20 September 1890|
Saratov, Russian Empire
16 April 1931 (aged 40)|
Tel Aviv, Mandatory Palestine
Rachel Bluwstein Sela (September 20 (Julian calendar), 1890 - April 16, 1931) was a Hebrew-language poet who immigrated to Israel, then part of the Ottoman Empire, in 1909. She is known by her first name, Rachel (Hebrew: , [?a'?el]), or as Rachel the Poetess ( ?, ).
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 Palestine 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.
In 1913, on the advice of Gordon, she journeyed to Toulouse, France to study agronomy and drawing. When World War I broke out, unable to return to Israel, 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. In 1919, after the war, she boarded the first ship to leave Russia to Israel.
She returned to Israel 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 the William Holman Hunt House at No. 64 Street of the Prophets in Jerusalem. She spent the rest of her life traveling and living in Tel Aviv, eking out 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.
Her early work was in Russian but she switched to 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 were published there on a weekly basis, and quickly became popular with the Jewish community in Palestine and later, the State of Israel.
Rachel is known for her lyrical style, the brevity of her poems, and the revolutionary simplicity of her conversational tone. The majority of her poetry is set in the pastoral countryside of the Land of 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 Israel 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 Ra'hel, 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
Later compilations and editions in Hebrew
Books in translation
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.