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One of the greatest Hebrew poets of modern times, Bialik is considered the national poet of Israel. At age 11, he had already studied Jewish philosophic works, concentrating on the Talmud. At 16, he entered the famous Yeshiva of Volozhin in Lithuania. Later, in one of his poems he immortalized the yeshiva student, or matmid, who dedicated himself to study, excluding all worldly matters from his thoughts. During the year he spent in Volozhin, the young Bialik drew closer to Zionism and to modern Hebrew literature. When the Russian government closed the Volozhin Yeshiva in 1891, he went to Odessa in southern Russia, drawn by its flourishing Hebrew literary center. In an anthology called Ha-Pardes, Bialik published his first poem, El Hatzipor, or “To the Bird,” expressing his boundless love for the old-new Zion. Other poems followed. His outstanding talent immediately impressed his readers. Here was poetry, deeply personal, yet touching the soul of the Jewish people. Like the ancient prophets, Bialik rebuked his people and exposed their weaknesses in fiery and sharp-edged verses. Yet the poet inspired the Jewish masses with hope, pride, and self-respect. His poem The City of Slaughter, written after the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, roused the younger generation to take up arms in self-defense. Bialik linked the past with the present in his poetic works. Drawing upon the rich sources of Jewish creativity, he gave new power and meaning to age-old traditions and ideals. He imparted unusual beauty and charm to folk themes, and created wonderful poems for children. In essays and stories, he was a master of Hebrew prose. He assumed a leading role in Jewish cultural life, a symbol of the national revival. At his magic touch, the Hebrew language became a vital cultural force. Together with his life-long friend J.C. Ravnitzky, Bialik popularized the rich treasury of the Talmudic and Midrashic legend, the Aggadah. In addition to poems, stories, and Talmudic legends he collected in Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Bialik wrote biblical legends in Vayehi ha-Yom, or “It Came to Pass,” recapturing their ancient charm and humor. He translated into Hebrew such classics as Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Schiller’s Wilhelm Tel.

Bialik was beloved and revered while yet in Russia. After the Bolshevik Revolution, he was forced to leave the country and went to Germany. In 1924, he settled in Palestine. His home in Tel Aviv on a street now named after him became a place of pilgrimage for Hebrew writers. In 1929, Bialik visited America, and was received with acclaim. During the last years of his life, as editor, publisher, and critic, he became the guiding spirit of every Hebrew cultural and literary activity. He participated actively in the work of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Committee for the Hebrew Language. The Oneg Shabbat gatherings in Tel Aviv, over which Bialik presided, became a celebrated institution. His home in Tel Aviv has been preserved as a cultural center. Mossad Bialik, one of the foremost publishing houses in Israel, and Bialik prizes for the best in Hebrew literature are symbolic monuments to his memory. The 21st day of Tammuz, the date of his death, is observed as a national memorial day in Israel.

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