Amichai bore arms in two wars and lived most of his life on threatened ground. Yet his hatred of warfare permeates his writing. Descendants of the patriarch Abraham, both Arab and Jew, inhabit a broken land where every street sign, Amichai says, must be in three languages: “Hebrew, Arabic, and Death.” Yet he refuses to accept the spiritual and patriotic consolations so frequently offered. Do paltry monuments, with their promises of eternal rest and undying love, merely provide a brief emotional respite before the resumption of hostilities? Is the pain of loss assuaged by pretty children, military bands, new clothes, and garish parades? This “sweet world” seems fit only to be “soaked like bread/ in sweet milk for a terrible/ toothless God.” All that may be discerned of the divine presence is indifference or senility. No heavenly harmony is likely to emerge from this chaos; God seems incapable or unwilling to make straight the crooked path.
In other poems, such as “I Want to Die in My Bed,” Amichai emphasized his impatience with platitudinous sentiments about heroic death. His countrymen have been too often told, “‘May ye find consolation in the building/ of the homeland.’” Yet what good is a homeland filled only with corpses? Amichai rejects that lie written long ago by the Roman poet Horace: How noble and sweet it is to die for one’s country.
For more than two thousand years, Jews throughout the Diaspora have longed for the Holy Land. Yet Amichai, privileged to live in the Holy City, never conquered his yearning for the lost paradise of his childhood, the Germany of his first remembrance. He remains as significant a spokesman for the malaise of the twentieth century as are the celebrated French existentialist novelists and playwrights. He is a wandering Jew, a displaced person in a land not of his birth and in an indifferent universe. Like the postwar existentialists, however, he maintains compassion and a small ray of hope. The lamentation is one of the oldest and most hallowed genres of Hebrew literature. It demands accountability from God Himself, and its very presence in sacred scripture suggests that even from the depths there is always the possibility of gaining the divine ear.