On the occasion of the 137th birthday of the man who already early on in his lifetime was bestowed with the title the National Hebrew Poet, a look at how his views changed toward America after visiting in 1926.
The youthful poems about the spiritual and material squalor of Jewish life in Eastern Europe made Chaim Nachman Bialik (born January 9, 1873) a spokesman of his generation. While Bialik himself invested all his energies in the Hebrew literary and cultural life, as a poet, author, and especially as an influential and authoritative editor, he could not fully resist the political demands made upon him by leaders of the Zionist cause. And so it happened, in January 1926, that he reluctantly gave in to the pleadings of Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization at the time, to visit with the different Jewish communities of America as an emissary of Keren Hayesod, the fundraising bureau of the Zionist movement.
Prior to his trip, Bialik repeatedly claimed that he knew very little about money and fundraising, but transcripts from the speeches he later made in America suggest that the poet, who back in the Ukraine was shortly involved in the forestry business, had quite a knack for it. Accompanied by his wife, Mania, and by Keren Hayesod’s official, Shmaryahu Levin, whose task it was to make the collections after Bialik’s public lectures, the 53 year old poet left Tel Aviv, where he had settled less than two years earlier, and set sail to America.
The Jews of New York were almost as excited to receive the national poet as the settlers in Palestine have been during his magisterial visit there years prior to his own immigration. Still on the boat, Bialik was met in New York harbor by a group of Jewish reporters anxious for an interview.
From the start Bialik was on message, dictating to the journalists the supreme importance of success in the mission to form a national Jewish home in the land of Israel. This is as important, declared the poet, to diaspora Jewry as it is to the Zionists who are on there way to or already settled in their forefathers’ land. And given that Russian Jewry has dwindled down and is about to disappear, he explained, and that German Jewry is practically growing extinct in terms of its Jewish character, “it is only the American Jewry, at this time, that is able to take upon itself to support the establishment of the national home. Furthermore, it is obliged to do so, as there is no other but them for salvation.”
His first stop in America was at the Commodore Hotel, on 42nd street and Lexington Avenue. The big city scared him, he admits in a letter to his friend “Echad Ha’Am” (Asher Ginzburg), who advocated for a “spiritual Zionism” that would establish Palestine as a cultural center of world Jewry rather than a Jewish state as such. “Mind my confusion and helplessness as I fell into this boiling pit called New York,” Bialik writes, “in which I find myself as if mute, without knowledge of the language, and in each and every unmeasured step I am risking myself to be cut in pieces under the wheels of the automobiles cluttering all the streets and roaming as devils in their thousands here and there, turning the whole mighty city to such a living, hurried and wild creature.”
The next day he was already speaking in front of a grand public, 5000 strong, a mass and an occasion making him more than a bit nervous. Months later, back at home, he would confess that his “first speech was somewhat unsuccessful, and not only some, but a whole lot unsuccessful.” In that first speech, Bialik found himself emitting the same kind of thoughtless wisdoms that the author A.B. Yehoshua would be stating to American Jews in Washington precisely 80 years later: “Our existence in the diaspora,” Bialik said, “is a passive heroism, while we yearn for an active heroism. And this is only possible in Eretz Israel.”
This is Bialik in his first, uninformed, and practically prejudiced meeting with the Jews of America. But six months of traveling throughout the country, from one Jewish community to another, being introduced evening after evening in a language he did not understand to a culture he did not yet know were taking their positive effects. His farewell speech to his hosts in America is already more sensitive and less opinionated than the bold declarations made upon arrival.
On his way back home, Bialik stops in London, where he grants an interview to the journal “The World.” While he still sounds somewhat skeptical when talking about the integration of the ancient Jewish people with the young American nation, Bialik also predicts the great success of American Jewry, even if he views this success in instrumental terms: “American Jewry could gather and fortify on the basis of the assets of [our] national culture and national history and become a great material and moral support to the entire nation.” Note that this future support is projected to be also “moral” and not merely material.
Finally back at home in Tel Aviv, as the impressions of his long visit are sinking in, Bialik describes the communities he met in an appreciative tone, his descriptions now based on first hand encounters rather than on the dictates of an ideology that projects its needs on the world. In a speech he gave in September of the same year at a Tel Aviv cultural center known as Beit Ha’Am (The People’s Home), which at the time was simply a sandy field next to the municipal cemetery, Bialik talks about the differences between the misguided prejudices he had heard about America and its Jews prior to his trip and what he himself encountered in his visit. His words are marked by a sense of respect, even admiration, to the America he had seen. “I am almost certain,” he says, “that a new type of man will rise in America.” And this is the reason why: “You are probably familiar with the penetrating saying: whoever feels that his desires overcome him, better go to a place where he is not known and there do what his heart wishes.” The immigrant, Bialik explains, who breaks away from the constraints of tradition and heritage, may concentrate in his new land on that which is most important to him, the individual person, on his own heart’s desire. And from desire comes creation, production, fulfillment.
One might hold America at fault, that its creativity and productivity is mostly material in nature, Bialik says, but this is understandable for such a young, multi-ethnic nation that is still engaged in laying its foundations in preparation for the future, for a “second era, in which the spirit will start to shine and glitter. … One may assume that the time will come and the first thought of the American child will be rising from higher categories-philosophical, mathematical, technological-from the place where our old philosopher had stopped, that will be the starting point of their young child.”
And if, he continues, this culture is also characterized by “the American bluff,” the overstatements of commercial language and a corresponding abundance of commercial goods, that is because these are also “a means for the outburst of life,” an expression of the central Idea of America, of a life of plenty. This plenty and this life are to be found also in the simple and material aspects of the world, not only in lofty ideas and pure poetry.
Following his paean for America as such, Bialik turns to speak of the American Jews. They, he estimates, have achieved a financial welfare of the kind Jews never had in the history of the diaspora. At the same time, many doors still remain shut to Jews in America at the first quarter of the century: political life, heavy industry, the upper class (“for also in the American democracy there is an aristocracy,” observes the poet whose acumen often matched his verbal craft).
Bialik proceeds to express a certain anxiety concerning the future of this great community, an anxiety he also detects among the American Jews themselves. And yet he concludes that he arrived in America “horrified” and left it “pacified,” feeling that something new is growing within this Jewry, who carry within them a “great thirst for ascendance and revival.” The speech he gives in the sands of Tel Aviv ends with a call to his listeners to learn from the Jews who have learned from America, and to create a new and different relationship with this great community:
I pray for the day in which a strong bond will be set between us and them through people who go there not only for propaganda but also for instruction and education, out of devotion and love and not only to receives money. This thing deprecates the value of our work. I must say, I did not talk there about money; in an atmosphere of schnorr, I would have felt very badly. You have got to love these Jews and not only ask them for money.
Ilan Safit is Chief Editor – Yedioth Ahronoth America.