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“And for my glory a butterfly sews / A many-colored suit of clothes:” A Hebrew Tom Thumb by Chaim Nachman Bialik

(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic Specialist, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

“Tom Thumb” is one of those folktales that seems to have been around forever, bewitching people in every generation and in just about every language under the sun. In most traditions Tom Thumb is a prankster par excellence; a wily, thumb-sized hero forever getting himself in (and out of) trouble with admirable ease and dexterity. A rhymed English version from 1630 paints a lively portrait of the miniature hero: “His shirt was made of butterflies’ wing / His boots were made of chicken skin / His coat and breeches were made with pride / A tailor’s needle hung by his side / A mouse for a horse he used to ride.”*

Ha-Shahar [The Dawn]. Warsaw, 1911. Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.

Given his popularity on the stage of world literature, therefore, it comes as no surprise that one day, in 1911, Jewish children in the Russian Empire woke up to find a Tom Thumb of their own, a Hebrew Tom Thumb of the greatest charm imaginable, and written, moreover, by that greatest of modern Hebrew poets, Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934). What more could the most exacting child want? Even the title האצבעוני (HaEtsba’oni) was calculated to delight the hearts of its young readers, for the author coined the title-word himself, creating an adjective from the Hebrew word for “finger” [etsba’].

Bialik’s “Etsba’oni” first appeared in the pages of Ha-Shahar [The Dawn], one of a growing number of Hebrew periodicals created specifically for children in the early decades of the 20th century, especially in Eastern Europe and Russia. Ha-Shahar, which was published in Warsaw in 1911, was actually one of three Hebrew periodicals for children at the time, and though Bialik feared that three such periodicals would prove unsustainable, he contributed to Ha-Shahar on several occasions, no doubt out of respect for its editor, Moshe ben Eliezer. And, indeed, Bialik’s apprehensions proved well-founded. Despite its cadre of fine Hebrew writers and exquisite cover image, Ha-Shahar folded after only seven months, the last few issues calling more and more urgently for financial support through new subscriptions until, at last, the final issue sadly announced its own demise.

Chaim Nachman Bialik. “Ha-Etsba’oni.” Ha-Shahar (Vol. 19-20). Warsaw, 1911. Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.

Today, issues from this short-lived periodical are extremely rare, and issues that have survived with their beautiful covers intact even more so. The Library of Congress is most fortunate in having an almost complete run of the periodical from its seven months of existence, covers included.

*   *   *

While Bialik’s ”Etsba’oni” is considered a classic of Hebrew children’s poetry, it is scarcely a classic version of the Tom Thumb folktale. In fact, it more easily conjures up visions of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” than it does of any Tom Thumb listed in the scholarly sources, where the hero spends his time getting swallowed (and un-swallowed) by a cow, or fighting in the ranks of King Arthur’s knights. The “classic” Tom Thumb is an earthy fellow; the Hebrew Tom Thumb is pure magic, and the dreams of which childhood dreams are made. Indeed, with his cocksure replies and amazing conceit the Hebrew protagonist seems far more akin to Peter Pan; a tale which first appeared, by the way, only six years before Bialik created his own Never Never Landish-like hero.

Bialik’s poem is written in rhymed couplets, and it comes in the form of a dialogue between Tom Thumb and a child who catches a glimpse of him through the window of his house. Here, to the right, we see the Hebrew text of “Etsba’oni” as it appeared in Ha-Shahar; the translation below follows the structure and rhyme scheme of the Hebrew original:

Translation from the Hebrew by Ann Brener, Hebraic Specialist, African and Middle Eastern Division.

*This is a metrical version of the legend by an anonymous author. It was published as “Tom Thumbe, His Life and Death,” and printed in London by John Wright, 1630.

One Comment

  1. Jackie
    May 26, 2020 at 1:59 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this! It’s wonderful!

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