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A Fox Fable Goes Digital: Bialik’s Classic Hebrew Story for Children Finds New Life at the Library of Congress

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

The Hebraic Section is delighted to announce that its superb collection of Rare Children’s Books and Periodical in Hebrew and Yiddish, 1900-1929 has now been digitized. While some of the titles in this collection are fully accessible online, the greater part is still under copyright and may therefore be viewed only on the library’s Washington, D.C. campus (for a complete list of titles, please click here).

This rich collection is a veritable showcase of Jewish talent at the turn of the 20th century, with names like Saul Tchernichowsky, Moshe Broderzon, and Nachum Gutman sparkling like jewels wherever we turn. But surely the most ubiquitous name – the name that runs through the entire collection like a golden thread – is that of Hayyim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934), the greatest Hebrew poet of the modern period.

book cover of chicken and fox, in green background and decorative red flowers. Two logos situated at the bottom of the cover.

Figure 1. [Hayyim Nahman Bialik]. “Ha-Tarnegolim ve-ha-Shu’al” (The Chickens and the Fox). Omanut Press, Sifriyah Gamliel: Moscow-Odessa, [1919]. Cover and illustrations by חבורת ציירים (a band of painters). The library’s copy is apparently the only remaining copy from the first edition. Until its recent discovery in the Library of Congress, the book was known only through the edition published in Frankfurt am Main in 1922. Hebraic Section, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Bialik is often called the “Father of Modern Hebrew Poetry,” but he was that and much, much more: writer, editor, translator, publisher. He contributed stories and poems for children to Hebrew periodicals from Kiev to New York; he founded thriving Hebrew presses that published children’s books in Odessa, Berlin and Tel-Aviv. In addition to all this, Bialik was also a tireless redactor of the ancient Hebrew sources, eager to take the ancient Jewish literary treasures out of the Beit Midrash, so to speak, and make them available to Hebrew readers in general. It was this talent for redaction, together with his unparalleled gift for poetry, that Bialik brought to bear on his rhymed Hebrew tale “Ha-Tarnegolim ve-ha-Shu’al” (The Chickens and the Fox), now a classic of Hebrew children’s literature.

The book was first published by Omanut Press in Odessa, around 1919, as part of Sifriyah Gamliel (Gamliel’s Library), a series of picture books for toddlers named in memory of the publisher’s four-year-old son, who had died only a few years before. The gorgeous pochoirs illustrating the story were created by a self-styled “band of painters” (חבורת ציירים), a group of four young Jewish students at the local School of Art in Odessa (the group’s logo is in the rondel on the left side of the cover; see Fig. 1). More likely, however, the illustrations were created by one member of the group in particular: Moses Mutzelmacher (1900-1961). (See “The Odessa Years” in the Learn More section.)

Book cover of a 1767 book, with adorned plate and printed text and handwritings in Hebrew at the bottom of the page.

Title page from an 18th-century edition of “Mishlei Shu’alim” (Fox Fables), written by medieval scholar Berechiah ha-Nakdan. Prague, 1767. Bialik adapted Berechiah’s 32nd story, “The Chicken and the Fox.” Hebraic Section, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

For his story, Bialik turned to one of these old and largely forgotten Hebrew sources, “Mishlei Shu’alim,” a collection of fox fables written by Berechiah ha-Nakdan, a Jewish scholar who lived in 12th-13th century France or England. Fox fables were a popular genre in his day, and scholars have noted that Berechiah could have drawn his fables from any number of existing collections, including the Aesop’s Fables then circulating in various vernaculars or the French fox fables written closer to his own time by Marie de France. Berechiah did not so much make up his stories as render them in Hebrew for a Jewish audience.

Like Berechiah, Bialik wrote his story in rhymed Hebrew prose (that is, in rhymed language without meter), but along the way he transformed Berechiah’s plodding tale into a sparkling Hebrew classic that both parents and children could enjoy. Bialik adopted a biblicizing style that lends the tale humor, and the translation below attempts to capture this element of the work’s style as well as the feel of its rhymed Hebrew prose.

“The Chickens and the Fox” begins, in good biblical fashion, with a famine:

‘Twas a year of famine, a year of drought / without a bit of food about. / Every chicken, truth to tell / rooster, hen, and cockerel / scratched around in search of grain / but – alas! – they searched in vain. / Sheaves of barley grew no more / they couldn’t find a grocery store. / Rabbi Rooster gave a call / and said, “Gather round me one and all / all you chickens big and small / fat and thin; short and tall: / This famine will be the death of us – / but why let it get the best of us? / All ye, therefore, who come from eggs / listen up to what I say: / Let us go forth into the fields / and see what bounty nature yields. / Out amongst the grassy knolls / we’ll find some grain and restore our souls. / You know the old saying that we all cluck: / ‘Change your place; change your luck!’/ If you accept my advice to you / give a cock-a-doodle-do!” / Then the chickens flapped their wings / and shouted out, “Long live the king! / Rabbi Rooster’s the man we need: / wise in the ways of chicken feed!”

And so, the chickens “went forth into the fields,” and in no time at all were plump and happy and busily laying eggs again. But:

Two months after their sojourn began / the chickens yearned for home again. / Rabbi Rooster gathered all the chickens there / and said, “To return home now, we must prepare! / Each and every one of you / chickens, hens, and roosters, too, / must carry in his mouth a sheaf of grain, cock-a-doodle do! / All must do as I’ve commanded / lest we return home empty-handed.”

Obedient to their rabbi’s words, the chickens carried off the biggest, bushiest-tailed sheaves they could fit in their mouths. All, that is,

but one poor chicken who walked with a limp / she alone was forced to scrimp. / Empty-handed had she started / empty-handed she now departed / all alone at the back of the train / leaning heavily upon her cane.

Color illustration, depicting a group of chicken, as well as a chicken with a stick at the end of the group talking with fox.

Detail from “Ha-Tarnegolim ve-ha-Shu’al” (The Chickens and the Fox). Omanut Press, Sifriyah Gamliel: Moscow-Odessa, [1919]. Illustrations by חבורת ציירים (a band of painters). Hebraic Section, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

And now for some drama:

A young fox saw them pass his way / and said, “Here indeed is goodly prey: / dinner tonight and lunch today! / I’ll sneak around them from behind / and then devour whatever I find.” / The camp had nearly passed on by / when the fox said to himself, “It’s time to try!” / Accosting the lame chicken (on whom he hoped to dine) / he said in a voice as sweet as wine, / “Greetings to you, O beauteous one; / whose camp is this and whence does it come?” / Now, the limping chicken who walked apart / was very wise and plenty smart. / She replied, “Why, they’re returning home from the Chicken – Fox War; / they killed the foxes by the score!”

– “And what’s that in their mouths, pray tell?” /

“The tails of foxes, which they took as plunder: / they took the corpses and cut the tails asunder / to be a remembrance forevermore / a testament to our bravery in war / and to our courage in days of yore / for the salvation / and the consolation / of the entire chicken nation / and of the miracles large and small / by which we triumphed o’er foxes all.”

The fox then backed away a bit / and in trembling voice he said to it / “Tell me, chicken, where’s your loot?” / “Me? Oh, mine I decided to take en route! / Your tail will do me double duty / and serve me now as mine own booty! / That’s the reason I came towards you: / Look well, O Fox, I am upon you!” / The fox took fright when he heard that / and ran without stopping till he reached Ararat.

While Bialik changed a few details in his source, these were relatively minor. The most noteworthy change comes at the end of the story. In both versions, of course, the chicken “outfoxes” the fox and sends him running off to “Ararat” – that semi-legendary place where Noah’s Ark came to rest; thus off-the-map and a good place to send unwanted foxes. But Berechiah ends his tale with a heavy-handed moral about the folly of judging people by their appearance. Bialik also has a message, but he delivers his in a way that is a lot less intrusive and much more fun. The chicken’s last words are “Look well, O Fox, I am upon you!” – a brilliant allusion to the biblical story of Samson and to Delilah’s words of warning: “The Philistines are upon you!” This apt quotation from the Book of Judges transforms the sickly chicken into a veritable Samson who overcomes his enemy through clever thinking. Whether the children reading Bialik’s story realized it or not, they too were being given a message, and one that was especially close to Bialik’s redacting heart: Jewish children should know the Hebrew sources! Just look what it did for the chicken.

For reference assistance, contact the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room via Ask a Librarian or (202)707-4188.

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2 Comments

  1. Alison Noyes
    September 28, 2021 at 4:02 pm

    Who is the delightful translator into English, not cited, of the tale of the chickens and the fox?

    “[T]the translation below attempts to capture this element of the work’s style as well as the feel of its rhymed Hebrew prose.”

    The attempt is a fabulous success and deserves credit! Anchi Hoh, is the translation by Ann Brenner?

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