(Yair Medina/Wikimedia)

Yehuda Amichai

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

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.

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.”

First Works

Amichai studied at the Hebrew University, and then earned his living by teaching the Bible and Hebrew literature in secondary schools. Amichai had started to write poetry in 1949. His first collection, Achshav Ubayamin Na’acherim, was published in 1955. With his second collection, Bemerchak Shetey Tikvot (1958), Amichai established himself as one of the major poets of the “Palmach generation,” writers who emerged out of Israeli’s war for independence. [Palmach was part of the Haganah, the Zionists’ armed forces in pre-independence days.] It included such names as Nathan Zach (b. 1930), Dalia Ravikovitch, T. Carmi, and Dan Pagis.

Much of Amichai’s fiction is autobiographical. “My personal history has coincided with a larger history,” he has said. “For me it’s always been one and the same.” His first novel, Not of This Time, Not of This Place (1963) was about a young German Jew living in Israel after World War II and trying to understand the world which had created the Holocaust. His second novel, Mi Yiteni Malon (1971), was about an Israeli poet living in New York. It was published while Amichai was a visiting poet at an American college. In 1971 and 1976 he was a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Dorot Visiting Fellowship (1983-84), and a visiting poet at New York University (1987).

In the background of Amichai’s work is the biblical Hebrew, in which he incorporates colloquial expressions and language of the modern day world. Sometimes it follows the rhythms of biblical language. In “National Thoughts,” Amichai wrote: “To speak, now, in this tired language, / Torn from its sleep in the Bible – / Blinded, it lurches from mouth to mouth – / The language which described God and the Miracles, / Says: / Motor car, bomb, God.” Grief, unresolved. hidden rage, and irony are elements of “The Smell of Gasoline Ascends in My Nose,” in which the army jet “makes peace in the heavens / upon us and upon all lovers in autumn”.

Public Readings

Amichai’s poems have often been recited on public occasions. Yitzhak Rabin read lines from his famous early work, “God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children,” as part of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. In the poem Amichai continues the title line with the words: “He has less pity on school children / And on grownups he has no pity at all.”

According to a story by Chana Bloch, “some Israeli students were called up in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. As soon as they were notified, they went back to their rooms at the university, and each packed his gear, a rifle, and a book of Yehuda Amichai’s poems” (from the introduction to The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, 1986). However, similar stories have been told about young Russian, French, German, etc., soldiers who take a book by their favorite poet to the front.

In the 1970s the English poet Ted Hughes made Amichai’s work known to English and American readers. Amichai died in Jerusalem on September 22, 2000. He was married twice: first to Tamar Horn, with whom he had one son, and then to Chang Sokolov; they had one son and one daughter. Amichai’s works have been translated into some 30 languages and appeared in a number of anthologies. “He should have won the Nobel Prize in any of the last 20 years,” wrote Jonathan Wilson in The New York Times (December 10, 2000), “but he knew that as far as the Scandinavian judges were concerned, and whatever his personal politics, which were indubitably on the dovish side, he came from the wrong side of the stockade.”

Reprinted with permission from the website Pegasos.

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