Chaim Naḥman Bialik
America, A Cultural Wasteland with Promise
WHAT A foreign poet who died in the mid-1930s thought of the United States would seem to be an arcane, if not altogether frivolous, question. In many cultures, however, writers exert considerable influence on public affairs. Witness, for example, the position of Vaclav Havel in postcommunist Czechoslovakia, or that of Sartre and Camus in postwar France. Jews, “the people of the book,” may be somewhat more open to the influence of the literati than others. Especially in the period between the Emancipation and the birth of Israel, when their political life was circumscribed and the influence of religion declining, they filled some of the void with culture. They accepted poets, essayists, and novelists as tastemakers and looked to them for guidance in setting the communal agenda.
Of those who achieved a position of prominence in Jewish letters between 1750 and 1948, Chaim Naḥman Bialik ranks first. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that he occupies a position in modern Hebrew literature analogous to that of Shakespeare in English literature, as his contemporaries already recognized. Few of them would have disagreed with the judgment of the The Washington Post, which described him in 1926 as “the greatest of living Hebrew poets.”1 Most also appreciated the significance of his public and even his personal activities: his virtual abandonment of poetry for the task of collecting the literary treasures of the Jewish past and publishing them; his departure from Russia in 1921; his immigration to Palestine (aliyah) in 1924.2
Long before his aliyah, Bialik enjoyed a reputation among the Jews of Palestine. The revival of Hebrew as the spoken language of the Jewish people in its old/new homeland was both a goal and an instrument of Zionism. The lion of modem Hebrew literature naturally occupied a respected place in the communal pantheon. Aliyah ensured his primacy. Ben-Gurion recalled that on the day Bialik arrived in Palestine, “the whole city [of Tel Aviv] celebrated.” Within a year of his immigration, noted Chaim Weizmann, Bialik had become “the most valuable man in Tel Aviv” and the “one who may have the greatest influence.”3 When, less than two years after his remove to Palestine, the poet journeyed to the United States on a cultural, fund-raising, and personal mission, the daily HaAretz, remarked that his absence, however brief, would be deeply felt.4 And when he died in 1934 at the age of sixty-one, the yishuv—along with Jews outside of Palestine—was gripped with a sense of incomparable national loss.5
As might be expected of a European-Palestinian writer in Hebrew, Bialik did not concern himself a great deal with the United States. His writing was influenced by Russian and German novelists and poets; he understood that modern Jewish schools had to teach “the culture of the new Europe.” But he knew no English and even after his visit to America had but little appreciation of American culture. Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as the poet Saul Tchernichovsky, who had studied medicine and literature in Germany and acquired a taste for European and American literature (he translated Longfellow into Hebrew, as well as Homer, Goethe, Shelley, and Molière), Bialik had almost no acquaintance with American literature, even in translation. His cultural and literary interests remained focused on the Jewish world throughout his life. His Hebraism and Palestin-ocentric Zionism were tempered only by rootedness in the Yiddish-speaking Diaspora and the Russian landscape, and by feelings of kinship with all Jews.6
During his formative years, Bialik acquired the parochial and rather stereotypical views of many cultured Europeans regarding America, views which he never overcame entirely. Like other eastern European Jewish writers and intellectuals of his day, he tended to regard the Western world, in general, as an insecure place for Jews, destructive of their authentic roots.7 America, in particular, was unformed, uncultured, unscrupulous, and unserious.8 As a young writer in Odessa, Bialik shared with his friend the comic Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem (the pen name of Sholem Rabinovitch) the belief that American Jewish writers were all “total ignoramuses, tailors, and peddlers,” who would corrupt any genuine talent that came into their midst from Europe.9 None of the enthusiasm for America of Jabotinsky, his occasional translator, rubbed off on him.
Later, too, the poet tended to associate America with “noise, confusion, ta-ra-ram, . . . with those things we condemn in strongest terms: bluff, . . . ‘business,’ etc.” In America, Bialik was known to assert, it was not literature that flourished but advertisements, “inflated, hollow, and lacking in content.”10 Such views were not confined to Europeans. American Hebraists of Bialik’s day, themselves of European origin and nurtured on the same genteel stereotypes, tended to look down their noses at “the national and cultural degeneration of the [Jewish American] masses,” at their alleged “licentiousness, ignorance, rudeness, and . . . materialism.” Many gentile American intellectuals agreed.11
To an extent the Hebrew writers can be excused their provinciality, for behind their prejudices and Eurocentrism lay an important reality. Before World War I the heartland of Jewish culture was eastern Europe, especially Russia. Life there was not easy nor pleasant, and conditions did not improve as time went on. Jews suffered discrimination, at best, physical violence, at worst. The writers Sholem Aleichem, S. Ben Zion (Simḥa Alter Gutman), and Mendele Mocher Sforim (Shalom Jacob Abramovitch), all members of Bialik’s Odessa literary circle and among his closest compatriots, fled the violence, the first to America, the others to Switzerland. Yet Russia remained home to the Jewish cultural and intellectual elite, because only there could they find peers and an audience conversant with their languages. In Russia, where there was no possibility of assimilation, Jewish culture was safe, even if Jews were in danger.
Odessa, as Bialik observed, served “as a campground and meeting place of Hebrew writers for decades, . . . [even] in the most difficult period for Jews and Jewish culture in Russia and the Ukraine.”12 In the turn-of-the-century years, the city was home to an incomparable Jewish literary and cultural circle. Besides Bialik, Sholem Aleichem, Mendele, and Ben Zion, there were the historian Simon Dubnow, the essayist and philosopher Aḥad HaAm (Asher Ginsberg), and a host of lesser lights. Understandably, Bialik regretted the departure of any of them, especially to America, where Jews were safe but Jewish culture was thought to be in mortal danger, in part because of the freedom and openness which characterized that country. That is why he sounded “a note of lament in his  letter of farewell to Sholem Aleichem.” In fleeing to the safety of America, his friend was “uprooting himself from the source of his vitality,” Bialik said. He added that “no country was as good [for Jews] as Russia, no city as good as Odessa,” a wild assertion that makes sense only as a statement of cultural context, especially in that year of pogroms.13
Bialik believed that language was the only possible replacement for religion in a post-religious age and that Hebrew was the only language that could “serve as the foundation and root” of Jewish civilization.14 After World War I, the center of Hebrew culture shifted to Palestine, reinforcing the Palestinocentrism of Hebraists, who now had a growing audience there.15 The dislocation severely undermined Bialik’s interest in the Diaspora, interest that had been sustained earlier by his ties to Russia. In this he resembled most other writers and public figures in Palestine, even new immigrants, who, as Shimon Halkin, the American Hebrew poet and critic noted in 1929, quickly came to look upon the yishuv and its concerns as “altogether paramount” in importance.16
Bialik’s hesitations regarding the United States stemmed from another source, too: his own personal experiences. Born in a Ukrainian village and reared in the town of Zhitomir, the poet remained a “small-town boy” all his life. He found it difficult to tolerate the noise and confusion of the big city. Although Odessa, where he spent many of his most productive years, was a metropolis of sorts, the poet was at home in the Russian language and, in any case, functioned within the confines of the city’s Jewish community. But even Odessa had frightened him at first. He was eighteen years old when he arrived there; yet he drifted “for six months . . . like a lost lamb” in the “big city.”17
Large foreign cities he found still more daunting. Although he spoke German, he never overcame the sense that Berlin, where he lived between 1921 and 1924, was entirely “foreign,” a city whose byways he “would never know.” Berlin Jews he found alien; they had, he said, “eyes and heart only for corruption.”18 London, which he first visited in 1926, was “depressing” to the “virtual village boy,” as he referred to himself. Despite its grandeur, he saw it as inferior in many ways to Jewish Palestine. Four years later on another visit, Bialik felt no more at home and still needed the help of Shmaryahu Levin, the Zionist publicist and his friend and partner in the Dvir publishing house, to help him “find [his] . . . hands and feet.” In 1926 he thought London’s Jews “petrified.” His friend and mentor Aḥad HaAm, who had lived in England for a number of years, described English Jewry as a “cemetery . . . dotted with grand artifacts and yet devoid of the . . . human tension that makes life bearable.” By 1931 Bialik saw the English Jews as “uncircumcised of heart,” people worthy of “Sodom and Gomorrah, among whom the God of Israel does not dwell.” Exasperated after a lengthy and unproductive stay, he wrote to his longtime collaborator, Yehoshua Ravnitzki, that he hoped to “blot” London out of his “book and heart.”19 In the last year of his life Bialik found even Tel Aviv, then hardly more than an overgrown village, unbearable; and he fled to the sleepy suburb of Ramat Gan in search of peace and solitude.
That he would have been intimidated by the size and tumultuousness of America, then, and that he considered the prospect of visiting teeming New York and its vast hinterland with “fear and trembling,” is not surprising. And, when he did consent to go, that he insisted that Levin, a seasoned American traveler, be “his eyes in the New American World” and his “guide to the etiquette of English dining” was altogether in character.20
Whatever Bialik’s predilections, America could not be ignored. The mass emigration of Russian Jews began when he was still a child and swept up family members, friends, disciples, and colleagues.21 Like Jabotinsky, he recognized that the material and political support of American Jewry had become crucial to the success of Zionism in the postwar era, perhaps to its very survival, as well as to the survival of Europe’s Jews, increasingly threatened by poverty, Bolshevism, fascism, and, finally, Nazism. Over the years Bialik learned more about America from the press and from reports of trustworthy associates who visited there or emigrated. And he encountered American scholars, Hebraists, and Zionist leaders, such as Judah L. Magnes, the Zionist Reform rabbi and communal worker and future founding chancellor of the Hebrew University. Magnes was one of the few people Bialik met at the 1907 Zionist Congress at The Hague whom he found impressive enough to mention by name in a letter to his wife. An article by Magnes contrasting Bialik’s creativity with the barrenness of American-Jewish culture may have predisposed the poet towards him.22
After Sholem Aleichem left for the United States in 1906, Bialik followed his career there with interest, rejoicing in “the great honor America [sometimes] bestowed upon” his friend, and railing when their shared prejudices regarding the New World proved correct.23 Bialik enlisted his aid—and that of Shmaryahu Levin, also then in New York—in raising funds for the publication of the complete works of their mutual friend and mentor, Mendele Mocher Seforim. “American Jews had a duty to provide the funds,” Bialik claimed, because they had pirated Mendele’s works and paid him no royalties.24 Neither Levin nor Sholem Aleichem could help, however; and the project was only completed years later.25
Y. D. Berkowitz, the son-in-law and translator of Sholem Aleichem, shuttled between Europe and America from 1906 until 1913, when he settled in New York, providing another living link with the New World. (Years later he joined Bialik in Palestine.) Over the years, the poet encouraged Berkowitz, an author in his own right, whose classical, rather fustian prose style Bialik considered “first class.”26 In 1915 the younger writer became editor of HaToren, America’s foremost Hebrew journal, a sign to Bialik, no doubt, that even vulgar America recognized talent.27 Before then, only a few of Bialik’s poems had been published in the United States in Hebrew or in Yiddish or English translation. Berkowitz used his position to acquaint Americans better with the poet whom he held in unbounded admiration,28 dedicating an entire issue of HaToren to him on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of his first poem.29 Hebraists on both sides of the ocean belonged to a kind of global Jewish village, and Bialik was aware of his growing fame in America. Although he eschewed lionization, he surely appreciated the recognition, as well as the expansion of the world of Hebrew letters that it signified.
Bialik’s literary disciples, Benjamin Silkiner and Simon Ginzburg, also settled in the United States in these years, pursuing successful careers in Jewish education and participating in the nascent Hebrew culture movement. Still in Odessa, Ginzburg had translated some of Bialik’s poems into Yiddish; and the great bard tried to interest him in a job at the Moriah Publishing House which he controlled. An editor of HaToren before Berkowitz, Ginzburg was to have a long scholarly and publishing connection with his former mentor, of which more below.30 Silkiner, who also served as an editor of HaToren for a short time, had had only slight contact with Bialik in Odessa, although the older poet certainly knew his long poem, “Mul Ohel Timura,” depicting the clash of Indians and Spaniards in the New World. Dvir would become the publisher of Silkiner’s volume of collected poems, Shirim (1927), and of the bestselling Hebrew-English dictionary, which he coauthored.31
David Neumark, who taught medieval Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati after emigrating to America in 1907, was an established scholar whose work Bialik held in high esteem.32 In Europe, he had published some of his research in HaShiloaḥ, arguably the most important turn-of-the-century Hebrew literary-cultural journal, a publication with which Bialik was intimately connected from 1903 to 1919, off and on as an editor. Later he published a major study with Moriah. From America, he continued to contribute to HaShiloaḥ, now helping to familiarize Europeans with the achievements of American Reform Judaism.33
The pages of HaShiloaḥ provide a partial inventory of Bialik’s early knowledge of America. Among the American-based academics who appeared there besides Neumark was Henry Malter, another German-trained scholar of medieval Jewish philosophy who taught at Hebrew Union College and, from 1909, at the new Dropsie College for Jewish studies in Philadelphia.34 The work of Malter and Neumark demonstrated that America could foster Jewish scholarship, as did the monumental Jewish Encyclopedia, which was reviewed favorably in 1907.35 Abraham S. Waldstein, an academic and Labor-Zionist activist before his aliyah in 1912, wrote unflatteringly of American Jewish literature and scholarship but more positively about American Zionism.36 His first article praised Yankee ingenuity and energy, and pointed to American practicality as a cause of the distance between the immigrant generation and their children. Bialik proposed a simple, perhaps simplistic, way to bridge the gap: “Let the child drink at the fountain from which his father has been nourished,” he wrote in The New Palestine some years later, “and the rift will be healed.”37
Other HaShiloaḥ authors, including Simon Ginzburg, focused on American materialism, crime, and alienation. A review of higher education was more mixed, pointing both to discrimination against Jews and to growing opportunities for them in American universities, some of which, the author noted, already rivaled the best in Europe.38 In 1904, when Bialik was literary editor of the journal, Max Raisin, the American Hebraist and Reform rabbi, published a long article about Mordecai Manuel Noah, “the great American prophet” who proposed to establish a Jewish state on Grand Island in the Niagara River. (Years later Bialik read Raisin’s Hebrew-language history of the Jews in America approvingly.) Another author in that same year discussed “the advantages of the United States” as a land of immigration.39 The American Hebrew and Yiddish journals which his friends and former colleagues sent him and firsthand reports from American Jews and transplanted Europeans together with HaShiloaḥ and other European journals provided Bialik with diverse views of the New World.40 To a degree in these years, the negative stereotypes on which he had been nurtured were challenged. Willy-nilly, his ideas about America became more nuanced.
Bialik’s poetry, most of it written in the two decades before the outbreak of World War I, reflects acute awareness of the breakdown of the traditional foundations of Jewish life. Often the poet seems himself to be encouraging, if not demanding, that very breakdown, although at other times he laments the loss of a coherent world.41 Even at his most rebellious, however, Bialik, who wrote in Hebrew and spoke Yiddish, assumed the existence of the Jewish people as an enduring national and cultural entity. They were, perhaps, a people in flux, undergoing the agonies of entry into modernity, like other European peoples. If the new contours of Jewish nationhood and culture were not altogether clear, there was confidence in a future “slouch[ing] . . . towards [Jerusalem] . . . to be born.” Like most Europeans on the eve of the war, Bialik did not suspect the dimensions of the catastrophe that lay ahead. Retrospectively he described the period just before the war as a time when all the newly erected “fortresses” of Jewish national life appeared to be “standing strong. Russian Jewry was vital and productive, at the height of its power. The [glittering] exterior of German Jewry masked its inner poverty . . . [while in] America a period of growth and development had begun. It seemed that in those strongholds we should be able to hold our own, even in the Diaspora.”42
The war and its aftermath, however, swept away the existing European-Jewish world no less completely than it did the Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires. As Bialik lamented at an international meeting of Hebraists in Carlsbad, Czechoslovakia, in 1921, “this whole, beautiful, magnificent structure was razed . . . to the ground . . . and on the pile of rubble stands Jewry, broken and shattered.”43 Polish Jewry had been ravaged by the war and then by the postwar disturbances. Like their governments, the Jews of Britain, France, and Germany would never recover their prewar prosperity. In the Soviet Union, Jewish culture in general was coming under proscription; and Hebrew, the language of Palestine-centered Jewish nationalism, was particularly threatened. The Bolsheviks forced Moriah to cease publishing. Together with a number of other writers, Bialik was allowed to leave Russia in 1921 only after Maxim Gorky interceded with Lenin. The less fortunate were imprisoned. But Bialik was not thankful; he compared the national Jewish loss to the destruction of the ancient Temple by the Romans, and he acquired a lifelong hatred of the Bolsheviks.44
The cataclysm brought about radical changes in Bialik’s life and attitudes. After a three-year interlude in Germany, he settled in Palestine in 1924; and, as noted earlier, his sense of the importance of the land of Israel to the Jewish people grew stronger. No longer, he declared in 1921, was there “any hope for [Jewish] property or the [Jewish] heritage in the Diaspora. . . . [An evil] spirit was uprooting and obliterating them.”45 Whereas once he penned fiery, sometimes subversive poetry, now he devoted himself almost entirely to salvaging the Jewish literary and religious treasures of the past and making them accessible to present and future generations. He permitted himself, albeit reluctantly, to be harnessed to the national bandwagon as a cheerleader and fund raiser for Zionism. And, not surprisingly, he began to look upon America through different spectacles. He poignantly cautioned against dependence on the New World, since Jewish history had seen “great Diaspora centers that had disappeared completely.” Nonetheless, he told a London audience in early 1926, “America is now our only comfort.”46
A number of people on both sides of the ocean encouraged Bialik to participate in the search “for the Golden Fleece,” as Weizmann referred to the Zionist fund-raising delegations that made their way to the United States in the postwar period. Weizmann personally urged him to help, as did Shmaryahu Levin, and the executive of the American Keren Hayesod, which was charged by the WZO with making arrangements on the American end for its delegations. In the summer of 1921 the Americans listed Bialik fifteenth on a list of fifteen desirable visitors.47 Worried about his health, preoccupied with the affairs of Moriah and Dvir, ever shy of big cities, and reluctant to allow himself to become a national icon, the poet had doubts about such a trip. “The ways and customs of America” he still considered an “abomination, . . . its crowds and confusion and the noise of its gears” detestable. Publicly debating with himself in a two-hour speech in Berlin that same year, he declared, probably with irony, that he was “not, by nature, an agitator.” Nonetheless, he felt a responsibility to undertake the journey “at this difficult hour . . . [when] the nation is gripped by [the kind of] apathy that leads to decay and death.”48 In early November, the New Yorkers were preparing for Bialik’s arrival. He never went, however, mostly because the Americans and the London headquarters of the WZO decided in the end that the visit would not be “worthwhile.” Bialik was delighted with the reprieve. The following summer the Americans again considered inviting him and again decided against it.49
During the next few years, Bialik became better known in America, although from afar. The first edition of his collected works, published in Berlin in 1923, had sold more than eight hundred copies in America by 1926; his essays and poetry, and articles about him, now appeared regularly in American Hebrew-language journals and the Yiddish and Anglo-Jewish press.50 In early 1922 Daniel Persky, the “totally dedicated” Hebraist whose “sometimes exaggerated honesty” appealed to the older poet, sent him a packet of laudatory clippings from American publications, which “touched [him] to the depths of . . . [his] soul.” He was undoubtedly also pleased by celebrations of his fiftieth birthday, which included a special jubilee issue of HaDo’ar, the American Hebrew journal, and a mass meeting addressed by Weizmann at the Apollo Theater in New York’s Harlem, only recently a middle-class, Jewish neighborhood. Ripples of the growing recognition included the establishment in Worcester, Massachusetts, of Agudat Bialik, a group that aimed to foster Hebrew-speaking among young people.51
During these years, it began to seem plausible for the first time that America might succeed eastern Europe as the center of a vibrant Jewish culture and Hebrew-language movement. For several months in 1921 and 1922, when Warsaw’s HaTzefira had temporarily ceased publication, the United States was home to the only Hebrew-language daily appearing outside Palestine. And, as Bialik noted, the New York HaDo’ar was exemplary “in its content, its language, and its excellent style.” He felt kinship with the paper’s sponsors, who shared his goal of “revivif[ying] . . . the nation of God” through the medium of the Hebrew language. He viewed them as lonely knights “fighting mightily for the establishment of our tongue in the land of dollars . . . among the walls and pillars of iron America.”52 Another indication of America’s growing promise was the Hebrew-language children’s magazine, Eden, published in New York from 1924 by Batsheva Grabelsky with Persky, and later Y. D. Berkowitz, as editor. Bialik found the early issues of Eden in need of “improvement upon improvement.” Still, he responded positively to Persky’s diffident invitation to contribute some of his stories and poems for children; and he became more eager to participate when Berkowitz took over. It was an innovative venture; education was one of Bialik’s primary concerns; and Grabelsky, Persky’s student who bankrolled the venture, agreed to pay the poet twenty-five dollars a month (not always done promptly) for his labors. Between 1924 and 1926, ten children’s poems and a story by Bialik were published first in Eden.53
Dvir had some success in selling its books in the United States in these years. But the poet complained in 1922 that the Americans were hurting his never adequate income by purchasing his volume of collected poems at a discount made possible by the weak German mark. He tried himself to take advantage of cheaper printing costs in Germany; but he proved to be a poor match for the denizens of the land of business and dollars.54
Several of Bialik’s business and professional dealings with the United States during the early 1920s were complicated by tangled personal relationships. His friendship with Simon Ginzburg had cooled, although he commended novelist Yoḥanan Twersky to him when the latter headed for the “strange land” of America in 1924. The breach was repaired, when Dvir undertook to print Ginzburg’s edition of the works of the eighteenth-century, Italian-Jewish mystic and poet, Moshe Ḥaim Luzzato. It was a project the older poet and his partner Ravnitzki had themselves begun in Odessa but abandoned because of war and revolution. Bialik graciously yielded to Ginzburg, taking care to praise the younger scholar’s “good and faithful work.” When he read in HaDo’ar that Ginzburg’s wife had died, he consoled him and urged him to come to Palestine and renew their working relationship.55
Business led to temporary estrangement from Berkowitz, who failed to persuade the “brigands and thieves” of the Hebrew Publishing Company of New York to pay royalties on works pirated from Moriah. A proposal of Berkowitz’s to copublish an illustrated children’s pamphlet series seems to have been stillborn; he was slow in paying a debt to Dvir; then Bialik expressed less than wholehearted enthusiasm for his new Yiddish drama, “Under the Cross.” The relationship improved when Bialik decided to let the Dvir office worry about the debt, while committing the company to publishing a new fifteen-volume edition of the works of Sholem Aleichem with Berkowitz’s translation.56
Shalom Ber Maximon was another American Hebraist with whom Bialik had an uneven relationship, largely because Maximon ignored deadlines. Like the others, he was forgiven. In 1926 Bialik interceded with Rabbi Stephen Wise in an effort to have Maximon reinstated as a lecturer at the Jewish Institute of Religion. (The touchy writer accused Bialik of not trying hard enough with Wise.) When he died, Bialik noted magnanimously but not effusively, that Maximon had been “an important Hebrew writer.”57
Bialik established a more fruitful long-distance relationship with Israel Davidson, a professor of medieval literature at New York’s (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary, some of whose work in the field of medieval poetry paralleled his own. By 1925 the two were carrying on a regular correspondence about scholarly matters and exchanging publications. Davidson’s “magnificent craftsmanship” as well as the extraordinary Seminary library served as further evidence that America was not entirely a cultural and scholarly wasteland.58
The long, Yiddish narrative poem, “Kentucky,” sent to Bialik in 1925 by its author, I. J. Schwartz, however, suggested that everyday Jewish experience in America bore little resemblance to life at the Seminary. Schwartz’s Yiddish and Hebrew writing was heavily influenced by Bialik, one of whose poems he had translated into Yiddish; and it was natural that he should send the bard a copy of his magnum opus. Schwartz’s American works reflected his broad experiences in the New World. In “Kentucky,” he chronicled the progressive dilution of Jewishness from generation to generation. Bialik could not put the book down until “he reached the last page.” The poem surely rekindled his doubts about the United States as a new home for Jewish culture and reinforced his conviction that the yishuv was now of supreme importance.59
By 1925, then, Bialik knew a great deal about America’s Jews, although not about American civilization in general. He was well acquainted with the gains of American Hebrew letters; and he had extensive contacts in the American Jewish cultural world. He was not unmindful of America’s shortcomings; but he was painfully aware of the devastation of the old European-Jewish heartland and of the massive assistance needed by the yishuv if its culture and society were to become viable. At the same time, American Jews had come to regard Bialik as a major Zionist figure. A word of encouragement from him could now serve to “strengthen the hand of” the American Zionist leadership, whom he had erroneously come to perceive as “energetic and dedicated,” ready to lead in financing “the redemption . . . [of] our national land.”60 He was gradually overcoming his reluctance to solicit funds; and the Americans now seemed prepared to extend a measure of support to the cultural institutions with which he was most concerned.61 The moment was ripe for closer involvement with American Jewry; and the poet was ready, more or less.
Bialik’s 1926 American tour is the only aspect of his connection with the New World to which scholars have paid much attention; and it has usually been treated as a dramatic turning point in his relationship with the United States.62 As the foregoing indicates, however, the tour followed almost naturally from the poet’s experiences, from his changing attitudes towards a changing world, and from Americans’ growing acquaintance with him. The trip came about as a result of the confluence of a number of forces.
By the second half of 1925 the treasury of the Zionist movement was empty and the future of the yishuv, which depended on outside funds not only for growth and development but also for the maintenance of many of its institutions, was endangered. Matters grew more desperate as the weeks went by. Weizmann refused to travel to the United States in search of funds; instead, he declared the “presence” in North America of Shmaryahu Levin, who was recuperating from a severe heart attack, to be “imperative,” and suggested he “use all [his] influence” to induce Bialik to go along. Aware of how “difficult the time [is] for our [Zionist] Federation and the yishuv,” Bialik, like Levin, responded affirmatively to Weizmann’s command and to the pleading of Aḥad HaAm, the grand old man of Hebrew letters, now Bialik’s friend and neighbor in Tel Aviv. Weizmann and other European Zionist leaders were “grateful” to them both for undertaking “the mission,” and to Bialik for overcoming his “discomfiture” in “deal[ing] with matters of the pocket.”63
This time the Americans were also eager. They were attempting to raise an unheard-of $5 million and faced stiff competition for the Jewish charitable dollar from Yeshiva University, which had embarked on a major building fund campaign, and from the American Joint Distribution Committee, which was seeking $25 million to aid Jewish farming colonies in the Crimea. The Joint appealed not only to its wealthy non-Zionist and anti-Zionist supporters but also to socialist Jews who regarded the Soviet Union, rather than the yishuv, as the fulfillment of messianic prophecies. Zionist campaigns in America were based on the “star system.” For the 1926 campaign to succeed, a major star would be needed; and Emanuel Neumann, the director of the American Keren Hayesod, “was running out of ‘stars.’” Neumann, who seldom underestimated his own importance, claimed that he “hit on the idea of inviting” Bialik independently of Weizmann.64
The poet had his own reasons for wanting to go now. In mid-1925 he wrote to Batsheva Grabelsky that he “wholeheartedly wished to visit America, just once, to witness the life of our brethren there.” Some months later he spoke of his “natural desire to see with [his] . . . own eyes the largest Jewish aggregation” in the world.65 As the symbol of renascent Hebrew culture and its best known spokesman, he felt a strong personal obligation to perform not only “the material task” but also “the spiritual task”—to strengthen Jewish culture and education and Hebrew letters in America. As Levin put it at a “state” send-off in Tel Aviv attended by Mayor Dizengoff: “Without a nation, there can be no poetry. Bialik must go to America in order . . . to elevate [Zionist] propaganda so that it can speak to the soul . . . . Our brethren there . . . thirst for vision.”66
Curiosity and culture were not all that motivated Bialik to put aside his “longstanding inner fear of American Jews” and a newly acquired anxiety that they would “desecrate his . . . honor.”67 He needed now to consider his own “matters of the pocket”: Dvir, which required an infusion of funds, and his shaky personal finances. The Keren Hayesod agreed that Bialik and Levin could take time during the tour to attend to the affairs of Dvir. Bialik, moreover, was paid five thousand dollars by the American Keren Hayesod and Levin one thousand—tidy sums in 1926—for their five months of labor. As well, short-term loans, which were repaid promptly, were arranged with the Keren Hayesod head office in Jerusalem for Dvir and for Bialik himself. Neumann labeled the generous arrangements and the negotiations “sordid,” perhaps because he felt artists should not have material concerns; others seemed to feel they were justified.68
Whatever the reservations before the start of the tour, once it was under way, spontaneous American enthusiasm combined with painstaking orchestration by Neumann, Meyer Weisgal, the secretary of the ZOA and future head of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, and others to give it the dimensions of a triumphal state visit. When the Labor Zionists or Jabotinsky came to America in these years, their “tours” consisted of gruelling one-night stands with stays in inexpensive lodgings. Bialik, his wife, and Levin, in contrast, were given red-carpet treatment befitting “the poet-laureate of the Jewish people,” as the New York Times called him. The poet paid a courtesy call on London Jews when he passed through Britain. There he was joined by ZOA president Louis Lipsky, an honor guard of one, whose task it was to part the Atlantic’s waters before the visitors. Lipsky, however, was not Moses; and the Bialiks spent most of the journey in bed seasick.69
In the meantime, Jewish America was preparing for the poet with unprecedented media hype.70 The Histadruth Ivrith, the association of American Hebraists, distributed “campaign buttons” with Bialik’s picture and published a biographical pamphlet by A. R. Malachi “to serve as a worthy introduction to the minstrel of the Jewish Renaissance.” The New Palestine published his Selected Poems newly translated by Maurice Samuel; the press was flooded with information; and on the sabbath before his arrival sermons about him were preached in synagogues across the land. The week of his advent was declared “Bialik Week” (to be followed soon after by “Bialik Month”). HaAretz reported that “the men of ‘business,’” inspired by the poet, had begun “to prophesy.”
The achievements of the publicity buildup were dramatic. During his stay Bialik would be hailed and heard by thousands of Americans, most of whom had only the vaguest notion of what he had to say or even who he was. He complained of being led “like a circus elephant to places where [his] . . . name was unknown.” On one occasion he was introduced as “[King] Balak,” a character in the Bible who sought the destruction of the Israelites. In the midst of the “roaring twenties,” in America with its insatiable appetite for flagpole sitters, goldfish swallowers, and other curiosities, the Hebrew-speaking poet was a nine-days’ wonder, even to President Coolidge, whom he met at the White House. The all-Jewish HaKoach soccer team from Palestine that toured the United States at the same time may have aroused more enthusiasm. More than fifty thousand people came to see them play the final game of their series at New York’s Polo Grounds in April; and Coolidge sent them a farewell telegram. For a poet, however, he generated enormous excitement; and those who did know something about him were overwhelmed at meeting a classic face-to-face.71
The ballyhoo came to its first climax when Bialik and his entourage reached New York harbor. Strings had been pulled in Washington to waive normal immigration procedures; and the party was greeted on board ship by an all-star delegation of Jewish notables. On shore a band waited. New York’s mayor, Jimmy Walker, ill with bronchitis and unable to attend the reception, lent a launch. A parade had to be canceled because of snow and the late arrival of the ship; but the “ta-ra-ram” was hardly over.
The poet’s first major public appearance the next night drew a sellout crowd of more than three thousand to the Mecca Temple in midtown Manhattan. Another thousand stood in the cold outside. The event united, at least for the moment, Hebraists and Yiddishists, Zionists and non-Zionist Jewish labor leaders, the Weizmann camp in the ZOA and their Brandeisist opponents, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews. Judge Julian Mack, who probably knew little, if any, of Bialik’s poetry, opened the evening with a speech in English, which the poet could not understand. He was followed by Naḥum Sokolow, the number-two person in the WZO, Lipsky, Yehoash (Solomon Bloomgarden), the Yiddish poet and Bible translator, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and others. Bialik’s Yiddish-language speech failed to meet the expectations of the charged audience, which gave him a twelve-minute ovation nonetheless. The tour had begun.72
During the next five months the poet became a fixture of the New York Jewish community. Fund raisers called upon him freely, sometimes arranging events without his permission. He spoke at grand charitable happenings on behalf of the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet) in the Hotel Astor and the auditorium of Cooper Union, and at modest events in local synagogues, sharing the platform with everyone from Congressman Sol Bloom to Yossele Shlisskey, “the Yascha Heifetz of the vocal artists.”73 A few weeks after his arrival Bialik was dispatched on a by-then familiar mission to Boston, where he appeared together with Professor Nathan Isaacs of Harvard University. April and May took him to several of the large Jewish communities in the Northeast, Midwest, and South. In one of his few contacts with non-Jewish people of letters, journalist Norman Hapgood shared the podium with him in Baltimore. In Cleveland the poet was welcomed at “a grand reception.” Featured on the program were “tableaux [with a musical background] presenting pictures of four [of his] great poems” and Cantor Kanter singing a poem authored by a local writer and set to music. The tableaux were intended to give “a living picture . . . of the genius of Bialik” to “the thousands assembled in the Masonic Temple,” few of whom had heard of the poet even three months before. During his stay in the Ohio city, Bialik planted “cedars of Lebanon” in the Hebrew poets section of the Shakespeare Garden (now the Hebrew Cultural Garden). His visits were all well publicized in advance; and the financial results were satisfactory. By April he felt sufficiently knowledgeable about fund raising in America to proffer advice regarding the large loan which the Keren Hayesod hoped to negotiate.74
Bialik did not limit himself to money raising. He had some involvement with the affairs of the ZOA, “endear[ing] . . . himself,” as Louis Lipsky inelegantly put it, to “Zionists who were never aware of the deep sources of Hebrew tradition and had never seen or heard a personality of such varied Jewish quality.” (Lipsky himself was American-born and knew no Hebrew.)75 Bialik intervened with the National Executive Committee of the ZOA to prevent their making an accommodation with the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel movement, which, he claimed, had done “practically nothing” for the yishuv. Henrietta Szold and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise were among those present at that meeting; Abraham S. Waldstein, known to Bialik from HaShiloaḥ and now back in America, sent his regrets. A few days later the poet held a press conference to a “packed house” at the ZOA offices, in which he offered an update on conditions in Palestine.
His most significant political activity was the White House appearance, which can be seen as part of the campaign to enlist the support of the United States government for Zionism. Undoubtedly well coached, Bialik took the opportunity to thank the president for the nonbinding Congressional Resolution of 1922 in support of the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate. After he left the White House, he was entertained by the British ambassador, which seemed to indicate that His Majesty’s government appreciated the potential political import of the meeting of poet and president. Following his return to Palestine, Bialik maintained only slight interest in the political affairs of American Zionism.76
A rather unhappy-looking Chaim Naḥman Bialik with his wife, Manya, as they arrived in New York on the SS Mauretania, 9 February 1926. (Courtesy of UPI-Bettmann.)
More important than his political involvement and perhaps even than his fund raising were Bialik’s cultural activities, “the spiritual task” he had set out for himself before leaving Palestine. These included ceremonial functions, such as accepting honorary degrees from the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Jewish Institute of Religion. (Perhaps jaded by all the adulation, he sent identical letters of acceptance to both institutions describing the honor as “a sign of the renewed covenant between scholars of Judaica . . . and Hebrew writers.”) He delivered formal addresses on aspects of Jewish culture to the national conventions of the Young Judaea youth movement, of Avukah, the student Zionist association, of the Keren Hayesod and the ZOA, and to a mass meeting of Hebraists held in his honor in New York. And there was the staged public debate with Jabotinsky on the importance of Hebrew to the national revival.77
Chaim Naḥman Bialik planting a tree in the Hebrew Cultural Garden in Cleveland, 1926. (Courtesy of The Hebrew Writers Association, Tel Aviv.)
In talks at dozens of less formal events—a visit to the National Hebrew School on New York’s Lower East Side, a faculty-student lunch at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, a gathering of young intellectuals in Cleveland, an evening for Hebrew writers at Lipsky’s home—he spread his aura over those with whom he came in contact. In fact, his mere presence in the United States energized Hebraists and teachers from Wilkes-Barre to Waco and beyond. With great fanfare the ZOA launched a National Cultural Corporation at a special conclave in New York with Bialik in attendance, the goal of which was to raise the cultural level of American Jewry; but it quickly proved a failure.78
In addition to his public appearances, Bialik spent a great deal of time meeting informally with American Hebrew and Yiddish writers and with scholars of Judaica. He was able to renew contact with old friends and associates, such as Simon Ginzburg, Berkowitz, Silkiner, and the family of Sholem Aleichem, who had died a decade before. He met Max Raisin, Persky, and others with whom he had corresponded over the years, and established valuable contacts for the future with other Hebraists. His visits to the Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary also sowed the seeds of future cooperation. At the Seminary he had hoped to meet Israel Davidson, “the only person [in the world] able to lend much assistance” to his Spanish poetry project; but the two crossed paths in mid-ocean, as Davidson headed for a visiting post at the new Hebrew University in Palestine.79 Bialik met Joseph Marcus, his American research assistant who acted as the liaison with Davidson, and Professor Alexander Marx, the Seminary librarian whom he also knew by correspondence, as well as other members of the Seminary faculty. He luxuriated in the “uniquely rich” Seminary library, buttressing the self-assurance of the seminarians, still not altogether confident of their standing in the world of Jewish letters.80
Contacts with Yiddishists were less pleasant. He was disturbed by the crassness of much of the American-Yiddish press, especially by advertisements in at least one Yiddish paper, which appropriated his name to promote Palestine land sales (“Bialik says: . . . ‘Buy land . . . in Eretz Yisroel!’”). The ads cheapened his image, as he had feared might happen, and awakened his old prejudices about the United States.81 Bialik disagreed passionately with the Diaspora nationalism of the American Yiddishists who negated the value of the Hebrew language and of Zionism and looked to the Soviet Union as a model for the Jewish future. The largest Yiddish-language daily in the country, the socialist New York Forverts, was politely, but predictably, noncommittal about his visit. At a banquet ostensibly tendered in his honor by New York’s Y. L. Peretz [Yiddish] Writers’ Association, several people, including a journalist with the communist daily Di Frayhayt, who were, no doubt, aware of Bialik’s hatred for Bolshevism, accused him of “selling himself to the devil.” They meant the moneyed American Jews underwriting his tour. Although he answered in kind with a vigorous defense of his principles, the incident left an unpleasant aftertaste.82
The work for Dvir brought mixed results. Bialik left America with “a box full of new manuscripts” for publication. Together he and Levin had some success in arranging for better distribution of Dvir books and for regular reviews. Money, however, had been the real concern. Levin, the more businesslike of the two, had set a goal of twenty thousand pounds to ensure the company’s solvency.83 As his contribution to the effort, Bialik published a piece on Dvir and Moriah in Hebrew and in English, in which he surveyed the history of his publishing endeavors. He emphasized, quite truthfully, that his “main object” had never been profit but rather the revitalization “of Hebrew education, which,” he feared, “was gradually becoming emptied of its national and humane content.”84 The “lion’s share of the worry,” that is, the actual money-raising, Bialik left to Levin, as the latter remarked with some annoyance. The poet’s amour propre made any fund raising difficult for him; solicitation for his own company was particularly distasteful. Levin labored arduously; and they delayed their departure from late April to early July because of Dvir. Levin worried that they would return to Palestine without sufficient funds to guarantee the existence of the company. Bialik feared that the company’s workers and management would assume “there was no limit” to American largesse and waste whatever they received. Both were right. The original goal was not met; by late 1926 Dvir was on the brink of bankruptcy; and support had to be sought elsewhere than the United States.85
Assessing the results of Bialik’s American foray requires a consideration of its effects on America, on Bialik himself, and, in the longer term, on the yishuv. In general, the trip’s American sponsors, as well as the leaders of international Zionism and of the yishuv, pronounced themselves satisfied with the visit, which “ushered in a feeling of joy and renaissance in American Zionism.” HaDo’ar described the tour as “days of blessing,” especially for Hebrew culture aficionados. Levin wrote to Weizmann, that the “visit . . . had brought tremendous benefits”; and Emanuel Neumann conceded that the poet had “served our practical purposes well.” The United Palestine Appeal raised over 80 percent of its quota, “the largest sum ever secured [in any place to that date] in one year for Palestine.” Americans were particularly pleased by the impression Bialik, unlike most Palestinian emissaries, gave, of being eager “not only to teach [about Palestine], but also to learn” about America. A few naysayers felt the “mission had not been much of a success,” perhaps because the American-Jewish community had not been culturally transformed during those five months. The continuing interest in Bialik after his departure, however, can be appreciated from the intense and widespread enthusiasm generated by his sixtieth birthday in 1933 and the deep sense of communal loss when he died a year later. Even in the land of dollars, according to Rabbi Stephen Wise, “one Bialik” was now worth a “thousand Warburgs.”86
The poet left America, as he had come, ambivalent; but the scale tipped farther to the positive side than before. He had experienced American-Jewish life firsthand and become very minimally conversant with the culture of the United States. He renewed acquaintance with former schoolmates and others from Europe; and he met Americans, such as writer and translator Maurice Samuel, who “tried to give him some sort of insight into the nature of American civilization.” If his former notions about America did not lose all their weight, they were now well balanced by knowledge of aspects of American life with which he had not previously been familiar. Rarely in the future would he lose sight of America as a significant factor in Jewish life, particularly in the welfare of the yishuv, his mixed feelings notwithstanding.87
Just after leaving New York, Bialik wrote to Aḥad HaAm summing up his recent experiences in well rehearsed terms. During his stay, he complained, tongue-in-cheek, he “had not found [even] a [single] free moment to read about himself in the American papers,” so busy had he been with “meetings, banquets, . . . parties, interviews, discussions, visits, declarations, proclamations, commencements, [and a hundred other meaningless activities, all of them accompanied by] . . . American noise, confusion, tumult, ta-ra-ram, bluff, and humbug.”88 He struck some similar, if more oblique, notes in a long poem penned in New York and published in HaDo’ar just after his departure.89 Elsewhere, he even cast doubt on the physical security of American Jews. Their future, he asserted, was no more certain than that of Jews elsewhere, their achievements no more than “a soap bubble.”90
Regarding the future of Jewish culture in America, the poet remained ambivalent. His most profound prejudices had related to American Jewry; and they were not entirely dispelled during his stay. After five months in America, he was painfully aware that “American Jews produced . . . [little] distinctive Jewish art and literature,” that they talked “glibly about Jewish culture” but remained largely ignorant of “the original sources of our spiritual treasures.” He was “deeply shocked” to discover on a visit to the home of Professor Louis Ginzberg of the Jewish Theological Seminary, one of the world’s greatest Talmudists, that the scholar’s children “knew no Hebrew.” Reform and Conservative rabbis, he asserted, had contributed “no new or original ideas whatsoever” to Jewish culture; Hebrew letters in the United States were in a “degraded condition,” the teachers “over-Americanized” and ineffectual. In any case, he declared, Jewish culture in America could never be more than a pale imitation of the holistic cultural life that had once existed in eastern Europe and now was achievable only in the all-Jewish society of Palestine.91 Zionism, which in other countries offered the greatest promise for a creative Jewish existence, amounted to little more than sterile philanthropy in America, according to Bialik. “Most of the leaders” of American Zionism, like Louis Lipsky, were “steeped in alien culture,” hardly able to arouse “hunger for Hebrew” learning.92
On the other hand, Bialik acknowledged publicly that his longstanding apprehensions regarding America had been exaggerated and admitted to Aḥad HaAm and others that he “had no regrets” at having undertaken the trip.93 Although he knew no English and spent almost all of his time in the United States within the confines of the Jewish community, Bialik had come to sense the vitality and potential of America. He arrived convinced that America was “the apotheosis of a mechanical civilization, a machine itself,” but discovered “living organisms, alive and awake,” continually renewing themselves. Like Jabotinsky and many other Europeans, he was attracted by the “unlimited power” of America enhanced by freedom from “the spiritual and cultural baggage of the past.” He recognized the opportunity for Jews inherent in the absence of European social and religious traditions and in the new notions of cultural pluralism espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson [?] and John Dewey.94
He recognized, too, “the revival of interest in Jewish culture” in the New World, the “undefined longing for stature and self-recognition, . . . [the] firm will to . . . emerge out of spiritual penury onto the . . . ‘royal highway’ of Jewish history.” Bialik sensed the benefits for Jewish creativity inherent in the well-being and prosperity of the United States. To an extent, he could excuse the spiritual shortcomings of American Jewry because of its “relative youth and newness.” He asserted the notion that the first period of American-Jewish history, “the period of adaptation to the living conditions of the new country,” was ending; he came to perceive the Jewish community of the United States as “fallow soil,” which, if “properly cultivated, . . . [would] yield rich harvests.”95 In his farewell to America delivered at the ZOA convention in Buffalo in June, the convention at which Jabotinsky was prevented from speaking, Bialik reiterated the statement he had made in London at the beginning of his trip. “American Jews,” he declared in words tinged with despondency and dependency, but also with expectancy and faith, are “the sole hope of the Jews of the world; . . . the Jewish homeland . . . [will] be restored and rebuilt” by them. On a number of occasions before he left the United States and afterwards, the poet went even further, characterizing American Jewry as less than “total compensation for the destruction of our life in the other countries of the Diaspora—but [certainly] partial compensation.” This was great praise, indeed, although hardly unqualified.96
Regarded as a pundit, Bialik’s opinions on any topic evoked considerable interest in the Jewish world at large, and especially in the yishuv, where “culture rotated about his personality.” He broke the return trip in London, where he reported to the executive of the World Zionist Organization.97 His views received their most dramatic airing in Tel Aviv, where he addressed a crowd of several thousand at the outdoor Beit HaAm on October 6. The large audience—perhaps one of every ten Tel Avivians—and the extensive coverage in HaAretz and Davar testify not only to the prominence of the speaker but also to the importance of the topic.98 The speech, which represents Bialik’s fullest exposition of the meaning of America, highlighted the question of the relationship of the yishuv to the New World and its Jewry. The poet repeated much that he had said before in other forums, but he sounded a new, more positive tone, altogether different from the resignation which had marked his send-off nine months earlier.99
Although the talk contains some curious misreadings of the American scene (an assertion that Americans had demonstrated little nationalistic sentiment before World War I, for example) and errors of fact, it is essentially perceptive, if somewhat over-optimistic. Like foreign visitors from Crèvecoeur and de Tocqueville to Jabotinsky, Bialik spoke of the United States as “the land of unlimited possibilities,” which was giving birth to “a new life” and “a new type of human being,” free of the constraints of Europe. He spoke of American youth, energy, and plenty, and of the willingness even of writers and intellectuals to dirty their hands with daily affairs, making it possible to accomplish things undoable elsewhere. Rather than uncultured brashness, American “naturalness” was the “most legitimate and beautiful” character trait. American bluster he now considered the “clean, pure” self-expression “of youngsters”; in “bluff” he recognized Americans’ sense of “playfulness.” Ever the small-town boy, he seemed almost in awe of Americans who were able effortlessly to negotiate their vast, populous country. Americans were “generous of spirit” and remarkably peaceful; the “near absence of crime in New York” he found incredible. (This in the Prohibition Era!) And Americans were not without cultural attainments. Especially in the applied arts and sciences, such as psychology, “Torah would come forth from America.” Americans had their culture heroes, such as Washington and Lincoln, who already served as “examples with respect to matters of the spirit”; and in the future strong indigenous traditions would develop.100
Turning the tables, Bialik declared American Jews one of the “wonders” of the universe. Their arrival in the New World he pronounced “a mini-exodus from Egypt,” a compliment fraught with implied meaning, although he feared they remained precariously camped on the political and economic shores of their land of milk and honey. The struggle to become established had “dulled them” spiritually; but unlike other Americans, they had not entirely thrown off the yoke of the past. They retained strong Jewish loyalties and were eager to create a viable, vital, “communal, Hebrew life.” They possessed “special sentiment” for the land of Israel. Appropriate emissaries, “who would take them to heart and seek to draw them near,” could create “an enthusiastic [Zionist] movement.”101 In short, whatever its failings, America was a land of great promise for all, including the beleaguered Jews of the yishuv, so much in need of moral support and funds in their epic struggle to create a renewed Jewish society and culture.
Bialik’s trip and subsequent reconsideration of America had consequences for the relationship of the yishuv to the New World. That he proposed reevaluating some of the basic negative notions of Palestinians about America at a mass gathering organized by the Hebrew Writers’ Association, a group known for strong nationalistic sympathies and suspicion of the Diaspora, especially the United States, gave his comments added bite. It may also have contributed to the cooling of his relations with some members of the Association.102 In the years following his trip, Bialik worked to realize his rosy prognosis. He did what he could to further the development of Zionism and Hebrew culture in the United States; he exploited the contacts he had made with American Hebraists, Yiddishists, and scholars; and he acted as an intermediary for American philanthropists interested in the yishuv.
In the United States the afterglow of Bialik’s visit lingered even beyond his death in 1934, helping, according to Morris Rothenberg, erstwhile president of the ZOA, “to give new direction to . . . Jewish destiny and new courage to . . . Jewish character.”103 He continued to be written about often in the American Jewish press; and his own essays and poetry appeared in print frequently in Hebrew and in English and Yiddish translations, and even in a medium which the “village boy” had “never imagined,” a phonograph record.104 His ongoing popularity despite the occasional gaffe, such as forgetting to greet the sensitive Lipsky on his fiftieth birthday, emboldened Bialik to intervene from time to time in American Zionist affairs on behalf of the yishuv, albeit not very effectively. In late 1927, for example, he appealed—without result—through Henrietta Szold to the executive of the ZOA and to a national United Palestine Appeal conference “to avert [through increased remittances the] calamity” of bankruptcy and collapse then facing the educational network of the yishuv.105
Two years later Bialik became embroiled in a nasty squabble involving both American and Palestinian Zionists and their opponents. Reuben Brainin was a veteran Hebrew writer and a longtime vice-president of the ZOA, with whom the poet had had considerable contact over the years. In the mid-1920s Brainin began to exhibit interest in the communist experiment in Russia, and especially in the Crimean Jewish agricultural colonies. The American Jewish philanthropists bankrolling the colonies coopted him for publicity and fund raising, exploiting his Zionist connections. In the yishuv, which he had visited about the time of Bialik’s sojourn in America, and in the United States, Zionists wished either to silence Brainin or to distance him from the Zionist movement. His public attacks on Bialik, as well as the latter’s passionate Zionism and fierce antagonism to Bolshevism, brought the poet into the fracas in 1929, when, after a tour of Russia, Brainin wrote glowingly of what he had seen without mentioning Soviet oppression of Zionism.106 “The battle of the books” was joined in several arenas: the press in America and Palestine; a Tel Aviv meeting of “activists and writers,” chaired by Bialik, which acted as a kangaroo court; and, finally, a hearing held in Berlin by a World Zionist Congress tribunal, with Bialik as plaintiff and Brainin as defendant. Bialik was vindicated. The court and many other Zionists seemed to feel, however, that the poet and his colleagues had overreacted; and the feud was allowed to recede into history without final resolution.107
Bialik’s heightened involvement with American Jewish cultural affairs between 1926 and 1934 proved more rewarding and constituted an important link in the chain connecting the yishuv to the New World. Building on old relationships and on the new connections established during his trip, Bialik began to work closely with a number of American scholars, especially those of the Theological Seminary and the Hebrew Union College, notwithstanding his strictures regarding Reform and Conservative rabbis. He read the publications of the latter institution with approval, although he believed its Annual (HUCA) should contain more articles in Hebrew. Neumark had died in 1924; but Bialik established ties with other scholars at the College, such as Zvi Diesendruck, the linguist and philosopher whom he had met during the latter’s brief tenure at the Hebrew University. From the College’s eminent musicologist, Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, and others, he solicited manuscripts for Dvir and contributions for the journal, Reshumot, which he had founded together with Ravnitzki and Alter Druyanov. Bialik was excited about Diesendruck’s book on the Hebrew language, Min HaSafa VeLifnim, which Dvir published in 1933; but he condescendingly told Idelsohn, who had lived and taught in Jerusalem for many years before Bialik had come to Palestine, that his works might “satisfy the needs of the American Jew” but not “our clientele.”108 Scholars affiliated with the Reform wing of Judaism—but not the College—with whom Bialik corresponded in these years, included Max Raisin, Ḥaim Tchernowitz (Rav Tza’ir) of the Jewish Institute of Religion, a former Odessa friend and colleague, and Hyman G. Enelow, whose critical edition of the fourteenth-century work, Menorat Ha-Ma’or, the poet recognized as “precious and wonderful, incomparable,” in fact.109
Although most of the American Reformers with whom Bialik was in close contact were transplanted eastern Europeans, he seemed to have more in common with the scholars at the Conservative Seminary. He admired the work of Marx, Ginzberg, Shalom Spiegel, Michael Higger, and, of course, Davidson. He saw to it that the Seminary library received the books published by Dvir; and he attempted unsuccessfully to persuade Ginzberg to remain in Palestine, when the latter visited there in 1928 and 1929.110 Joseph Marcus, his poorly-and-not-always-regularly-paid research assistant and scribe in the field of Spanish Jewish poetry, has already been mentioned. Isaac Rivkind, another habitué of the Seminary library, assisted Bialik in a number of ways and contributed to Reshumot.111 The scholarly collaboration begun earlier with Davidson remained particularly close. Their work on the medieval Spanish poets overlapped; they shared material and critiqued each other’s research; through Davidson the Seminary “opened to [Bialik] . . . the gates of its book treasury.” But the relationship was not always amicable, partly because of the unavoidable element of competition. The prickly Davidson accused Bialik on several occasions of overlooking his works and Marcus’s contributions; the poet felt slighted, at times, by Davidson, who probably regarded him as lacking in scholarly methodology. Apparently, though, their long-distance relationship survived until Bialik’s death.112
There were also exchanges with Orthodox scholars, such as Rabbi Yekutiel Greenwald of Columbus, Ohio, and with several Jewish academics.113 Bialik felt particular closeness to people who had lived in Palestine, such as Samuel Faigin and Israel Eitan of Pittsburgh and Nehemiah Samuel Libowitz, a Brooklyn dealer in precious stones and an enthusiastic amateur researcher, who published more than twenty books on mysticism and rabbinics over the years. Bialik encouraged Eitan to write in Hebrew and to contribute to the new linguistic and academic journals of Palestine; and he maintained a lively correspondence with Libowitz, although he kept his “exalted and precious [jeweller] friend” at arm’s length from Dvir.114 Bialik concluded an agreement, sight unseen, with Simon Bernstein, the longtime editor of Dos Iddishe Folk, the Yiddish organ of the ZOA, for Dvir to publish his critical edition of unknown Italian Jewish poems. Although Bernstein had a doctorate and other academic credentials, when the manuscript arrived, Bialik adjudged the poems to be “garbage.” He asked to be released from his commitment, even though Bernstein had agreed to pay the initial costs of publication himself.115
Simon Ginzburg linked the worlds of scholarship and Hebrew belles lettres of Odessa, New York, and Tel Aviv. His reunion with Bialik in America reinvigorated their friendship and literary collaboration. Between 1927 and 1933 Dvir published three works of Moshe Ḥaim Luzzato edited by Ginzburg and two volumes of the latter’s own writing, as well as the Ḥaverim series of books in Hebrew by young American authors (Silkiner, Avraham Sho’er, Ephraim Lissitzky, and Simon Halkin), of which Ginzburg served as the American coordinator.116 The two exchanged publications, comments on current events, and gossip; Bialik confided to Ginzburg that the American Hebrew poet, Hillel Bavli, a Seminary faculty member, was a “bag of wind.” The senior poet responded with measured words to his sensitive colleague’s requests for a critique of his poetry (on one poem: “excessive muscularity”; on the full corpus: “your own singular voice”). In 1933 Ginzburg followed Bialik to Palestine, although he returned to the United States in 1939.117
During these years Bialik served as a bridge between the cultural worlds of America and the yishuv. He felt a responsibility to fulfill the obligation with which he had been charged in 1926 by Simon Bernstein, “to lay the broad spiritual groundwork for . . . a Hebrew renaissance” in America, which many Palestinians were increasingly recognizing as the only viable Diaspora community.118 Hebrew and Yiddish writers in the New World sought Bialik’s stamp of approval, which he conferred generously; he helped to promote writers and artists from the yishuv, such as painter Pinḥas Litvinovsky, in the United States; and in absentia he was called upon for such tasks as judging the annual HaDo’ar writing contest.119
His most sustained undertaking was the publication of American works through Dvir, especially in the Ḥaverim series. The American authors shared publication expenses; but hard pressed themselves, they often failed to meet their obligations on time. Bialik persevered. He found some of the young writers “imitative.” Others, however, such as Yoḥanan Twersky, he recognized as “first-rate” talents, who would be a credit to the firm; even the “derivative” Americans, he averred, exhibited “richness of content, form, and style.” The extent of the talent pool he found staggering, especially in light of his previous assumptions—accurate enough for an earlier era—about its small size and the cultural poverty of Jewish America. (He was reduced to asking the author of a praiseworthy collection of “authentic” Yiddish poetry in 1929, “Who are you?”)120
That Dvir published American authors served not only to strengthen Hebrew culture in America. It enlarged the company’s list of authors and gave it added variety. More importantly, it worked to broaden the scope of the emergent culture of the yishuv by connecting it with the much larger American Jewish community, which Bialik and others hoped would become its hinterland. And it made the American experience accessible to Hebrew readers. In addition, although the publishing company had quickly become rooted in Palestine, like other institutions there, it rested upon a shaky financial foundation. That it survived during these years was in large part due to the volunteer assistance and financial support of Jews “all over the world, including America,” who “felt [love] for the poet.”121 Not only did American authors—or their well-wishers—subsidize their own books. As the economic and political situation in Poland deteriorated, the United States became the principal Diaspora market of Dvir. Vigorous efforts were now made to sell the firm’s books—and shares—in the New World. By 1929 about a third of the shares not held by Bialik, Levin, and Ravnitzki had been purchased by Americans, while almost half of its outstanding accounts were owed by one American bookseller. A year later, when “crushing debts . . . and interest were devouring” the concern, Bialik appealed to Levin, who was again in New York, “to become the redeemer of Dvir” by negotiating an interest-free loan, no easy task in Depression-Era America.122
If Americans’ devotion did not bring instant relief for Dvir, it did smooth the way for several cultural and charitable enterprises in Palestine. American philanthropists had shown little interest in Bialik before meeting him; and he had expressed disapproval of their values. During his New World sojourn, however, the man of letters learned to value practical entrepreneurs. He would never suffer gladly those he considered to be rich fools. Witness the snappish letter to Robert Marwill in 1929, in which he declared that “only the blind would fail to recognize the great things we have done in this small land,” and his annoyance with Lessing Rosenwald’s openhandedness towards blacks and lack of generosity towards Jews! Still, he came to believe that the wealth of the United States was of such magnitude and so easily obtained that there the rich would one day free themselves of the possessiveness that gripped even the fabulously wealthy in the Old World. Americans, he now asserted, “would be the first [ironically] to break the thrall of the dollar fetish.” Unlike Jabotinsky and others, he trusted non-Zionist, American millionaires sufficiently to support Weizmann in his efforts to enlist them in the service of Zionism in the reorganized Jewish Agency.123
There were several American “Maecenases” with whom Bialik became closely connected, among them the Rosenbloom family of Pittsburgh and Nathan and Lena Straus. More important to Bialik personally were his connections to Israel Matz, head of the Ex-Lax Company and a generous supporter of Hebrew culture in the United States and elsewhere, and to Samuel Simon Bloom, a Philadelphia manufacturer of false teeth who moved his factory to Palestine in 1926. Through Bialik, Matz and Bloom became significant contributors to the development of culture in the yishuv.
Probably because of Bialik’s iconoclastic past, Sol Rosenbloom, an early munificent supporter of the new Hebrew University, expressed doubt in 1923 that he could “be entrusted” with overseeing Jewish studies there. Rosenbloom’s widow, however, decided, after meeting him in America, to support the poet’s appointment to the committee administering her $500,000 gift to the university in memory of her husband.124 Bialik headed the building committee for the Nathan and Lena Straus Health Center in Jerusalem in 1927 and then for a similar center in Tel Aviv. Straus provided some support for indigent writers; and Bialik entertained hope that funds would be forthcoming for a writers’ residence. His ties to Straus, whom he described as a “sensitive, old man, [who had] endeared himself to all residents of the yishuv,” brought the poet into close contact with Henrietta Szold, who provided yet another window onto America.125
Matz established a foundation “for the promotion of Hebrew literature and culture and for [the] relief of Hebrew writers” in 1925, with Bialik as a member of its advisory council. Until his death the poet acted as an advocate for indigent writers and their survivors in Palestine, the United States, and even Russia, and for the cause of Hebrew letters, in general. Usually his pleas received a favorable hearing, although at times the foundation applied criteria more stringent than Bialik thought appropriate. In 1933, for example, he had difficulty in securing support for a new monthly publication of the Palestine Writers’ Association.126
Bloom was “an ordinary Jew, a simple businessman” with healthy “Jewish intuition,” according to Bialik. By his own description, he was an idealist who had come to Palestine “to lend a helping hand to the upbuilding of our beautiful land” after thirty years of “personal sacrifices [in America] for Zionism.” He financed the erection in 1928 of Ohel Shem, a community center in Tel Aviv, which had been a dream of Bialik, who hoped it would provide educational and cultural programming for secularized adults, especially on the Sabbath, and serve as a model for similar centers elsewhere in the country. Bloom felt betrayed and unappreciated in Palestine by what he perceived to be a lackadaisical Zionist administration, unacquainted with American standards of efficiency, despite the participation of Henrietta Szold; and he felt exploited by workers, whom he believed to be lazy, greedy, and overprotected by a union unaccustomed to American standards of productivity. Bialik’s depiction of Bloom indicates no deep mutual understanding between them. Still, the industrialist was attracted by the poet’s plans and volunteered his aid. Later he attempted to raise funds in America to expand the programming of Ohel Shem. Their cooperation is an indication of how successful Bialik had become over the years, not only in strengthening the cultural bonds connecting American Jewry and the yishuv but also in garnering the support of wealthy Americans for his pet projects.127
During a period of some three and a half decades, Bialik had partially and gradually overcome the prejudices of a small-town, European-Jewish intellectual regarding America. He became involved in certain facets of American Jewish life and drew Americans into the cultural orbit of the yishuv. With him one sees that aspect of life in Palestine which should have been least amenable to American influences becoming intertwined with the affairs of that country’s Jewry. Especially in the last two decades of his life, the poet became increasingly aware that the yishuv would never realize its potential, even in the realm of culture with which he was most directly concerned, without massive assistance from the American Diaspora. That understanding, together with a growing appreciation of positive aspects of America, led Bialik, the outstanding cultural and literary personality of the yishuv and a sharp critic of the shortcomings of the United States, to become intimately connected with Americans.
And yet, however closely Bialik worked with Americans, and however much he revised his early preconceptions, he never became a wholehearted enthusiast of the New World. He remained sceptical about American culture and character. His optimism regarding the prospects of American Jewry was ever guarded, his efforts to strengthen the community and his sense of its importance to Zionism notwithstanding. He never faltered in his conviction that the yishuv would be the only viable center of Jewish culture in the long term, and perhaps the world’s only viable Jewish community.
Towards the end of his days Bialik was again expressing deep reservations about the United States. He thought the contemporary generation there “degraded.” He could appreciate the movie Ben Hur and the work of George Foote Moore, the gentile Harvard rabbinics scholar; but he continued to find the “sensational” American press well below any acceptable journalistic standard. He deplored the way in which American Jews had reduced Weizmann, “the leader of the generation,” to little more than “an itinerant beggar.” He was appalled that the Hebrew poet, Menaḥem Mendel Dolitzky, who had once dwelled on “the heights of ‘Parnassus’” as the chosen successor to the remarkable Yehuda Leib Gordon, had been condemned in the United States first to “the cellar of the Yiddish-language, yellow press” and then to death “in a poorhouse.” When he heard that Y. D. Berkowitz was at last coming to Palestine to live, he rejoiced and allowed himself the wish that one day “all of our worthy comrades who are laboring faithfully at God’s work [that is, the Hebrew writers of America], will become rooted here in the land of Israel.”128
If it was “partial compensation” for the Jewish civilization of Europe that had been destroyed in World War I, America was still galut (exile) to Bialik. To him it was a land, like any, other than Palestine, of exile and alienation for Jews, of “weakening of the national will. . . . Nothing in the Exile has happened,” he wrote to American Jews in 1929, “to modify our belief, that it is the scene of our nation’s degeneration, a blind alley with no hope or way out, whereas in Palestine, everything we dreamt of is coming true to an unhoped-for degree.”129 Whatever Jews do in the Diaspora “in the fields of science and culture,” he told an American audience on another occasion, “belongs to strangers.” During the years “in the Exile,” the Jewish people had “produced men with great ideas that embrace the whole universe.” To Bialik, however, “the smallest creation in the land of Israel” was worth more than all that, because of the direct benefit to the Jewish people.130 Even after Hitler had come to power, Bialik remained convinced that the New World was only marginally different from other lands of the Diaspora, if at all.131 In 1927, soon after his return from the United States, the erstwhile iconoclastic poet penned some words of old-fashioned faith to an American journalist with the hope that he would convey them to his readers. Palestine, Bialik said, is “the single, central location, towards which God has pointed His finger . . . saying: ‘This is the only place where you will find rest; and there is no other.’”132
Bailik’s coffin arriving at Ohel Shem, 1934. Ohel Shem was the Tel Aviv cultural center built with the help of the American false-teeth manufacturer Samuel Simon Bloom. (Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem.)