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New history, new language: Biblical intertextuality in the poetry of Rahel Bluvshtain

Yehudit Ben-Zvi Heller, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The objective for this dissertation is twofold: I first examine how the Israeli poet Rahel Bluvshtain-Sela (1890-1931) reclaimed the Hebrew language of the Bible in order to create a Modern Hebrew vernacular. I then evaluate Rahel's creative strategies in light of her contribution to Hebrew poetry and Israeli culture that has evolved since her death more than seventy years ago. My study focuses on the biblical intertextuality in Rahel's poems. In particular, I examine Rahel's creative use of biblical allusions, and the complex ways in which she reflects on and connects with historic memory. This strategy allowed the poet to express her intensely personal experiences in the present as they reflected on a new collectivity. By reclaiming the Hebrew language, which until her time was primarily associated with the religious sphere, this pioneering intellectual integrated the practical aspects of everyday life into both her language and her poetry. My dissertation work integrates hermeneutic literary analysis, as well as analyses of intertextuality, literary history, and translation to explore the relationship between ancient and modern Hebrew in Rahel's poetry. My project is complicated by the fact that I translate a poet who wrote in a fresh new language, one that had not been spoken colloquially for hundreds of years—indeed, Rahel herself was translating from ancient Hebrew into a developing new language. The first chapter of this dissertation is an introduction of my project as well as an overview of Rahel's status as a poet. The second chapter provides an intellectual biography of Rahel, introducing her life in light of her intellectual background and context. This chapter thus goes beyond traditional biographical readings of Ra hel that focus on her personal life, particularly her romantic relationships, and her illnesses and depressions, while removing her from the social context and community in which she lived—a community that she played a key role in creating through her poetry. For the third chapter, I selected poems from Rahel's work that serve as examples for the way in which the poet positioned biblical texts within the new context of the emerging state of Israel. The poems are grouped by sub-topics: (1) Personalities as Destinies—The Bible as the Intimate Other, (2) Writing the Land as Desire, and (3) Between Ideology as Identity and Sense of Self. In order to show Rahel's use of intertextuality with the biblical idiom and content, I introduce each of her poems in the original Hebrew, in English transliteration, and also provide my own translations. The biblical sources are identified, traced and cited at the beginning of each poem analysis. I then provide an extensive prose analysis of each poem in which I analyze the biblical allusions as palimpsestic references that are used to retain the trace of biblical history within a new Hebrew language. The analyses offer a literal interpretation of the poem interwoven with an explanatory discussion, focusing on the biblical themes and language that appear in each poem. Such detailed examination of the selected poems will present Rahel's personal and unique approach to the biblical text, an approach that grasps the Bible not only in a metaphoric way, but also with the intention to highlight collective memories. The final chapter focuses on the popular reception of Rah el's poetry, and is a mosaic reflecting Rahel's influence on the Hebrew language and culture. The section's pieces come from different areas of Israeli life: contemporary poetry, literature and songs, as well as from literary reviews, folklore/cultural features and political editorials in newspapers. The purpose of this look at snapshots of contemporary Hebrew language and Israeli culture will reveal the effectiveness of Ra hel's palimsestic writing strategies for the complex negotiations of personal, spatial and national identities.

Subject Area

Comparative literature|Middle Eastern literature|Womens studies|Judaic studies

Recommended Citation

Heller, Yehudit Ben-Zvi, "New history, new language: Biblical intertextuality in the poetry of Rahel Bluvshtain" (2007). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3275750.