Hayim Nahman Bialik, also Chaim or Haim, was a Jewish poet who wrote primarily in Hebrew but also in Yiddish. Bialik was one of the pioneers of modern Hebrew poetry and came to be recognized as Israel's national poet.
Bialik was born in the village of Radi, Volhynia in the Ukrainian part of the Russian Empire to Yitzhak Yosef Bialik, a scholar and businessman, and his wife Dinah (Priveh). Bialik's father died in 1880, when Bialik was 7 years old. In his poems, Bialik romanticized the misery of his childhood, describing seven orphans left behind—though modern biographers believe there were fewer children, including grown step-siblings who did not need to be supported. Be that as it may, from the age 7 onwards Bialik was raised in Zhitomir (also Ukraine) by his stern Orthodox grandfather, Yaakov Moshe Bialik.
In Zhitomir he received a traditional Jewish religious education, but also explored European literature. At the age of 15, inspired by an article he read, he convinced his grandfather to send him to the Volozhin Yeshiva in Lithuania, to study at a famous Talmudic academy under Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, where he hoped he could continue his Jewish schooling while expanding his education to European literature as well. Attracted to the Jewish Enlightenment movement (Haskala), Bialik gradually drifted away from yeshiva life. Poems such as HaMatmid ("The Talmud student") written in 1898, reflect his great ambivalence toward that way of life: on the one hand admiration for the dedication and devotion of the yeshiva students to their studies, on the other hand a disdain for the narrowness of their world.
At 18 he left for Odessa, the center of modern Jewish culture in Ukraine and the southern Russian Empire, drawn by such luminaries as Mendele Mocher Sforim and Ahad Ha'am. In Odessa, Bialik studied Russian and German language and literature, and dreamed of enrolling in the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin. Alone and penniless, he made his living teaching Hebrew. The 1892 publication of his first poem, El Hatzipor "To the Bird," which expresses a longing for Zion, in a booklet edited by Yehoshua Hone Ravnitzky (a future collaborator), eased Bialik's way into Jewish literary circles in Odessa. He joined the so-called Hovevei Zion group and befriended Ahad Ha'am, who had a great influence on his Zionist outlook.
In 1892 Bialik heard news that the Volozhin yeshiva had closed, and rushed home to Zhitomir, to prevent his grandfather from discovering that he had discontinued his religious education. He arrived to discover his grandfather and his older brother both on their deathbeds. Following their deaths, Bialik married Mania Averbuch in 1893. For a time he served as a bookkeeper in his father-in-law's lumber business in Korostyshiv, near Kiev. But when this proved unsuccessful, he moved in 1897 to Sosnowiec, a small town in Silesia, southern Poland, then part of the Russian Empire, near the border with Prussia and Austria. In Sosnowiec, Bialik worked as a Hebrew teacher, and tried to earn extra income as a coal merchant, but the provincial life depressed him. He was finally able to return to Odessa in 1900, having secured a teaching job.
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