The Kennedy Center

Yiddish poetry

About the Work

Haim Nachman Bialik Composer: Haim Nachman Bialik
© James Loeffler

Af dem hoykhn barg (High on the Mountain)

Erev friling (Just Before Spring)

Es hot mikh farplontet (I Was Entangled)

Kh'volt geven a baln visn (It Would Be Nice to Know)

Haim Nachman Bialik is known today as the foremost modern Hebrew poet. His life and work are intimately connected with the story of Zionism and Hebrew culture in Russia. Yet he emerged out of a Jewish world in which Hebrew and Yiddish were intertwined. Bialik's passionate commitment to spreading the modern Hebrew language among his fellow Jews never led him away from his abiding love for Yiddish. This is evident in the twenty-two Yiddish poems he left in his corpus, many unknown even in Israel today.

Bialik grew up an orphan, raised by his grandfather in the town of Zhitomir. After attending the legendary Volozhin yeshiva in the early 1890s, he gravitated to the nascent Russian branch of the Zionist movement. At the same time, he began contributing poems to the Hebrew literary periodicals and newspapers of the day. Within a decade, Bialik had emerged as the leading voice in Hebrew literature. Not content to write, he also established a publishing house, edited a newspaper, and took an active role in Zionist affairs.

In both Hebrew and Yiddish, Bialik fashioned a supple poetic voice that could match the new spirit of individualism common to the Jewish youth of his generation. He saw his role as expressing their shared desires for transcendent love, passionate self-discovery and rebellion against the stifling pressures of religious conformity. But he also strove to bind these emotions to a larger narrative of the Jewish collective search for freedom as a people. The five Yiddish poems by Bialik featured tonight (including one, Zay mir gut, that Peretz translated from Hebrew into Yiddish himself) exemplify these themes. "High on a Mountain," "Just Before Spring," and "I was Entangled" are neoromantic nature reveries. The poet recounts the deeply transformative power of communing with nature. For young men and women living under the watchful eye of a still deeply conservative Ashkenazi Jewish society, nature offers a private reserve for personal escape. Outside the town, he writes in "High on a Mountain," freed from the claustrophobia of the rabbis' schoolroom, "a new world" opens before him. "I felt something," he reports, "God and I met quietly, and angels played with me." Yet in the end, an undercurrent of sadness often surfaces. Youth is fleeting, and once gone never returns.

Allegory is never far away in Bialik's poems. Hence "Erev friling" (Just Before Spring), written shortly after the Revolution of 1905, links the experience of spring's change to the natural world with the thrilling yet decidedly mixed fate of politics in the democratic revolution in Russia. A deeper allegorical theme emerges in "Zay mir gut" (Be Good to Me). There, the forsaken poet begs, "Take me under your wing, be my mother, my sister. Take my head to your breast, my banished prayers to your nest." As in other of his poems, the object of the poem is deliberately ambiguous. Is he speaking to a female lover? Or directly to God?

In other poems, Bialik's elegiac tone could turn quite caustic and cynical. This was especially true when he struggled to reconcile his abiding attraction to the rabbinic tradition with his skepticism about the religious hypocrisy and political passivity it engendered. This theme came out most famously in his devastating poem about the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, "In the City of Slaughter," known in Yiddish as "In shkhite shtot." There he shocked readers with his vicious attack on Jewish cowardice and cast himself in the role of thundering biblical prophet. A hint of the same moral outrage can be found in "Kh'volt geven a baln visn (It Would Be Nice to Know)." There he wonders what his death will be like before concluding with a veiled dig about saying kaddish for himself. The symbolism implies that Jews are walking dead, a ghost people who recite their own obituary rather than seize their chance at national renewal.