January 9, 1837
Hayim Nahman Bialik, Israel’s National Poet, was born in the village of Radi, near Zhitomir in Volhynia (Northwest Ukraine). While a student in yeshiva in Lithuania, he joined an Orthodox Zionist student society, Nezah Israel, which attempted to synthesize Jewish nationalism and enlightenment with a firm adherence to tradition. It was at this time that he became deeply influenced by Ahad Ha-am who championed the idea of Cultural Zionism and of whom Bialik wrote, “… the day a new essay of Ahad Ha-Am’s appeared was a holiday for me.”
Eventually, Bialik broke from his religious studies and traditional Judaism, and became a teacher in Odessa for 21 years. In Odessa, he became immersed in the city’s cultural and Zionist circles. In 1903, he was dispatched from the city by the Jewish Historical Society to Kishinev to cover the events of the recent pogrom which had resulted in forty-seven Jews being killed over three days.
After interviewing survivors, he wrote his famous poem, “Be-Ir ha-Haregah” (“In the City of Slaughter”). In the poem, Bialik condemns Jewish passivity in the face of external threats and violence. The poem served as a rallying call to young Jews throughout Eastern Europe and led many to organize both Jewish self-defense groups and new Zionist youth organization.
In 1921, he left Odessa after the Soviet authorities permitted a group of Hebrew writers to leave the country. First settling in Berlin, Bialik would move to Tel-Aviv in 1924. He became an important part of the cultural development of the city. In honor of his 60th birthday in 1933, the city created the Bialik Prizes for Literature and Jewish Thought. Among the winners of the prestigious awards have been Shmuel Yosef Agnon, David Ben-Gurion, Gershom Scholem and the poet Zelda. In 1934, Bialik passed away in Vienna where he had gone seeking medical treatment.
Photo Credit: Hayim Nahman Bialik in 1923