Title page of Ga‘ash (Turbulence), by Mili Novak (Moscow, 1923). (The Dorot Jewish Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

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Hebrew Poetry

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Hebrew poetry in Eastern Europe emerged in a direct line from works written at the end of the eighteenth century in German Haskalah centers where Hebrew literature had first taken form. Naftali Herts Wessely, the most prominent Haskalah poet in Germany, exerted a pronounced influence on the genre; his Shire tif’eret (Songs of Praise; first composed in 1789) was a large-scale poetical epic paraphrasing the life of Moses through the time of the Exodus from Egypt, and described the giving of the Torah.

Title page of Shire Anakre’on (Anacreon’s Poetry), by Sha’ul Tchernichowsky (Warsaw: A.Y. Shtibel [Stybel], 1920). The book contains Hebrew translations of Greek poems. (YIVO)

The principles that Wessely laid down in his work resonated in Hebrew poetry until at least the mid-nineteenth century. These standards included drawing upon the Bible as the main source for epic poetry; clinging to pure biblical language; adopting neoclassical rhetoric and form that aspired to the sublime and the elevated; showing faith in the power of divine reason to guide the world and especially Jewish history; and, with respect to prosody, forming the poetical line in a set pattern of syllables, divided by a caesura. An additional poetical genre that grew up among the maskilim of Berlin and later penetrated Eastern Europe was the fable. Prominent examples include Mishle Asaf (The Fables of Asaf) by Yitsḥak Satanov (1788) and Mishle Agur (The Fables of Agur) by Shalom ha-Kohen (1799).

An editor of Ha-Me’asef (The Harvester)—the main publication of the Berlin Haskalah—ha-Kohen was to a great extent the figure who tipped the center of balance of Hebrew poetry from Central to Eastern Europe, after he settled in Vienna in 1820. In 1821, he founded the journal Bikure ha-‘itim (The First Fruits of the Times) as a continuation of Ha-Me’asef; this new journal served as a central platform for maskilim in Galicia. His chief poetical work, the biblical epic Nir David (The Field of David; 1834), was patterned on the principles established by Wessely, and influenced poets in both Galicia and Russia.

The most prominent Galician Hebrew poet was Me’ir ha-Levi Letteris, who began his career under the aegis of Shalom ha-Kohen by translating Schiller’s poetry. Letteris quickly gained fame (among readers of Haskalah Hebrew poetry) with his first collection, Divre shir (Words of Poetry; 1823). In his original poems, Letteris developed biblical and national subjects; “Yonah homiyah” (Cooing Dove; 1824), an allegory of the travails of Jewish history, was especially well known and widely circulated. Letteris’s most significant contributions were his translations and adaptations of major works of European literature from Homer to Racine. His free translation of Goethe’s Faust, which appeared in a “Judaized” version titled Elisha‘ Ben-Avuyah (1865) made a strong impression but also aroused extensive controversy, as its hero was an infamous apostate of Mishnaic times. Among Letteris’s most prominent detractors was Perets Smolenskin, who pointed out many contradictions between Letteris’s version and the German original. Other poets active in Galicia included Aryeh Leib Kinderfreind and Ya‘akov Eichenbaum.

“Portraits of the Great Poets of Israel.” Commercially produced lithograph based on an illustration printed in the Hebrew newspaper Ha-Asif, 1886. (1) Mikhah Yosef Lebensohn, (2) Yehudah Leib Gordon, (3) Naftali Herts Wessely, (4) Adam ha-Kohen (Avraham Dov Lebensohn), and (5) Avraham Ber Gottlober. (YIVO)

Toward the mid-nineteenth century, Lithuania, especially Vilna, grew into the center of emerging Hebrew poetry, under the influence of Adam ha-Kohen (Avraham Dov Lebensohn). Lebensohn adhered to the conception of poetry held by eighteenth-century maskilim, regarding poetry as the most honorable and exalted literary genre. He believed that with its deep influence on the human spirit, poetry should hold the highest regard in the public’s evaluation. In Shire sefat kodesh (Poems in the Holy Tongue; 1842) and his allegorical play, Emet ve-emunah (Truth and Faith; 1867), he presented a rationalistic worldview, extolling the power of human reason and the divine order embodied in the details of creation. At the same time, Lebensohn’s contemporaries were beginning to reject the excessive didactic dryness of his poetry, and, in contrast, were charmed by the poetry of his son, Mikhah Yosef Lebensohn (Mikhal), who died young of tuberculosis. Mikhal’s main innovation was found in his personal lyricism, which, with intimate candor, recounts his pains and fears in the face of death. His poetry was collected in his Shire bat Tsiyon (The Poems of a Daughter of Zion; 1851) and Kinor bat Tsiyon (A Violin of a Daughter of Zion; 1870).

The autobiographical expressions in Mikhal’s poetry apparently tested the limits of Hebrew poetry at that time; no writer continued in his path until the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the next great poet from Vilna, Yehudah Leib Gordon (Yalag) ignored, as it were, Mikhal’s achievements and began his writing career with exalted poetical epics modeled on works from the eighteenth century; among these is his life of King David (“Ahavat David u-Mikhal” [The Love of David and Michal]; 1856). He also wrote poetic fables, both original and translated (“Mishle Yehudah” [Fables of Judah]; 1858), in which he found a fertile field for satirical and epigrammatic wit. A kind of synthesis between his epic and satirical leanings was consolidated in his long poems on both historical and contemporary subjects, which he began to write in the 1860s and which represent his principal innovations in Hebrew poetry.

The focus of Hebrew literature shifted from poetry to narrative fiction with the appearance of maskilic novels by Avraham Mapu, Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh, Perets Smolenskin, and Re’uven Asher Braudes. Gordon’s long poems, with their dramatic and well-wrought plots, were written to a great extent in response to the challenge posed by those writers’ ideological prose. His lengthy verse contains a vehement expression of protest against the severities of rabbinical reliance on halakhah, which he felt consigned Jews to misery and destruction (evident in “Kotso shel yod” [The Tip of the (Hebrew) Letter Yud], “Shene Yosef Ben Shim‘on” [Two Joseph Ben Simons]). However, a deeper innovation is apparent in Gordon’s secular and revolutionary worldview, which presented tragic fates and saw these as expressions of the removal of divine providence from the world. Two other poets of that generation include Yehudah Leib Levin (Yehalel) and Yitsḥak Kaminer, whose poems exhibit social sensitivity and contain decidedly socialist motifs.

In the 1880s, with the decline of maskilic ideology and its literature, and with the first stirrings of Zionism, a large group of East European poets gave expression to the new nationalist current. Some 20 poets belonged to this group, known collectively as “the poets of Ḥibat Tsiyon.” Among the most prominent were Mordekhai Tsevi Mane, Konstantin Abba Shapiro, Menaḥem Mendel Dolitzki, Meshulam Zalman Goldbaum, and Naftali Herz Imber. Motifs of yearning for Jewish national revival in the Land of Israel are plentiful in their poetry, but that is only one trait characterizing the group. The formal shift away from the poets of the Haskalah period is evident in rhythmic schemes: works now exchanged the monotonous syllabic meters of the Haskalah for the rich possibilities of tonal-syllabic meter, and thus caused a poetical revolution with significant consequences for the future. With respect to content, the new poets tended to adopt features of European romantic poetry. Writers tried to construct the figure of an individual lyrical persona who clings to childhood memories and yearns for natural beauty, for sensual love, and even for death as a seductive and redemptive power. At the same time, features of romantic nationalism appear in their poetry, expressed as attachment for an imaginary Land of Israel or renewed desire for the framework of traditional Jewish life, drawing material from Midrash and agadah (Talmudic legends).

Nevertheless, the poetry of the Ḥibat Tsiyon movement left no lasting poetical achievements behind, mainly because of the writers’ weak styles. The rhetorical urge dominated over experiential expression. Figurative language was generally thin and stereotypical, and tearful sentimentality took the place of authentic emotion. For that reason, it is customary to regard this chapter in Hebrew poetry as a transitional stage from which, in the early 1890s, a true romantic Hebrew poetry emerged.

Romanticism, especially in its German and Russian versions, indeed had a persistent influence on Hebrew poetry in Eastern Europe. As for individual poets, it seems that Goethe and Heine, Pushkin and Lermontov left the most lasting mark on prominent Hebrew poets from Letteris to Bialik and Tchernichowsky and their immediate followers. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the new symbolist-decadent atmosphere that swept European culture also left some traces in Hebrew poetry of that time, through both Russian channels (from Vladimir Soloviov through Andrei Belyi) and to some extent also French sources (Baudelaire, Verlaine). Post-symbolist currents, especially German expressionism, were absorbed by the last generation of Hebrew poets in Eastern Europe (Uri Tsevi Grinberg, David Vogel) as was Polish modernism (Julian Tuwim), the features of which are evident in the writing of young Hebrew poets in Poland in the 1930s. Yet the constant dialog of Hebrew poets with European poetry was much more diverse, even eclectic in nature, although stimulating and fertile in many ways.

Hebrew poet Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik (left) and poet and translator Sha’ul Tchernichowsky, Odessa, 1907. (Asher Barash Gnazim Institute, Tel Aviv)

A symbolic point in this context is 1892, the year in which Y. L. Gordon died and in which two young poets published their first works: Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik and Sha’ul Tchernichowsky. Within a few years, these two men had changed the face of Hebrew poetry. Though their roots were in the nationalist and sentimental poetry of Ḥibat Tsiyon, they rose far above it. Bialik stood out at the start of his career as the vehement and talented spokesman of the new national spirit (in poems such as “El ha-tsipor” [To the Bird], and “Birkat ‘am” [The Blessing of the People]). He soon became a protégé of Ahad Ha-Am, and worked on the latter’s monthly, Ha-Shiloaḥ, beginning in 1896.

Bialik’s essential and profound innovation was in his formation of a complex individual poetic persona, with a distinct private biography, that also served as an allegorical reflection of the national soul. He depicted the tormented drama of his generation, revealing people torn and ineffectual between the dying world of traditional Judaism in the Diaspora and the external, European world, so attractive with its charms. He composed in several poetical genres, into which he brought his own innovations and improvements: the short, musical lyrical poem (lied); the long, reflective lyrical poem; the autobiographical long poem; the descriptive–reflective long poem; the poem of prophetical wrath; and even the artistic folk poem. When at age 28 he published his first anthology (1901), he was already regarded as the leading Hebrew poet—a status that was confirmed with finality with the publication of his powerfully impressive long poem, “Be-‘Ir ha-haregah” (In the City of Slaughter), after the pogrom in Kishinev (1903). During the first decade of the twentieth century, Bialik’s poetry attained its most marvelous heights and became a determining source of influence for an entire generation of younger poets.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Tchernichowsky was Bialik’s diametric opposite. Tchernichowsky’s poetry expressed an optimistic universal humanism, with healthy life instincts, a direct connection with nature, and uninhibited eroticism free of the “legacy of suffering” of the Diaspora and even rebellion against it. At the same time, Tchernichowsky represented openness to the culture of the world, and he expressed this, among other ways, by refining European poetic forms that had been rather neglected in Hebrew: the idyll, the ballad, and the sonnet. His bold connection with the pagan world of classical Greece as a poet and translator strengthened his image in the realm of the new Hebrew culture, and he held a complex inner dialogue with Jewish tradition. His “alien” image, which Tchernichowsky himself strengthened as he grew as a poet, slightly obscured the strong connections of his poetry with the traditional Jewish background in which he had grown up. That background is revealed clearly in his idylls “Berit milah” (“The Covenant of Circumcision”) and Ḥatunatah shel Elkah (Elka’s Wedding), which are filled with details from Ukrainian Jewish life, and also in his autobiographical long poems. The poets who began to write in the first decade of the twentieth century have been labeled collectively as “Bialik’s generation.” In fact, however, they were nourished abundantly by both. The true and the apparent contrast between Bialik and Tchernichowsky was a basis for the development of the poetics of their generation.

Zalman Shneour (right) and playwright Perets Hirshbeyn (left), Vilna, 1905. (YIVO)

There were six or seven outstanding poets, close in age and similar in their shared generational biography and basic romantic assumptions upon which they based their writing. At the same time, each was endowed with intellectual and poetical uniqueness. Zalman Shneour wrote long and short poems with abundant bombastic and grandiose rhetoric, loudly celebrating the exuberant virility of the poetic persona. Ya‘akov Steinberg wrote gloomy poems, heavy with thought and dense in language, depicting an isolated poetical persona who was proud, tormented, and sometimes ironic and sarcastic. The poetry of Ya‘akov Lerner, who was rather close to Steinberg, is full of feelings of barrenness and gloom, cruelty to himself, and self-denigration. Ya‘akov Cahan began his career with delicate, musical poetry of landscape and atmosphere, in the spirit of German and Polish romanticism. Ya‘akov Fichmann stood out as a sensitive and trustworthy impressionist of scenes from the Bessarabian landscape in which he had grown up. Yitsḥak Katzenelson began in a light, humoristic and ironic vein that takes the form of a comic parody of the fateful and gloomy seriousness of his generation’s poetry. David Shimonovitz (Shimoni) first wrote romantic long poems enveloped in gloom, but gained fame as a writer of idylls, a genre to which he devoted himself after living for a short time in Palestine in 1909–1910.

These poets went on to make their mark on the Hebrew poetry of the entire first half of the twentieth century, but while they were at the peak of their powers, new voices began to be heard in the second decade of the century, even though they were weak and scattered. At first they did not arouse much attention, and only in retrospect is it possible to identify in them the stirrings of postromantic modernism in Hebrew poetry. One such poet was David Vogel, whose work is based on the impressionistic dismantling of the landscape and on sensory impressions, while at the same time containing powerful expressionistic metaphors. In 1912, the young Uri Tsevi Grinberg published atmospheric poems clearly in the manner of Bialik, but the influence of his experience as a soldier in World War I caused him to adopt an expressionist sense of the world, first in Yiddish and then in Hebrew verse. Avigdor Hame’iri underwent a similar course. His staggering experiences in the war and as a prisoner were garbed in poetic images, shocking in their concreteness and roughness. Yehudah Karni also vacillated between the overwhelming influence of Bialik and his personal tendency to shatter the traditional forms of poetry and present long lyrical stretches, which expressed the tempests of a soul undergoing a journey of constant search. Finally, Avraham ben Yitsḥak published only a few poems, but they are excellent, containing a unique synthesis of impressionism and symbolism.

Portrait of Uri Tsevi Grinberg. Henryk Berlewi, Warsaw, 1922. The drawing appeared in Grinberg’s book of poetry, Mefisto (Warsaw: Farlag “Literatur-fond” baym Fareyn fun Yidishe literatn un zshurnalistn in Varshe, 1922). (Joe Fishstein Yiddish Poetry Collection, Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University Library)

After World War I, many of the Hebrew poets moved to Palestine: Bialik and his followers (Steinberg, Shimonovitz, and Fichmann) as well as the younger, modernist group (Grinberg, Karni, Hame’iri). Both groups helped lay the foundations for the Hebrew literary center based in Palestine from the 1920s on, and they quickly seized ascendancy over the literary centers in the Diaspora. However, Hebrew poetry continued to be written in Eastern Europe for another 20 years. One group of poets was active in Soviet Russia, despite increasingly severe prohibitions and restrictions, and with great effort they managed to publish three collections: Tsiltsele shama‘ (Loud Cymbals; Kharkov, 1923), Ga‘ash (Turbulence, a collection of poems by Mili [Shemu’el] Novak; Kiev, 1923), and Be-Re’shit (Genesis; Moscow-Leningrad, 1926). Among the poets of this group were Yitsḥak Borovitch, Gershon Hanovitch, Avraham Krivorochka (Kariv), Shim‘on ha-Boneh-Tarbokov, as well as two women: Malkah Schechtman (Bat-Ḥama) and Yokheved Bat-Miriam, the only member of the group who was to attain true achievements in Hebrew poetry. Identification with the ideals of the October Revolution is conspicuous in their work; it is expressed with revolutionary rhetoric in the style of Aleksandr Blok and Vladimir Mayakovsky. At the same time, their poems contain elegies for the vanishing Jewish shtetl and the moribund Jewish tradition.

After the disintegration of this group, Hebrew poetry continued to be written in Russia here and there, clandestinely and at dire risk to the writers. In this context, one should mention Elisha‘ Rudin (1888–1946) and especially Ḥayim Lenski (1905–1942), whose lyric poetry is outstanding in its rich sonority, original imagery, and humor, covering the pain of a life of suffering. Lenski’s devotion to his writing until his last days in a Stalinist labor camp is a unique and outstanding human and literary phenomenon.

The second center of Hebrew poetry in interwar Eastern Europe, richer and more developed than that in Russia, was in Poland. Among the followers of Bialik who remained in that country were Ya‘akov Cahan, who moved to Palestine in 1934, and Yitsḥak Katzenelson, who took part in the Warsaw ghetto uprising and died at Auschwitz in 1944. In the 1920s, Matityahu Shoham became known for his poetic plays on biblical subjects, written in high biblical language. At the same time, he composed long and short poems of a decidedly symbolist cast, permeated by his yearning for unattainable distances and pure aesthetic worlds, isolated from the din of concrete life. Berl Pomerantz wrote original poetry of value in those years. Modernistic elements and figurative language couched in free rhythms stand out in it, as well as authentic and rough sincerity in his presentation of the contemporary urban experience.

Malki’el Lusternik in the resort town of Zakopane, Poland, ca. 1930s. (Asher Barash Gnazim Institute, Tel Aviv)

In the 1930s, many other poets emerged but managed to complete only a single volume of poems, or else could not collect their poems before perishing in the Holocaust. Among these poets were Avraham Dov Werbner, Yitsḥak Aryeh Berger, Malki’el Lusternik, and Natan Note Stockhammer. Most of them were close to Zionism, and their poetry absorbed some features of the Hebrew modernism of the Land of Israel, which tended toward stylized symbolism in the 1930s. At the same time, their works were strongly influenced by contemporary Polish poetry, which tended toward concrete poetical expression of somber daily experiences. Their poems usually deal with compressed and oppressive urban life, and protest against social inequality. Gradually, however, these poets were overcome by the oppression of the approaching catastrophe, threatening all of Europe and the Jews of Poland in particular. Indeed, these writers were active in a small and closed literary realm, and had very few readers. Most sought to escape from Poland and reach the Land of Israel; however, only a few succeeded. Their last collective appearance as a group was in the periodical Teḥumim (Boundaries), two volumes of which appeared in 1938. The third volume, which was already prepared for printing, was swallowed in oblivion after the outbreak of World War II.

Suggested Reading

Hillel Barzel, Toldot ha-shirah ha-‘ivrit me-Ḥibat Tsiyon ‘ad yamenu, 7 vols. (Tel Aviv, 1987–2006); Jehoshua A. Gilboa, Lashon ‘omedet ‘al nafshah: Tarbut ‘ivrit bi-Verit ha-Mo‘atsot (Tel Aviv, 1977); Simon Halkin, Modern Hebrew Literature: From the Enlightenment to the Birth of the State of Israel; Trends and Values (New York, 1970); Dan Miron, Bodedim be-mo‘adam (Tel Aviv, 1987); Uzi Shavit, Shirah ve-ide’ologyah (Tel Aviv, 1987); David Weinfeld, ed., Ha-Shirah ha-‘ivrit be-Polin ben shete milḥamot ha-‘olam (Jerusalem, 1997).



Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green