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Israel’s National Poet

January 9, 2018

Modern Israel’s “national poet,” Haim Nahman Bialik, was born in Ukraine on this date in 1873. By his mid-twenties, Bialik was widely acclaimed for his writings in both Yiddish and Hebrew and had translated Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and other classics of world literature into Hebrew. In 1903, Bialik went to Kishniev as part of a Jewish delegation tasked with documenting the pogrom there; the visit inspired a series of powerful poems, including “In the City of Slaughter,” which helped spark the creation of Jewish self-defense groups throughout the Russian Empire. With his longtime collaborator Yehoshua Ravnitzky, Bialik also collected, organized, and translated the aggadic (folklore and storytelling) aspects of the Talmud into a single compendium, The Book of Legends, which was republished several times throughout the 20th century. Bialik was involved in the Zionist movement for decades before moving to Tel Aviv in 1924. Three years later he became head of the Hebrew Writers Union, a post he held until his death in 1934. As a writer, editor, and publisher, Bialik greatly contributed to the revitalization of Hebrew. His poems have been translated into at least thirty languages, and many have been set to music and turned into Israeli songs.

“Great is the sorrow,
and great is the shame —
and which of the two is greater —
answer thou, O son of Man. . . .
The grandsons of the Maccabeans —
they ran like mice, they hid themselves like bed-bugs
and died the death of dogs wherever found.”
  —Bialik, from “In the City of Slaughter” (1904)