thousands of years since the poetry of Deborah, virtually
no Hebrew poetry was composed by women until the twentieth
century. Rachel Bluwstein is considered the “founding
mother” of modern Hebrew poetry by women. Known by
her first name, Rachel achieved the status of a beloved
national poet of Israel. Her poetry often captured the spirit
of the Second Aliyah, the pioneering generation.
history, successive waves of aliyot are categorized by date
and country of origin.
First Aliyah (1882-1903): 35,000 immigrants
from the Russian empire and from Yemen.
Aliyah (1904-1914): 40,000 Jews mainly from Russia
following pogroms; many from this group had strong socialist
beliefs, and they established the first kibbutz, Degania,
in 1909 and revived the Hebrew language.
Aliyah (1919-1923): 40,000 Jews from the Russian
empire, many well-trained in agriculture; they converted
swamps and marshes into productive agricultural land.
(1924-1928): Polish and Hungarian Jews fleeing from anti-Semitism.
Immigration quotas in the U.S. excluded them, and these
middle class immigrants moved to growing Israeli towns.
Aliyah (1929-1939): associated with the rise
of Nazism in Germany; mostly professionals from Germany
and Eastern Europe.
Bet: name given to illegal immigration to Palestine
during World War II and the years that followed until
independence, Israel continued to receive significant waves
of immigrants from Arab lands, from Ethiopia, and from the
was born in Saratov in northern Russia in 1890, the eleventh
daughter of Isser-Lieb Bluwstein with his second wife, Sophia
Mandelshtam. Her maternal grandfather was the chief Rabbi
of Riga, then later, Kiev. She grew up in a well-to-do,
educated household in Poltava, Ukraine, attending both Jewish
and secular schools. After high school, she studied painting
she was 19, Rachel and her sister, Shoshana, traveled to
Italy to study art and philosophy. En route, they visited
Israel or Palestine, then the Ottoman province of Southern
Syria. They decided to make Aliyah and settled in Rehovot,
a town founded by Eastern European immigrants (olim), where
Rachel worked in orchards and learned Hebrew.
moved to Kevutzat Kinneret, on the Sea of Galilee, where
she studied at a women’s agricultural school established
by Hannah Maizel, an early pioneer. Swept up by the socialist
Zionist movement, Rachel said that she switched from painting
art and playing music “to painting with the soil and
playing with the hoe.” During this time she had a
romantic relationship with Zalman Rubshov Shazar, the object
of many of her love poems, who became the third president
she traveled to France to study drawing and agriculture.
Unable to return to Palestine during World War I, she spent
the war years in Odessa and taught Jewish refugee children.
Unfortunately, she contracted tuberculosis, then an incurable
disease, during her stay.
1919 she returned to Palestine to work on Kibbutz Degania,
an agricultural kibbutz on the south shore of Lake Kinneret.
Degania was organized in 1909 and was the first kibbutz
of the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine. But once
she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, she could no longer
look after the children of the kibbutz, for fear of contagion.
She spent the rest of her life living in Petah Tikvah, Jerusalem,
and Tel Aviv, finally entering a sanatorium in Gedara.
died in 1931, at the age of 41. She was buried in the Kinneret
cemetery in a grave overlooking the Sea of Galilee, near
many of the socialist ideologues of the second and third
waves of immigration to Palestine.
began writing poetry at age 15, first in Russian and later
in Hebrew. She wrote in a conversational style, with clear,
simple lyrical lines. Her poems were published weekly in
the Hebrew newspaper Davar and quickly became popular in
the Israel Jewish community. Rachel’s poetry contains
deep and emotional descriptions about connection to the
land of Israel, feelings of loneliness and loss, longing
for love, and dealing with human fate and the mystery of
death. She often laced her poetry with references to biblical
events and characters, thus connecting the past with the
present. Many of her poems were set to music, and anthologies
of Rachel’s poetry remain bestsellers in Israel.
Israelis read Rachel’s poetry and learn about their
pioneering founders’ intense attachment to the land.
In one of her most famous poems, To My Country, Rachel writes:
haven’t sung to you, my country.
I have not glorified your name
with great heroic deeds,
or loot from the battlefield.
hands have simply planted a tree
on Jordan’s calms shores.
My feet have simply formed a path
through the fields.
a humble gift it is,
I know this, Mother.
Indeed, your daughter’s offering makes
a very humble gift:
Only the thrilling cry of joy,
on the day the light will break through,
Only my secret tears for you,
for your present misery.
poem features a unique female voice in portraying the experience
of the Zionist pioneers (halutsim). The poem accentuates
the modesty of her gifts and contrasts them to the male
domain of armed struggle. Though seemingly simple and mundane,
Rachel’s contributions are symbolic. Tree planting
is a sacred ritual in national Hebrew culture and are icons
of Zionist national revival, “striking roots”
in the ancient Jewish homeland. Creation of a path through
the fields is a ritual enactment of ownership over the land.
Additionally, Rachel alludes to the homeland as a mother
and herself as the daughter, suggesting an intimate bond.
However, in this case there is a role reversal, as the child
plays a nurturing role to the mother. The ancient Jewish
homeland has been waiting for the return of its children
to be rescued from desolation. Rachel weeps for the land’s
current state of misery and will rejoice when the country
gave up a life of comforts and culture to become a Zionist
pioneer. When her life was cut short by a terminal illness,
she responded by capturing the Israeli pioneer experience
through her poetry.