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Comparative Literature Studies 42.3 (2005) 125-154

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"From Baghdad to Bialik With Love":

A Reappropriation of Modern Hebrew Poetry, 1933

University of California, Berkeley

In 1933, an Iraqi Jew by the name of Dahud ben Sleyman Semah sent a sixtieth birthday present to the famous Hebrew poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934), a Russian Jew referred to then and now as "ha-meshorer ha-le'umi" or the "national poet" of what was to become the Hebrew state.1 Appropriately enough, the gift was a poem extolling Bialik as the "father" of modern Hebrew verse. Composed in the style of the tor ha-zahav, the Hebrew "Golden Age" of Spain, the poem is a virtuosic tour de force.2 Its opening words, an elaborate homophonic wordplay, quickly unfurl into an extended metaphor of a beautiful maiden, who represents Hebrew poetry. Yet when asked who her father is, the maiden points to two men, who turn out to be none other than the famous medieval Hebrew poets Solomon ibn Gabirol and Moses ibn Ezra—two of the great Jewish luminaries of al-Andalus, the Arabic name for Muslim Spain (known in Hebrew as Sepharad).3 By this point, the poem has taken on the performative quality of a paternity suit, challenging its various contenders: Will the real father of modern Hebrew literature please stand up? Why would a poem celebrating Bialik as the rejuvenator of literary Hebrew utilize the centuries-old, Arabic-inspired Andalusian style—and shift the spotlight away from its panegyric subject back to two medieval poets lurking in the wings? What is at stake in answering this question, I shall argue, are the cultural origins of modern Hebrew literature. [End Page 125]

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Figure 1
The birthday poem in Semah's own hand: letter to Bialik dated 18 Tevet 5693 (16 January 1933).
[End Page 126]


Writing from the 1890s until his death in 1934, Bialik is widely credited with the creation of a modern Hebrew poetic idiom. His lengthy, Romantic, often anguished poems are mandatory reading in the Israeli educational system, and many of them have been adapted for music and absorbed into Israeli popular culture. For decades he dominated the Hebrew literary scene, and even now the name "Bialik" elicits unparalleled veneration in the world of modern Hebrew letters. The story of modern Hebrew literature has in fact been told as the story of Bialik and of his immediate precursors and successors, all of whom had in common one important attribute: they were Eastern European Jews, working in what Hebrew literary critic and historian Binyamin Harshav has called a "time of revolution" sparked by the Russian pogroms of 1881–1882.4 These figures were preceded by the no less revolutionary maskilim, the first generation of Hebrew writers in Europe to break away from Orthodoxy and to re-fashion liturgical Hebrew into a neo-classical literary language on the European Enlightenment model. Geographically speaking, then, the history of modern Hebrew literature has been written as a tale of Odessa and Plonsk, Vilna and Warsaw, and finally, Tel Aviv, where it reaches maturity and eventually comes to incorporate Jewish writers from throughout the world who settled in Palestine, later the newly-created State of Israel.

Some of those later writers included the "Oriental" Jews, those from Arab and Muslim lands, as well as Sephardic Jews descended from the Spanish exiles who had settled throughout the Ottoman provinces and Southeastern Europe (namely, Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans). In recent years some of these writers, along with second-generation Israelis of Middle Eastern descent,5 have gained prominence in Israel, where their works have been considered under a "minority literature" rubric akin to the multicultural "[Ethnic]-American" literatures of the U.S.—even though Jews from the Middle East constituted a majority of Israeli Jews until the mid-1990s. The Hebrew writing of non-European Jews has thus been construed as a late and secondary addition to the mainstream narrative of Hebrew literature that originated in nineteenth-century...


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