“Her flower is the briar, which does not hide its thorns”

Translator’s introduction to Esther Raab


Esther Raab was born in Petah Tikvah – Gateway of Hope – the earliest Jewish settlement in Ottoman Palestine, on April 25 or 28, 1894. Her father Yehudah Raab (1858-1948) had immigrated there from Hungary with his family at the age of 18 and helped found the settlement, and her childhood is marked by a Little House on the Prairie brand of economy, frugality, and poverty that forces one close to the land.

Hardship toughens but ensures the ties that bind: “picking mallow [for food] at the fence sides and on the slopes”; “[using] laundry soap also to wash the body. A kind of stoicism of Father’s”. Her biography includes a flight from the homeland to the commune, Degania, on the Sea of Galilee. There the death of her young friend Moshe Barski, aged 19, propels her back to the family and to work – as a farmer, day labourer and school teacher. 

After her marriage to her cousin-merchant Yitzhak Green, in 1921, she spends four years in Cairo and some years later she resides for a brief while in Paris. Cairo lends depth and difference (“a musty shadow still hides between thickets of wild roses and the mango trees”, ‘Rose Jam’, 1933) to her Middle Eastern-Mediterranean-ancestral landscape, preparing her for the fresh-paint newness of “little Tel Aviv” – as the first modern Hebrew city was affectionately called in its early years. There the couple begins to build their new house. It was to become a meeting place for the local writers and painters of the period. Raab had learned in Egypt that she would be unable to bear children – perhaps because of the frequent bouts of malaria she experienced in her childhood. In 1930, a short while before the publication of her first book, Thistles, her husband dies and she is left alone in the large house. Two years later she marries the painter Arieh Alweil – a union that doesn’t last long. 

The Selected  Poems of Esther Raab appears some three decades after Thistles. In 1972, Last Prayer collects all but a few late poems written before her death in Tivon (near the Carmel) on September 4, 1981. An edition of Raab’s Complete Poems, edited by her nephew, the writer Ehud Ben-Ezer, comes out in 1988. Her Complete Prose is published in 1994. 

Tender tenor
The line of women poets in Palestine was fostered by the northern breed of Russian nightingales. Here was a tradition, ready-made, which allowed both the feminine voice and gave it music, subject, and stanza. Ra’hel, Bat-Miryam, and Leah Goldberg all immigrated [to Palestine] from Russia, wrote and spoke Russian, and translated into Hebrew from sturdy Russian models. [Anna] Akhmatova was a dominant and healthy influence on these young, highly intelligent and intellectual women poets in Palestine. Akhmatova’s stanza, shared by her brother-poet, [Boris] Pasternak, translated well into the richly musical phrases of late twenties and thirties Hebrew. Leah Goldberg’s and Bat-Miryam’s connections to [Nathan] Alterman, [Abraham] Shlonsky, and [Yitzhak] Lamdan (the leading Hebrew poets and influential editors of the period) parallels precisely what had been the Moscow scene of fifteen or twenty years previous. When Raab appeared on the Tel Aviv literary landscape with her home-spun poems, the echoes of Russian modernist poetry were “avant-garde”. The first native-born Hebrew poet – the first, in other words, born and raised in the language in modern times – stands outside her contemporaries much in the way that Emily Dickinson stood outside mainstream New England poetry [. . .] 

The Dickinson-like aspects of Raab’s poetry are most apparent in her quirky punctuation, her occasional obscurity (not difficulty), and her fractured grammar. The idiosyncratic system of punctuation and lineation is sometimes confusing (often irritating); but it is also Raab’s signature. She builds by means of discrete independent phrases with meanings attached and suspended, sometimes pointing both forward and backward. 

The combined bursts of passion and careful restraint, the shift from cosmic to trivial, also recall the nineteenth century American poet. Both have a radical empathy for small and insignificant things. Attention to the diminutive is a hallmark; Raab has an eye for insects (ants, winged ants, fleas, flies, biting flies, mosquitoes, wasps, crickets, butterflies, dung beetles, bees), for small creatures (frogs, lizards, hens) and common birds (house swallows, bunting, bee-eaters, swallow owls – there are no hoopoes, no peacocks in her poetry) – for stray dogs and headless poppies. She writes of “black snakes that swallowed the eggs in the nests of the hens that circulated freely, and sometimes swallowed even the chicks – which would stick in their throats ”. With the same serial precision she writes of clods and furrows, first fig-fall, pine needles, wild mushrooms and jacaranda trees. 

She has no theory of poetics, no fixed standards of metre and rhyme. Her two great sources of inspiration are, as with Dickinson, the Bible and nature. The high drama of resurrection in Emily Dickinson is paralleled by Esther Raab’s heroic strain (sometimes strained) – her father figure, brother figures. Battling against illness as a child, she had to attach herself to the strong, the steadfast; barren as a woman, she was drawn to an alliance with the powerful. 

Though the mounted [Jewish] watchmen of her acquaintance often adopted the [Arab] kaffiyeh (headdress), there was little overt curiosity about an alternative if ever-present mode of existence. The rifle on the back was to ward off possible interference without too much concern for grappling with the cause of each renewed skirmish. Trees and vines that were torn up were replanted; sheep, goats or horses that were stolen were replaced [. . .] This aspect of the pioneer landscape was pushed off, as if “for the time being”, in a major effort at self-sufficiency, and learning the hard way. 

Dickinson and Raab share a solitude that each inhabited, and at times both willingly broke out of it via the rich, private world of dream and illusion
[. . .] For Raab as for Dickinson, white is very much the color of choice. 

Beneath the bramble
[. . .] The thistles, thorns and rocks of Esther Raab’s poems are hers from the cradle and she simply rediscovers them in the prophetic books and Psalms. For all her announced kinship with kingship and her preference for David as champion, her botany is shamelessly homely and local. Cocklebur, screw bean, bindweed mustard and chamomile; sage, thyme, chicory and vetch; dyer’s weed, broom, groundsel and yellow-weed; wild artichoke, wood sorrel, tickle grass and squill. The citrus in the yard is called (after the Arabic) khush-khash, “citrus aurantium” (used as a base for grafting), which with lots of sugar and coaxing can be made into a jam. Much of her botanical dictionary relies on common and popular names such as “cow’s tongue” or “blood of the Maccabee”. Mallow of malva (helmit) is hubezeh for the poet, the name used by children as they separate the green petals of the pod to eat the fruit; the poor also cook its leaves. Oxalis, or hamtzitz, is a wild plant common as a weed in citrus groves. Its leaves and stems are sour and it is also a favourite of children. Her plant life belongs, for the most part, to the weed family. Her flower is the briar, which does not hide its thorns. Squill, hatzav, is of the rose family, but in the hills of Judaea it is food for deer. Tayun (elecampane or inula) grows in damp places and blossoms in late summer. Its leaves and roots give off a sharp, masculine smell not unlike semen [. . .]

[Raab] makes the landscape intimate by insisting on creating her own idiosyncratic culture as against any inherited culture, with values firmly rooted in tradition and folklore [. . .] The world’s first spice garden, the botanist may speculate, was perhaps much like her garden of dry weed and thorn. 

The absence of the conscious act of immigrating, of “ascending” – as the Hebrew idiom has it – is expressed in her work: “someone deposited me here” (‘Harvest’, 1947).

These excerpts are taken from Harold Schimmel’s introduction to Thistles: Selected Poems of Esther Raab in his translation (Ibis Press, Jerusalem, 2002).

© Harold Schimmel  
• Editors & Translators (Israel)

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