Jewish Studies Modern Hebrew Poetry
Ofra Yeglin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0210


Modern Hebrew poetry, written in a language comprehensible only to parts of its audience, the Yiddish speaking masses, emerged at the end of the 19th century and became canonized by the time of the publication of C. N. Bialik’s second book in 1908. The Jewish generation that grew up in Eastern Europe after the 1880s aspired to create in Hebrew, a language of ancient texts and commentary, modern alternative expression that matched the pedigree of the European poetry from the Renaissance on. Some Hebrew poetry was written throughout the ages (medieval, Haskalah, Hibat Zion), but in the absence of a steady linear evolution (of models, forms, and prosody), modern Hebrew poetry was a pioneering project accumulated from the biblical narrative monologue and poetry; the commentary and the dialogical tension of the Talmud; the contribution of the Drasha (sermon) tradition; elements of history, literature, folklore, and theology extolled in Halakhic books written throughout the ages; and from threads adapted from the neighboring Russian or German cultures. Seen in retrospect, a growing chorus of Hebrew poets gave voice to the transition of Jews into general Western culture (in its unique realization in the Middle East), the human condition and landscapes, the political and social realities, and the traumas of Jewish existence and its triumph. Their renaissance at the turn of the centuries laid the foundations for the mature poetry written in the new major literary center in Ottoman and British Mandate Palestine and Israel for a new growing class of Hebrew readers.

Premodern Revival Poetry

The main literary accomplishments of 1898, the lengthy narrative-discursive poem, “haMatmid” (The diligent Talmudic scholar), by Chaim Nachman Bialik (b. 1873–d. 1934) and the collection, Chezyonot uManginot (Visions and melodies) by Saul Tchernichovsky (b. 1875–d. 1943), were not only a poetical quantum leap (vocabulary, syntax, prosody, and rhetoric) from the modest achievement and standards of its predecessors, the poets of the Haskalah (Naftali Herts Wessely, Mikahal and Yalag), and Hibat Tsiyon (Mane, Dolitzki, and Imber), but rather an act of audacious innovation in a far different spirit (Shavit 1987, Harshav 2000). Whereas Bialik’s first published poem, “El haTzipor” (To the bird, 1891), echoed previous poetical complaints of exile misery (from Zion) and had little to do with the future of his sophisticated crystallized canon, “haMatmid” debated the historical necessity to part with the lifeless house of study and the perpetual Jewish paradigm that would haunt Hebrew culture throughout the 20th century (Miron 2000a). The sixty poems of Chesyonot uManginot, by Tchernichovsky, were a heterogeneous mosaic of seven genres and translations (from Greek, German, English, French, and Russian), frequently described as an expansion and enrichment of apparatus already in existence, with a replenishment of a vital idiosyncratic (if not eccentric) standpoint on the themes of nature and love (Arpaly 1994, Barzel 1987–2018). Like the couples Goethe and Schiller, Pushkin and Lermontov, and Tennyson and Browning, Bialik and Tchernichovsky are regarded as the two pillars of the poetic project of their time. A simplified fixated view (inspired perhaps by the works of Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev) sees them as a Double or as opposites, with Bialik as being grounded in traditional lore and Tchernichovsky as a “Greek” Nietzschean pagan, but the actual picture is more complicated (Arpaly 2011). Both had a biography of two optional generic Jewish collectives (Bialik as a Yeshiva student and Tchernichovsky as a student at the universities of Heidelberg and Lausanne), and a poetical genius to interpret and channel feelings, events, customs, and ideals of their time in light of ancient wisdom. Approximately one hundred years later than they appeared in the prominent national literatures of Europe, lucid Romanticist images, rhetoric, and spirit are apparent and expressed in Bialik’s poetry (The poem “The Pool,” and the visionary prophetic standpoint), but his poetic world consisted no less of anti-Romantic characteristics. If we underscore myth, legends, and specific genres (Ideal and Elegy) as Romantic material, Tchernichovsky is perhaps the archetypal Romantic of the two (Arpaly 1994, Bar-Yosef 1992, Miron 2000b, Hirchfeld 2011). The fissure between private and public worlds is wholly visible in the work of Bialik, whose output of about one hundred canonical poems is the most renowned body of Hebrew poetry in the 20th century (Shaked 1992, Holtzman 2010). His mastery of religious imagery, rhetoric, and languages (Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, and liturgical poesy), together with his human poignancy, enabled him to produce the most widely read “national” texts. The impact of his poetry had been nourished by his vocation to preserve the Jewish spiritual lore produced down through the generations (The Book of Aggadah). Likewise, and in contrast, Tchernichovsky’s significance lies no less in his references to myths and translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (Arpaly 1994, Basok 2017). The division of labor between them as one in which Bialik was made to procure for the national and Tchernichovsky was to choose the special obscures Bialik’s intense personal expressions of love quests (“they say there is love in the world, / what is love?”) (Tsamir 2019), as well as Tchernichovsky’s folkloristic idylls “Berit Milah” (Circumcision) and “Hatunata shel Elkah” (Elka’s wedding), and ballad “Bat haRav” (The rabbi’s daughter), based on Chmielnicki’s massacres of 1648–1649.

  • Arpaly, Boaz. Tsayir laAd: Iyunim beShirat Saul Tchernichowsky. Bnei Brak, Israel: Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 2011.

    Written by the leading scholar of Tchernichowsky’s lore, this book (Forever young: Studies in the poetry of Saul Tchernichowsky) is a result of forty years of research focused on the paradox of being the founder of modern Hebrew poetry and a rebel, the origins of his Canaanite and Greek lure, and his key genres and poems. In Hebrew.

  • Arpaly, Boaz, ed. Saul Tchernichowsky: Mehkarim uTeudot. Jerusalem: The Bialik Institute, 1994.

    An edited volume of selected documents, including a first publication of an autobiography manuscript written by Tchernichovsky. The research section contains analysis of Tchernichovsky’s early poetry and his perception of the poetic models of his time (by Yehudit Barel, Ester Natan, Chamutal Bar-Yosef, Shmuel Verses, Reuven Tzur, Boaz Arpaly, Dan Miron, Aminadav Dikman, and Shimon Markish). In Hebrew.

  • Bar-Yosef, Hamutal. “Romantism veDecadence beShirat haTehiya haIvrit.” Jerusalem Studies in Hebrew Literature 1992 (1992): 171–210.

    This article (Romanticism and decadence in Hebrew poetry of the Revival) is an innovative analysis of Hebrew Romanticism and modernism (referred to in this study as “decadence”). In Hebrew.

  • Barzel, Hillel. Toldot haShirah haIvrit meHibat Tsiyon ad Yamenu. Tel Aviv: Sifriat Poalim, 1987–2018.

    The second volume of this series (The history of Hebrew poetry) is a wide-ranging monograph of Bialik (poetry, translations, and letters). The third volume attempts to settle thematic contradictions and illuminate the employment of genres in the poetry of Tchernichovsky. In Hebrew.

  • Basok, Ido. leYofi veNisgav Libo Er-Saul Tchernichovsky—Hayim. Jerusalem: Carmel, 2017.

    Based on varied types of archival materials and poems, Basok’s sixteen-chapter detailed study (Saul Tchernichovsky—Life) is an analysis of Tchernichovsky’s life from birth to death. In Hebrew.

  • Harshav, Benjamin. Shirat haTehiya haIvrit: Antologia Historit-Bikortit. Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 2000.

    This two-volume anthology (The poetry of Hebrew Renaissance: A historical-critical anthology) is necessary for those interested in prosody. Harshav, a leading scholar of modern Hebrew poetry, introduces the annotated canon of the Renaissance period (1882–1918), to illuminate the multiplicity of poetic styles and sources of influence. In Hebrew.

  • Hirchfeld, Ariel. Kinor Aruh: Leshon haRegesh beShirat H.N. Bialik. Tel Aviv: Am Oved, Sifriat Ofakim, 2011.

    Beautifully written in a personal overtone, this scholarly book (Tuned harp: The language of emotion in Bialik’s poetry) is a new accentuation of Bialik as a revolutionary Romanticist and modernist. In Hebrew.

  • Holtzman, Avner. “The Rise and Decline of the National Poet.” In Polish and Hebrew Literature and National Identity. Edited by Alina Molisak and Shoshana Ronen, 38–46. Warsaw: Elipsa, 2010.

    A cogent description of seven stages leading to the canonization of Bialik as the national poet. In English.

  • Miron, Dan. “Hayim Nahman Bialik’s Poetry: An Introduction.” In Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of Hayim Nahman Bialik. Edited and translated by Atar Hadari, xvii–lxiv. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000a. In English.

    A concise overview of Miron’s knowledgeable arguments, previously worded by him in Hebrew.

  • Miron, Dan. H. N. Bialik and the Prophetic Mode in Modern Hebrew Poetry. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000b.

    A chronicle and analysis of the historical and literary conditions that shaped Bialik’s contribution to this mode of poetic speech. In English.

  • Shaked, Gershon, ed. Bialik: Yezirato leSugeah beRei haBikoret: Anthologia. 2d ed. Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1992.

    A high-quality collection of articles (Bialik: Critical essays on his work, an anthology) that offers analysis of the key poems, “Tikun hatzot,” “Tzafririm,” “Levadi,” “Lifne Aron haSfarim,” and “Mete Midbar,” and a study of several inter-texts (Solovyov and Rilke), by Tuvia Ruebner, Ziva Shamir, Ester Nathan, Shimon Zandbank, and others. In Hebrew.

  • Shavit, Uzi. “LeShorasheah veHitgabshutah shel haPoema haBialikayit.” In Shirah veIdeologia LeToldot haShirah haIvrit veHitpathuta baMeah ha18 ubaMeah ha19. By Uzi Shavit, 142–163. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1987.

    A fundamental examination of the distinction between Bialik’s lengthy poems and the model of his notable predecessor, Yalag. In Hebrew.

  • Tsamir, Hamutal. 2019. Bialik Baal Guf: Teshuka, Tsiyonut, Shira. Bnei Brak, Israel: Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House.

    In contrast to a long tradition of scholars who separated the personal from the national, this innovative study (Bialik’s body and soul: Desire, Zionism, poetry) offers a fresh assessment of the Bialikian project in which the personal (passion, pain, and weakness) is the ground for the birth of the national standpoint. In Hebrew.

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