Two Hebrew literary giants

The Jewish people world-wide have always been known as prolific writers and poets since the beginning of time. All of the earliest writings, ex-cathedra from the Bible, Talmud and religious texts were the products of Jewish life in Babylonia, Spain, North Africa, and the Middle Eastern Levant nations which included by centuries the works of Jewish scholars in the land of Israel.

Shortly after the mass immigration, the beginning of the Jewish return to their ancient homeland from 1862 to the present day, Israel has produced hundreds of scholars and poets and novelists. We are a book-loving people and are regarded as one of the world’s foremost readers.

Among the several hundred Hebrew poets in the 20th century, two stick in my mind as literary giants.

Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) was a poet of Jewish life. His work reflected both national and religious themes.

He became the official poet of the Zionist movement. He saw the return to Israel and the re-building of the Jewish homeland as a God-inspired and God-commanded covenant which the Jews needed to keep if there was to be a preservation of Jewish life and culture.

No Hebrew poet since the Middle Ages wrote with such force and beauty as Bialik, He is to Hebrew poetry what Shakespeare is to English poetry. And for this reason he was accorded the title of the First Poet Laureate of Palestine.

One of his major contributions to Palestinian Jewish culture was his creation of the weekly Oneg Shabbat. The word “Oneg” in Hebrew means joy or rejoicing. It is customary for Jews to rejoice on the eve of the sacred Sabbath.

So he opened up his beautiful home every Friday evening on the street named for him. At his weekly gatherings he read aloud selections of his poetry which attracted the cultural elite as well as working-class Jews in Palestine.

Bialik, more than any other Hebrew poet since the Spanish period, captured the essence of Jewish religious life.

He once said that “reading poetry in translation is like kissing one’s bride through the veil; the kiss is there but the taste is not as sweet”.

In his lifetime he had written almost one thousand poems in Hebrew. When he died on 4 July 1934, ten thousand Jews in Palestine walked behind his casket in the massive funeral procession to his final resting place in Tel-Aviv’s Trumpeldor cemetery.

Many gifted Hebrew poets followed Chaim Nachman Bialik. None surpassed him.

One of my favorite of Bialik’s poems is “Shabbat HaMalka” (Queen Sabbath), highlighting his Jewish spiritual nature.

“The sun on the tree-tops no longer is seen, so let us go forward to welcome the Queen.
The Sabbath is coming, the holy, the blessed, and with her troop angels of peace and of rest.
Draw near to us o dear Queen, peace unto you, o angels of peace.
We’ve welcomed the Sabbath with songs and with praise, now we go homeward in our ways.
The table is set and the candles alight, at home every corner is sparkling and bright, Sabbath peace, Sabbath peace, o come you in peace you angels of peace.
O stay with us, pure one! We’ll bask in your glow, a night and a day and then you will go.
We’ll wear our best clothes to honor the day, three times we will feast and we’ll sing and will pray.
In perfection of our rest, in the pleasantness of rest, o bless us with peace, you angels of peace.
The sun on the tree-tops no longer is seen, so we’ll go bid farewell to Sabbath, the Queen.
O pure one, o holy, in peace you shall go, six days we’ll await your return, as you know.
Till Sabbath Queen comes again, depart you in peace o you angels of peace”.

Bialik’s contemporary poet and friend, Shaul Tchernichovsky (1875-1943) was a physician and like Bialik, a literary giant. But while Bialik was the poet of Jewish nature, Tchernichovsky was the poet of secular nature. He was a pantheist who saw the world wrapped in magnificent beauty and was greatly influenced by the culture of ancient Greece.

One of his outstanding poems honoring Greek culture, “Before the Statue of Apollo”, paints a picture of a Jew covered with a tallit and tefillin standing before a statue of the Greek god.

It did not win him any friends in the religiously observant Jewish communities in Palestine.

He became the first great rebel in modern Hebrew literature. He was, in essence, a pagan, but with a passionate call symbolizing the return to the soil from which Jews had been uprooted.

His attack on ritual piety was brutal. He saw religion in all of nature, in all of God’s creation, not only in prayer books and ritual.

He abandoned those elements which could be marked peculiarly Jewish and he sought secular universal themes.

Without any doubt he was the most highly educated of all the Hebrew poets. Not only did he serve as medical doctor for the Tel-Aviv schools, but he read and spoke ten languages: Russian, German. French, English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Polish, Italian and some Finnish.

As a child in Odessa he never had any formal Jewish education, never attended a yeshiva, and the Russia of his youth was forests, fields and streams. His nature poetry is filled with his memories.

Tchernichovsky’s poems are often strong and militant and reflected his right-wing tendencies concerning the political life of Jews in Palestine.

His many hundreds of poems and books lack the warmth and tenderness of Bialik’s poetry and is void of much Jewish religious expression. He has often been called a neo-Hellenist and was adored by the secular youth in Palestine. He believed completely in friendship and in self-redemption which he called the virtues of the Zionist ideal.

One of my favorite Tchernichovsky poems is called in Hebrew “Ani Maamin” but its English translation renders it as his personal Credo.

It is his personal expression of universal love, peace, friendship and goodwill that transformed his paganism into poetry of hope and faith.

“Laugh at all my dreams, my dearest, laugh, and I repeat anew that I still believe in mankind as I still believe in you”.

Upon his death in 1943 he was laid to rest near Bialik in the Tel-Aviv Trumpeldor cemetery.

Two gigantic Hebrew poets close to one another both in life and in death. Founding fathers of modern Hebrew poetry.

(SOURCE: “Poems and Poets of Israel: Selected Masterpieces”, Esor Ben-Sorek, 1957)

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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