British government publish the Balfour Declaration, in which it
advocated the creation of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. A
month later, British troops seized Jerusalem from the Turks. Bialik had been
weighing up the possibility of emigrating to the Land of Israel for some time, but
he nonetheless remained in Odessa during the civil war of 1918-1920. In the following
two years, anti-Semitic associations organised over 1,000 pogroms, resulting
in the massacre of some 60,000 Jews. Bialik eventually decided that he ought
to emigrate to the ancient, venerable Land of Israel, where various waves of Jewish
pioneers had begun working to rectify the effects of centuries of neglect and
poverty. Thanks to the good offices of Gorky, Bialik and a group of Hebrew writers
were given permission to leave Russia in 1921, relinquishing all their possessions.
Bialik firstly spent three years in Germany, where he re-established his publishing
house under the name of Dvir. He finally relocated to the Land of Israel in
1924, at which time it was under British administration. He spent the last ten
years of his life engaging in a range of public activities and carrying out missions
in foreign countries to aid the Zionist cause, which, in addition to national demands
of a political nature, has always entailed the renaissance of the Hebrew
language and culture. He wrote very little during the period in question. His poetry
was not the product of contact with the landscapes or with the lives of the
pioneers transforming the Land of Israel, but was rather inspired by a fierce struggle
with the traditions and mentality of the Jews of the Diaspora.

Bialik played a vital role in arousing the political and cultural aspirations of
the Jews of his time, an activity clearly reflected in the prophetic tone of some
of his most overtly political poetry. By condemning the unfeeling and encouraging
those who would go on to feature prominently in the history of the Jews in their
ancient and new fatherland, he significantly influenced many people. The cultural
and moral impact he made on the Jews of the turn of the century was tremendous,
on a par, comparatively, with that made by Herzl in the political arena. He inspired
countless Russian Jews to organise themselves and make a stand.

The importance that Bialik?s work held for the Zionist movement was not
mirrored by that attributed to it in terms of literary criticism. With few exceptions,
it was only after his death that he began to be the subject of serious biographical
and literary studies. Fundamentally, his work reveals the crisis of values
in moral and religious life, a consequence of many Jews in eastern Europe
giving up their traditional lifestyle, spurred on by increasingly worldly and politically
committed movements. The poet spent his life trapped in two worlds,
one of which was dying while the other had yet to be fully born.

Bialik died in Vienna on 4 July 1934, at the age of 61. The people of Israel
of all ages, academic backgrounds and convictions had come to view him as a
cultural symbol and a guide in terms of interpreting national aspects of Jewish
tradition, the poet upon whom the laurels of Jewish nationalism were bestowed,
who had succeeded in laying bare the weakness of the nation and the illusory
aspirations of the religion, which was mistrustful of the secular innovations that
the new political movement seemingly involved.

A leading scholar of modern Hebrew literature, Gershon Shaked felt that
interest in Bialik?s work could be attributed to his multifaceted personality.
Shaked wrote that «many saw in him the poet of the Renaissance; others saw
him as the poet of doom. There are those who saw him as a prophet and others
who discovered in him pathos, sarcasm and irony. Some saw the face of an untainted
yeshivah boy; others saw the hidden passions suppressed by the forces
of a normative tradition. Everyone sought reasons and apologies in order to
preserve him for future generations, but Bialik is with us here and now because
the historical process that was actuated in his writing has not as yet run its

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