In the 19th century, Hebrew was not a native language. (I did not appreciate this fact when my grandmother insisted that some fellow named Mapu was not only related to us, but was significant for writing the first Hebrew language novel.) The push for Hebrew to be the new Jewish national language was a concerted, artificial effort, much like the effort to conquer the natural landscape. (Mann, 238.) The ideal for the new Jew was someone who was strong, self-governing and ruler of the natural world. This Jew’s parallel was not the contrasting old Jew, but the complementary land, waiting for him to come to her. The land has a feminized persona, corresponding to Hebrew’s gendered vocabulary; she plays the muse to Zionist hero (who is now revealed to be male).
Esther Raab, of course, complicates this. In her interviews, she promoted herself as the quintessential Hebrew native, and she certainly comes across that way in her poetry. She plays with language, using obscure words and made up forms. She uses biblical allusion, but does not rely on yeshivish scholarship. Her poetry is not only sensual, it is strikingly homoerotic (as noted in Mann, 244.). Her land is drenched with milk, her land experiences torrential blossoming, and at the same time, it has rebellious feet and a skinny chest. Raab was working on multiple fronts: to prove her nativeness, to prove Hebrew’s nativeness to the land, and, of course, as we’ve seen over and over, to assert her place in the heavenly host of Hebrew poets. And how better to accomplish those things than to name the flowers.
Benjamin Harshav, “Flowers Have no Names.” Natural History 118:1 (2009), pp. 24-29.
Barbara Mann, “Framing the Native: Esther Raab’s Visual Poetics,” Israel Studies 4:1 (1999) 234-57.