• Issue: July 1959
  • Designer: M. & G. Shamir
  • Plate no.: 165
  • Method of printing: Photogravure

Chaim Nachman Bialik, the national poet of Israel, was born in the village of Radi near Zhitomir in 1873, the son of an unsuccessful businessman from a scholarly Jewish background. Both of Bialik's parents had married after being widowed and some of Bialik's finest early poems reflect the poverty and parental neglect of his childhood, while others recall and idealise the enchantment of the forests he roamed in as a boy.

In 1880, shortly after the family moved to Zhitomir (Volhynia), his father died and his impoverished widow was forced to entrust her son to a comfortably-off paternal grandfather who raised the bright and mischievous boy.

Until the age of 13 Bilaik studied at the local Heder but then persuaded his grandfather to send him to the yeshiva of Volozhin in Lithuania where he hoped to be able to study the humanities in addition to Talmudic learning. However, realising that the yehiva's curriculum was strictly Talmudic, he began independently to immerse himself in reading Russian verse and European literature. He also joined a secret Zionist student society, Netzah Israel, which combined Jewish nationalism with tradition.

At this stage he came under the influence of Ahad Ha'am's Zionist teachings, and in the summer of 1891 he left the yeshiva and traveled to Odessa, the center of modern Jewish culture. There he joined the literary circle around Ahad Ha'am and contemplated entering the modern Orthodox rabbinical seminary in Berlin. He eked out a livelihood in Odessa by giving Hebrew lessons. Despite his shyness, his first poem, a song of longing for Zion, was well received by the critics.

Early in 1892, hearing that the Yeshiva in Volozhin was closed, he left Odessa for home, not wanting his dying grandfather to know that he had given up his religious studies. Upon his return he learnt that his older brother was also dying. This state of affairs brought home to him more than ever the despair and squalor of the Jewish Diaspora existence.

In 1893, following his marriage to Manya Averbuch, Bialik joined her father in the timber trade in Korostyshev near Kiev. Bialik was unsuccessful in business and became a teacher, first in Sosnowiec near the Prussian border, and then in Odessa where he lived until 1921, apart from a year in Warsaw (1904) as editor of a Hebrew journal. He was also a co-founder of the Moriah Publishing House which produced textbooks for the modern Jewish schools.

The appearance of his first volume of poems in 1901 consolidated his growing reputation, and he was hailed as "the poet of the national renaissance."

Bialik interviewed survivors of the Kishinev pogroms in 1903 and then wrote the poem 'Al ha-Shehitah' (On the Slaughter) containing the famous lines:

Cursed is he who says "Revenge!"
Vengeance for the blood of a small child
Satan has not yet created.

In the poem "Be-Ir ha-Haregah" (In the City of Slaughter, 1904) he denounced the absence of justice and the meek submission to the massacre: "The sun shone, the acacia blossomed, and the slaughterer slaughtered".

Bialik spent three years in Berlin and then settled in Tel Aviv in 1924. He spent the last ten years of his life there before his death in Vienna in 1934 during medical treatment.

Bialik's anthology of the Aggada (Sefer ha-Aggada, 1908-11) is still a standard text in Israeli schools. He travelled widely in the cause of Zionism and the Hebrew language, and he introduced the popular Oneg Shabbat tradition of Sabbath study.

Bialik's literary opus was a turning point in modern Hebrew literature, and his remarkable command of the Hebrew language and its nuances had a great influence on spoken Hebrew in Israel. His poems for children are very popular and many have been set to music. Bialik is regarded as Israel's national poet.

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25th anniversary of Poet Chaim Nachman Bialik death