Mother of Israeli Poetry
Poet Rachel Bluwstein’s life mirrored the rise of the Jewish state.
One of Israel’s most common currencies is the 20 shekel note. The bill is adorned with the picture of a great Israeli literary hero “Rachel Hameshoreret”, or “Rachel the Poetess”, the mother of Israeli poetry. Her life mirrored the rise of the Jewish state and her beautiful poems continue to be read today.
Rachel Bluwstein was born in 1890 into an esteemed Jewish family in Russia. Her mother Sofia Mandelstam came from a distinguished rabbinic family and was a major Jewish intellectual, and father Isser managed to maintain his Orthodox Jewish lifestyle despite unimaginable odds.
Both Isser and Sophia were utterly devoted to living full Jewish lives and they passed this passion on to their children.
Isser’s life was marred by a cruel law that ruined the lives of countless Jewish men. A generation earlier, Russia’s Czar Nicholas I passed a sweeping decree that Russian Jewish men had to serve in the army for 25 years, starting as young as 12 years old. The goal was to break the chain of Jewish continuity. After living among non-Jews away from their families, it was thought that Jews would no longer feel attached to their Jewish faith and communities. Any children born while their fathers were soldiers were seen as property of the Russian nation and had to attend military schools. Isser was one of the thousands of Jewish boys who found themselves far from home, soldiers in the Russian army.
Despite his long quarter of a century away from the Jewish community, Isser Bluwstein completed his service still committed to Jewish life. He moved to the town of Vyatka near Siberia, married a Jewish woman, and together they had four children before his first wife died.
Isser then married Sophia Mandelstam, a brilliant woman whose father was chief rabbi in Riga, Latvia and Kiev, Ukraine. Sophia and her family were intensely Zionist. Her brother Max was a famous physician, a confidant of Theodore Herzl, and a leader of the Russian Zionist movement. Sophia was highly educated and cultured, and maintained a correspondence with Leo Tolstoy and other public figures. Sophia raised her four stepchildren, along with eight children she bore, to be proud Jews and to work to help bring about the Jewish state. She made sure her children were tutored in Hebrew and encouraged them to study subjects that would help build the land, such as farming and agronomy. Three of her children eventually moved to Israel, which was no simple feat at the time.
Rachel Bluwstein moved to the land of Israel in 1909 when she was 19, and met another dynamic young woman there who was to change her life: Dr. Hannah Meisel (later Dr. Hannah Meisel Shohat). Just 26, Dr. Meisel was as passionate about Zionism as Rachel Bluwstein and her family. Dr. Meisel was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Belarus and was filled with a burning passion to settle the land of Israel. As a woman, she faced intense discrimination. It was difficult to find schools that were willing to teach her modern agricultural techniques. But Dr. Meisel persevered and earned her doctorate in agronomy in France. Soon after, she set sail for the land of Israel, determined to found an agricultural college that would admit women in the future Jewish state.
Dr. Meisel inspired Rachel enormously. Dr. Meisel went on to help found a number of Zionist schools and organizations in Israel and internationally. She ran for the Knesset, and in 1926 she finally realized her dream and established a women’s agricultural college in the north of Israel that trained hundreds of female students in agronomy and agriculture. (The school still exists and today educates both boys and girls in agriculture.) Encouraged by Dr. Meisel, Rachel Bluwstein decided to study agronomy and farming and help build the land.
Life in Israel in the early 1900s was incredibly harsh, but also full of idealism and hope. Rachel moved to Israel with her older sister Shoshana, and together they came up with a unique way to become fluent in Hebrew. Each day, they’d allow themselves one hour to converse in Russian. All other conversation had to take place only in Hebrew. Within months, the sisters were fluent. They were eventually joined by their younger sister Batsheva, and the three sisters set up home in the central Israeli town of Rehovot. Their home became a local hub of gatherings after a hard day’s work.
Rachel learned about farming and botany and in 1913 Dr. Meisel suggested Rachel follow in her footsteps and complete advanced studies in France. Rachel moved to Toulouse, and was the only woman in an advanced course on agriculture. Sadly, the decision to return to Europe shortened her life and changed its course drastically.
With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, ordinary life came to a halt. Rachel managed to complete her degree but was unable to return to the land of Israel. Instead, she moved back to Russia, where she worked in an orphanage. There, she contracted tuberculosis. A slowly progressing, fatal disease, it had no cure.
As soon as World War I ended, Rachel returned to the land of Israel, travelling on the first ship bringing Jews to the land after years of fighting. She moved to Kibbutz Deganyah near the Sea of Galilee. Founded a few years earlier in 1910 with just a dozen idealistic young Jews, Deganyah was now a bustling farm. (It would become a household name in 1948 when a small group of fighters based at Deganyah, including civilians, managed to halt the mighty Syrian army and prevent Syrian tanks from reaching the Jordan River during Israel’s War of Independence.) Rachel was brimming with new ideas and enthusiasm, but her tuberculosis made it difficult for her to farm.
Rather than succumbing to despair, Rachel turned to poetry instead. She’d always enjoyed writing beautiful poems in Russian; now she began penning poems in Hebrew. Her verse dealt with the beauty of everyday life in the land of Israel. In her poem El Artzi, “To My Homeland”, Rachel conveyed the idealism of the Jewish youths who were returning to their ancient land, savoring and appreciating each aspect of the country:
I have not sung to you, my homeland,
And I have not praised your name
With heroic deeds,
With the spoils of battle.
Only a tree – did i plant with my hands
By the calm banks of the Jordan
Only a path – did my feet tread
Over the fields.
So very meager –
I know this, motherland,
So very meager
Is your daughter’s offering:
Just the outburst of a joyful cry
At the daylight’s splendor,
Just tears hiding the leaves
Of your poverty.
(Translated by Rick Black)
Her haunting poem Shabbat gives a sense of the perfect sense of peace and contentedness of experiencing this holy day in the land of Israel:
Jordan’s shores: the light-filled sky.
A fishing skiff. I’ll lie down, drink in
This elixir of peace.
I’ll glance upwards: how splendorous the light!
And also within my heart, as in my childhood,
Not a single cloud’s shadow.
Now, I know: here – everything.
Beginning and end. All who are hungry
(Translated by Rick Black)
As Rachel’s disease progressed, she moved to Jerusalem where she taught French, Hebrew and agronomy. Later she lived for a time with her brother Yaakov Bluwstein-Sela, a brilliant linguist in Tel Aviv, then later on her own in a small apartment in the heart of Tel Aviv; many of her later poems describe her apartment and life there. As her health faltered, Rachel stopped writing. “Even so,” she confided in a letter to a friend, “isn’t it a wonderful feeling to be in print, to know that thousands of eyes are seeing what was first seen by your eyes alone?”
Rachel Bluwstein died in 1931 at the age of 41. She was buried by the shores of her beloved Sea of Galilee. Her poems continue to be read and millions of Israelis and visitors to the Jewish state continue to see her face on the 20 shekel bill.