Modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature are extremely versatile in terms of subjects. Nevertheless, the themes of Jewish tradition, history, and culture pervade many of the pieces written by Hebrew and Yiddish authors. As stated by Miron, art and literature often serve to strengthen the collective identity of the communities that they address (189).
This assumption applies to the works by Hayim Nahman Bialik, H. Leyvik, and Shmuel Yosef Agnon who in their writings reflected upon the matters of belonging to the ethnic group, as well as the interrelation between national and individual experiences. Overall, these modern Jewish writers represented the idea of Jewish unity positively yet approached it from disparate angles and with different sentiments. Thus, the present paper will focus on the analysis of two poems by Bialik and Leyvik, “To the Bird” and “Song of the Yellow Patch,” and a short story, “The Lady and the Peddler,” by Agnon to compare their perspectives on Jews as the people and the nation and to identify similarities among them.
Bialik’s “To the Bird”
The theme of Jewish unity and homeland is dominant in “To the Bird.” The idea about uniting the community invokes positive emotions in the poem’s persona who lives far away from the Land of Israel and bears great troubles and suffering. The poem is formatted as a monologue: although the persona asks questions addressed to a bird, he does not receive any answer but gives readers a chance to get insight into his internal experiences, thoughts, and feelings about the historical homeland of Jewish people.
Bialik uses many toponyms of cultural, religious, and historical significance for Jews. Among them, there is the valley of Sharon, Mount Hermon, Mount Lebanon, Jordan river, and Zion. As the poem’s persona talks to the bird, his words have a bitter-sweet sentiment. He praises the beauty of the faraway places where the Jewish people once dwelled and, at the same time, expresses grief thinking that the homeland has become lost and the graves of their ancestors are currently unattended: “Does the dew descend as pearls on Mount Hermon?” Does it come down and fall like tears? (Bialik).
The image of a bird that came flying “from the warm countries” symbolizes a fragile and intangible connection to the Land of Israel (Bialik). As a member of the Jewish community, the narrator feels inherently linked to other Jews, and his ethnicity and religious background take a major part in his identity. Therefore, the bird’s song and presence invoke hope and pleasant thoughts as they allow him to connect to his fellow folks at least in imagination. Thus, the idea of Jewish unity has positive characteristics in Bialik’s poem, whereas the loss of tradition has a negative influence on life. The perceived inability to come back to the homeland and reunite all Jews is the source of suffering. Conversely, from the experience of the poem’s persona, it is possible to say that by returning to their historic origins, he and his similar others would become more complete and happier.
Leyvik’s “Song of the Yellow Patch”
Just like Bialik in “To the Bird,” Leyvik reflects upon his inherent ties with the Jewish people scattered around the globe and his connection to the Jewish tradition in “Song of the Yellow Patch.” However, the overall mood of his poem is gloomier and more desperate than the sentiment in Bialik’s piece since it was written around 1940 when the antisemitic movements and the persecution of Jews in Europe started to gather momentum and intensify.
The Star of David is used as the main image in Leyvik’s poem and it has a double meaning. On the one hand, Jews were forced to wear patches with the Star of David on their arms in Nazi Germany. Thus, it can be regarded as a symbol of oppression. On the other hand, it has been an essential visual element in the Jewish tradition for centuries and was usually displayed in the places and on objects of cultural significance, including synagogues and the emblem of the Zionist movement (Shnidman).
Therefore, it is an intrinsic part of Jewish culture. In the words of Leyvik, the Jewish identity itself is “the destined yellow patch with the Star-of-David” (449). For him, this yellow patch is the symbol of pride and the unity of all Jews around the globe. Instead of hiding his ethnic and cultural origins, he encourages himself and others to be open about them and find comfort in the heritage during the hard times.
Similarly to Bialik, in his poem, Leyvik utilizes toponyms that have cultural meaning for the Jewish people (Mount Sinai) and addresses his monologue to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the name of God that “emphasizes His covenant with Israel and showcases the special role the Israelites fill as God’s chosen people” (“Why is God Called the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?”).
By addressing God in this way, Leyvik aims to reestablish his ties with his cultural origins, about which he could forget while living in New York. Additionally, it seems that the thoughts about the hardships that other members of his ethnic community endure in Europe make him want to strengthen his sense of belonging to the group, find the lost unity, and come back to “the forbidden land” (Leyvik 450). Although this idea is associated with sorrowful emotions considering the circumstances, it has positive qualities in the poem.
Agnon’s “The Lady and the Peddler”
The short story by Agnon does not discuss the issue of ethnic identity and Jewish unity directly, but it nevertheless can be regarded as an allegory to the conflict between two cultures and a depiction of antisemitic sentiments. In the story, a Jewish peddler travels around a wooded region and sells merchandise. He arrives at the house of a gentile Lady, stays with her, and, after some time, begins to forget about his previous life as a wanderer: “he took off his peddler’s clothes and put on the garments of aristocracy” (Agnon 205). It is possible to say that the main character represents a Jew in exile, deprived of their homeland.
His stay in the lady’s house may be a symbol of Jews’ attempts to find their place in the foreign lands, which resulted in their forgetfulness about their heritage and the exile situation. As in the real-life, many Jewish people could never fit in and were exposed to discrimination in Europe and other places, so in Agnon’s story, the peddler could not get along with the lady, and his life was eventually put at risk as she tried to kill him and eat his flesh. Noteworthily, Laor states that some of Agnon’s critics consider the peddler a representation of “the eternal Jew,” while the lady, who wants to murder him like all of her previous Jewish husbands, represents Nazi Germany (32).
Although Agnon does not express the idea of Jewish unity explicitly in his piece, it may be implied there. For instance, like the continuously wandering peddler, Jews in exile are bound to live hard and lonely lives, without any source of protection. Dependence on foreigners also does not bode anything good as non-Jewish nations frequently show irrational hatred towards Jewish individuals and accept them only when the latter is helpful in some way. Therefore, based on the interpretation of symbols and imagery in Agnon’s story, the lack of unity among the members of the Jewish community is an obstacle to their normal life, whereas the unification of Jews and the establishment of their nation are crucial for the group’s survival.
As the analysis of three works by Hayim Nahman Bialik, H. Leyvik, and Shmuel Yosef Agnon demonstrates, contemplation on the ethnic identity of Jewish individuals and community, in general, was one of the primary themes in their writing. The life far away from the ancestral land is full of hardships for the Jewish characters and personae in their short stories and poems. Thus, it is possible to conclude that the authors criticized the situation in which Jewish people were bound to live for centuries.
The idea of Jewish unity sometimes seemed unrealizable for them yet they, nevertheless, longed for it and hoped that Jews as the nation will eventually find their place in the world and will come back to the land of Israel.
Agnon, Shmuel Yosef. “The Lady and the Peddler.” Modern Hebrew Literature, edited by Robert Alter, Behrman House, 1975, pp. 197-212.
Bialik, Chaim Nachman. “(Ode) to the Bird.” Hebrew Songs. Web.
Leyvik, H. “Song of the Yellow Patch.” Truth and Lamentation: Stories and Poems on the Holocaust, edited by Milton Teichman and Sharon Leder, University of Illinois Press, 1994, pp. 449-450.
Miron, Dan. “H. N. Bialik and the Quest for Ethical Identity.” Hebrew Studies, vol. 41, 2000, pp. 189-208.
Shnidman, Ronen. “Symbol of the Jewish People or Nazi Persecution.” Haarezt. 2019. Web.
“Why is God Called the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” Compelling Truth. Web.