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Rachel Bluwstein (1890-1931), Hebrew Poetess and Pioneer: “The Parade in White Passed By” – Part One

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(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic Area Specialist, African and Middle Eastern Division. The 1st of a 2-part article focuses on the life of Rachel Bluwstein via memoirs written by family and friends and by the poetess herself, presented here in English translation.)

Portrait of a young poetess. Rachel Bluwstein. (Saratov,1890 – Tel-Aviv, 1931)

Most of us recall the biblical Rachel: the wife of Jacob; the one he met at the well when she came to water her flocks; the one for whom he had to work seven years. That’s the “Rachel,” so to speak, the Rachel of Jewish tradition, and so it has been for thousands of years. But today in Israel there is another Rachel and that is the one we see here: Rachel Bluwstein. This Rachel was a Hebrew poetess, and so beloved in Israel that she, too, is known only by her first name. Many of her poems have been set to music, recorded by some of Israel’s best-known singers, and are so intertwined with daily life you can hardly imagine Israel without them. Everyone knows the words to these songs, and when they come over the radio people tend to pause and listen, and perhaps sing softly along. But what do most Israelis really know about Rachel? That she died young, that there was a sad romance connected with her life, that she never married – it is all part of the persona. Now, Rachel did die young, from tuberculosis; and she did indeed have a sad romance, and in fact two or three. But there was so much more to her life than that.

*   *   *

Rachel grew up in the city of Poltava, in the Ukraine. Her father, Isser Bluwstein, started life as a “cantonist,” that is, as one of the many young Jewish boys forcibly conscripted into the Russian army for 25 years. These children were usually taken young – often as young as 8 or 9 – placed in special garrison schools far from their families, and then recruited into military service. Isser Bluwstein, Rachel’s father, seems to have cut quite a dashing figure in the army, taking part in daring raids and winning renown as a fearless soldier. These qualities apparently served him well in civilian life, because on leaving the army – at the age of 33 – he moved to a town on the border of Siberia and quickly made a fortune in the fur trade and in real estate. Now, unlike many other child conscripts, Isser never forgot that he was Jewish and when he married, he married a Jewish woman. They had four children. Then, when his wife died, he married again, and this second wife, Sofia Mandelshtam, was Rachel’s mother. Together they had eight more children. Sofia Mandelshtam was the daughter of the Chief Rabbi of Kiev and a very educated woman. She corresponded with several famous writers in her day, among them the great Tolstoy himself, who called her one of the most intellectual women he knew. But Sofia Mandelshtam had other qualities as well. When our budding Hebrew poetess had trouble learning the Hebrew prayers as a child, her mother comforted her, saying “It doesn’t matter. All God cares about is what’s in your heart.”

While still quite young, Rachel developed the first signs of lung problems and she was sent to the Crimea on the shores of the Black Sea to recuperate. Lisa, her eldest sister, went with Rachel to help take care of her (Milstein, Rahel). Some years later, Lisa wrote about their time on the shores of the Black Sea, there in what she called “the city of pine trees:”

In the city of pine trees, Rachel would lie hour after hour in a hammock, book in hand. Sometimes she sketched a bit, but she tired so easily. She liked it when I recited poetry to her. So I recited poetry. But what was she thinking about as I stood there declaiming? Was it only me she was listening to? The next day, I found a sheet of paper on her desk, on which she had written these lines:

Tell about the young plane tree / tell about the living god.
Oh, how magical your words are; they conjure up visions from afar.
Tell about old Rabbi Eli / and about the bouquet of thistles.
Then the very pine trees will heed you / and the light of twilight will harken.

*   *   *

After the death of her mother at the age of 16, Rachel went with her sister Shoshana to live with Lisa in Kiev and finish high school. After that, the two sisters planned to continue their studies in Italy: Rachel dreamed of becoming a painter; Shoshana wanted to study literature and philosophy. So in 1909, they went to the great port city of Odessa and boarded a ship bound for Italy. The ship was scheduled to stop in Palestina for a few days, and Rachel and Shoshana looked forward to seeing the Holy Land like good tourists and then continuing on to Italy. But when they reached Jaffa, something happened. Shoshana, who was later to write her memoirs, attributes that something to their very first sight of the ancient port of Jaffa. But whatever it was, the next thing we know, the two sisters are raising their right hands, vowing never to leave their new homeland, and topping it all off by singing Ha-Tikvah – already Israel’s national anthem, so to speak. And all this before they even stepped off the boat.

A view of the old port of Jaffa, taken by photographer Leo Kann not long after the two Bluwstein sisters first saw it. “Palastina im Bild.” Vienna, 1912. Hebraic Section, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

After that, things got decidedly less romantic. The waters around Jaffa were too shallow to allow the ship near the shore, so strong Arab porters waded out to get the passengers, and our two heroines entered the Holy Land piggyback. They and all their possessions were unceremoniously dumped on the beach, and after some kind soul helped them collect their belongings, they went off to find a hotel. The next day, Shoshana and Rachel went to Rehovot, one of the very earliest agricultural colonies in the country, founded in the late 19th century by Jews from Russia and Poland. Shoshana, in her memoirs, described their stay in picturesque fashion. The first order of the day? Learning Hebrew! They studied a few hours ever day with “a charming young man named Judah” and even resorted to the local kindergarten, to see how children did it. At first, they vowed to speak only Hebrew, but then gave themselves an hour every day, just before sunset, to let their tongues run loose in Russian and, of course, to recite to each other the Russian poems they loved so much. Then, when the stars came out, back to Hebrew they went. Shoshana gives a vivid picture of their life amongst the other young people in Rehovot, the sons and daughters of the original settlers and the young laborers who, like the two sisters, had just come from Russia.

Every day after work, we would all go up the so-called “Hill of Love” at the edge of the colony and just sing and sing. After a while, our younger sister Bathsheba joined us. Bathsheba was only 17 but already studying piano at the music conservatory in Leipzig. Our father sent us money and we bought a piano in Jaffa. Towards evening, Bathsheba would run to the piano and serenade the laborers coming back from the fields and the vineyards. In no time at all, our room became the social and cultural hub for all the young people in Rehovot and for young Jews from all over the region (Shoshana Bluwstein, p. 42).

Two views of the new Jewish colony of Rehovot. Left: the local kindergarten (where Rachel and her sister went to learn from the children). Leo Kann. “Palastina im Bild.” Vienna, 1912. Hebraic Section, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.
Two views of the new Jewish colony of Rehovot. Right: portrait of a local Jewish guard wearing the traditional Arab kefiyyeh. Leo Kann. “Palastina im Bild.” Vienna, 1912. Hebraic Section, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

All this sounds like wonderful fun, but fun was not what the two sisters had in mind. As Shoshana notes, the pioneering ideals of the age affected them like wine. They may have come to the land as tourists, but now, like most of the other young Jews coming to Palestina, they wanted to be workers! They were burning to drain the swamps and to clear the fields; to till the soil and plant trees. So the two sisters left Rehovot (and presumably their piano) and went to a training farm for young women that had just been established up north right on the Sea of Galilee, which in Hebrew is called the Kinneret, in deference to its harp-like shape.

(To be continued)

Additional Readings and Sources:

Note: all of Rachel’s poems are now in the public domain and freely accessible via the Ben-Yehuda Project.

Uri Milstein, “Rahel: Shirim, Mikhtavim, Reshimot, Korot Hayeiha.” Zemora Beitan, 1985.

Shoshana Bluwstein, “Rahel,” in Devar ha-Po’elet, Vol 1, 1934, pp. 42-45.

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