Beit Bialik-Home of Israel-s National Poet

Beit Bialik-Home of Israel-s National Poet


 The Israel Review of Arts and Letters - 1997/104
Beit Bialik
The Home of Israels National Poet

Yonatan Dubosarsky*

Bialik at his desk, 1933










Beit Bialik, newly completed, late 1920s




Beit Bialik, 1990s










The Reception Hall


The Library


The Living Room


The entrance hall to Beit Bialik

The houses in which Chaim Nahman Bialik lived during a life rich in wanderings, were many. The only one he remembered with longing was his parents house in Brody, a Ukranian town situated near Zhitomir. Here he was born in 1873 and he lived his early years near the forest where his father worked on rented land. Up to his emigration to Palestine, the poet had no home of his own. And then a golden opportunity presented itself in 1923, in his fiftieth year.

In that year, Bialik was residing in Germany, where he had been since mid-1921, when he had left the Soviet Union. His destination had been Palestine, but he had been forced to remain in Germany, an important centre for the Hebrew book. It was there that the publishing house Moriah had been established and it provided him with a livelihood. Things did not work out as planned and it took a number of years for Bialik to put the company, which had been renamed
Dvir, back on its feet.

As mentioned, 1923 was the national poets jubilee year and the celebrant prepared himself a present which eventually would allow him to build a house in Eretz-Israel. This was a four-volume edition of his collected writings, published in a special leather binding and printed on paper with a watermark carrying the dates of the poet, and decorated with woodcuts by the artist Joseph Budko.

The book was wildly successful and earned Bialik a huge sum that he set aside to build his house, and he purchased a plot of land in Tel Aviv through the offices of the Geula company, close to Allenby Street which was being built at that period. Everything was ready to begin building, and in March 1924, Bialik and his wife reached Tel Aviv.

Their reception was royal: Mayor Meir Dizengoff - a friend of the poet since Odessa days - and members of the municipal council escorted the newly-arrived couple around the streets of the new city. Bialik, who it should not be forgotten, had come from Berlin, saw in front of him something not quite a city; rather it was a collection of village-like neighbourhoods where the majority of houses consisted of one storey only. The number of inhabitants barely reached 17,000. But the excitement was contagious. This was the beginning of the Fourth Aliyah (wave of immigration), and it was during this period that Tel Aviv began to be transformed into a real metropolis.

Some days later, Bialik merited an exceptional honour: the naming of a street after him, during his lifetime. The place chosen was adjacent to the plot on which he was to build his house; a sandy area leading off Allenby Street and ending in the scaffolding of a hotel under construction which would eventually become the site of the Tel Aviv municipality.

Soon work on the house began, though not before a foundation stone-laying ceremony was held in the presence of close acquaintances of the poet, foremost among them the philosopher and writer, Ahad Haam, a resident of Tel Aviv since 1922. Construction of the house was entrusted to the Solel Boneh company under the supervision of Eliezer Kaplan, who would eventually become Israels first minister of finance. Bialik himself was not present during the first stages of construction since he had had to return to Berlin so as to transfer Dvir to Palestine; but the architect Yosef Minor, who had preceded the poet to Palestine, was present.

Minor had been in the country for a year, and his encounter with the landscape and Arab building styles changed almost out of recognition the plans he had prepared when he had been commissioned in Berlin to design the residence. The sketches from the Berlin period show clear influences of the functional architecture which preceded the Bauhaus movement, but the house that Minor built points to a complete change. Following his teacher Baerwald, Minor had become a disciple of the Eretz-Israel school, which sought for a synthesis of European and Arab architecture, and Bialiks house is an outstanding example of this synthesis.

While the division of the floors and of the rooms themselves derived from European architecture, the decorative basis was taken from Arab styles. Arches and columns beautify every corner of the house; in the oriental custom the roof was built flat to allow for a pleasant place to while away hot summer evenings, with a view of the city under construction; the windows of the building are low, as a protection against the harsh sun. The most obvious oriental element is the tower topped by a dome.

It is important to stress that Minors orient is authentic. It is not a romanticized Orient, but a concrete, realistic one. An example is the pillar connecting the two large arches of the verandah located at the front of the house; Minor chose to build this in the style of the Crusaders, underlining his desire to make a connection with the many generations of building in the Holy Land.

However, it should not be forgotten that the house was built by a Jew. Indeed, Minor was so concerned that there should be no doubt about this, that on the reception floor he built a hearth with two pillars supporting arches. The hearth and the pillars are covered with decorated tiles, with Jewish themes, products of the Bezalel workshop in Jerusalem. The hearth depicts the story of the spies and the Ark of the Covenant in its journeyings; the pillars show the twelve tribes and the months of the Hebrew calendar. And if this was not enough, a further element underlines the connection between Jewish history and Zionist belief: on one side of the pillar is drawn a replica of the well-known Roman coin Judea Capta, and on the other are inscribed in the shape of a coin images of captured Judea freed from its chains, with a caption reading: "Judea Liberated".

Minors work was radically different from that of most architects, inasmuch as he designed the interior: each item in the house: doors and windows, handles, the furniture - were all his designs. The actual work was executed by the carpenter Avraham Krinitzy, who later became the mayor of Ramat Gan.

The dedication of the building took place during the festival of Succot, 1925. From then till the poets death, the residents of Little Tel Aviv would gather in the garden of the house each Simhat Torah and celebrate together with Bialik in song and dance till the early hours.

By any standard - and even more so in the proportions of Little Tel Aviv - Bialiks house was a monumental structure, with a far more public character than a regular residential house. And indeed Bialik was not a private person: we are speaking of the central figure of the period in everything that touched upon Hebrew-Zionist culture. He held scores of public positions (among them president of the Writers Association, and president of the Committee for the Hebrew Language). From the beginning, people related to him as one of the main spokesmen of the yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community of Palestine). Therefore, it is necessary to relate to the house as we would today to the official residences of those holding high office, such as the president of the state or the prime minister.

His house did indeed host on a regular basis meetings of the Writers Association, the Committee of the Hebrew Language, and other groups. And if this was not enough, many of Tel Avivs residents would visit the poets house like hassidim to their Rebbe, with various requests: someone needed advice on how to name a grandchild; someone else sought work and Bialik would surely be able to help, and so on. Neither did the announcement help which he hung on his door and even published in the newspapers:

"Ch. N. Bialik receives requests at his residence on Mondays and Thursdays only from 5 to 7 in the evening."

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that the poet decided to leave Tel Aviv and move to Ramat Gan. At the end of 1933, Bialik rented his house to a well-off family from South Africa and with his wife went to live in a pension in Ramat Gan where Minor was planning a new house for them.

Except that things did not go according to plan: halfway through 1934, the poet travelled to Vienna for an operation to remove gall stones and died there as he was recovering from the operation, on 4 July, 1934. His coffin was brought to Eretz-Israel on 16 July and lay in state in Tel Aviv.

On its way to the cemetery on Trumpeldor Street, the cortge stopped outside the house on Bialik Street. Thus ended the first chapter in the annals of Beit Bialik.

Overall, Bialik did not spend much time in the house. For at least five of the last ten years of his life he was away from his home. First, he travelled abroad extensively, for public purposes as well as for medical treatment (for years he suffered from gall stones and he was accustomed to take the waters at Marienbad): and when he was not travelling abroad - especially during the harsh summers of Tel Aviv - he was accustomed to vacationing in Safed and Jerusalem.

No less interesting is the fact that - apart from the verse he composed for the 25th anniversary of the founding of Tel Aviv - he wrote no poetry at all in the house on Bialik Street. Almost all the poetry of his last years was written during his stays abroad.

On Bialiks death, the question of the preservation of his literary testament arose. Bialik himself did not leave a will, but it was universally agreed that the house should serve as the centre for all commemoration activites. Many ideas were mooted, but none came to fruition. Time passed and the house remained deserted. A real danger was posed to the physical survival of the estate, including manuscripts. As the third anniversary of the poets death grew near, the Bialik Association was formed, and took upon itself to restore the house and make it into a site of commemoration. The associations committee published an announcement in which they stated:

"Beit Bialik is a national home, a house of the people of Israel in Eretz-Israel and in the Diaspora. Let us make this house into a storeroom for the soul of Hebrew culture; let us never extinguish the light which the poet lit in it! The house will serve as a repository for all the things connected to him and his work; a storeplace for Hebrew folklore, a gathering place for Hebrew writers and a centre for Hebrew culture."

An author and educator, Shlomo Hillels (1873-1953) was appointed by the committee to administer the house. It was duly renovated and made ready for its new functions. Yet even though the intentions were good, some unfortunate blunders were made: the kitchen and bedroom were destroyed, presumably the assumption being that while it was important to preserve the writers study and library, his books and manuscripts, his eating and sleeping habits were unremarkable. The house was opened to the public on the third anniversary of the poets passing, 30 June, 1937 (the Hebrew date). There were three separate elements:

1. The archives: in these were assembled some 300 of Bialiks manuscripts and dozens of manuscripts of other writers. It also contained a storage space for thousands of letters by writers and public figures who wrote to Bialik, as well as letters by the poet himself.

2. The library: Bialiks private library containing some 3,500 volumes, many with dedications, comments or markings by Bialik, and rare editions. To the poets personal collection were added new books, which were donated to the library or purchased by the committee.

3. The museum: based on everything in the house - the poets collection of paintings and furniture and many other items connected to his various activities as a poet, publisher, literary figure and Zionist leader.

After a years activities, the house was once again a centre of culture for Tel Aviv. The institutions which had been headed by Bialik located some of their activities in the house. Thus the Hebrew Writers Association was active in Beit Bialik and from there published its monthly magazine, which still exists, Moznayim ("Scales"). The Committee for Language and the Association of Friends of the Hebrew University in Tel Aviv met there. Similarly, courses were organized on behalf of the Vaad Leumi (the pre-state national leadership committee) for groups of youth leaders from the United states. Beit Bialik quickly became a tourist attraction for visitors to Tel Aviv. Teachers began to bring kindergarten and school children - a tradition that has continued to this day, and which over 70 years has brought the majority of Israels children to the house.

Hillels filled his role for little over a year, yet even in such a short period he succeeded in designing a plan which lasted almost 50 years. In place of Hillels, the committee appointed a journalist, Moshe Ungerfeld, who had immigrated a short time before.

Ungerfeld (1898-1983), born in Galicia, Poland, studied in a Jewish teachers seminary and at the University of Vienna. He worked as an educator and published articles regularly in Hebrew newspapers. At the beginning of 1932, he met Bialik when the poet was in Vienna at the end of his visit to eastern Europe. In the summer of 1933, the two met again when Bialik came to Vienna for medical treatment. Even after the poet died, the strong feelings that had characterized Ungerfelds relations to Bialik did not abate, and he devoted his long life to one goal: the advancement of Bialiks name and memory and to making his works more widely known.

With his appointment as director of Beit Bialik, Ungerfeld was able to realize his goal. During the 45 years in which he ran the house, Ungerfeld was so identified with Bialik that for many years, Beit Bialik and Ungerfeld were inconceivable one without the other.

In Ungerfelds day the museum and the archives remained to all intents and purposes, unchanged. Not so the library: it was transformed from a research library into a public library for every topic and at all levels.

Bialiks personal books were separated from the rest of the librarys holdings and closed to the general public. In their stead a new collection was started in which there were books on all subjects, with the emphasis on Judaica.

Side by side with the collection there arose a rich collection of manuscripts, among them rarities from the beginnings of Hebrew journalism, as well as a magnificent collection of Jewish religious literature including many valuable first editions. By the 1980s, the collection had reached 60,000 volumes.

Beginning in the 1970s, Beit Bialik began to lose its importance as a library. The establishment of libraries in Tel Aviv and Bar-Ilan Universities and the setting up of a network of municipal libraries, nost notably the unification of the "Shaar Zion," "Ahad Haam" and "Harambam" collections into the central municipal library of "Beit Ariella," reduced the numbers of those dependent on the library at Beit Bialik. The collection began to deteriorate. The books were stored under conditions that caused them damage. Similarly, the archives had begun to deteriorate over the years and remained as they had been left by Shlomo Hillels in 1938.

The condition of the house also deteriorated. The poets art collection and the furniture required urgent restoration. Time also took its toll on the building itself: the plaster began to peel, the roof to leak, the paintwork became dull. Most of Bialiks garden had been destroyed in 1964, when the House of the Hebrew Woman was founded on its space in memory of his wife, Manya Bialik. The tenants of the house, the Hebrew Writers Association and the Committee of the Hebrew Language moved out to premises of their own. Ungerfelds death in 1983 symbolized an end of an era in the history of the house. Beit Bialik became moribund.

In 1984, the Municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffa decided to undertake a complete restoration of the building and its contents. The writer of this article was appointed director of Beit Bialik. Bank Leumi Israel and the Tel Aviv Foundation covered the expenses.

At the end of 1984, the house was closed to the public and work started. Unexpected financial problems prolonged the work, and the house was in fact closed for seven years. Only in September 1991 was it reopened with an impressive celebration.

The structure had undergone massive restoration and all the damage wrought by time had been mended: the wooden shutters that had rotted were remade according to the original design; the upholstery that had disintegrated was replaced; furniture taken out by Manya Bialik, who had died in 1973, was returned; items were purchased to replace those that had been lost.

The poets large collection of paintings and drawings from the best of Eretz-Israel artists of the 1930s - among them Glicksberg, Litvinovsky and Reuben underwent restoration. A permanent exhibition of Bialik and his work was prepared and a guide for all school levels was written. A great deal of work was invested in arranging the archives according to professional criteria. Epistolary material which had grown with the years (through donations and purchases) were put into order and the large collection of photographs catalogued for the first time.

As for the library - this underwent a revolution: it was decided to return to the original plan and turn the Beit Bialik library into a unique collection focus which would on Bialik and his period. The poets private library was turned into a museum-like collection for scholars only. In the near future the library and archives will take another move forward and be computerized. A multi-media programme in different languages is being planned for tourists who do not speak Hebrew.

Since the reopening, the house has come to life again. Classes of school children from all over Israel visit it daily, as do many tourists from Israel and abroad. Twice a year there are exhibits connected with the poet and his circle. Researchers and students from all institutions of higher learning in Israel are helped in their works by the archives.

Beit Bialik has again become a centre of culture; its past has made it an obligation to the future.

Translated by Mordechai Beck**

* Yonatan Dubosarsky was born in Italy in 1938 and immigrated to Israel in 1948. He studied Hebrew, English, French and Italian literature at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He has been director of Beit Bialik since 1983.

** Mordechai Beck was born in Britain in 1944 and came to Israel in 1973. He studied at art school, yeshiva and at London University, and works as a writer, artist and high-school art teacher.

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