As Cher is to pop music in the United States, Rachel is to poetry in Israel — a national treasure that you need only one name to identify. Her name is as well known among Israeli schoolchildren as, say, Mark Twain or John Steinbeck is known in U.S. schools.
Born in Russia in 1890, Rachel Bluwstein moved to pre-state Israel (then part of the Ottoman Empire) as a teenaged Zionist pioneer in 1909, and went about writing lyrical but simple poetry that often was set in the pastoral countryside of the Promised Land.
She began getting her poetry published in Israeli newspapers in the 1920s, but even though she was the first woman writing poetry in modern Hebrew, she didn’t get much attention until after her death in 1931 at the age of 40. Since then, many of her poems have been set to music.
To help Bay Area Jews get to know Rachel a little better, Efi Lubliner and Rivka Amado — a pair of Israeli ex-pats who live in the East Bay — have written, produced and directed an opus to Rachel that tells her story through her own words, with much of it set to music.
“Rachel: Israel’s National Poet” will make its debut on Aug. 20 at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette as part of the year-round Jewish programming offered by Under One Tent in Contra Costa County. Subtitled “A Musical Celebration of Her Life and Poetry,” the production will feature free admission as Lubliner and Amado seek to generate interest for more performances throughout the Bay Area and beyond. (One has already been lined up at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley in the fall, though no date has been set.)
“We’re trying to expose Americans to Israeli culture and history,” Lubliner says. “For the simple knowledge and enjoyment of it. To enjoy and to learn.”
Lubliner, 68, who has been in the United States since 1970, said he developed a fascination with Rachel and her poetry many decades ago. “There’s only one Rachel. She was the first woman to have her face on money in Israel. All children learn her poetry in Israel,” he says.
A semi-retired computer specialist, Lubliner narrates the piece while Amado does the singing. Joanna Marcin (flute), Michael Gill (piano), and Doron Rotem and Gordon Lustig (guitars) will lend musical support.
No stranger to the performing arts, Lubliner has served on the selection committee for the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival for many years and is a member of the Lama Lo Trio, a group that leads sing-along programs. He also runs a monthly international film showcase in the Bay Area that he calls “a labor of love.”
Lubliner describes Rachel’s poetry as “very personal, about herself and her love for the land. She was a real Israeli patriot. She was in love with the land, with the people working the land.”
There’s only one Rachel. She was the first woman to have her face on money in Israel.
Rachel was, he says, “a woman with incredible art in her, but very unlucky. Anything that could have gone wrong did — from her love life to contracting tuberculosis from working with Jewish orphans. She’s a sad and tragic figure.”
So how did this production come to be?
“I have known Rivka a long time,” Lubliner says of his creative partner. “She’s done things about [Rachel] before and she asked me to put together a show about her. So we sat down and we wrote most of the script, based on a lot of research, and came up with a story, into which we insert her poetry and the songs based on them.”
A retired political science and ethics professor living in the United States since 2004, Amado, 63, is a singer who specializes in traditional Ladino music. Ever since she reconnected to her Sephardic roots, she has been “telling the stories of my ancestors and combining it with music. Since then, I’ve devoted most of my time to music.”
She composes music and lyrics, and two months ago released her second album, “Stations of My Life.” Her first, “Hija Mia” came out in 2009.
Amado attributes her interest in Rachel (often called “Rachel the Poet” or “Rachel the Poetess” by Israelis) to nothing more than growing up in the Jewish state.
“[As a child] I fell in love with Rachel the Poet’s work,” she says. “She grew up with the feeling of being estranged with her classmates, and I really connected with that.”
After putting one of Rachel’s poems to music and including it on her new album, Amado says it dawned on her that she ought to “write the story of her short life. So I collected the most representative songs and, together with Efi, we put this show together.”
Amado says she hopes people come away from the performance having internalized some of the poet’s deep affection for the Land of Israel.
“I think it’s really about her passions: her love for Israel, especially the Kinneret, the yearning for connection, her love for children, her adoration of the Jews coming to the land,” she says. “It’s also about the struggle of the Jewish people, and the wonderful spirit of the early Israeli pioneers who overcame tremendous obstacles and built a beautiful country while retaining their humanity.”