(1875–1943), poet and translator. Sha’ul Tchernichowsky was born in the village of Mikhailovka (Tavria province), on the Russia–Ukraine border. His family was rooted in a non-Jewish environment and was also closely associated with the Haskalah and the Ḥibat Tsiyon movement. Tchernichowsky was first taught exclusively in Russian and only gained a Hebrew education after attending a local modern heder. According to his autobiography, he began to write creatively at the age of 12. Ultimately, he and Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik became the most influential poets of the period of Hebrew Revival.
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)
In 1890, Tchernichowsky moved to Odessa, where he associated with a community of Hebrew writers and forged a particularly strong bond with Yosef Klausner. In 1892, he published his first poem in the United States, and received a positive review from Re’uven Brainin. Tchernichowsky’s first book, Ḥezyonot u-manginot (Visions and Melodies), published with an effusive preface by Brainin, appeared in Warsaw in 1899. In the summer of that year he left to join Klausner at the University of Heidelberg, where he studied medicine, natural sciences, and philosophy. In 1903 he went to Lausanne, and two years later he completed his medical studies. A year later he returned to Mikhailovka and worked as a physician, initially in the district town of Melitopol’ and later in Kharkov province.
Tchernichowsky spent a year in Finland, where he began to translate the Finnish epic Kalevala. That same year he published the volume Shirim (Poems) and his translation of Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. At the beginning of World War I, he enlisted in the Russian Army and served as an doctor until the end of the war. After the October Revolution of 1917, he worked for the Red Cross in Saint Petersburg.
With the establishment of Stybel Publications in Moscow, Tchernichowsky was commissioned to translate Homer’s epics. In 1919, he left Saint Petersburg for Odessa, where he remained until 1922. In 1920, Stybel published his translation of Anacreon’s poetry. At the end of 1922 he left Russia to live temporarily in Berlin, which was then a center of Hebrew writers. There he published Sefer ha-idilyot (Book of Idylls; 1922), the anthology Shirim ḥadashim (New Poems; 1924), and his translations of The Epic of Gilgamesh and Longfellow’s Evangeline (1923; 1924). He also wrote a play (Bar Kokhba’), an anthology of children’s poetry, stories, and feuilletons. In 1929, a jubilee edition of his collected letters was started; the final product included 10 volumes (completed in 1934).
In 1931, Tchernichowsky moved to Palestine, where he worked as a physician for the Tel Aviv municipal schools. In 1937, he published the anthology Kol shire Sha’ul Tsherniḥovski (All the Poems of Sha’ul Tchernichowsky); it contained many new poems, some of which were written with the Sephardic accentuation that for more than a decade had dominated Hebrew poetry. In 1939, his translation of the Russian epic Masa’ milḥemet Igor (The Burden of Igor’s War), made its appearance, and in 1940, he published his last poetry anthology, Re’i adamah (Look, Earth). In 1941 his compendium of prose, 33 sipurim (33 Stories), along with a collection of children’s stories, was released for publication. In 1942, after a long delay, he finally issued his translation of Homer’s Odyssey, marking his completion of Homer’s epics. About a year later a new jubilee edition of his poems was released, and it included Kokhve shamayim reḥokim (Faraway Stars in Heaven), his last cycle of poems. On 13 October 1943, Sha’ul Tchernichowsky died in Jerusalem. As when Bialik had died, the death of Tchernichowsky was an occasion of national mourning.
Hebrew poet Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik (left) and poet and translator Sha’ul Tchernichowsky, Odessa, 1907. (Asher Barash Gnazim Institute, Tel Aviv)
Despite the popular and somewhat hackneyed belief that Tchernichowsky was a kind of alter ego of the national poet Bialik, there is some basis to this sentiment. While Bialik’s whole being was Jewish, basic to Tchernichowsky’s literary creations was his declared objective, evident throughout his work, to open Hebrew poetry to world poetry, in every sense. This objective motivated his writings in a variety of literary fields. Much of what he wrote fits the definition of translation in the wider sense of this term: establishing contact with foreign cultures and literatures. From this perspective, Tchernichowsky opened Hebrew poetry to its fullest range of possibilities, of aesthetic weltanschauung, of subject matter (e.g., writing nature poems that dealt with tangible matters; erotica), of genres (e.g., the sonnet sequence), or of poetic meter (e.g., dactylic hexameter). This feature was given expression, among other things, by the equal weight he accorded to translations and to original works, a trend already evident in his first published anthology, in which 14 of the 60 poems are either translations or adaptations of poets from different literary cultures (Lermontov, Heine, Longfellow), and it is a trend that runs through all of his works. From the ideational perspective, a striking theme that is present in Tchernichowsky’s writings is what can be described, unashamedly, as general humanism, a craving for the best of European literature, and a yearning for the primeval foundations of nature (a sort of vitalism), for the golden age of human civilization’s mythical era.
Out of this ideational–artistic blend (together with certain Nietzschean features) there arose the “pagan” criticism of Jewish culture (directed, in fact, against the rabbinic tradition). This was most famously expressed in Tchernichowsky’s early poems “Le-Nokhaḥ pesel Apolo” (Standing before Apollo’s Statue; 1899), and “Me-ḥezyonot nevi’ ha-sheker” (From the Visions of a False Prophet; 1900). From the time these poems were published, the poet was seen as “Hebrew poetry’s heathen” and as being “saturated with the secular spirit.” These images continue to characterize his legacy, even though modern research has, on many occasions, pointed out that the poet’s works are more complex than their simple meaning conveys. Tchernichowsky’s idea sought a combination of the Hellenic ideal and primeval vitality, with elements of the ancient Jewish heritage.
One of Tchernichowsky’s most productive contributions to Hebrew poetry was his introduction of the idyll as a genre. He chose the subjects of these poems from the experiences of Jews in Tavria, his home province. Among his idylls (which were more like short epics) was Ḥatunatah shel Elkah (Elka’s Wedding ; his longest example); and the most influential were his first three works in this genre: Levivot (Pancakes), Berit milah (Circumcision), and Ke-ḥom ha-yom (Like the Heat of the Day), composed around 1900.
At a later date, Tchernichowsky used his epic style to record his memoirs and his personal history; the style was used with sterling effect in his ‘Ama’ dedahava’ (The Golden People; 1937–1941). Despite clear ties to its European legacy (the classical idyll, and the Goethean idyll), Tchernichowsky’s idyll was a completely original creation, and in this genre, as in the rules of classical poetic meter, Tchernichowsky became a “legislator” for Hebrew poetry as a whole.
Tchernichowsky’s sonnets, as well, were innovative. He initiated the sonnet sequence, which he used in two of his poems, La-Shemesh (To the Sun; 1919), and ‘Al ha-dam (On the Blood; 1923). He also wrote a series of historical poems, Sonetot Kerim (Crimean Sonnets), clearly inspired by Adam Mickiewicz’s work of the same name. He explored the ballad form, writing examples based on events in Jewish history, especially noting the tragic decrees and persecutions of the medieval period. Of all the many and varied types of poems that may be separately classified, it is impossible not to mention his many love poems and nature poems, which were characterized by immediacy and realistic experience.
It is doubtful whether in the history of Hebrew poetry there ever was a poet equally as universal as Tchernichowsky, a poet who combined so many and diverse elements of Jewish history throughout the ages: from the biblical period (in fact, from the Canaanite era), through the Middle Ages, to the contemporary period. He used as his geographical backdrop places as far away as the Arab peninsula, and as near as Saint Petersburg. On the one hand, Tchernichowsky’s solo efforts were responsible for creating a corpus of world literature in translation—adapted either from their original language, or from texts that were themselves translations—that originated from as many as 15 different literary cultures, from the East as well as from the West, and stretching from the ancient period (Gilgamesh, Egyptian hymns) to his own generation (Francis Thompson, Vladislav Khodasevich). On the other hand, the appearance of Tchernichowsky’s translations marked the end of the unique poetics that were employed in maskilic translations (which tended to be free adaptations rather than accurate renditions) and that ushered in the era of “normal” translations. Tchernichowsky was a neoromantic poet devoted to the epic genre, with an assured and unique place in the history of literature in the twentieth century.
Bo‘az ‘Arpali, ed., Sha’ul Tsherniḥovski: Meḥkarim u-te‘udot (Jerusalem, 1994); Joseph Klausner, Sha’ul Tsherniḥovski: Ha-Adam veha-meshorer (Jerusalem, 1947); Dan Miron, Bodedim be-mo‘adam: Li-Deyokanah shel ha-republikah ha-sifrutit ha-‘ivrit bi-teḥilat ha-me’ah ha-‘esrim (Tel Aviv, 1987); Saul Tchernichowsky, Kitve Sha’ul Tsherniḥovski, 10 vols. (Berlin and Vilna, 1929–1935); Saul Tchernichowsky, Kol shire Sha’ul Tsherniḥovski (Jerusalem, 1937).
Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler