Published on "KESHER" Journal #33 (spring 2003)
When he was 16 or 17, Hayim Nahman Bialik 1873-1934, then a yeshiva student in Volozhin, began writing allegorical poetry in Hebrew with a Zionist nationalist theme. One of these youthful efforts stands out - "Jacob and Esau," a dramatization of the eternal persecution of Jews as scapegoats. Set in the Ukraine in Czarist Russia, it likens the darts of snow that cover the solitary house of Jacob in the alien wilderness to "a thousand mouths anointed with poison" - the poison of anti-Semitism. It ends with a plaintive cry for a place of refuge. Bialik, an admirer of the Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am, implies that the only place for Jewish survival is Eretz Yisrael.
Years later, in 1903, Ahad Ha’am approved Bialik’s membership in the Jewish Historical Commission headed by historian Simon Dubnow and sent him to Kishinev to document the cataclysmic pogrom there and interview survivors. The mission evoked the poet’s opus, "In the City of Slaughter," which was to earn him the appellation of "national poet." The poem, in its denunciation of submissiveness, shocked its readers by its searing reproof of the victims’ meekness. The language is brutal and merciless, the text filled with references to bats and vermin suggestive of common anti-Semitic imagery. Jewish history is held up for judgment and is found to be disgraced and pitiful. Its attainments, both physical and intellectual, built up laboriously over centuries, have been cast into an abyss, with no one to cry out against the absence of justice. Jews who adopted gentile ways - the poem refers to the practice of keeping dogs, reminiscent of the dog at Esau’s side in "Jacob and Esau" - merely likened themselves to those who sought to murder them. "This is not the way," the poet concludes. The only solution left is to take up the wanderer’s staff.
In his best-known poems, Bialik focuses on the personal/national I, rather than on the sons of Esau - half-brothers who over the centuries became Jew-haters and Jew-murderers. His stories, by contrast, center on Jews who have settled in peripheral regions outside the shtetl and have adopted gentile ways. These stories reveal that the Haskalah advocacy of an emancipated life style ("Be a Russian, German, etc. out in the world and a Jew in your tent") have proven illusory. The Jew who lives close to nature, in the style of Esau, not only fails to engender tolerance, but actually perpetuates the eternal hostility toward Jews, Bialik shows.
With this, and despite the mantle of "national poet" placed on his shoulders, Bialik eschewed a one-sided view of the persecution of Jews. He sought as well to understand the Jewish role in the recurrence of anti-Semitism. Several years after his masterpiece "In the City of Slaughter," he wrote the story "Behind the Fence," describing a Jewish community from the gentile point of view. A gentile woman stubbornly refuses to move out of her home in a neighborhood that has become Jewish, thereby antagonizing her Jewish neighbors, who do everything possible to force her out. She fortifies herself in her house, ghetto-like, while the Jewish children of the neighborhood goad her cruelly. She fears leaving her house, using roundabout routes when she does. Her condition perfectly replicates that of the persecuted Jew. She keeps the foundling child, Marinka (Miriam), whom she raises, behind locked doors, lest she be harmed by the wild neighborhood children. The hero of the story, Noah (the Biblical father of all races), is a Jewish child who has grown up in a gentile environment. He allies himself with a gentile gang of boys and fights the Jewish heder boys in a bloody battle described in the style typical of accounts of the massacres perpetrated by the Crusaders, the Cossacks and other oppressors of the Jews. Noah forms a relationship with the gentile Marinka, but eventually returns to the Jewish fold and marries a Jewish woman, leaving Marinka and their baby boy behind the fence. A generation passes, and the baby grows up to fight Jewish boys who are his half-brothers (their father is Noah). Noah’s behavior thus resembles that of Abraham, who sent away his son born of a gentile woman to join the camp of the enemy of the Israelites. Marinka/Miriam and her child symbolize the Christian branch of the story of anti-Semitism, a story of distorted family love that ends with the unbridled hatred of Jews.
Another story, "The Disgraced Trumpet," written by Bialik during World War One, sketches the anatomy of anti-Semitism in Russia in the late 19th century and illustrates the relentless alienation of the Jew from society, even if he lives close to the land. As in most of Bialik’s stories, the protagonist is a Jewish lumber dealer (the vocation of Bialik’s grandfather, father and uncle). His house at the edge of a forest is temporary and borrowed, he lives without a permit, and he can be evicted at an time. His son, a trumpeter in the Czar’s army, is suddenly exiled together with every member of his family, without consideration of his service to the motherland.
A late story, "The Deckhand," written in 1931, centered on two figures - a Jewish poet sailing on a French ship who cannot speak French, and a Swedish deckhand who pretends to be learned in various fields and acts as a translator for the poet. Each serves as a distorted mirror image of the wandering Jew, exiled from every society. The blond sailor is a caricature of the ideal Aryan master race in appearance, while his personality resembles that of the wandering Jew, adept in survival skills but degraded and homeless. The poet, presumably a member of the slave race, is, nevertheless, haughty and admired by the sailor. Bialik, mocking the notion of racial supremacy, reverses stereotypical roles. Ultimately, he implies, the Jew must lay down his wanderer’s staff and settle down in a place that is truly his own.
Bialik, however, shows no evidence of euphoria over the Jewish return to Eretz Yisrael, for he senses that a large portion of his people are about to be destroyed, a perception that casts a shadow over the joy of renewal.
Living in Eretz Yisrael during the last ten years of his life, he explored the issue of anti-Semitism as manifested by the Arabs. Their propaganda, as that of the Soviet Union (from which he had narrowly escaped), accused world Jewry of colonialist ambitions in Palestine, thereby ignoring the impetus of the Jewish pioneers to find a refuge from persecution in the barren land of their forefathers at great cost in human life.
During the Arab riots of 1929, he wrote "The Legend of Three and Four," a story with a historic setting about a Hebrew young man and an Aramaic young woman who marry. In it Bialik makes a plea for tolerance and the relinquishing of old hatreds. In a similar vein, a poem in his collection of verse from 1931 to 1934 titled "Orphanhood" joins the Biblical story of the casting out of Ishmael into the desert with that of Isaac being led to the sacrificial altar, signifying the cruelty of Abraham toward both his sons. The poet’s message is that the two nations that sprang from these ancestors share a bitter fate, and should devote themselves to breaking out of their syndrome of hate instead of perpetuating it.