Warsaw, August 1900. Two very young men, Yosef Hayim Brenner and Uri Nissan Gnessin, later to be known as the giants of modern Hebrew literature, were staying in Gnessin’s rented room in 21 Dzielna Street. Both were swept by the intensive atmosphere of Hebrew literary life in Warsaw, while making their first, hesitant steps in that scene.
Fourteen years later, while mourning the premature death of his friend Gnessin, Brenner recalled a unique scene from those days:
One evening he [Gnessin] brought from the street a new volume of Luah Ahiassaph [an annual literary collection that appeared in Warsaw every summer since 1893] that came out that same day. Luckily enough, that evening we had bread, and tea, and oil for the lamp, even fire in the stove. So we sat together during supper and started reading: “When high noon on a summer’s day/makes the sky a fiery furnace/and the heart seeks a quiet corner for dreams,/then come to me, my weary friend” etc. etc.–a poem by H.N. Bialik! And in a short while, after supper, we proudly showed each other how we had already memorized the whole poem by heart.
Later in his memoir, Brenner describes how they recited lines and stanzas from the poem to one another “with concrete, physical pleasure” and even dramatized its little plot, presenting two close friends one of whom finds shelter in the other one’s home.
In order to grasp the deeper meaning of this episode we have to place it in context. Indeed, the intimate scene in Gnessin’s room, so movingly reconstructed by Brenner, reflects or embodies the essence of the revolutionary leap that occurred in Hebrew literature on the threshold of the twentieth century. Brenner and Gnessin, two literary beginners, were located in 1900 at the heart of a very lively, intensive literary surrounding. One of them was about to publish his first book, the other participated in a central Hebrew daily newspaper and was employed as a translator in an important Hebrew publishing house. Both of them were part of a small group of young men, for whom Hebrew literature was an object of passion. They wrote poems and stories and read literary works that “bond them in magical chains”, as Gnessin wrote to one of his friends. They wrote letters and critical reviews and discussed new books and articles, thus living a real, rewarding literary life. When they went out they could find in the bookstores or at the newspapers stands contemporary Hebrew books and periodicals, such as the new volume of Luah Ahiassaph that Gnessin brought from the streets and immediately sat down to go over together with Brenner.
Such a situation was a complete novelty For Hebrew literature. Never before did all these functions come together to constitute a complete model of cultural life with its vital components–writers, readers and a production system–in a single location. The overall project of creating a modern Hebrew culture on foreign soil was in itself a paradox. But those activities eventually laid the foundations for a much more significant phenomenon: the emergence of a living Hebrew culture in Palestine based on the models that were shaped in the diaspora.
However, at the core of this revolution stood such small scenes like the one described here. Indeed, underlying all literary activity is the moment of intimate interaction between the individual reader and the individual text. A meaningful literary experience is based upon the reader’s rational as well as emotional response to the text, and no texts could arouse such deep response like Bialik’s poems, that were received by their first readers as no less than miraculous. Such a response is clearly manifested in Brenner’s memoir. Within that comprehensive, pluralistic and totally non-selective volume of Luah Ahiassaph the young Brenner and Gnessin found about fifty works of prose fiction, poetry and essays. Supposedly, most of this literary material did not excite them. Yet, they did embrace Bialik’s poem and dived into it with great passion, undoubtedly because they instantly felt that this particular poem reveals something very profound and concrete about their own relations. They memorized it in a few moments, they recited it to one another, deriving deep pleasure from its rhythmic quality and sound effects, they dramatized it spontaneously as a humorist little play, Gnessin naturally playing the host and Brenner–the friend who comes to enjoy his hospitality. As Brenner openly tells us, they finally found themselves embraced in each other’s arms, still laughing, but their bones shaking despite the fire in the stove and tears suddenly dropping from Gnessin’s eyes.
It is hard to imagine a deeper response to a work of art. Never before in the recorded history of Hebrew literature occurred such a dramatic moment of reception. The most significant detail in Brenner’s unique testimony is, I believe, the description of the way Gnessin recited Bialik’s lines: “He stressed every word with concrete, physical pleasure”. When poetic language reaches a level that it arouses a deep sensual response like that, it reveals real capability to fulfill its readers’ most profound sensual and spiritual needs.
Therefore, we may mark that distant evening in 21 Dzielna Street as a possible symbolic outset of the inconceivable journey modern Hebrew culture has gone through over the last century. Today it is a rich, autonomous, dynamic and diverse culture, based upon a living spoken language of an independent nation. Bialik’s poems are kept in its cultural memory among the most precious assets inherited from literary tradition, and they will continue to live as long as Hebrew literature has a living present and an aspired future. In my own eyes, “On a Hot Summer’s Day” still retains its suggestive freshness, which make him one of my favorites among Bialik’s poems.
Avner Holtzman is professor of Hebrew literature, Tel Aviv University, and a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. He is author or editor of more than fifty books and has taught and extensively studied prominent modern Hebrew authors including Bialik, Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, and others.