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Hidden play by Israeli poet Rachel Bluwstein (1890-1931)
By Dana Olmert

While poring over various materials at the Genazim archive at the Writers' House in Tel Aviv, I came across a very short play entitled "Mental Satisfaction." The play, which has never been published, was attributed to the poet Rachel (Bluwstein, 1890-1931). The archivists recommended that I try to find additional sources that would make it possible to confirm the attribution. The doubt as to the attribution arises because the copy that is in Genazim was typed on a typewriter, whereas Rachel's poems and letters were usually kept in the poet's own handwriting.

The doubt evaporated when I found a letter that Rachel sent, during the period she stayed at Kibbutz Degania, to her sister Shohsana in Jerusalem, in which, among other things, she writes: "Greetings to you, Shoshana. The Purim spirit has settled on me, as you can see. Were I not too lazy to copy it, I would also send you the play `Mental Satisfaction.' Though it is not only a matter of laziness. I fear that it would please you and you would fill up your letter with praises. And of course it is perfectly clear to you how they act on my feeble nerves." The letter was sent around the time of Purim (late winter), 1919 or 1920.

Apparently the reference is to a play intended for a single performance. Therefore it is not polished to the extent that Rachel polished her poems. However, in its amused tone, "Mental Satisfaction" is reminiscent of some of the poems that Rachel also wrote with a light hand, among them "A True Tale," "Toreador from Degania," "The Tale of a Poetry Book" and "How Doth She Sit Solitary."

It is the ironic tone that attracts the attention in "Mental Satisfaction." The barbs of this irony, which is not free of bitterness, are directed above all at phrases from the pioneer lifestyle, like "mental satisfaction," as well as the realization in practice of values of cooperation and equality. This is mocked in words spoken by Worker Woman A: "Mine, yours - Aren't you ashamed to be lacking in collective psychology?"

Calling the women who do the cleaning by the title "Worker" is also consciously ironic. "Workers" was indeed the favorite description of the people of the Second Aliyah (wave of immigration) who worked in agriculture. However, it is well known that very few women were privileged to work at agricultural jobs, the heart's desire of the pioneers. The vast majority of the pioneer women (who constituted about one-tenth of all the pioneers of the Second Aliyah) were steered toward decidedly "womanly" tasks: cooking, cleaning and taking care of babies.

Reading "Mental Satisfaction" reveals that Rachel was well aware of the gap between the slogans of equality that were trumpeted by the spokesmen of the pioneering movement and the everyday routine of the women in the communes. In the encounter depicted in the play between Worker Woman A and the two children, Amos and Hadassah, the work of cleaning is presented as work that completely dulls the worker's senses and her maternal feelings. Presumably when the play was performed for its intended audience, the comic effect was achieved thanks to the embodiment of tensions that were below the surface in the life of the commune. It is also possible to assume that the members of the audience knew exactly how to identify the real people hiding behind the names Worker Woman A and Worker Woman B.

It is customary to relate to Rachel as a nostalgic poet who lauded and yearned for the pioneering way of life. However, it is worth remembering the acuteness of her intelligence and her clear-eyed observation of her surroundings. The short play "Mental Satisfaction" reminds us of these abilities of Rachel's and presents the pioneering existence in a smiling and critical light.

Mental Satisfaction - A Play in One Act

ByRachel Bluwstein

Translated into English by:Vivian Eden.

Cast of Characters:

Worker Woman A

Worker Woman B

Worker Woman C

Children (Amos, Hadassah)

(Morning. Out of the room comes Worker Woman A, holding a garbage can in one hand and in the other - a broom. Up the stairs comes Worker Woman B, holding a garbage can in one hand and in the other - a broom. They linger.

Worker Woman B: Nu, what's new by you? Oy, I have so much satisfaction! This work gives a kind of attitude - personlich - You understand? All of them is close to me now.

Worker Woman A: Yes, yes, that's right. But the children Were it not for those wonderful creatures, how would we exist? (Looking around her) Where is the rag, damn it! They've already swiped my rag, thank God.

Worker Woman B: I didn't take it. Because I have my own rag. I've hitten a rag that I won't have to wash. (The first woman has managed to nip into the kitchen and return with a rag; Amos comes out of the room towards her.)

Amos: Goo, goo!

Worker Woman A: (Talking to him) Amosik, Mokik, Munchik, Mussileh! Munileh! (She showers him with kisses. Suddenly her face clouds over.) What have you done? What have you done, you bad boy? "Made in your pants?" Why did you make in your pants? Who makes in his pants? You mustn't make in your pants. Mustn't, mustn't, mustn't!

(Amos screams bitterly.)

Worker Woman C: (emerges from the kitchen ) : It's impossible to work this way! There's no satisfaction in work like this!

Worker Woman A: (As if surprised.) What happened?

Worker Woman C: You know very well what has happened. Give me back my rag immediately. 

Worker Woman A: Mine, yours - Aren't you ashamed to be lacking in collective psychology?

Worker Woman C: I don't have time to stand here talking. Give me the rag.

Worker Woman A: If that's the case, I wish to inform you that this rag is mine, and that only the day before yesterday I brought it from the attic. And here you have a sign - a tear in the middle -

Worker Woman C: Some sign you've found - All the rags are torn.

Worker Woman A: And how are you going to prove to me that is yours? Is the seal of the kitchen stamped on it?
(Great anger on both sides; at this moment Hadassah appears.)

Worker Woman A: (Speaking to her.) Assinka, Assila, Dedik, Dedeleh, Duddeleh! (Suddenly she shrinks back in tempestuous despair.) What have you done? Bad girl! Why have you eaten muck? Who eats muck? You mustn't eat muck! Mustn't, mustn't, mustn't!

(Hadassah screams bitterly. Worker Woman B comes down the stairs.)

Worker Woman B: Nu, what's the matter with you? And I've already washed up five floors. I really have mental satisfaction -

Worker Woman A: (Breathing heavily, her face pale, muttering.) Mental satisfaction. Mental satisfaction.

About Rachel

Rachel (Bluwstein) (1890 - 1931, b. Vyatka, Russia) published all her poetry under her first name only. She arrived in Eretz Israel in 1909, and lived in an agricultural school for girls on the shores of the Sea of Galilee until 1913. She then went to France to study agronomy and drawing, and with the outbreak of World War I returned to Russia, where she worked in educational institutions for refugee children. During this period she contracted tuberculosis. In 1919, she returned to live on Kibbutz Degania. Unable to work with children because of her illness, she left the kibbutz until she finally settled in a lonely one-room apartment in Tel Aviv, where she lived the final five years of her life. She died at the age of forty, and was buried near the Sea of Galilee. She published most of her poetry during her last six years. Rachel`s life has taken on mythic proportions for Israel`s reading public and a volume of her collected verse remains one of the country`s greatest bestsellers.
Rachel`s poetry is lyrical, excelling in its musical tone, simple language and depth of feeling. Her love poems stress a feeling of loneliness, distance, and longing for the beloved. Other poems deal with human fate, with the poet`s relation to her own difficult life, and death. Some of her best-known verse expresses love for Eretz Israel and a nostalgia for the Sea of Galilee.

Books Published in Hebrew
Aftergrowth, Davar, 1927 [Safiah]
Across From, Davar, 1930 [Mineged]
Nevo, Davar, 1932 [Nevo]
Poems, Davar, 1935 [Shirat Rachel]
Inside and Outside Home (children), Sifriat Poalim, 1974 [Ba-Bayit U Ba-Hutz]
As Rachel Waited, Tamuz, 1982 [Ke-Hakot Rachel]
Poems, Letters, Writings, Dvir, 1985 [Shirim, Michtavim, Reshimot]
In My Garden, Tamuz, 1985 [Be-Gani Neta`aticha]
Will You Hear My Voice, Bar, 1986 [Ha-Tishmah Koli]
Rachel`s Poems, Sridot, 1997 [Shirei Rahel]

Books in Translation
Selected Poems
English: London, Menard, 1995
German: Berlin, Hechalutz, 1936; Tel Aviv, Davar, 1970
Spanish: Barcelona, Riopiedras, 1985
Yiddish: Winnipeg, WIZO U.S.A. and Canada, 1932
Buenos Aires, Kium Farlag, 1957

Individual poems have been published in Afrikaans, Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, English, French, Frisian, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Romanian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovak, Spanish, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, Welsh, and Yiddish.

Rachel's bio : The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature (ITHL) Web: http://www.ithl.org.il/mainpage.html

Source: © Copyright 2004 Haaretz. All rights reserved

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