Yehuda Amichai

A profile of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000)


Reprinted with permission from the website Pegasos.

An Israeli poet–who also published short stories, novels, and plays–Amichai was among the first to compose poems in colloquial Israeli Hebrew. His language is gently ironic, sometimes passionate or straightforward, or even emotionally dry. Memories from childhood appear in Amichai’s work as nostalgic glimpses into a world of peace and innocence: “Remember: even the departure to terrible battles / Passes by gardens and windows / And children playing, a dog barking.”

Many of his poems are addressed to Jerusalem. Amichai’s own life was closely linked to the birth and battle for existence of the State of Israel. In 1982 he received the Israel Prize of Poetry, his country’s highest honor. yehuda amichai

If I forget thee, Jerusalem,
Then let my right be forgotten.
Let my right be forgotten, and my left remember.
Let my left remember, and your right close
And your mouth open near the gate.

(from “If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem”)

Emigration to Palestine

Yehuda Amichai was born in Würzburg, Germany, to a merchant family of Orthodox Jews. His ancestors had lived there in southern Germany since the Middle Ages. After the Nazis came to power, his family emigrated to Palestine in 1935 and settled finally in Jerusalem. In an early poem he confessed: “And my parents’ migration has not yet calmed in me. / My blood goes on shaking at its walls, / As the bowl after it is set down.”

Amichai studied Hebrew from early childhood and received a religious education. During World War II he served in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army. Later, during the War of Independence, he served as a commando with the Haganah underground. He was also in active duty in the army in 1956 and 1973. These experiences mark many of his poems. In “Tel Gath” he returned to his own past: “I brought my children to the mound / Where once I fought battles, / So they would understand the things I did do / And forgive me for the things I didn’t do.”

In another poem, “The U.N. Headquarters in the High Commissioner’s House in Jerusalem,” Amichai viewed bitterly the role of the international community in his country, which had become a playground of peace negotiators: “And their secretaries are lipsticked and laughing, / and their sturdy chauffeurs wait below, like horses in a stable, / and the trees that shade them have their roots in no-man’s land / and the illusions are children who went out to find cyclamen in the field / and do not come back.”

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