Although Amichai was brought up as an Orthodox Jew, he soon gave up the orthodoxy of his parents. His provocative allusions are his way of wrestling with Jewish history, a history in which he played an active role. He made his living as a teacher while becoming a warrior, first as a soldier with the British army in World War II, then with the Palmach in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 and with the Israeli army in 1956 and 1973. Many of his poems are about war, including the well-known “God Takes Pity on Kindergarten Children,” in which God takes no pity at all on adults but leaves them alone even when they are crawling on their hands and knees dripping blood. Even Amichai’s poems about relationships with family and lovers often take place against the background of war, such as “I Was Waiting for My Girl and Her Steps Were Absent,” in which he hears the shots of soldiers training for war and grows increasingly anxious.
Despite the fact that he writes in Hebrew, a language saturated with Jewish experience from biblical times to the present, Amichai was never at peace with God after his childhood, and the poet’s quarrel with God is present as a major theme in his poems. Yet the God of the poems, who seems sometimes a mere figure of speech deeply embedded in the language, makes his presence felt even in his absence, as in “From Man You Came and to Man you Shall Return.” The tone of the poem is defiance toward the God who first said “For dust you are,/ and to dust you shall return.” God’s statement is intended to humble Adam, pointing out that he is no more important than the dust beneath his feet.
Amichai’s ironic statement is a statement of pride, for he implies that humanity is the beginning and source of everything, even the lowly dust. The implication is that humanity, not dust, will triumph in the end. Perhaps this note of triumph is the reason that Benjamin Harshaw, who has translated many volumes of Amichai’s poetry, chose to read this poem at a memorial service for the poet in the Sifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University on October 24, 2000, exactly one month after Amichai was buried in Jerusalem, the city he loved.