The Private Life of a Zionist Poet and Pioneer Goes Online

In honor of the 82nd anniversary of Rachel the Poet's death, the Israel State Archives publishes a few dozen of the letters she wrote to her friend, confessing suffering and longing.

In one of the many letters Rachel Bluwstein, better known as Rachel the Poet, wrote to her childhood friend Shulamit, she admits to the disappointment of a writer who does not receive letters. “A special excitement grips a person when he opens his mailbox, with its tiny matching key, and takes out [a letter] ... But I haven’t taken anything out because who will write to me? Who cares about an old pepper mill like me?” she writes.

The passage comes from a series of 36 letters from Rachel to Shulamit that the Israel State Archives made available on its website last Thursday in honor of the 82nd anniversary of Rachel’s death. Most of the letters, which are being published for the first time, date from between the mid-1920s and Rachel's death from tuberculosis in 1931. They were donated several years ago from the collection of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second president and the brother of Shulamit Klugai – the friend to whom Rachel wrote, sometimes affectionately calling her "Shu."

“Like letters between close friends, these letters talk mainly about their private lives and not about enthusiasm about pioneering or Zionism,” says Michal Saft, who edited the collection of letters for the State Archive. “Rachel talks openly about her suffering, but displays optimism and humor at the same time. The letters shed light on her loves and her longing for true companionship and for love, but also reveal something of her ambivalence toward the solitude she experienced.”

A melancholy pioneer

Rachel was born in Russia in 1890. In 1909, when she was 19 years old, she visited the Land of Israel and decided to stay. In 1919, after several years studying agriculture in France and working in Russia, she returned to Israel and settled in Degania, an agricultural settlement on the shore of Lake Kinneret, also called the Sea of Galilee. She was later diagnosed with tuberculosis and drifted between Safed, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. She died on April 16, 1931, at the age of 40, 82 years ago this week.

Rachel and Shulamit were childhood friends. After coming to Israel separately, they renewed their friendship. Shulamit was a teacher and poet. Rachel wrote to her from the hospital in Safed and from Tel Aviv apartments on Hayarkon, Ben Yehuda and Bograshov Streets.

“I must tell you, Shu, that my heavy personality has made me hateful to the last of the Mohicans among my friends, and I am left alone, alone ... and, oddly enough, it is good for me, good for this hermit crab, so I think the cause of this severing of relationships goes deeper than mere wickedness,” Rachel writes in a letter that, like most of the others, is undated.

“The absence of a date on the letters is nothing extraordinary, and was characteristic of the people of the Second Aliyah,” writes Muki Tsur, a historian and biographer, in an accompanying essay on the website. “It seems that this stems from the unique sense of time that the pioneers felt.”

In the letters, Rachel often tells her friend about her difficulties with writing. “What’s new in the poetry world, Shu? I really haven’t written a thing these days, and I doubt I’ll write again. The fountain has run dry. But I read a great deal,” she writes in one letter. In another, she writes, “Have you written anything recently, Shulinka? I continue my rebellion – in other words, I don’t write, and that’s it. I’m referring poetry, and even if I don’t write any poems, I can still like them and read them aloud in the wilderness of my room.”

Rachel again mentions her writer’s block when talking about her relationship with Shneur Zalman Rubashov (later Zalman Shazar, Israel’s third president), a member of the editorial staff of the newspaper Davar, who encouraged her to write and publish her poetry. “Zalman contacted me, as he does from time to time, to bother me about writing material for the supplement," she writes. "Each time, as you can easily guess yourself, I swear by all I hold sacred on earth that I no longer write poetry. He listens with incredible patience and winks slyly ... I finally let him leaf through my notebook and he pulls out a tiny fish ... My health is not good, and my mood matches it. The days crawl by, crawl by.”

“Even so, 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?” she writes, revealing her joy at being published.

Fleeting joys, a lasting friendship

Rachel sent one letter in Russian, from an earlier period (around 1911), from Degania. According to Tsur, “The letter is perhaps the only document we have from that period, and it bears witness to her morale at the time.”

In one ecstatic part, Rachel writes, “Are you familiar with that sort of thing – I’ll call it a mood: the brain works feverishly; powerful, new, impassioned thoughts, like mountains at sunset. And yet the soul is quiet – not the quiet of death, no, but the quiet of ceremony, almost like of prayer. That kind of mood grips me when I come back from work in the far-off field. Ah! I would like to tell you, my dear, about the beauty that shines from my Sea of Galilee in the evening ... I love the Sea of Galilee endlessly – endlessly I love the Sea of Galilee!”

She later turns gloomy. “I live, as God is my witness, not badly," she writes. "There is only one thing: The longing for people consumes me. There were two young men here. One of them, it seems to me, you know ... and now both of them are leaving and I, left in my solitude, reach terrible conclusions that every one of us is just an episode in the life of another, and everything is so fragile, and everything is so accidental.”

In other letters, the tone is defeated throughout. “I don’t count the good relationships with ‘incidental’ acquaintances, since at this emotional time that I am going through, I need a stable and strong relationship that doesn’t crumble at a single word of anger and is capable of understanding and forgiving," Rachel writes. "Therefore, I have eliminated all my ‘incidental’ acquaintances.”

About Jerusalem, where she lived for a time, she writes, “I have been weaned from this city so quickly ... though I loved it with a romantic love that spoke to my heart and my intellect at the same time. I doubt that I will show myself to this winter’s winds and fires, but we’ll see.” In another letter, she writes: “Will you hear my voice? For a moment, it seemed to me that we were in Jerusalem and I was coming to visit you, and you turned on the white heater and covered me with your light brown coat ... Here, Shulinka, there is no such house, no house that will awaken in me the desire to go there.”

For her, Safed was connected with illness. “Every day I find dead flies, stifled by the fumes of boredom that I give off," she writes. "The Safed episode is about to end. A long and bitter chapter.... I am leaving Safed, the city that I once loved so much, and that I now find hateful.”

An additional ten letters that Rachel and Shulamit exchanged were published in 1985 in a book by the historian Uri Milstein, who is related to Rachel. “The biography of Rachel has not yet been entirely deciphered,” Tsur writes. “But occasionally, papers that have been hidden in archives surface, and they satisfy some of our thirst ... Rachel’s letters to Shulamit speak of terrible sadness, arouse empathy and sympathy and solve riddles about parts of her life. But mainly, they intensify our desire to know more about both of them.”

Yaron Kaminsky