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

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

View of the training farm for young women founded by Chana Maisel on the shores of the Kinneret [Sea of Galilee]. Picture taken by Leo Kann, “Palastina im Bild.” Vienna, 1912. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division Hebraic Section.

The training farm in which the two sisters, Rachel and Shoshana Bluwstein, now found themselves had been founded by an extraordinary woman named Chana Maisel, who believed that women deserved to be laborers no less than the menfolk, and that women were just as worthy of breaking their backs. Which they did, and we have some wonderful footage to prove it. A brief film clip now preserved in the Spielberg Archive of Jewish Films in Jerusalem shows the young women at work in the training farm in 1913, just one year after Rachel left (Spielberg, Archive). Yet even if we missed getting Rachel’s portrait in celluloid, a portrait of another kind has come down to us, this one through the words of a young man named Zalman Rubashov, or Zalman Shazar as he is better known today. Now, Rubashov was eventually to become the 3rd president of the State of Israel, but at the time he describes he was just another young pioneer, fresh off the boat from Russia. He describes his first glimpse of Rachel, whom he espied from the hills high above the Sea of Kinneret after climbing all night through the mountains. From that vantage point, he was able to look down at the high stone wall surrounding Chana Meisel’s Training Farm and beyond that to the waters of the Kinneret itself, sparkling serenely in the first flush of dawn. Imagine his surprise, then, when the stillness of this vision was broken by the most tremendous din of winged creatures as a whole troupe of snow-white geese came tumbling through the gate set in the middle of that wall, quacking and squawking as only geese can do and covering the hill in a moment. And then imagine his even greater surprise when he saw that the noisy throng was being conducted by a young shepherdess “white of dress, graceful as a gazelle, beautiful as the Kinneret,” and all in lilting Hebrew that rang through the hills. “I held my breath,” Rubashov recalled, many years after that incredible scene had taken place, “and concealed myself behind the wall till the parade in white passed by.” That shepherdess, needless to say, was Rachel Bluwstein (Rubashov, p. 60).

Rachel wrote with great love about this period in her life. “We used to waken the dawn,” she recalled:

A second earlier, and it almost seemed like we might have taken the night by surprise. A first quick glance at the Kinneret, at this hour sunk in slumber, somewhat dark within the rim of blue hills still fast asleep. How does the day pass at Kinneret? The dawn rose as we started to work. There were 14 of us. Blistered hands, bare legs tanned and scratched, determined faces, burning hearts. The very air rang with our songs, our chatter, our laughter. Hoes and shovels going up and down without stopping. You might pause for just a second, wipe away the sweat on your brow with the edge of your keffiyeh, and throw a loving glance at the lake. How beautiful! Blue, blue beyond words, soothing to the soul, healing. I remember we planted eucalyptus trees in the swamps, at the spot where the Jordan leaves the Kinneret and runs southwards, tumbling over the rocks. Afterwards, more than one of us would lie awake at night, shivering on her cot with malaria. But none of us ever stopped feeling grateful for our fate; no, not for a single moment. We worked with a sense of exaltation. On the Sabbath I would go out to rest in the hills nearby. How many winding crevices, how many wonderful hiding places and green riverbeds! If only one could stay there forever (Al Sefat ha-Kinneret).

In the vegetable gardens of Kinneret. Leo Kann. “Palastina im Bild.” Vienna, 1912. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division Hebraic Section.

But Rachel did not stay there forever. She left two years later for France, to study agriculture at the university in Toulouse, with the encouragement of Chana Maisel herself. Shmuel Dayan, later the father of the famous Moshe Dayan, did his best to talk her out of leaving, but Rachel said: “I’ll come back in two years and turn this land into a garden.” Only, by the time she returned, seven years had passed, not two, and nothing was ever the same again.

World War I erupted just as Rachel was finishing her studies, and as a Russian citizen she was not allowed to remain in France. Nor could she go back to Palestine, still under Ottoman rule. The only place she could go was Russia, just about the last place, one imagines, she wanted to be. She ended up in the city of Odessa on the shores of the Black Sea and supported herself by working with Jewish refugee children. During the war years, the Jews in the Russian Pale of Settlement were displaced by the millions. Jewish newspapers from the period were full of reports about the growing swell of refugees and of the efforts of Jewish organizations worldwide to help them.

Rachel loved working with the children, but when the war finally ended, she boarded the very first ship headed for Palestine. She went straight to Kibbutz Degania, founded right next to her old training school on the shores of her beloved Kinneret. But it soon became clear that she had developed tuberculosis during her years away, apparently during her work with the refugee children. Tuberculosis was an extremely contagious disease, much dreaded in the days before vaccines, and the kibbutz was not equipped to handle Rachel’s illness, apparently in more ways than one. It was built on the principle of labor, and in those early, uncompromising days there was just no room for anyone unable to work. One night, the kibbutz secretary came to her room, sat on the edge of her bed, and told her she would have to leave, saying, as Rachel was later to recall, “You are sick, and we are healthy.” She left, without saying goodbye to anyone.

“Mi-Neged” (“Across from”). Rachel’s second volume of poetry (Tel-Aviv, 1930). On the flyleaf of the Library’s copy of the first edition, mottled by age, are lines from two different poems handwritten by the poet herself. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division Hebraic Section.

The remaining years of her life were spent mostly in Jerusalem and in Tel-Aviv. She moved from one rented room to another and supported herself as best she could, mostly by giving private lessons in French and in Hebrew. But it was also during these years and in these rented rooms that Rachel wrote the Hebrew poems that have made her so beloved today. She began by publishing in the literary supplement of Davar, an important Hebrew daily in Tel-Aviv, and readers around the country were soon eagerly awaiting the publication of the supplement every Friday, to see if it contained a new poem by Rachel.

Rachel’s voice was a very unusual one in the period, with none of the fire and brimstone we find in the poetry of her male counterparts. She found beauty where she could, and the pear tree that flowered just outside one of those rented rooms in Jerusalem is now probably the most famous tree in Israel thanks to the poem in which Rachel immortalized its white shower of beauty (no. 17 in “Safiah”). Yet for all its sense of wonder, the poem is not without humor and even a gentle irony at Spring’s “conspiracy” against despair:

Pear Tree
Spring had a hand in this: a person wakes up
and through the window he sees
a flowering pear tree
and all at once this mountain that weighed on his heart
crumbles and ceases to be.

You get it: no one can continue to grieve
over his one single flower
that winter’s cruel wind swept away
when a smiling spring comes right to his window
and presents him with a giant bouquet!

From those bleak rented rooms, Rachel looked back at her days in the fields of the Kinneret and at the teeming life just outside her window in Tel-Aviv. Her sense of loss, of being barred from all she had wanted out of life, finds poignant expression in the title of her second volume of poetry, “Mi-Neged” (“Across from”). The title refers to the biblical story of Moses, gazing down from Mount Nevo at the Promised Land he was not allowed to enter. But it was also this sense of loss which distilled her love of the land into some of the most beautiful poems ever written in modern Hebrew. And thanks to these poems, that “parade in white” so lovingly evoked by Zalman Shazar has perhaps not quite passed us by after all.

Additional Readings and Sources:

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

The Spielberg Jewish Film Archives. The clip mentioned here comes from the silent film “Banim Bonim” (known in English as “Land of Promise”), released in 1924. See in particular the wonderful scene at 24:00 in which the women workers in Kinneret knock over a wagon of hay and then look wide-eyed at the camera.

Zalman Rubashov, “Orah ha-Zarua’” (“Her Scattered Light”), published in “Rachel ve-shiratah” (“Rachel and her Poetry”), Tel Aviv: Davar, 1946, pp. 56-64.

Rachel Bluwstein, “Al Sefat ha-Kinneret” (“On the Shores of the Kinneret”). The entire essay can be accessed via the Ben-Yehuda Project.

Rachel Bluwstein, “Safiah” (“Aftergrowth”). Tel-Aviv, 1926. Also available digitally via the Ben-Yehuda Project referenced above.

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