Commentary Magazine

Hebrew Between Two Worlds

This “new literature” is the death-rattle of the 19th century, just as the Kabbalah and Hasidism were the death-rattle of the Dark Ages.

M. Z. Feierberg, Whither?

There is something peculiarly depressing about most modern Hebrew literature written in the diaspora. The reasons for this general effect of persistent dreariness are in certain cases obvious, in others obscure, but, taken together, they can tell us a good deal about the peculiarity of the Hebrew literary enterprise of the last two centuries, and they may also suggest something about the unsettling ambiguities of Jewish existence since the Emancipation.

I would imagine that there are few people who have gone through the accepted stages of a modern Hebrew education—in Israel, in the secondary schools, in America, in the various Hebrew teachers' institutes or colleges of Jewish studies—who do not feel a certain chill in the soul at the thought of the long hours spent over the pages of Mapu, Smolenskin, Y. L. Gordon, Feierberg, Berkowitz, Fichman, and all those other Russian- or Polish-born writers of labored prose and swollen verse. There was a time when I attributed the bleakness exuded by these Hebrew texts quite simply to their deficiency as works of art, but it seems to me now that this explanation is both incomplete and imprecise.

Modern Hebrew literature is so transparently vulnerable to negative criticism and invidious comparisons that hostile commentary is often merely truistic, in some ways almost an impertinence. The first Hebrew novel, for example, Avraham Mapu's overwrought biblical romance, The Love of Zion, appeared just two years before Madame Bovary: the artistic difference between the two being roughly that between Joyce Kilmer's “Trees” and Paradise Lost, comparative evaluations are, to say the least, superfluous. What on the contrary strikes me now about modern Hebrew literature in Europe is the breathtaking anomaly in the very fact of its existence, and how much of substance it managed to achieve despite its unlikely circumstances. It was never more than the activity of a brave handful, somehow surviving in little coteries gathered in the interstices between the old Jewish world and modern European society, men with a kind of crazed love for a three-thousand-year-old language that no one—themselves included—spoke, breathing the air of a hypothetical culture invented in their own imaginations. Yet this spectral Hebraizing milieu was able to sustain itself uncannily through individual writers and small groups of faithful followers centered around a series of literary journals, from Moses Mendelssohn's Berlin to the Warsaw of David Frischman and the Odessa of Ahad Ha-am. By the first decade of the 20th century, the new literature had produced one poet of unquestionably major stature (Bialik), one impressively original novelist (Mendele), and a few other writers in whom at least glimmerings of genius could be discerned. By the same time, all this anomalous literary activity had helped bring about the first beginnings of a Hebrew-speaking milieu in Palestine, where Hebrew literature would eventually lead an existence, for better and for worse, k'khol ha-goyim, “like all the nations.”

There was, then, a powerful impulse working through the Hebrew literary movement on European soil which can properly be called creative, and I shall try to describe later the distinctive nature of this Hebrew imagination of renewal that achieved so much even in the sphere of action. At one time it was common to speak of the new Hebrew creativity in ringing tones as a marvelous “rebirth” or “national renaissance.” Though terms of this sort have some obvious applicability, they carry with them a good measure of ideological exaggeration or simplification, as the best of the modern Hebrew writers themselves often felt. The typical Hebrew literary text of the pre-Palestinian period is rather likely to impress the reader with a sense of terrible sterility, a quality that stands in strange contradiction to the creative élan which modern Hebrew literature is supposed to embody. This sense of sterility cannot be entirely explained by the badness of the individual works, for one often finds it, or at any rate something akin to it, in writers of real imaginative force and integrity (Feierberg, U.N. Gnessin, Y. H. Brenner, even a good deal of Mendele, Bialik, and Tchernichovsky).

Let me suggest, to begin with, that the relationship between language and reality in modern Hebrew literature gives it a general bias quite different from that of other literatures. This relationship itself amounts to an inner contradiction in modern Hebrew writing which became a source of elation or despair as it was perceived in varying lights by the writers. Modern European literatures, despite the notable exceptions of certain movements and individual writers, have characteristically tended to bring the word of written art closer to the word spoken or otherwise used in actual experience. Literary language since the early Renaissance moves toward a greater degree of specification than it had typically exercised in the past; traditional hierarchical distinctions between sublime and low styles are progressively blurred; the sound and look and feel of everyday life begin to play a new central role in serious literature. One indication of this general movement is the fact that in England, from Donne to Eliot, every important revolution in poetic diction was proclaimed as a return to “natural” speech, to the language of “real men and women.”


The initial movement, on the other hand, of modern Hebrew literature was in all these regards headed in virtually the opposite direction. It is suggestive that the new Hebrew literature begins to flourish in the several decades after the French Revolution, during the very period when the novel was rapidly becoming the dominant genre in European literature. That is to say, while European writers were seeking expression more and more in a genre where language could be made to adhere with a new closeness to the rhythms and contours of familiar experience, the writers who adopted Hebrew as an instrument of secular literary expression were choosing a language that was not even a vernacular, that had scarcely any vocabulary to describe the bare physical facts of urban, industrializing societies. Most of the earlier modern Hebrew writers, moreover, preferred the lofty—and as they thought, “pure”—style of the Bible to the rabbinic Hebrew that had been in continuous written use in Jewish communities for centuries, so that the enormous distance between the language they wrote and the world they inhabited was still further magnified.

This striking contrast between Hebrew and European literature depends ultimately on opposing views of the efficacy—really, the ontological status—of literary language. One can detect among serious Western writers over the past two centuries a growing skepticism about the ability of language to embrace reality. If we can in any way engage reality through words, many writers seem to feel, some kind of violence, something unheard of, must be done to language; at any rate, the words to which we frequently turn will not be high-sounding, or fixed in formulaic order by literary tradition, but rather the words once spurned by literature because of their banality, their bizarreness, their scientific neutrality, their ugly or sordid associations, their rawness. The prominence of obscenity, for example, in the rhetoric of contemporary American fiction can be partly explained as a desperate last assault on reality with what seems to some writers the only kind of vocabulary that has not become misleading, dishonest, empty, or irrelevant. The very idea of obscenity, on the other hand, is unthinkable in Hebrew literature until its most recent Israeli phase, because this whole literary movement begins with a turning toward the sanctified verbal formulas of ancient literary tradition, in the belief that beauty of a conspicuously lofty sort is necessarily the vehicle of truth.

The Haskala, or Hebrew Enlightenment (roughly, from 1784 to 1881), was animated by what might be regarded as a secular survival of the classic Jewish idea that Hebrew was the language in which the world was created. As the old faith in the divine source of the Bible rapidly slipped away, the new Hebrew writers clung with paradoxical fervor to a belief in the language of the Bible as a model of aesthetic perfection and an instrument through which all the fullness of the cosmos could be apprehended. One paradigm for this touching innocence and enthusiasm of belief is a poem by Solomon Levisohn (1789-1821) entitled Ha-M'litzah (“Hymn to Poesy”). Now, it is true that enraptured hymns to beauty are a commonplace in European poetry during the latter 18th and early 19th centuries, but there is an important difference here. The subject of Levi-sohn's poem, strictly speaking, is not the heavenly muse or the divine idea of beauty, but rather poetical language. M'litzah, which in current Hebrew usage has become a wholly derogatory term, means “lofty language,” or even more specifically, “poetic phrase.” In Levisohn's poem it is the poetic: word itself that spans the universe, working wonders, planting joy and aspiration in the hearts of men, melting the warrior's fierce wrath into love (this at the time of the Napoleonic wars!), even holding sway over the animal and vegetable kingdoms in some obscure hyperbolic fashion. The poetic word, in short, has become a cosmic force, not only a delegate but virtually the surrogate of God: “Like streams/ Of mighty waters bursting from/ The womb of everlasting mountains, so they [the words of poetry] sweep on/ With their vast tumultuous roar, and who/ Can withstand the surge of their might?”

This is of course turgid stuff, in the original as well as in translation, but the Hebrew does manage to achieve a certain grand ring—though always with a suspicion of hollowness—because the subject of the poem, m'litzah, is also its chief instrument of expression. In typical Haskala fashion, Levisohn's language is a pastiche, or more generously, a mosaic, of biblical phrases, and as such it represents a rhetorical achievement of a very peculiar sort, Such poetry is above all a reveling in the high phrases of a grand tradition, and whatever charm it held for its composers and its contemporary readers must be explained through the enthusiastic inventiveness and energy with which the poet reconstituted the familiar, affectionately recollected language of the Bible. It is hard for anyone unacquainted with this tradition to imagine the kind of delight a Hebrew reader could take in a piquant combination of a phrase from Job with one from Psalms, or in the creation of a line that would perfectly simulate the style of Isaiah without actual quotation; even the use of a rare biblical variant of a familiar word or the tricking out of a common root in an odd grammatical form could be a source of aesthetic pleasure. The Hebrew language itself was a magical thing for the early readers of modern Hebrew literature, and the art of the poet hovered somewhere between the ritualistic gestures of a high priest and the technical deftness of a prestidigitator.


It is here that the inner contradiction to which I alluded begins. The writers of the Haskala, and even some of their successors in more recent times, started from the assumption that the Hebrew language, if used with a full sense of aesthetic decorum, was uniquely suited to express the most fundamental truths of creation and the eternal qualities of human nature. In fact what Hebrew proved to be for the Haskala writers and for many of their successors was something like the all-absorbing Glass Bead Game in Herman Hesse's Magister Ludi—an activity supposedly a key to the nature of reality that is in practice a refined but arid intellectual pastime, an elaborate deployment of pleasing patterns within a closed system. The point is not merely that Hebrew of this sort had no vocabulary to deal with the prickly particularities of everyday experience. What is far more serious is that these tissues of lofty phrases, woven by Central- or East-European Jews in the torment and turbulence of 19th-century existence, may have expressed the adolescent idealism and bookish fantasies of the men who used them, but certainly little of their adult inner life. Or, alternately, one might say that such addiction to merely verbal values prevented many people from having much adult inner life. Literature of this sort, in other words, becomes a means of avoiding self-confrontation or honest self-exposure, a way of escaping the complexities of life through the intoxication of language.

A poem like Levisohn's “Hymn to Poesy,” then, is pathetic and—despite its ecstatic mood—finally depressing, not simply because of its lack of subtlety or originality but because of its complete airlessness, and though this poem is perhaps an excessively neat illustration of the general phenomenon, a whole century of Hebrew compositions, in both verse and prose, resemble it to one degree or another in the stifling bookishness of their atmosphere, in being only marginally expressions of real human experiences, for all their earnestness. It is worth adding that the disturbing insulation of literary language from actual experience has proved to be more than a curious passing episode: the ghost of m'litzah still haunts many Hebrew writers, especially the older ones, and even in Israeli novelists as gifted as Haim Hazaz and S. Yizhar, verbal virtuosity too easily becomes a substitute for literary imagination. In the public rhetoric, moreover, of many Israeli political leaders and cultural dignitaries, unblushing m'litzah flourishes as of old, so that one is often tempted to conclude that it is easier to say absolutely nothing grandiloquently in Hebrew than in any other language.

The contradiction in the modern literary use of Hebrew that I have been describing in terms of its supposed utility as an instrument of knowledge could also be put in terms of the relationship of the language to Jewish history. The usual assumption made about the revival of the old poetic Hebrew is that it was itself an act of national renewal, a return through language to the people's life-sources located deep in the period when the nation was rooted on its own land. “Buds of Rebirth,” a poem by Aaron Kaminka (1866-1950) on the early Zionist settlements, offers a logical complement to the Haskala conception of Hebrew; Kaminka sees the noble language of the Bible with engaging simplicity as a concrete agent in history, just as Levisohn before him imagined it as the most real cosmic force. “Who gave you being, lovely buds?” Kaminka asks, alluding to the new settlements. “Was it the verses of Isaiah buried here in the earth/ That sprang from the dust and bloomed into thousands . . . / Or was it Ruth and the Song of Songs that left their fair phrases [m'litzot]/ Hidden here, to become in the magic moonlight/ Living souls?”


This Zionist notion of the power of the Hebrew language has of course a degree of plausibility wholly lacking in the earlier Haskala notion. It is true in a sense that the words of Isaiah, especially in their literary revival, helped move the imagination of men to create those new settlements. What enthusiasts like Kaminka failed to see is how drastically qualified such attributions of historical causation to language must be, and how terribly ambiguous the revival of an age-old tongue was for Jewish intellectuals in the throes of modernity, threatened with the loss of their own religious and cultural identity. It is the ambiguity, however, that sensitive Hebrew writers began to feel more keenly as the 19th century waned, and that was stressed by them with growing frequency in the early 20th century. For the adoption of Hebrew as a modern literary language eventually had the effect of polarizing outlooks on the prospect of Jewish survival. On the one hand, obviously enough, participation in the Hebrew revival could involve a sense of sharing in a real miracle of cultural resurrection, and could inspire in some individuals—one still occasionally encounters them—a loyal enthusiasm for all things Hebrew that borders on fanaticism. For a few writers, on the other hand, the commitment to Hebrew became a naked exposure to an inexorable sharp edge of despair. Having chosen to express themselves in the classic language of Jewish culture, they were located at a unique vantage-point from which to see the progressive erosion of that culture from within. At the same time, they were made painfully aware both of the lack of resonance of their Hebrew words in the larger community of Jews, and of the tenuous connection of their necessarily esoteric words with the vast world of change and dislocation in which all of Europe was caught up. They clung to the language of Jewish tradition because an authentic continuation of their identity as Jews was a first existential necessity for all of them, but what could one think of the possibilities of continuation when the very language they tried to sustain rang hollow, seemed painfully irrelevant to the post-traditional world? Often, then, the language of old and new beginnings seemed to be the language of the bitter end.

This note of forlornness in modern Hebrew literature is struck as early as Y. L. Gordon (1830-1892), the most prominent Haskala poet, in a plaintive piece with the self-explanatory title, “For Whom Do I Labor?” While the poet sees himself “writing poems in a forgotten language,” the obscurantist older generation of Jews holds poetry in contempt, and the young people leave on the high road to assimilation; the poet, then, is led to wonder whether he may be “the last of the singers of Zion” and his audience the last Hebrew readers. History has of course laid to rest Gordon's doubts at least about the physical survival of a Hebrew audience, but his question would be asked again by Hebrew writers a generation later with a new awareness of the troubling problem of authenticity in survival.

Hebrew literature around the turn of the century, though referred to in the standard literary histories with unwitting irony as the “period of renascence,” exhibits in many notable instances a distinct fin de siècle mood, and no one expresses that mood more poignantly than the novelist Yosef Haim Brenner. In his Beside the Point, a work whose title suggests the frustrated flailing-out that writing was for him, one character is moved to ask: “Look, the Holy Temple has been destroyed for all time, and what are we, its priests, doing among the ruins?” The question could serve as a somber motto for Brenner's generation of Hebrew writers, but it also has a persuasive applicability to a broad spectrum of post-traditional movements of Jewish revival, whether religious, cultural, political, or ethnic. Such movements, whatever their particular programs, have not generally been willing to admit this kind of radical, self-doubting criticism, for so much of modern Jewish life has been founded on tendentious evasions and self-congratulatory apologetics. In this regard, however, the unique strength as well as the weakness of modern Hebrew literature makes itself felt: in Hebrew, for reasons I have tried to indicate, it can be either treacherously easy or excruciatingly difficult to deceive oneself about the nature and future of Jewishness.

Paradoxically, when Hebrew literature comes of age morally and artistically around the turn of the century, it is even more depressing than it was before, though for different reasons. The literature of national rebirth at last finds its true subject, what the writers know in their bones, can hold tight in the close of their imagination, and that subject is, in a word, death. If Haskala phrase-making is airless because the only experience it provides is a hermetically sealed literary one, the fiction and poetry of Feierberg, Brenner, the early Y. D. Berkowitz, Bialik, and many of their contemporaries has the airlessness of the tomb because that is what the real world had become for these hyperconscious Jews. Such writers, discovering out of their own struggle to renew Hebrew that Jewish history had entered into an awful cul-de-sac, produced a literature in which the prevalent mood was exhaustion, the dominant imagery claustrophobic.


One symptom of this general condition is the fact that from the latter 19th century well on into the Palestinian period, there is so little persuasive youthfulness in Hebrew literature. One finds, to be sure, a kind of callow or presumptuous adolescence, which some writers, like the late Zalman Schneur, managed to sustain till their dying day, but more self-critical figures typically passed from this stage of adolescence into shriveled old age some time after their eighteenth birthday. Bialik's recurrent theme of the “theft of youth,” like so much else in his work, expressed the experience of a whole culture; and time after time one sees young Hebrew poets, even those imbued with the idea of a Nietzschean revival, bemoaning the grayness of their lives, the wasting of their strength, their forlorn state in an existence which denies them love and joy.

This sensibility of decrepitude could, at its worst, be merely the occasion for personal self-pity, or, more impressively, it could be simultaneously a reflection of and percipient penetration into a process of dissolution immanent in Jewish life—one which the sundry Jewish apologists and romanticizers of the shtetl have chosen to ignore or avoid. The prose of the Haskala had been typically satirical, assuming that the ills of Jewish life were measurable divergences from a sane standard (that of modern Gentile Europe) and so could be corrected by a rational program of education and social reform. The criticism of Jewish life in later Hebrew writers is more profound because it does not impose extraneous standards, begins not from the bias of satire—though its effect is often grimly satiric—but out of the need to describe as faithfully as possible the way things are. Here, for example, is how Brenner, in a story called “The Jerusalemite,” depicts a small-town Russian synagogue of sixty years ago:

The windowpanes had become dark. The oven-bricks were rubbed smooth by the abrasion of generations, the bench-boards worn thin by countless sitters. The little bulging lecterns seemed to have grown heavier through long usage. The edges of the tables were splintered and pockmarked, gouged with tattooed inscriptions and jackknife carvings. The pages of the books were crowded with marginal comments and notes; they looked damp with sweat.

The ceiling was lower now. The brass candelabra that were suspended from it, all their sockets befouled with tallow-drippings, had a coating of verdigris. The crooked walls were enveloped in gloom, covered with a layer of dust. Over everything there hovered an ancient spirit of sorrow, of everlasting melancholy; everything was immersed in the longings of the moribund, the yearning of the lost.

The description of physical objects overlaid in this fashion with the traces and smudges of human use—setting as a revelation of cultural style or lived experience—is of course a familiar device in 19th-century European fiction. But in writers like Balzac and Zola, such rendering of scene generally shows the imprint of human energy and will, however crude or misdirected, on the world of things. What is clear, on the other hand, in Brenner's description of the synagogue is that all energy has been sapped, all will has long since subsided into the futile longings of the almost dead. Crookedness, decay, a physical wearing out, the filthy accretions of usage—these are the recurrent themes not only of this passage but of a generation and more of Hebrew writers. The synagogue here, with its sunken ceiling, its inclining walls, its darkened windows, its atmosphere of heaviness, is a claustrophobic intimation of the grave. The compulsive redoubling of almost every image and phrase (an effect more pronounced in the original than in my translation) bespeaks both the emphasis of Brenner's feeling and his impulse to reproduce in prose something of the slow march of distichs and tristichs, single and double parallelisms, that distinguishes the biblical elegy.

This kind of writing is all the more disturbing because it is not satiric. Brenner finds in the much-extolled stronghold of Jewish faith only the abode of the dying and of death itself, but he also knows that it is his soul's intimate world, the one he is condemned to depict in painstaking detail with a sort of loving hatred. For he is equally aware that the new world (which in effect he has already joined) outside the tumbledown walls of the synagogue spells another kind of death for him—the denial of his ultimate identity, the betrayal of his people's history. “I have lost my old world,” complains the hero of Feierberg's Whither? (1896), “and a new world I have not found.” This general consciousness of anguished contradiction, of a lack of viable alternatives, attains its most intense, unflinching expression in the fiction of Brenner, where the protagonists desperately grope along the walls of their moral prison for a “way out” (the title of one memorable story) and usually discover that the only route of escape is through madness or suicide.


The greatest Hebrew writer of the pre-Palestinian period responded to his own terrible vision of death within and death without in another way—through silence. Between 1900 and 1905 Haim Nahman Bialik had produced a sustained series of brilliant poems, both short lyric pieces and longer narrative verse, which in its concentrated achievement of genius recalls the creative outpouring of Keats in the months when he wrote all his odes. In a matter of three or four years, Bialik managed, I would say, to write more great Hebrew poetry than all the Hebrew poets combined since the death of Judah Halevi in the 12th century. By 1907, however, the excitement had faded, Bialik's mood was saddened or embittered, and his poetic production had noticeably slowed; over the next nine years it became a trickle; and after 1916, when he was still only forty-three, he virtually stopped writing serious poetry with the exception of a solitary piece every few years when some experience particularly moved him. The paradoxical aspect of all this, what has made it a crux of criticism, is the fact that the poems written during the years of Bialik's “silence,” whether we date it from 1916 or earlier, are palpably works of genius, so that his decision to stop writing cannot be attributed to a waning of powers. Bialik more than once alluded to his own poetic activity as the wielding of an axe by a hewer of wood, but what role, he began to wonder, would be played by poetry so conceived if the cleaving blade met only the soft insidious yielding of rottenness and decay? In other words, how could a poetry that spoke in the ringing tones of a tradition sustain itself when the tradition was dying, its divine authentication no longer believed, when the people who were the poet's audience gave only the most dubious evidence of spiritual, moral, or intellectual life?

Bialik lucidly perceived these reasons for his own eventual silence as early as 1904 in a poem called Davar (“Word,” but in the sense here of “prophetic burden”), one of the first in what might be called his negative-prophetic mode. The poem begins with the shards of a broken altar among which the people scavenge like nasty rodents; the poet is then enjoined to pound his useless hammer into a shovel to dig a grave, after which the poem turns into a verbal symphony of negatives—the lines bristle with “not's” and “no's,” with “emptiness,” “impotence,” “nothingness,” and, especially, “chaos.” “Let your word be bitter as death,” the poet-prophet is commanded, “let it be death itself—/ We shall hear it that we may know.” The sardonic concluding lines of Davar summarize with biting succinctness the whole contradiction I have been describing between Hebrew literature as a mode of national renascence and as a means of intimate, unpitying knowledge of the imminent end:

Why should we fear death—when his angel rides
       our shoulders
His bit between our teeth?
So with a cry of rebirth on our lips, with the
       cheering of players
We skip to the grave.

After such words, little remains before the rest is silence.


The trouble with this entire picture of modern Hebrew literature is that it is misleadingly incomplete. Though it is true that the most honest and probing Hebrew works of this period often give voice to a stark, dead-end despair that is distinctive even in the rich gallery of despairs of modern Western literature, one can also find, sometimes in convincingly achieved writing, an antithetical imagination and an opposed set of themes. As the course of history in the past half-century has shown, the national renewal proclaimed by the new literature was not entirely illusory, however we may seek to qualify the concept of renewal or stress its problematic aspects: not only has a viable Jewish state been created, but within it flourishes a modern Hebrew culture that has powerful though often deeply ambiguous ties with the Jewish past. It is hardly surprising that the intimations of a genuine renewal, whether personal or national, should on occasion make themselves persuasively felt in imaginative works in Hebrew. This is the bright underside of the dark paradox we have been considering: if Hebrew literature in general touches a nadir of bleak depression remarkable among modern literatures, there are also impressive Hebrew works that preserve a mood of untrammeled joy and exuberance of a sort one scarcely finds in serious European writing since the Romantic movement.

Understandably, these joyous notes are sounded more often, more resonantly, in poetry than in prose, for the engagement of fiction in the description of actual milieux and institutions typically led to repeated confrontations with the sundry social pathologies of East-European Jewry. It is also worth noting that the poets who achieve the most convincing kind of joyfulness in their art are generally those who are also gripped by the characteristic Hebrew imagination of death and dissolution. The same Tchernichovsky who denounced his people as “walking corpses, the rot of human seed,” could evoke them vividly in his long narrative idylls in all the teeming vitality of their life on the Russian steppes, all the bustling health of their birth and growth and marriage, their workdays and seasons of rejoicing. And Bialik, in the same period from 1900 to 1905 when he first struck the apocalyptic note of Davar, in the shaddow of pogroms and the collapse of the old world-order, produced his remarkable series of poems on the theme of light, which convey a sense of sustained elation perhaps unmatched in the poetry of this century.

In some cases, however, elation came at a cost, or rather was the result of a self-conscious decision. Much Hebrew writing of the earlier 20th century is not vital but vitalistic—which is virtually the opposite, the product not of an immediate intuition but of a willed choice to identify with a presumed flow of life-energy in the natural world and in mankind. One senses, for example, in some though not all of the paganizing poems of Tchernichovsky and Schneur that the primitive vitality of the ancient cults is not imaginatively felt, only programmatically declared as an ideological challenge to historical Judaism. A more complicated, perhaps more instructive, instance of this same ambiguity is the ecstatic poetry of the Palestinian pioneer period written by Avraham Shlonsky in the 20's. The excitement of these poems seems quite genuine, and in some of the short pieces it is beautifully realized, but much of the imagery looks forcibly devised to burst the shell of musty Jewish bookishness. Thus the earth is a pregnant black mare, the mountains of Gilboa are camels with bulging breasts (not udders) giving suck to the fields of Jezreel below, the June sun licks the wild-ass's skin which is the land, and so forth. The muscles of poetic invention visibly strain and bulge in such imagery; this may work to épater les juifs, but it often seems the contrived equivalent of vitality rather than the direct experience of it. Shlonsky's poetry throughout his career has tended to vacillate between poles of joy and despair, and he is paradigmatically the Hebrew poet when, in the volume of verse after the Gilboa poems, he confesses that the happier tones seem perversely to elude him: “I too sought the drum for a song of exultation/ But the craftsman made me a harp of weeping-willow wood.”

What are probably the most fully realized moments of joy in this literature come in Bialik's poems of light, and even in them ecstasy can overtake the speaker only through extraordinary means. Here, for example, are the first lines in the concluding verse-paragraph of “Morning Creatures”:

O come to me, gleaming ones, pure morning
Come under my brilliant white sheet!
There let us wallow, let us wrestle till noontide;
Dance over my skin and soft flesh.

“Come to,” or “come into” (bo el) is the standard biblical idiom for sexual entry, and the lines that follow these, abounding in images of penetration and moving toward an ecstatic climax, make it still clearer that there is a play on the sexual meaning of the term. What is curious is that the male poet assumes the female role, eagerly waiting in bed for the morning light to caress his “soft flesh,” to flood into him and possess him. This moment in Bialik is one remove from John Donne's prayer to be raped by God in the famous sonnet that begins, “Batter my heart, three-personed God.” I mention Donne because of the instructive difference as well as the similarity. Donne's desire to be assaulted, violated, by a powerful male God bears witness to an agonized psychological distance from God, a desperate need to feel the impossible immediacy of the divine presence; it is just this tormented sense of separation that gives all of Donne's religious poems their peculiar taut energy. In Bialik, too, there is an inner distance from the sweet light he hungers for in his more typical poetic visions of grim deprivation. This, I would assume, is ultimately why both in “Morning Creatures” and in the longer poem “Splendor” he adopts the passivity of the woman's sexual role: brightness must take him by surprise, envelop him, overwhelm him. In contrast, however, to Donne's religious verse, the distance is crossed; the speaker in Bialik's poems does not pray to be raped by light but rather welcomes its entrance as he is suddenly, exquisitely inundated. The poetry here, as the ripe sensuality of its language attests, is an experience of consummated rapture, in both the physical and the emotional sense.


The Israeli critic Dov Sadan has shrewdly observed that much of Bialik's poetry evokes in varying ways a single archetypal scene: a large, dark space in the midst of which is a candle, flickering and casting shadows. The candle-flame in the darkness, Sadan suggests, is first the actual frail light Bialik knew as a boy in study-house and yeshiva, where he followed the traditional discipline of learning; then it is the altar-flame of the long-destroyed temple, a central memory in classic Jewish consciousness at once historical and mythical; and, finally, as the poet draws near to the light, plunges into it, it becomes a wholly mythical substance, the “hidden light” of primal unity at life's beginnings to which Bialik's poetry—in this respect recalling Wordsworth's—strives to return. The same image of flickering light in sepulchral darkness appears elsewhere in Hebrew literary works of the period, but what is more important is that it is such an apt emblem of the Hebrew literary enterprise in modern Europe. There is, moreover, a nice correspondence between this representative image of Hebrew literature and the actual state of Jewish existence since the Emancipation—an existence that has been precarious, dubious, often hiding the face of dissolution beneath the mask of revival, but which also has afforded moments of genuine vitality, surprising explosions of light. The distinctive value of this new literature, then, which tries to refashion the language of tradition for a post-traditional world, is that it serves as a faithful instrument for taking the full measure of threatened extinction, and yet it can register sudden intimations of immortality, imaginative tracings of a bright renewal still possible to achieve.

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