Rachel Bluwstein Sela (September 20 (Julian calendar), 1890 – April 16, 1931) was a Hebrew poet who immigrated to Palestine in 1909. She is known by her first name, Rachel, (Hebrew: רחל) or as Rachel the poetess (Hebrew: רחל המשוררת).
Rachel was born in Saratov in Imperial Russia on September 20, 1890, the eleventh daughter of Isser-Leib and Sophia Bluwstein, and granddaughter of the rabbi of the Jewish community in Kiev. During her childhood, her family moved to Poltava, Ukraine, where she attended a Russian-speaking Jewish school and, later, a secular high school. She began writing poetry at the age of 15. When she was 17, she moved to Kiev and began studying painting.
At the age of 19, Rachel visited Eretz Israel with her sister en route to Italy, where they were planning to study art and philosophy. They decided to stay on as Zionist pioneers, learning Hebrew by listening to children’s chatter in kindergartens. They settled in Rehovot and worked in the orchards. Later, Rachel moved to Kvutzat Kinneret on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where she studied and worked in a women's agricultural school. At Kinneret, she met Zionist leader A. D. Gordon who was to be a great influence on her life, and to whom she dedicated her first Hebrew poem. During this time, she also met and had a romantic relationship with Zalman Rubshov—the object of many of her love poems—who later became known as Zalman Shazar and was the third president of Israel.
In 1913, on the advice of A. D. Gordon, she journeyed to Toulouse, France to study agronomy and drawing. When World War I broke out, unable to return to Palestine, she returned instead to Russia where she taught Jewish refugee children. In Russia she suffered from poverty and strenuous labour, as well as the reappearance of her childhood lung disease. It may have been at this point in her life that she contracted tuberculosis. Lonely, ill and famished, she had only one hope left: to return to Palestine. And so in 1919, after the war, she boarded the first ship to leave Russia to Israel
After the end of the war in 1919 she returned to Palestine on board the ship Ruslan and for a while joined the small agricultural kibbutz Degania, a settlement neighboring her previous home at Kinneret. However, shortly after her arrival she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, then an incurable disease.
Now unable to work with children for fear of contagion, she was expelled from Degania and left to fend for herself. In 1925 she lived briefly in a small white house in the courtyard of No. 64 Street of the Prophets in Jerusalem (courtyard of the William Holman Hunt House). She spent the rest of her life traveling and living in Tel Aviv (scarcely making a living by providing private lessons in Hebrew and French) and finally settled in a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients in Gedera.
Rachel died on April 16, 1931 in Tel Aviv, at the age of 40. She is buried in the Kinneret cemetery in a grave overlooking the Sea of Galilee, following her wishes as expressed in her poem If Fate Decrees. Alongside her are buried many of the socialist ideologues and pioneers of the second and third waves of immigration. Naomi Shemer was buried near Rachel, according to Shemer's wish.
Rachel began writing in Russian as a youth, but the majority of her work was written in Hebrew. Most of her poems were written in the final six years of her life, usually on small notes to her friends. In 1920 her first poem, Mood, was published in the Hebrew newspaper Davar. Eventually the majority of her poems was published there on a weekly basis, and quickly became popular with the Jewish community in the Palestine and later, in the State of Israel.
Rachel is known for her lyrical style, briefness of her poems, and the revolutionary simplicity of her conversational tone. The majority of her poetry is set in the pastoral countryside of Eretz Israel. Many of her poems echo her feelings of longing and loss, a result of her inability to realize her aspirations in life. In several poems she mourns the fact that she will never have a child of her own. Lyrical, exceedingly musical and characterized by its simple language and deep feeling, her poetry deals with fate, her own difficult life, and death. Her love poems emphasize the feelings of loneliness, distance, and longing for the beloved. It also touches upon the hardships and laments of a pioneer reminiscing of times spent in labouring on the land. Her lighter poetry is ironic, often comic. Her writing was influenced by French imagism, Biblical stories, and the literature of the Second Aliyah pioneers. Another major creative influence on Rachel’s poetry was the Acmeists and their leader, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Rachel’s style reflects the movement’s strive for “clarity, accuracy, conciseness, and economy of language” in poetry.
Rachel also wrote a one-act comic play Mental Satisfaction, which was performed but not published in her lifetime. This ironic vignette of pioneer life was recently rediscovered and published in a literary journal.
Rachel was the first Jewish woman poet in Palestine to receive recognition in a genre that was practiced solely by men. Anthologies of her poetry remain bestsellers to this day. Many of her poems were set to music, both during her lifetime and afterwards, and are widely sung by Israeli singers. Her poems are included in the mandatory curriculum in Israeli schools. A selection of her poetry was translated to English and published under the title Flowers of Perhaps: Selected Poems of Rahel, by the London publisher Menard. Poems by Rachel have been translated to English, German, Czech, Polish, Esperanto, Italian, Serbo-Croatian, Hungarian, Basque (by Benito Lertxundi) and Slovak.
In his foreword to the 1994 edition of Flowers of Perhaps, the acclaimed Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai stated: "What may be most remarkable about the poetry of Ra'hel, a superb lyric poet, is that it has remained fresh in its simplicity and inspiration for more than seventy years."
Poetry Books Published in Hebrew
- Aftergrowth, Davar, 1927 (Safiah, ספיח)
- Across From, Davar, 1930 (Mineged, מנגד)
- Nevo, Davar, 1932 (Nevo, נבו)
Later Compilations and Editions in Hebrew
- Poems, Davar, 1935 (Shirat Rachel, שירת רחל)
- The Poems and Letters of Rachel, in Manuscript, Hotza'at Kineret, 1969 (Shirei Rachel u-Mikhtaveiha bi-Khtav Yada שירי רחל ומכתביה בכתב ידה)
- Inside and Outside Home (children), Sifriat Poalim, 1974 (Ba-Bayit U Va-Hutz, בבית ובחוץ)
- As Rachel Waited, Tamuz, 1982 [Ke-Chakot Rachel, כחכות רחל]
- Poems, Letters, Writings, Dvir, 1985 (Shirim, Mikhtavim, Reshimot, שירים, מכתבים, רשימות)
- In My Garden, Tamuz, 1985 (Be-Gani Neta`atikha, בגני נטעתיך)
- Will You Hear My Voice, Bar, 1986 (Ha-Tishma Koli, התשמע קולי)
- Rachel's Poems, Sridot, 1997 (Shirei Rachel, שירי רחל)
Books in Translation
- English: Flowers of Perhaps: Selected Poems of Rahel London, Menard, 1995, ISBN 1-874320-02-0
- German: Berlin, Hechalutz, 1936; Tel Aviv, Davar, 1970
- Spanish: Barcelona, Riopiedras, 1985
- Yiddish: Winnipeg, WIZO U.S.A. and Canada, 1932
- Buenos Aires, Kium Farlag, 1957
Individual poems have been published in Afrikaans, Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, English, Esperanto, French, Frisian, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Romanian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovak, Spanish, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, Welsh, and Yiddish.
- She was born in Saratov according to Encyclopaedia Hebraica and the book "Rachel" (ed. Uri Milshtein, 1993.) According to Biography and bibliography from the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, she was born in Vyatka (later renamed Kirov).
- Grishaver, Joel L., and Barkin, Josh. Artzeinu: An Israel Encounter. Los Angeles: Torah Aura Productions, 2008. 99. Google Books. Web. October 25, 2011.
- Band, Ora. Modern Hebrew Prose and Poetry. West Orange, NJ: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2003. 826. ebook3600. PDF file.
- “Bluwstein, Rachel.” Encyclopedia of Modern Jewish Culture. 2004. ebrary. Web. October 25, 2011.
- Green, Michael (August 7, 2008). "Whose Property?". The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 2010-06-30.
- Jewish Women in Pre-State Israel: Life History, Politics, and Culture, Ruth Kark, Margalit Shilo, Galit Hasan-Rokem
- Kerbel, Sorrel. Jewish Writers of the Twentieth Century. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2003. 826. ebrary. Web. October 25, 2011.
- Eisenberg, Ronald L. The Streets of Jerusalem: Who, What, Why. Israel: Devora Publishing, 2006. 159. Google Books. Web. October 25, 2011.
- Mendels, Doron. On Memory: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Germany: Peter Lang, 2007. 344. Google Books. Web. October 25, 2011.
- All About Jewish Theatre – Hidden play by Israeli poet Rachel Bluwstein (1890–1931) at www.jewish-theatre.com
- Nadav Shemer, Jerusalem Post, 3/10/2011
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Rachel Bluwstein.|
- Biography and bibliography from the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
- (English) Rachel's Poetry at Poems Found in Translation
- (Hebrew) Full text of Rachel's poetry
- (English) Rachel/Mood (basic translation of her poem "Helech Nefesh")