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Rachel Blaustein’s Kinneret, A Child’s Poem of Israel

by Dorit Sasson

Sitting on the edge of the pebbly shore of Kibbutz Ein-Gev, I realize that this is no ordinary kibbutz, and this is no ordinary shore. This is the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Well, not really a sea, but a manmade lake Israelis call the “Kinneret.”

The name, “Kinneret,” comes from a poem called, “V’Ulai” by the early Israeli poet, Rachel Blaustein. It was written in 1923, while Rachel was living a lonely life in a small, one-room apartment in Tel-Aviv. She was dying of tuberculosis, and the poem recalls her heady youthful days at Kibbutz Degania, on the south shores of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), between 1909 and 1913.

Growing up in New York City in the seventies and eighties before immigrating to Israel, I, and perhaps thousands of other Jewish children with Israeli parents living in the Diaspora, were brought up with this poem set to music. Did we not fully understand the lyrics as children? It seemed to be just one of those folksy tunes my father would put on as a lullaby right before bedtime.

Having served as a volunteer in the Israeli army for the past three years and having lived through two wars, I now sit on the banks of the Kinneret. I look at the shimmering pearls on the lake. All around the water are fields of green, full of crocuses and daffodils. The almond flowers are in bloom, with their small, pink and peach buds. I remember hearing “V’Ulai” for the first time after becoming a soldier in 1991. I identified with it almost immediately, but it took about fifteen years for its full impact to sink in and for me to “reach conclusions,” as Israelis like to say.

For what may be the last time before returning to America, I sit on the shores and ponder the words of  Rachel’s most famous poem, a work in which she expresses love for the land of Israel and a nostalgia for the Sea of Galilee.

Israel / Palestine, the land of broken dreams.

It seems to me that Israeli and Jewish cultures abound in longing for a glorious past, but lack the kind of hopeful, constructive ideas of traditional messianic visions and the subsequent,  secular elaborations, including Zionism.

Rachel, too longed for a lost past which perhaps led her to frustration and despair. I, on the other hand, long for a better, even utopian future – a “kingdom of heaven.” That is not the same as longing for an unreachable past. Instead, I am spurred to action by sitting on the shores and dreaming of a better future for Israel. Unfortunately, I don’t have the clear vision and hopeful drive that Rachel did.

Of my Kinneret,
Oh my Kinneret.
Did you exist?
Or did I dream a dream.

Rachel longed for what was, for what might have been, or perhaps for a dream that never was.

Possibly, longing for something is more conducive to creativity than actually having it. This thought ties in with a recent post by Philip Weiss entitled, “Have you stopped dreaming of a Jewish state in Palestine?” But maybe it’s not just Palestine and Israel. Maybe Judaism has stopped dreaming altogether.

But I haven’t.

I watch online President George W. Bush standing on a plank alongside the Sea of Galilee, just a few kilometers from my rented kibbutz home. When I had to live in other people’s houses during the second Israeli-Lebanese war, I dreamt that I wouldn’t have to live the life of a refugee anymore.

The peaceful shores of the Sea of Galilee move me to express my longing for a better future for Israel and an abandoning of a supposedly idyllic past. Certainly that is what Zionism, in its early days, was mostly about.

And perhaps – these things never happened at all
And perhaps – I never rose at dawn to the field
To work her with the sweat of my brow…

And never – on the long lingering days
of harvest

On the heights of a wagon
Loaded with sheaves
Did I give my voice to song.

Never did I purify myself in your azure waters
And with innocence

Rachel lived the hard life at Kibbutz Degania alongside the Sea of Galilee where all that was needed for success were good intentions to dream of a future Israeli State. As long as our intentions were good, we could comfort ourselves with that.

So many Israelis like myself nowadays wallow in the nostalgia of failed dreams; maybe it is a Jewish trait. However, it seems that simply yearning for a brighter future is better than pretending that there are no dreams of a better world, which appears to be the stance of the cynical Right.

I sense a deep melancholy running through parts of Zionism, almost from the start, and it has only gotten worse over time.

I am sure that it is partly due to the fact that most of the earlier Zionists were trying to save and build on an idea that was mostly destroyed in the Holocaust. Perhaps so many of these dreams were fatally flawed because they failed to understand or take into consideration the Palestinian Arab population.

Through it all, I turn to the seed of longing, while sitting on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. This time hoping that I will be able to find more answers than questions. I hope that I would be able to quickly forget the woes of war and to continue to carry on with the cycle of dreaming.