Rahel, Hebrew poetess, 1890-1931
Born and educated in Russia, Rahel (Bluwstein)'s early poems were written in her native language. She came to Eretz Yisrael in 1909 and was greatly influenced by the early halutz (pioneer), A.D. Gordon. In 1913, she went to France and then returned to Russia where she was a teacher, eventually returning to Eretz Yisrael in 1919 to become a member of Degania, the first kibbutz, where Gordon lived. She contracted consumption there, and references to her impending death are found in her later poems.
Rahel generally wrote simple, sensitive lyrics filled with symbolism. Her love of the countryside and nature is expressed in much of her work. Many of her poems have been put to music.
Rahel's grave, beneath a palm tree planted on the lake shore, has become an important pilgrimage site for those who recite or sing her poems.
Rachel Bluwstein was born on September 20, 1890 in Saratov, on the Volga River in Northern Russia. Her father, a former soldier in the Czar's army, was a rich merchant known for his piety and his generosity. Her mother, born into a long line of rabbis, was an educated woman. Rahel spent her childhood and youth in Poltava, in the Ukraine, where she learned Hebrew with a tutor, wrote her first verses in Russian, and became interested in painting.
In 1909, she and one of her sisters visited Palestine for what she thought would be a short visit before she returned to her studies in Europe. In Jaffa, she met Hannah Maizel, one of the first pioneers who had decided to created an institution where young women could learn agricultural techniques. The two sisters first moved to Rehovot, little more than a small village or moshava at the time, determined to learn Hebrew and spending only one hour a day speaking Russian for the ordinary tasks of every day life, and to recite poetry.
A year later, Rahel decided to find Hannah Maizel who was a salaried worker in an olive grove at the foot of Mount Carmel. Under her leadership, Rahel began to work in agriculture, seeking both self-realization and salvation in working the land, 'playing the shovel and painting on the earth.' In April 1911, Hannah and her students moved to Kinneret; Rahel is generally considered to be the first student in her agricultural school.
Rahel literally fell in love with the landscapes and personalities around Kinneret, including Gordon who lived in the country's first kibbutz, Degania - whom she called 'grandfather' and to whom she dedicated her first poems in Hebrew. Similarly, she dedicated her love poems to Robashov, a young pioneer who later became President of the State of Israel under the name Zalman Shazar. She considered herself destined to collect the echoes and memories preserved in the vestiges of abandoned sites around the lake.
In 1913, under pressure from Hannah Mazel, Rahel decided to leave Kinneret to study agronomy at the University of Toulouse in southern France. The First World War caught Rahel by surprise at the university in Toulouse where she was the only agronomy student. Unable to return to Palestine, she resigned herself to return to Odessa where she caught tuberculosis while caring for refugee children. After the war, she took the first boat for Palestine and lived first in kibbutz Degania where, despite her illness, she carried out the most difficult of tasks. Her health worsened, however, and she was forced to leave the kibbutz. In addition, she also had to stop working the land, to leave those whom she loved and the enthralling landscapes of the lake, above all.
She first moved to Petah Tikvah where she taught agronomy in a school for girls, and then to Jerusalem where, for four years, she contented herself with the meager earnings from her private courses. After a short stay in the Tzfat (Safed) hospital, she moved to Tel Aviv where she left her room only on rare occasions, attended to by her sisters and writing her poems from her bed. In 1930, she entered a sanitarium in Gedera.
Rahel died shortly thereafter in the hospital. Her friends decided to bury her on the lake shore that she had loved so much and where her poor health had made it impossible for her to live.
Rahel's poems were for the most part written during her last years and are typically very concise and clear. They would be set to music and be included in the national repertory of her people. A collection of her poems is hidden near her grave and pilgrims usually read excerpts from them.