If you were cast away on an island with just one Jewish text for company, which would you choose?
This week Jonathan Oppenheimer of Wimbledon and District Synagogue selects: Zemer Nugeh by Rachel Bluwstein
Zemer Nugeh (Sad Song) is one of the most moving poems by Rachel Bluwstein (1890-1931). Written towards the end of her short and tragic life as a declaration of undying love for Zalman Shazar (who was married to someone else and much later became President of Israel), this secular love poem has found its way into Reform Judaism’s Yom Kippur liturgy.
It is a moving evocation of loss, distance, love and loyalty, all in the shadow of impending death, which she faces with calm resignation. I am not a melancholy person, but Zemer Nugeh made a profound impression when I heard its beautiful musical setting on my first visit to Israel 50 years ago as a volunteer in Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi.
Rachel came to be regarded as the poet of the Zionist labour movement. Many of her poems deal with the pioneering life in Eretz Yisrael, but what I love about Zemer Nugeh is its honest and unsparing treatment of intense emotion with economy of language and no mawkish sentimentality. Rachel’s childhood home was frequented by writers and artists and she flourished in this atmosphere.
Then tragedy struck: her beloved mother died and her father married for a third time.
Masha seems to have been an archetypal wicked stepmother, exerting complete control over her ageing husband and preventing him offering any help to his sick and impoverished daughter.
After travelling to Palestine and working in Kvutzat Kinneret, Rachel spent some time in France and returned to Russia during World War I.
She went back to Palestine after the war and remained there until her death after a long battle with tuberculosis, exacerbated by poverty, writing most of her poems during the last six years of her life. She is buried at Kinneret.