Af der erd (On the Land), by Izi Kharik (Moscow: Farlag Shul un bukh, 1926). (YIVO)

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Kharik, Izi

(1898–1937), Soviet Yiddish poet. In his short life, Izi (Israel) Kharik was one of the most significant and powerful Soviet Yiddish writers, a poet whose work engaged aesthetic movements as varied as expressionism and socialist realism and who, despite his position of power, expressed deep ambivalence about the consequences of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Born in Zembin, Belorussia, Kharik began to publish Yiddish poetry as a teenager. After moving to Minsk in 1920 he wrote for Khvalyes (Waves), the Belorussian Communist Yiddish literary journal that opposed the predominantly symbolist and impressionist Yiddish journals established in Kiev between 1918 and 1920. Noting the success of his poems, the Belorussian Commissariat for Enlightenment (the state body overseeing culture and education) encouraged him to work in Moscow, where he earned his living as an official Soviet writer and editor. In 1924, Kharik published his epic poem Minsker blotes (Minsk Mud), describing the transformation of a shtetl during the revolution; the work earned him high acclaim. By 1925, he had been appointed to the editorial board of the literary journal Naye velt (New World) and was a regular contributor to the Moscow youth journals Yung-vald (Young Forest) and Pioner (Pioneer). In his aesthetic style, he aligned himself with the expressionist movement and was thus similar to other young Yiddish poets.

Jewish writers on the occasion of a visit by Yiddish writer H. Leyvik (front row, center), Moscow, 1925. Among those in the portrait are Izi Kharik and Zelik Akselrod (back row, first and third from left), Yehezkl Dobrushin, Borekh Glazman (also visiting from New York), Shmuel-Nisn Godiner, and Arn Kushnirov (front row, first, second, fourth, and fifth from left). Photo by B. Kapustinskii. (YIVO)

After returning to Belorussia in 1926, Kharik published his first major collection of poems, Af der erd (On the Land; 1926). Reviewers for the Soviet Yiddish press commended this anthology, arguing that Kharik’s work differed from that of other prominent Yiddish modernist poets who wrote only for an elite audience. Critics pointed out the tense, ambiguous relationship in Kharik’s poetry between the shtetl, representing traditional Jewish life, and the city, symbolizing revolutionary culture, youth, and communism. Though he was an avid supporter of the Soviet Union and considered the turmoil of war conducive to setting a stage for building communism, Kharik expressed ambivalence and even pessimism about the revolutionary project.

Shortly after his return to Minsk, Kharik became an editor of the local literary journal Shtern (Star) and the Minsk newspaper Oktyabr. In 1928, he published the narrative poem Mit layb un lebn (With Body and Soul), exposing Soviet Jewish intelligentsia through the eyes of a young female Jewish teacher whose grand hopes for rebuilding the shtetl are dashed as she works herself to death. As in his earlier works on revolution and civil war, Kharik portrayed the building of socialism ambivalently and with dark colors. In 1930, he joined the Communist Party, eventually becoming a member of the Central Committee of the Belorussian branch. In 1932, he issued his third important collection, Kaylekhdike vokhn (Week In, Week Out). By 1936, Kharik’s work was being read in Yiddish schools throughout Belorussia.

Kharik was at the peak of his career in June 1937 when he was arrested and later killed as part of the Great Purges. The Soviet elite that had come of age in the 1920s was decimated, and vital aspects of Jewish culture were destroyed. Kharik’s work was not republished until the late 1950s after Stalin’s death. Though his name was rehabilitated, he never regained the reputation that he had held in the 1920s and 1930s when his poems had exposed both ambivalence about the destruction of the Jewish past and simultaneous ideological exuberance about the new Soviet era.

Suggested Reading

Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, eds., Ashes Out of Hope: Fiction by Soviet-Yiddish Writers (New York, 1977); Shmu’el Rozhansky, ed., Dovid Hofshteyn, Izi Kharik, Itsik Fefer: Oysgeklibene shriftn (Buenos Aires, 1962); David Shneer, Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture, 1918–1930 (New York, 2004).