Poet Avraham Shlonsky Dies

May 18, 2019


Abraham Shlonsky, renowned Israeli poet, editor and translator, passes away on in Tel Aviv at the age of 73.  He is born on March 6, 1900 in Kharkov in in Russia, today in Ukraine, into a Chabad Chasidic family with an affinity for Ahad Ha’am and his views on cultural Zionism.  When he is 13, Shlonsly is sent by his family to study at the prestigious Herzliya gymnasium school in Tel-Aviv, the first school to teach all subjects in Hebrew.

When WWI begins, he is forced to return to Russia, where he completes high school and lives through the upheaval of the Russian Revolution and accompanying pogroms. At the age of 19, Shlonsky publishes his first poem, “Bi-Demei Ye’ush” in Ha’Shiloah, a periodical which is published in Berlin. In 1922, believing that life for European Jewry would get increasingly untenable; he immigrates to the Land of Israel as a Zionist pioneer and works as a road-builder.  He publishes his first poem in Israel that same year and moves to Tel-Aviv where he joins with other emerging young writers forming a Hebrew literary circle.

One of Shlonsky’s linguistic innovations is to feature colloquial Hebrew in his writing which puts him at the forefront of developing Hebrew into a modern language. In order for his translations from English and Russian to be faithful to the original text and meaningful in Hebrew, Shlonsky introduces new Hebrew expressions. Thousands of entries in the 1989 publication Dictionary of Shlonsky’s Neologisms compiled by lexicographer Yaakov Kna’ani testifies to Shlonsky’s creativity and industriousness. As the Hebrew language is revived, the creation of many words becomes necessary and Shlonsky is among the country’s greatest of the linguistic innovators.

Shlonsky’s poems reflect his political and social outlook, notably the creation of secular Jewish culture in Israel.  Many historians and literary scholars point out his considerable agenda in creating words, phrases and translations.  Initially representing the Third Aliyah, Shlonsky, along with many other Russian immigrants, divests himself of traditional Jewish practice opting to be part of a modern, secular, pioneering, agricultural community. He rebels against the writing and sentiments of Hayim Nahman Bialik whose work reflects a more romantic view of Jewish nationalism. In this way, Shlonsky has a profound effect on the national character which develops in modern Israel.

In his later years, Shlonsky’s writing reflects a tone of disappointment with a pioneer’s life of passive contentment, a life that in his view lacks a contemplative nature and drive. Finally in a third phase of poetry Shlonsky acknowledges guilt with rejecting and neglecting his Jewish tradition.

In his lifetime, Shlonsky publishes hundreds of works and has an immense impact on Israel’s cultural development. As an editor and translator, he translates many literary classics into Hebrew including, works by William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Victor Hugo, Bertolt Brecht.