Chaim Nachman Bialik – A Pioneering Figure in Jewish Literary Culture

Chaim Nachman Bialik is Born

On This Day, 1873

On this day, 1873, Chaim Nachman Bialik is born in the village of Radi in Ukraine. He would become a towering presence in Jewish and Israeli literary culture. Best known for his poetry written in Hebrew, Bialik was a literary renaissance figure, whose work as editor, publisher, and translator placed him at the center of Jewish cultural movements in Odessa, then Berlin and finally Tel Aviv.

At a young age, Bialik studied Talmud, and while he never lost his interest in religious and spiritual texts, he would, under the influence of the Haskala, expand his learning to include major works of European literature.

His reputation as a poet was established in Odessa. In 1903, he was sent to interview survivors of the Kishinev Pogrom and the result was his epic poem, “In The City of Slaughter”, published one year later. The poem was a masterful portrait of that violent event and an indictment of the Jewish victims who seemingly did nothing to defend themselves and their families. It has been credited with inspiring Jewish defense movements in Russia and later in Israel, before and after independence.

In The City of Slaughter (excerpt)

ARISE and go now to the city of slaughter;
Into its courtyard wind thy way;
There with thine own hand touch, and with the eyes of
thine head,
Behold on tree, on stone, on fence, on mural clay,
The spattered blood and dried brains of the dead.
Proceed thence to the ruins, the split walls reach,
Where wider grows the hollow, and greater grows the
Pass over the shattered hearth, attain the broken wall
Whose burnt and barren brick, whose charred stones reveal
The open mouths of such wounds, that no mending
Shall ever mend, nor healing ever heal.
There will thy feet in feathers sink, and stumble
On wreckage doubly wrecked, scroll heaped on manuscript,
Fragments again fragmented

– H.N. Bialik, “The City of Slaughter”

Bialik translated canonical works by Shakespeare, Schiller, and Cervantes into Hebrew, edited important literary journals and founded publishing houses devoted to Jewish literary culture. In 1919, he founded Dvir in Odessa, a publishing house. It moved to Berlin after the Russian Revolution and then to British-occupied Palestine where it would grow into “Kinneret Zmora-Dvir”, one of Israel’s largest publishing houses.

Throughout his professional life, Bialik was a champion of Zionism and upon his arrival in British-occupied Palestine in 1924, became a leading force in its emerging cultural life. He died in Vienna in 1934.

Bialik’s work remains in print and widely anthologized and he was the subject of a new biography by Avner Holtzman published in 2017.

“The greatest happiness is to do our duty, and our foremost duty is to reach the place we can.” – Chaim Nachman Bialik