For 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.
In Zionist history, successive waves of aliyot are categorized by date and country of origin.
After independence, Israel continued to receive significant waves of immigrants from Arab lands, from Ethiopia, and from the Soviet Union.
Rachel 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 in Odessa.
When 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.
Rachel 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 of Israel.
In 1913, 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.
In 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.
Rachel 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.
Rachel 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.
Today, 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:
I haven’t sung to you, my country.
I have not glorified your name
with great heroic deeds,
or loot from the battlefield.
My hands have simply planted a tree
on Jordan’s calms shores.
My feet have simply formed a path
through the fields.
Indeed, 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.
Rachel’s 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 is redeemed.
Rachel 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.
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