Avraham Shlonsky – poet, editor, translator, playwright, and publicist—was recognized during his lifetime as one of the giants of the revival of Hebrew culture. This is precisely why Rani Jaeger writes that Shlonsky was doomed to the fate typical of individuals who become symbols (like Herzl as “the visionary of the State” and Bialik as “the national poet”), which overshadows the complexity of their creation.
Avraham Shlonsky was born in the Ukrainian village of Kryukovo on March 6, 1900, the first year of the stormy century in which he was fated to live. In his parent’s home, the young Shlonsky was influenced by the diversity of the modern Jewish experience: Zionism and the Enlightenment, revolutionary socialism and Hassidism. It is symbolic that the first publication of the man who would later translate the workers’ anthem, the Internationale, into Hebrew, was a letter that he sent as a young teen to the local Chabad-Lubavitch yeshiva weekly publication.
At the age of thirteen Shlonsky was sent to Mandatory Palestine, where he attended the Herzliya Gymnasium in Tel Aviv. With the outbreak of World War I he was forced to return to Russia, where he completed his studies. He published his first poem in 1919, in the Ha’Shiloah periodical,then published in Berlin. In 1921 he immigrated to Israel as a Third Aliyah pioneer and became a member of Gdud Ha’Avoda, a socialist Zionist work group, settling Ein Harod.
Avraham Shlonsky. Photograph courtesy of the Gnazim Institute
Shlonsky’s collections of poetry, To Father-Mother and In a Wheel (1927), contributed to shaping the Jezreel Valley as “The Valley,” as the most important arena of the pioneer experience. The poet himself actually left the valley for Tel Aviv, and immediately became the leader of the “rebels”—a group seeking to forge new modes of literary expression and a comprehensive worldview inspired by European modernist groups—French symbolism, Russian futurism, French surrealism, and German expressionism—that they viewed as the foundation for new Hebrew poetry.
In 1931, Shlonsky stood at the center of the attack against the cultural conventions of the previous generation ignited by the controversy around Bialik’s poem “I Have Seen You Anew in Your Limited Power.”. He formulated a list of postulations by which he felt the Hebrew culture of Eretz Israel ought to develop. Among other things, Shlonsky sharply raised the tension between being inspired by the past—essential, in his view—and the danger of the past gaining control over new creative work. "[…] Among us—to use symbolic language—‘Because of the Western Wall and Rachel’s Tomb we forget the Jezreel Valley’” (“From End to End,” appearing in A. Jaffe, Shlonsky: The Poet and His Era, p. 42 [Hebrew]). Shlonsky presented himself as a clear example of someone whose goal was to generate and formulate a change in Hebrew culture.
Until his death Shlonsky was a prolific poet who published hundreds of works, a wonderful translator of some of the finest world literature into Hebrew, and a leading figure in the establishment of the central disciplines of local culture. In every decade, Shlonsky was partner to or led at least one such discipline: in 1926 he founded the weekly Ketuvim [Writings] with Eliezer Steinman; in 1933 he founded Turim [Columns], identified with the Yachdav [Together] Society, which counted among its members figures such as Nathan Alterman and Leah Goldberg. In the 1950s he edited Orlogin [Clock]. At the same time, Shlonsky served as the editor of the literary sections of the Davar, Ha’aretz and Al Hamishmar newspapers; he was the senior editor at Sifriat Hapoalim Press, and was a founding partner of the Tzavta Club in Tel Aviv.
Avraham Shlonsky. Photograph courtesy of the Gnazim Institute
From the outset, Shlonsky’s work was laced with political and social commentary. It related not only to the petty politics of various cultural groups but also dealt with the deep dimensions of the Jewish situation, the situation of the land of Israel, and the situation of the world. There are numerous examples of this in his poetic creations and in the hundreds of articles he published. Among these, were his pacifist essay “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” published on the twentieth anniversary of World War I, and his response to the question of the place of culture during wartime, “Saving a Life” (1939), in which he offered a daring interpretation of the famous midrash: “My creations are drowning in the sea and you are singing praise?!” At this time of human slaughter, Shlonsky sought way of the midrash, to say that the poet is forbidden to utter poetry but must enlist himself fully in the cause of justice.
It is impossible not to mention the works Shlonsky wrote for children, including the play Utzli-Gutzli [Rumpelstiltskin], which is still performed in Israel every Hanukkah and enjoys tremendous popularity. His writing for children demonstrates how varied Shlonsky’s cultural expression was as well as the breadth of his understanding of how culture is formed.
Winning the Israel Prize (1967) expressed the recognition Shlonsky earned during his lifetime. Nonetheless, it is easy to state that his oeuvre invites a new reading, not just because dealing with this fundamental chapter of Israeli culture has waned in recent years but also because of his own declared intention to establish a new horizon for Hebrew culture.
Shlonsky’s cultural enterprise led him to address questions of language, tradition, religion and secularism, the meaning of Zionism and its limitations in a complex and conscious way. The in-depth handling of these tensions and the internal paradoxes of his generation—“We have dared to create from the beginning, because we have come here to continue the way”—alongside the recognition of its potential encompass Shlonsky’s ongoing contribution to Israeli culture and the deep relevance of his creation to our time.
Rani Jaeger directs the School for Teacher Education at the Shalom Hartman Institute, is a research fellow at the Institute, and a doctoral candidate in the Culture and Hermeneutics Program at Bar-Ilan University.