Miss Bluwstein Rachel

Rachel, better known as Rachel the Poetess in Israel, lived an almost clichéd life of a poet. Coming from a large family, number 11 of twelve, she was introduced to literature and the arts as a child. She began writing poetry at a young age, at first in Russian, only later in Hebrew. She was free with her love, her social circle was comprised of many of the main Zionist thinkers of the time, and when she found herself trapped back in Europe during WWI, she went to work in a children’s orphanage where she contracted tuberculosis. The disease would plague her the rest of her life, eventually forcing her to leave Kibbutz Degania, near the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and live out the rest of her life in Tel Aviv. It was here, in the last years of her life, that she wrote most of her poetry. She died at the age of 40 and was buried overlooking her beloved Kinneret. This is the story told in “Miss Bluwstein Rachel”, (one of a series titled “The Hebrews”).

It is perhaps in the waves Kinneret lapping the shores that Rachel found her voice. Having arrived in Palestine without speaking Hebrew, she and her sister learned from listening to young children, who themselves were too acclimating to the new language. Eventually she made her way to Kvutzat Kinneret on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where she studied and worked in a women’s agricultural school and became involved with many of the luminaries of the Zionist movement, including A.D. Gordon, with whom she had a dialog. However, while in this circle, she stayed on the fringes, looking in from the outside, never comfortable becoming a full member of this group. Later, after coming back from Europe, she found herself drawn again to the shores of the Kinneret.

Her poetry reflects both the simplistic nature of the method by which she learned her Hebrew and the fluidity of the Sea of Galilee. Additionally, she was exposed to trends in art from around the world that many of her peers were unaware of, or flat out rejected. She absorbed all these influences and integrated them into her art. At times derided for her language, it is that very same language that solidified her place in the pantheon of Israeli poets. Not surprisingly, many of her poems have been put to music as her language, already musical, adapts easily to the medium. The film takes advantage of this with a guitarist composing music to her poetry on the spot. I imagine that even to a non-Hebrew speaker, the flow of her words can be picked up with no need to understand their meaning. The film also uses short animated segments to depict Rachel at work, with her thick hair flowing out, looking like the flow of ink to the paper. However it could just as easily be the waves of the Sea of Galilee as they ebb and tide through her mind, influencing her writing.

The impact of Rachel’s poetry has left an impression far outlasting the short life of its creator. Like many of the others who left an outsized imprint on the newly revived Hebrew language, her legacy is found in the ongoing popularity of her works. The film is a lasting testament to a poet for the ages. Watch the full movie

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The Raven – Vladimir Zeev Jabotinsky

There is an easy tendency to consider Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s legacy as a purely political effort. After all, he did establish Revisionist Zionism, the ancestor of today’s modern Likud party. In the pre state era it stood as the main ideological competitor to the dominant social Labor Zionists, and in considering today’s political landscape and length of time in which the Likud has maintained the Israeli Premiership, it would seem that it has far surpassed its earlier competitor. However, the film “The Raven” (one of a series titled “The Hebrews”), only delves into Jabotinsky’s political life insofar as it relates to his other, and in many ways more lasting achievement, as one of the voices involved in the fabrication of the modern Hebrew language. His use of language, particularly in his translations, did wonders for enriching the emerging tongue. Coming up with new and interesting methods to not only change the words into Hebrew, he also conceived of new additions to convey meaning and tone, the underlying cultural subtext of language that often gets lost in translation.

Quite possibly the most amazing thing about Jabotinsky’s life, is that even though he was a high school dropout, he became a man of letters in 8 or 9 different languages, attaining proficiency in almost all of them. When he chose to improve his Hebrew, he elected not to rely on the use of a dictionary, but rather with warts and all make his mistakes as they come. In the process he refined his language abilities, which would become useful later as a translator.

It wasn’t until later in his life that he became interested in the Jewish issue. The early part of his life the connection with his people was trivial at best. It took a train ride, in third class, through the heart of Eastern European Jewry to expose him to what would ultimately transform him into one of the most influential Jewish Zionist figures. He would say that he heard more Yiddish in that one train ride, then all his previous life. The intensity of his experience would change him forever.

Of course, it wasn’t just his way with the burgeoning Hebrew language. He proposed and eventually succeeded in establishing the Jewish Legion of the British Army, the first Jewish fighting force in nearly 2,000 years, not to mention Jewish self-defense groups in Russia. He also had a vision for moving the bulk of Polish Jews to Palestine, in 1936, years before the actual outbreak of war and the implementation of “The Final Solution”. The plan stalled when the British government prevented it.

Without a doubt Ze’ev Vladimir Jabotinsky was a man of many layers. His everlasting impact on the Jewish people, and the Zionist project in Palestine is felt even today. That is in contrast to the end of his life. He never did find his way as a Zionist leader in the land of Israel. After the British banned him from Palestine, he wandered the world. This more properly fit his cosmopolitan attitudes. In spite of his military life, he preferred the acculturated lifestyle. And perhaps that is fitting for a man of letters who profoundly changed not only the politics of the Jews, but the way in which their ancient language became a modern, living breathing entity. Watch the full movie

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Zelda: A Simple Woman

It’s not surprising that the poet Zelda was a descendent of Rabbinic dynasties on both sides of her family. In fact, on her father’s side she was the first cousin of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Chabad Rabbi. Her roots are reflected not only in her poetry, but in the way she lived her life, which is examined in “Zelda: A Simple Woman”, (part of the series “The Hebrews”).

Like many other of the poets in the series, she was not born in Palestine, however she did arrive at a young age, 12, with her parents. Soon after her father died, and she was left to care for her mother. This was to be a defining characteristic of Zelda. In some ways being responsible for her mother led her to poetry. She wanted to become a painter, but after her mother fell ill shortly after she began her studies in Jerusalem, Zelda returned to her. Unable to complete a formal education in painting, she turned to poetry. She also began teaching at this time.

Much later, when her and her mother moved back to Jerusalem, at the age of 36, she met Hayim Mishovsky and married him. He fell ill soon after their marriage, and along with her mother she cared for him as well. He encouraged her writing. It was after her marriage that she gave up teaching to write full time. Hayim would celebrate the release of each of her new poems. In all aspects it was a happy marriage. His passing away would affect her greatly, and would be reflected in her works afterwards. As one of those interviewed in the film remark, many of the Hebrew poets dealt with loneliness and loss too. However, it was Zelda who uniquely dealt with the loneliness and loss of widowhood in her poetry.

After Hayim’s passing, childless, Zelda took in boarders, young women, students who became devoted to her. It seems like she always had to be caring for someone.

Her poetry is highly spiritual while at the same time quite direct, and her deep faith can be seen in her words. It is complex, layered with religious meaning. While one does not need an understanding of Judaism to appreciate the meaning of her work, they do assume the reader possess this knowledge, and doing so gives access to these deeper layers. In fact, one of her poems, “Every Person Has A Name”, which has achieved mythical status as the poem recited during Holocaust memorial services, while on the surface seems simple, is in reality a highly complex narrative on the nature of man.

One of the fascinating aspects of the film, is as a persona who lived during relatively recent times, we have film footage of Zelda talking and reading her poetry. This the movie uses to great effect. The dichotomy between the complexity of her words, and her simple, unadorned visage, bring us closer to this phenomenal woman. It would not be a stretch to think that in another life and time, she herself would have been a Hassidic Rabbi, surrounded by her court of followers. Instead, the world was blessed with a brilliant poet in “Zelda: A Simple Woman”.

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Brenner – The Awakener

Writers often live larger than life, and the few who reach a lofty height of acknowledgment in their own lifetimes, can have their passing celebrated as well. However, it is not often that the circumstances of their death become a story in and of themselves, and cast a shadow on their accomplishments. That is what happened on May 2, 1921 in the “Red House” just outside of Jaffa, Palestine to the Hebrew writer Yosef Haim Brenner. The film “The Awakener”, (one of the series “The Hebrews”, depicting important writers of the Hebrew language), uses this event to frame the life of one of the most important figures of the reawakening of Hebrew as a modern literary language.

Like many of the early Zionist, Brenner was born to a religious family and spent time studying in yeshivas (institutes of higher Jewish learning), until at the age of 12 he met Uri Nissan Gnessin the son of the yeshiva head and himself an important figure in the revival of Hebrew literature. Somewhat controversially, director Yair Qedar choose this relationship to remark on Brenner’s possible homosexuality. While it is still up for debate among scholars as to the nature of Brenner’s sexuality, it is clear that this relationship not only fundamentally changed him, but had a unique intimacy. When he did marry, for a short period of time, he named his only son after his friend. It was also as a result of the friendship that Brenner seriously turned to writing. His possible sexuality and depression (whether brought about by that, or simply his nature), clearly had an effect on his writing.

Beyond his actual writing, what solidified Brenner in the pantheon of Hebrew writers, was the journal he started after arriving in London. Titled “HaMe’orer” (The Awakener, hence the title of the film), it served as the only Hebrew language publication at the time that was dedicated to Hebrew as a specific literary language.

Like many of his contemporaries, he only came to Palestine at a late age. At first he tried manual labor but very quickly came to the conclusion that it wasn’t for him. So he went back to what he knew, writing and publishing.

Eventually he found himself living on the outskirts of Jaffa in the eponymous Red House. It was there that he would find his end. The previous day violence had broken out between Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, and the residents of the Red House were requested to evacuate it. For various reasons Brenner did not. It was that decision that would end his life at the age of 40, having not seen his son since he was a small child and left Palestine with his mother.

The film approaches Brenner’s murder by utilizing the police reports to create a kind of true crime docudrama wrapping the biography of the writer. Using the actual words from the reports, from witnesses, the policemen on the scene, etc. gives a sense of foreboding to the already grim tale. While paradoxical to his Zionist beliefs, Brenner would not have wanted to become a Zionist symbol, nevertheless, that is what he became in death. However, his true testament is the words he left behind in “awakening” Hebrew as a modern, literary language.

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The Seven Tapes – Yona Wallach

There are transformative artists who burst onto the scene with such raw power and explosiveness, that it is impossible to ignore them. Their voice, so unique that even in their own times they are recognized for who and what they are. So, it’s not surprising that the energy of poet Yona Wallach comes through in the film “The Seven Tapes”, (one of the series “The Hebrews”, detailing those literary voices who transformed the Hebrew language). The title of the film comes from an interview of Wallach in 1984, shortly before she died of cancer. It was only more than 25 years later that these tapes were found.

The film itself is divided according to each of the tapes. We are able to hear her voice, as she reflects back on her life. She grew up without her father, who was killed in the Israeli War of Independence, and spent much of her childhood unsupervised at her mother’s place of work, the movie theatre. Already as a child she lived in a fantastical world. Later, she was admitted, for the first of two times to a psychiatric hospital. There she submitted to psychological experiments with LSD, something that was common at the time. The film posits that her poetry may have come about from a case of an untreated (or improperly treated) mental illness. For that matter, how much did the residual affects of her LSD treatments factor in?

Whatever the source of her creativity, without a doubt she was something new in Hebrew literature. There is a beating heart of sexuality in her works, clearly reflecting its creator. She was as much a creator as a member of the bohemian community of Tel Aviv of the 1960s, and its attendant sexual mores and drug use (not unlike as was happening elsewhere in the world). In fact, in the film one of her boyfriends remarks that when he first met her, he was unclear who in the house was a friend, lover, or otherwise, male or female. This wild scene is ironic, as later in her life she decried the imposition people made on her time, that it interfered with her writing.

Without a doubt she was a product of her times. It would be difficult to consider the rawness of her poetry, the sexuality which she exuded being accepted in an earlier era. Her poetry is rife with gender word play, which fits her persona. She did not accept that there was a difference in the poetry of women or men. Beyond her poetry, she lived according to the sexual norms of men.

Like other films in the series, it utilizes animations of the poems in an attempt to visualize the written word, with each animation fitting the style of the respective poet. In this film they are restless and explosive, like their creator. But underlying all the energy is a loneliness. Whether she just had an untreated mental disease, or it was something else, without a doubt Yona Wallach was a force unlike any seen before in the Hebrew literary scene, as she narrates herself in her “Seven Tapes”.

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The 5 Houses of Lea Goldberg

In 1969 the poet Lea Goldberg filled out a questionnaire of the Israeli writers’ guild. In it she was asked how many books she had written. “Too many”, she answered. To the question, “Where can one see you?” she gave her home address and visiting hours as an answer. Asked if she’d write her life story for the guild, she answered: “I will not write an autobiography”. A few months later she passed away. In many ways these enigmatic answers encapsulated the poet. Even though she did not herself write an autobiography, we have the documentary “The Five Houses of Lea Goldberg” to introduce us to her life story and contributions to Hebrew literature. (The film is one of a series, “The Hebrews”, about the writers who contributed to the development of Hebrew literature).

The film’s title is a reference to one of Goldberg’s most famous children’s book, “A Flat for Rent”. It relates the tale of an apartment building made up of five different floors, where each one is occupied by a different animal tenant. When one moves out, it leave a flat open for rent. It is a story about coexistence and a thinly veiled metaphor for the communal harmony of the kibbutz. It was here, with children’s stories, that Goldberg found great success. Many of her works are still considered classics of children’s literature.

Much like other poets, there is a thread of loneliness that weaves through her work. The film traces this to the single moment when her father was taken from her when the family was crossing the Lithuanian border when she was eight years old. As a result of WWI the Goldberg family was forced to wander Russia. When they eventually made their way back home, they were stopped at the border. Her father was wearing yellow shoes, with a reddish hue. This was enough to accuse him of being a communist. Every day, for ten days he is threatened with a fake execution, until her mother decided to take action, leaving Lea all alone to guard their belongings. This time of solitude would stay with her for the rest of her life. Though they did manage to return to their home, her father never recovered emotionally from the incident. It is at this time that Lea begins her schooling and is discovered to be an excellent student. By the age of fifteen, she already saw herself as a writer, as a way out of her lonely existence.

Eventually she did gain the lofty status of wordsmith, not just for her works, but also as a senior lecturer in literature at the Hebrew University, eventually as the head of the Department of Comparative Literature.

For a woman who gave so much joy to children through her books and poetry, she never married, never had a child of her own. She lived with her mother until her death at the age of 58 from lung cancer. Perhaps it was that seminal event from her childhood that sent her into loneliness, but grew her imagination. Whatever the case, it is clear that there is a room open for all of us in “The Five Houses of Leah Goldberg”.

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A Song of Loves – Rabbi David Buzaglo

Every art has always had its rock stars, those outstanding individuals feted for their artistic creations, who lived larger than life to their fans. Over the ages these figures have popped up in numerous professions, but each with the same type of identifiers. Though one would not automatically connect this lifestyle with rabbis, this was the case with Rabbi David Buzaglo who served as a link between the modern and the ancient sounds of the Spanish Jewry’s Golden Age. In A Song of Loves, (one of the series “The Hebrews”), his immense contribution to Hebrew liturgical poetry of the 20th century, and the impact he had among the Moroccan Jewish community of Israel is examined.

Born in Morocco, he was attracted at an early age to music, not just sacred, but secular as well. As his star ascended he performed in virtually every venue possible, with all the stars of his day to audiences of all stripes. Unlike most other practitioners of religious music, he didn’t hesitate to integrate the sounds and melodies that he heard in the night clubs where he appeared on stage as well. This type of ‘fusion’ he brought to his performances of religious music at weddings, bar mitzvahs, circumcision ceremonies, in fact he performed anywhere he could, drawing huge audiences, Jewish and Gentile as well. After a time this took its toll on him. He felt ‘seduced’ by the secular world, that he could not stand up to the temptations it offered. Around this time his eldest son died. Swearing off performances with the secular orchestras he once spent so much time with, he rededicated his life to the sacred.

Going blind, he eventually moves to the new State of Israel. This would prove to be a god send for the displaced communities of the Maghreb. Facing discrimination as non-European Jews, on the one hand they were told that their culture was unacceptable in the new land, but at the same time, the powers that be refused them access to Western culture. The arrival of Rabbi Buzaglo rallied them, giving them a cultural anchor with one of the greats from the old country. Once again he was able to connect the old and the new.

But he didn’t just recreate the performing life he left behind. He continued as an active poet, writing some of the most multifaceted lyrical Hebrew poetry. Hebrew is a language based on a three consonant root system for words. He took those roots and weaving around variations of their compositions, created highly complex poetic tongue twisters that played in and within themselves to provide layers of meaning. And unlike other liturgical poets, he left behind the ancient cry for Zion to embrace the new State of Israel in his writings. This likely led to his deep depression following the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

After the war he didn’t leave his home, passing away two years later. Having transcended his early lifestyle of excess, he left behind a rich legacy of liturgical poetry that still sings out to this day. His influence on the Hebrew language and literature is truly a A Song of Loves.

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Bialik: King of the Jews

In “Bialik: King of the Jews”, (one of a series entitled “The Hebrews”), one of the experts interviewed rightly corrects the title by proclaiming Hayim Nahman Bialik, not “King of the Jews”, but rather “King of the Hebrews”. It is a fitting title for a writer that had such a profound influence on Modern Hebrew language while in its infancy. In fact, even he preceded Ben Yehuda’s work, his poetry is still accessible to the modern reader. From Odessa to Palestine, his words reached out and touched Jews all over.

While deeply affected by the state of the Jews in Eastern Europe in the early years of the 20th century, what seems to be the real motivating factor in his writings was the vast sense of loneliness he experienced growing up. Orphaned from his father at an early age, his mother was unable to support the family, and he was sent to his grandparents to be raised. There, according to the film, he suffered. While it is not explicitly stated, the film hints that he was abused, though as it is implied rather than implicitly stated, it is not clear what type of abuse he may have suffered. Needless to say, his childhood experiences echoed throughout his life. While he married, he never had any children of his own, yet found himself drawn to them. Perhaps he was compensating for the childhood he never had, nor was able to give to his own.

For a man who so dedicated his life to Hebrew culture, he didn’t visit Palestine for the first time until the age of 36, and didn’t make it his permanent home until nearly a decade and a half later. Upon his first visit he was inundated by crowds who heard of his impending arrival. Already he was considered the national poet, for a nation that was still being built. At the time it was unrealistic that he move to Palestine, as he would be unable to make a living. Not to mention that the center of his activities stretched from Warsaw to Odessa. It’s ironic that such an important figure in the Zionist pantheon did not feel the pull to Zion that so many other did. It was only with the end of WWI and the outbreak of a civil war that closed down Jewish institutions and Hebrew cultural activities that he saw the writing on the wall and emigrated.

What was it that moved people so, to grant him such honor? It was in his use of the ancient and nascent language. Taking the thousands of years of scholarship and literature that had sustained the Jewish people in the diaspora, and repurposing it. The way he layered his words with meaning, the way he called back to the ancient roots of the Hebrews, while paving the way for a new understanding. One can’t read his writings without feeling the weight of time, while equally alive and burning with the power of the revival of the Hebrew language and the Jewish people.

However, hidden within these words still lives the son who lost his father so many years ago. Who even though he became the “King of the Jews”, always remained a small town Jewish boy.

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