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Shaul Tchernikhovsky

Lawrence Bush
August 19, 2017

Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernikhovsky, twice awarded Israel’s Bialik Prize for Literature, was born in Russian Empire on this date in 1875. He became a doctor in 1906 and served as a medical officer in World War I. In 1931 he settled in Palestine, where he would work as doctor for the Tel Aviv schools while writing poetry and translating Homer, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, Byron, and numerous other great and classical writers into Hebrew. His poetry blended themes of world culture and ancient Jewish culture (Cynthia Ozick describes his poetry as “wrest[ing] with the problem of Hellenism” and being “overwhelmed” by the “dichotomy” between “Greek and Jew”), and he became the Hebrew poet most identified with the sonnet, introducing the “crown of sonnets” structure into the language -- a cycle built of fifteen sonnets in which the final one consists of the first lines of the other fourteen. Many of Tchernikhovsky’s poems have been set to music and became deeply imbedded in Israeli culture, and he is one of four poets whose images have appeared on Israeli currency since 2013.

“Poets were the spearhead of the drive towards the renewal of Hebrew speech in practice, and until the middle of the 20th century, their poetry was celebrated both for its intrinsic merit and as a national achievement. The two giants of the era, Saul Tchernikhovsky and Chaim Nahman Bialik, replaced the high biblical rhetoric of their predecessors, which did not suit the vivid national and linguistic reality developing in pre-state Israel. Their task was to create a new wide linguistic panorama that would enable the expression of the youthful pioneering revolution taking place, and of many new aspects of life that had hardly been dealt with by Hebrew poetry prior to that. Their contribution created a radical tradition that continued after them, when each successive generation of poets proceeded to dethrone the previous one, meeting the new challenges of their time, and bridging the gap between modern life and its artistic expression more and more.” --Amir Or, “Hebrew Poetry in the New Millennium”

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.