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What’s So New About the New Israeli Shekel? Two Notes Feature Female Poets.

Perhaps Leah Goldberg and Rachel Bluwstein can inspire educators to teach Israel’s rich history through the work of these storied poets

Paula Jacobs
February 13, 2017

After much hoopla, the Bank of Israel recently announced that two new Israeli banknotes will be issued shortly. They’re part of a new series highlighting renowned 20th century Israeli poets whose life and work parallel the birth of the State of Israel and the fulfillment of the Zionist dream: A portrait of Rachel Bluwstein (Rachel the Poetess) will grace the new 20-Shekel note, and Leah Goldberg will appear on the 100 NIS. This series—a welcome change from the previous series featuring Israeli politicians—also includes 20th century Hebrew poets Shaul Tchernichovsky and Natan Alterman, who appear on the 50 and 200 NIS banknotes respectively. The planned released of the Series C NIS is late 2017.

That these two women will grace two, oft-used bills is a big deal, in my opinion, because each new NIS bill is like a mini-course in Hebrew literature and Zionist history. The 20 NIS banknote with Rachel the Poetess (1890 – 1931), the matriarch of modern Hebrew poetry, includes vistas of her beloved Sea of Galilee shoreline, palm trees, and verses from her signature poem “Kinneret.” The 100 NIS bill depicting Leah Goldberg (1911- 1970)—poet, playwright, novelist, and beloved children’s author—features her well-known poem, “In my beloved land the almond tree blossoms” (“b’Eretz Ahavti ha-shaked poreah”) with corresponding images.

Israelis are familiar with their poems as classic Israeli songs. Yet it’s fair to say that a mere fraction of American Jews are acquainted with these poets, especially with Israel-related courses becoming a tough sell, if you will, on American college campuses, and enrollment in Hebrew language classes steadily declining. Once these new banknotes start circulating, they have the potential to spark greater interest in these iconic literary figures—especially among American Jews who continue to visit Israel at increasing rates.

Call it wishful thinking. But I would like to believe that these new banknotes could be a starting point to learn more about Israel’s cultural, literary, and historical roots rather than remaining stuck arguing politics. Maybe by focusing more on Hebrew literature and less on politics, American Jews across the political divide can find some common ground for discussion about Israel and finally change the tone of that divisive Israel talk and unproductive political rhetoric. And, although annotated banknotes do not substitute for a semester-long literature class, I do hope this new currency inspires more American Jews to learn about these female poets and gain a mirror into early 20th century Zionism—the utopian vision the Zionist pioneers imagined versus the harsh reality they encountered.

Related: Coming of Age

Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.

Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.