In search of Rahel

A journey to the Russian town of Saratov to find the house in which Rahel the Poetess grew up.

The house of Rahel Bluwstein (inset) in the small city of Saratov, Russia. (photo credit: MIKHAIL BABENKOV/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
The house of Rahel Bluwstein (inset) in the small city of Saratov, Russia.
Boris Abramovich Medvedev is infatuated. A professor of the philosophy of science, his world is that of rationality and positivism. Yet at the age of 71, Rahel is the love of his life.
Like Rahel, he was born in Saratov on the banks of the Volga. But from here on, the relationship between the scientist and the femme fatale of the Second and Third Aliya lies in the realm of the metaphysical.
Medvedev, from the State University of Saratov, is the man in Rahel’s life after her death. Unlike Nakdimon Altshuler, Zalman Shazar, Moshe Beilinson, Berl Katznelson and Michael Bernstein, who shared her life on earth, Medvedev only wants to touch her soul: to have the op - portunity to express his love for her in poetry.
After some 120 articles on physics and many other academic publications, Medvedev has some private lines to dedicate to Rahel. Only after he explains to me that he writes freely with little heed to grammar and rhyme, does he gather himself together and read to me, in Russian, “The Home of Rahel.”
A home at the foot of Mount Karmiel
Here a flute sounds its notes
To all the living and the dead
The home of Rahel is that of Jewish roots
Of biblical roots
The home of Rahel above the transparent Kinneret
The home of Rahel on the seesaw of my heart
You can sense the longing, the same stormy Russian temperament.
But Medvedev is reserved and quietly unemotional
He pronounces dramatic sentences in modest tones
His love for Rahel embarrasses even himself
I try to probe him further, but in defense he refers me to the other things he has done. He has written a book on Jewish music; for five years he led a group that dealt with the common ground between the arts and sciences. Two years ago he was invited to speak about the group’s work to a forum of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg.
But Rahel is constantly in the background. From Medvedev’s computer come the strains of Shuli Natan singing “ Begani netaticha” (“I planted you in my garden”), which leaves him no choice but to recite another of his poems written to Rahel.
To be born and to live a little – like you
And if to die, to fall into a deep sleep
A sleep to the melody of the shepherd
The shepherd of my soul, Rahel
Permit me to bend my knee before you
I will speak to you about the serene lake
Please, do not fly away from me
Medvedev says it’s Rahel’s honesty that most attracts him to her.
“She expresses anxieties that I can well understand – the difficulties, the problems she encounters, oscillating on the line between life and death, between now and the hereafter.” He speaks of infatuation for her words. “They engage you from a cradle of peace, they call out for compassion. They invade your brain and come from the heart, and the heart is wounded.”
He has yet to visit her grave overlooking Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee).
Back to the roots
Our journey to Saratov began on the banks of the Kinneret. On the eve of the 125th anniversary of her birth, Ra - hel the poetess (as she is known in Hebrew) was one of the central themes of a Limmud FSU (former Soviet Union) educational conference held in December 2014 at Kibbutz Ginossar on the shores of the lake.
The topic of Rahel had first been explored at a Limmud FSU conference in Moscow, and this sparked the desire to reach out to the source: a house, a street, a neighborhood – and if that could not be done, to get as near as possible. But from the outset it was evident that Saratov was not prepared to reveal itself easily to casual visitors.
The Yak 42 plane that conveyed me – together with Chaim Chesler, the founder of Limmud FSU – to the town shuddered and complained on takeoff. On landing it wagged its tail like a spavined dog. We arrived in Saratov on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day and the dimness of the streets was appropriate. Our driver, Volodya, added to the mood by playing a tape with songs such as “Jewish Eyes.”
Accompanying us was Dr. Uri Milstein, a controversial historian on virtually every subject from the War of Independence to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. At the Limmud FSU Conference in Moscow, he spoke about Rahel the poetess, his mother’s aunt.
Milstein is the nearest living relative to the person whom Shazar described as “dressed in pure and luminous white.” Some of the stories related here are based on his writings on the poetess.
Milstein also feels himself to be the son that Rahel never had. He received his name (Uri, meaning “my light” in Hebrew) under the influence of the poem Akara (“Barren”).
If I had a son
A little child
With dark curly hair and clever
To hold his hand and pace slowly
Slowly, slowly Along the paths of the garden
A little child Uri, I would call him
My Uri
The short name is soft and clear
A shard of light My dark child
Uri, I’ll call him Uri, I’ll call
Rahel’s father, Isser Leib Bluwstein, was born in Poltava, Ukraine, in 1833. In his yeshiva he was considered a talmudic genius, but at the age of eight he was abducted by the czarist army and became a “cantonist” – a term given to boys forcibly removed from their parents to a military academy. When his father learned of the kidnapping, he had a stroke and died. Shortly thereafter, his mother committed suicide.
Isser Leib became a professional soldier and in the Crimean War faced death on all sides. He proved himself to be a natural leader and was promoted as a noncommissioned officer. His superiors tried to encourage him to renounce his Judaism and become an officer, but he refused.
After 25 years of distinguished military service, he married, had four children and financially prospered.
After the death of his first wife, he married Sophia Mandelstam, 20 years his junior. Sophia belonged to an aristocratic family whose antecedents could be traced back to Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki – known as Rashi, the famed rabbinical commentator and author.
Her niece, Rosa Mandelstam, renounced her medical studies to “join the masses.” Consumed with a desire to win over the hearts of the peasants, she came to the small town of Saratov on the Volga.
Rosa was obsessively opposed to the czar. Even when she was raped by a peasant she chose not to 16 July 31, 2015 press charges but rather to accuse the authorities for “demeaning” him. Her subversive activities led her to join the clandestine Narodnya Valya (“People’s Will”) movement and she was involved in the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881.
Sophia Mandelstam was considered to be a righteous, even “holy,” woman. It was said that a touch of her hand or a glance had the power to heal a person. Her grandfather was an adviser to Czar Alexander I who defeated Napoleon. Osip Mandelstam, one of the greatest of modern Russian poets, was a relative.
Sophia was engaged in a correspon - dence with Lev Tolstoy who dubbed her “my most intellectual correspondent.” After her marriage to Isser Leib, she raised the four children from his first marriage as well as eight of her own. One of them, Rahel (Raya), was born on September 20, 1890. Shortly after, the family left Saratov for Poltava, Isser Leib’s hometown. In Poltava, the children learned Hebrew from Moshe, the father of Dov Ber Borochov, the socialist-Marxist and a founder of the Labor Zionist movement.
Two characteristics became apparent in Rahel which enhanced her fame but also hastened her demise: her poetic abilities and the damage to her lungs. On one occasion she was sent to a sanatorium in Crimea and made to drink kumis (mare’s milk), which was thought to have antibiotic properties.
From Israel to Odessa
When Rahel turned 16, her mother died of tuberculosis, then also known as writer’s or artist’s disease. Three years later she moved, together with her sister Shoshana, to Palestine.
Originally they had intended to continue to Italy and there study art and philosophy, but in the end they stayed in the Land of Israel.
Their first stop was Rehovot. The sisters settled down in the kindergarten of Hanna Weissman and improved their Hebrew by listening to the children.
Rehovot at the time was a nest of seething hormones, stormy Zionism and scintillating poetry. On Shabbat, the young people from the village would attend par - ties on “Love Hill,” and in the vineyards and orchards. They would recite from the Song of Songs, from Ecclesiastes, the Book of Ruth and other Hebrew sources.
Rahel skipped lightly among the words.
“She did not speak much,” said Weissman, “Now and then she would offer some caustic comment and then return to her book.”
Altshuler was younger than Rahel. The writer of these lines remembers him well, wearing a black beret, as did his son, Lt.-Col. Gideon, an officer in the Armored Corps.
Nakdimon Altshuler was born in Rehovot and was a first-generation descendant of members of the First Aliya. A horseman and farmer, to Rahel he appeared as a primordial figure that had never known the fear of exile. Love sparked between them. They rode together on the same horse and broke into ecstatic dance on Love Hill.
On her last day on earth, on the wagon taking her from the sanatorium in Gedera to Hadassah Hospital in Tel Aviv, she insisted on stopping off to vis - it Altshuler in his Rehovot home. They had not seen each other for 10 years, but Nakdimon recognized her immediately.
“I saw before me a skeleton,” he told Milstein later. “Her beautiful hair was like dry straw, her fine and gay features were shriveled. She could not cry and she screamed in silence like a wounded animal whose senses foresee the end.
“She said, ‘Shalom, Nakdimon.’ I replied, ‘Shalom, Rahel.’ The doctor accompanying her gave the signal. The driver gathered up the reins and the wagon slowly moved away.”
How do you explain that the poetess, the daughter of the admired correspondent of Tolstoy, chose at the close of her life to visit a simple Rehovot farmer? “As she neared her end, Rahel wanted to return to her first days in Eretz Yisrael. To isolate that first year from all the pain and disappointment that followed. For her, Nakdimon symbolized those innocent days,” Milstein said.
All his life, Altshuler lamented that he had not stayed by Rahel. To punish himself he lived in a shack that had once been a chicken coop. The third president of the state, Shazar (Rubashov), saw in Milstein the son he might have had, had he married Rahel.
Shazar fell in love with Rahel at first sight. That happened when he came to visit Berl Katznelson, with whom Rahel was romantically involved, in the Kinneret moshava.
Shazar described the first time he set eyes on her. “The gates to the moshava opened and from the yard emerged a flock of white geese, noisy and gobbling, that spread themselves all over the hillside. Behind them a slim goose-girl with blue eyes, in a snow-white dress, as light as a deer and as beautiful as the Kinneret.”
The third president turned out to be a lover in the mode of Othello. For years, in conversations with Milstein, Shazar would deny the existence of Bernstein, Rahel’s great love in France.
“With flirtatious eyes and a questioning glance as if testing me, I saw before me an old man, the respected president of the Jewish state, acting like a youth in love, bending reality as lovers are wont to do,” said Milstein. Rahel met Russian-born Bernstein when she arrived in Toulouse to study agronomy. Two years her senior, he had just graduated as an electrical engineer. He was an accomplished pianist and knew Greek and Roman literature.
Rahel wanted to marry him and perhaps steer him in the direction of Zionism, but she failed in both missions. When the First World War broke out, she was considered an enemy alien (the Ottoman Empire controlled Palestine and was an ally of Germany). She was deported from France and returned temporarily to Russia.
Bernstein decided not to leave France. The idea that Rahel would stay with him was mooted and, at her initiative, talks about marriage took place. Bernstein could not make up his mind and she wrote a poem about the split between them.
You left my life in angry silence But the surrendering heart has forgiven Wheels of emotion continue in their orbit And all has been forgotten In October 1915 Rahel sailed from Mar - seilles to Russia. In Bridyansk, near Saratov, she looked after refugee children.
Haim Pialkov, an inspector for the company that built the refugee center, visited the kindergarten teacher, Rahel. He found a lively woman with prominent and expressive features, who received him warmly and was delighted to be able to speak to him in Hebrew.
“She would speak to the children in a mellow and sweet voice. If all the kindergarten teachers in Israel would speak as does Rahel Bluwstein, the state of the kindergartens would be perfect,” he summed up in his report.
From her childhood, Rahel had suffered from asthmatic allergies. In mid- 1916, she fell ill again. This time it was full-blown tuberculosis, which she might have contracted from one of the children. She moved between different sanatoriums in the Caucasus. On her life between doctors’ visits and nurses’ treatments, she wrote:
I shall live in the Place of Healing, on the mountain
But beyond it – not one step!
To that my bitter enemy has condemned me
The old doctor
Has spoken evil
On a woven sofa on the veranda
Out of boredom I will play catch
Half asleep – half awake
To the sounds of the receding sea
Rahel remained in a sanatorium until the October Revolution of 1917. From there she moved to her brother in Baku, where she was witness to a tragedy. Mountain Jews from the Caucasus kid - napped his beautiful daughter Tamara, after she had refused to marry one of their chieftains.
As the symptoms of her illness worsened, Rahel moved to Odessa. A teacher, Elisheva Rabinowitz-Pines, who then lived in the city, related, “I was sitting on a bench in the Marzeli Park and I saw a tall, thin woman approaching me from afar and smiling. Only when she began to speak did I realize it was Rahel Bluwstein. My God! How she had changed! No longer did an attractive and vivacious young woman stand before me, but a shrunken and pallid person with a hacking cough interrupting her speech now and then.”
In a Jewish area
The war ended and paths opened up. Rahel gave lectures on the Land of Israel in order to finance her ticket home. She embarked on the Ruslan, the first vessel to leave Odessa after the war.
She bore within her the seeds of her death. In the ship of her emotions, Saratov was consigned to the lower decks. She never mentioned it, although clearly she saw it as the landscape of her childhood.
In “O, my land, my parents,” a poem set to music and sung by Hanan Yovel, she wrote: On the hill – young boys like firs On the plain – old men like oaks On the slopes, on the brink of the stream Birch girls in white Shabbat garments The reach of the sun is too short A red spear in the heart of the forest An innocent day amid the pines A perfumed fog and a dream...
It is very likely that “the stream” relates to the Volga, which is thickly wooded with birch trees which grow high above the mists of the forest. But other than that, nothing of her early childhood. Her words, like the alleyways of Saratov, have been recruited in the interests of a poetic fog. With no address and no one to ask, I turned to someone who might be expected to know.
Rabbi Michael Frumin flows in the Lithuanian stream. His synagogue is meant to serve the 5,000 Jews of Saratov, but in fact only a handful of young men study regularly. Virtually no one keeps Shabbat or kashrut.
“We failed,” admitted Frumin, “but that is the reality.” From the adjoining kitchen rose the smell of boiled cabbage. The synagogue is presently in a temporary structure. With no financing, the rabbi has been unable to complete the permanent building behind us.
As far as Rahel is concerned, the rabbi was surprised by my question. She is foreign to his world. The house where she was born? He can only hazard a guess. “Up until 1946, Jews lived in the area of the synagogue. Maybe her family did, too. You should speak to Mrs. Weissman.”
Just then, Irena Weissman, a doctor of philology, entered the synagogue. She is a blue-eyed woman who is attempting to establish a Jewish museum in the synagogue area.
“That is why I am trying to collect information about prominent Jews like Rahel,” she explained. But until now she has not been able to gather much about Rahel.
“She was born in Saratov, but her family had no connection with the town. There are conflicting versions about how long the Bolsheviks stayed here – anything between two and nine years – and it is quite possible that her house was destroyed,” she said.
Bluwstein or Blumstein?
Volodya Hassin was born in Saratov. He is an expert on blood libels at the beginning of the 20th century. He said that while Rahel wrote directly from the heart, she missed the point to a large extent, and her poems do not teach us about Saratov.
“Translated poetry does not retain the music of the original language.”
As to the “fogs” that we are constantly encountering, he smiled. “First of all, the poet is responsible; after that, the time and the circumstances.”
In his research he came across a Cheloskintzev Street, which is in the heart of what was once the Jewish quarter.
Cheloskintzev is a street with two distinct ends: at one end, derelict buildings which seem about to collapse on us at any minute; at the other, attractive and elegant homes. In one of them lives the businessman Boris Ananyev, said to be the wealthiest person in Saratov.
We strolled along the well-kept part of the street and Hassin stopped beside No. 34. “Ninety-five percent this was her home,” he said.
The historian based his conclusion on a 2012 book, Jewish Saratov: Pages from History . The book quotes a document listing the names of the victims of a pogrom there in 1905. At the time a Jew by the name of Benjamin Cherniak lived in the house. Before him, at the end of the 19th century, at the time when Rahel was born, a Bluwstein family lived in the house.
“So why are you not 100 percent sure that this is the house?” “Because it is possible that the name was distorted – it could also have been Blumstein. There are no house numbers and they were only known by the name of the owner. And the police officers who made the registration could easily have confused one house with another.”
We crossed to the gate of No. 34 and knocked on the door, but there was no reply. From the adjoining building, Alfia and Svetlana materialized. They refused to believe that the poetess lived here.
“This a place without a poetic muse. You should try the university – they will know.”
At this point, Chesler informed us that next year the poems of Rahel will be included in the Saratov Music Festival. Limmud FSU will continue to promote contacts between Israel and Russian-speaking communities while adding key figures in Israeli cultural life whose antecedents came from these communities. Perhaps it was never thus Perhaps I never woke early and went to the fields To labor in the sweat of my brow.
Nor bathed myself clean in the calm Blue waters Of my Kinneret. O my Kinneret Were you there or was it only a dream? Milstein feels a genetic, almost mystic identity with the place “from which Rahel’s Israeliness emerged.”
“Bialik,” he said, “is referred to as the national poet, but how many people read his work today? Rahel’s poems are the most widely read today, after the Bible. No Israeli poems have been set to music to the extent that have those of Rahel.
“Naomi Shemer did a great deal, but she was basically a songwriter, indeed so good that she is considered a poet. That is the difference between a graphic artist and a painter. The graphic artist works accord - ing to commissions he or she receives, the painter according to inspiration. Naomi Shemer got commissions – including for the poems of Rahel – and made a living from it. Rahel did not; all her life, her financial situation was precarious.”
At the entrance to the theater were men in ill-fitting suits, women dripping with heavy jewelry. Following posters in the streets, Saratov society came for a concert of musical renditions of the poems of Rahel.
The performance was not confined to Jewish themes and took place to mark 70 years since the fall of Nazism.
Hanan Yovel sang “And perhaps it was never thus,” Dorit Reuveni sang “I knew only to tell about myself.” The audience, who had come to hear Tchaikovsky in the first part of the concert, stayed on because of Rahel. “Bravo!” and “Hurrah!” were heard on every side.
Somewhere in the depths of the auditorium, Medvedev removed his glasses and furtively wiped away a tear.
■ Translated and edited by Asher Weill