Yehuda Amichai 1924-2000
Israeli poet and novelist.
Yehuda Amichai is Israel's most celebrated poet. His many volumes of poetry encompasses issues of both modern and ancient Jewish identity, tradition, faith, and history. His innovative combination of modern, colloquial Hebrew with references to ancient biblical texts has been celebrated as a major contribution to Hebrew literature. Amichai's early work is often viewed as reminiscent of the metaphysical verse of John Donne and W. H. Auden, while his later verse is noted for its weighty themes belied by a simple style and wry humor.
Yehuda Amichai was born in Wurzburg, Germany, May 2, 1924, into an Orthodox Jewish family. In 1936, when Amichai was twelve, the family immigrated to Palestine (now Israel), thus escaping the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews during World War II. Many of Amichai's friends and relatives perished in concentration camps; this loss haunted him throughout his life. Amichai served in the British army during World War II. Later, he fought against the British in guerilla combat before the formation of the state of Israel. Amichai also served in the Israeli army during the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1948, 1956, and 1973. Amichai's experiences with war strongly influenced his work. Many of his poems deal with themes of war and its aftermath. Amichai died in 2000.
The turmoil of living in a country that is frequently at war, and the loss of loved ones to war, had a major impact on Amichai and his poetry. His poems are often characterized by themes of alienation and loneliness. His first volume of poetry, Now and in Other Days (1955) expresses his strong feelings about the state of Israel. In these poems, Amichai combines biblical references with events from Jewish history. Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela (1976) is a long autobiographical poem, considered by some to be Amichai's masterpiece. It charts the spiritual and artistic development of the poet from youth to middle age, making reference to the lives of major figures from Jewish history. The Selected Poems of Yehudah Amichai (1986) includes translations of poetry written between 1955 and 1986. Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry, 1948-1994 (1994) includes poetry written throughout the first forty-six years of the state of Israel, and reflects Amichai's broad historical perspective. Open Closed Open (1998), considered Amichai's magnum opus, consists of a sequence of twenty-five poems which represent the writer's craft in its most mature, developed form.
Since the 1960s, Amichai has been internationally celebrated as Israel's greatest poet. Critics generally concur on the strengths of his poetry, which delves into themes of Jewish identity in modern Israel in the context of Jewish history and biblical tradition. He successfully addresses issues of modern Jewish identity in Israel through reference to ancient Jewish texts as well as figures from throughout Jewish history. Amichai's experiences as an immigrant from Germany, and as a soldier in World War II as well as several major Arab-Israeli conflicts, serve as material for the expression of suffering and loss. His poetry is often compared to that of major English poets such as the metaphysical poet John Donne and the romantic poet William Wordsworth, as well as modern poets Dylan Thomas and W. H. Auden. Amichai is praised for the lyrical qualities of his poetry, which draws from the specifics of Jewish experience to express universal themes of love, war, suffering, loss, religious questioning, and family relationships. Critics agree that Amichai's poems are often deceptively simple, exploring complex themes through relatively simple imagery and metaphors.
Akhshav uba-yamin na-aherim [Now and in Other Days] 1955
Shirim: 1948-1962[Poems: 1948-1962] 1967
*‘Akhshav bara‘ash 1968
Selected Poems 1968
Selected Poems of Yehuda Amichai 1971
Ve-Lo al Menat Lizkor [Not for the Sake of Remembering] 1971
Me-Ahorei Kol Zeh Mistater Osher Gadol [Amen] 1974
Ha-Zeman [Time: Poems] 1977
Love Poems 1981
Shalva gedola [Great Tranquillity: Questions and Answers] 1983
The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai 1986
Poems of Jerusalem: A Bilingual Edition 1988
Gam ha’egrof haya pa‘am yad petuḥah ve’etsba‘ot [Even a Fist Was Once an Open Palm with Fingers: Recent Poems] 1989
Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems: Bilingual Edition 1992
Poems: English and Hebrew 1994
Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry, 1948-1994 1994
Exile at Home 1998
Open Closed Open 2000
Lo me-’akhshav, Lo mi-kan [Not of this Time, Not of this Place] (novel) 1963
The World is a Room: And Other Short Stories (short stories)...
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SOURCE: Young, Vernon. A review of Time: Poems by Yehuda Amichai. New York Review of Books 22 (November 22, 1979): 40-41.
[In the following review of Time,Young addresses Amichai's use of language, his religious themes, and the historical context of his poetry. Young concludes that Amichai's poetry “fills the reader with wonder.”]
That “a poet without a sense of history is a deprived child” is an aphorism of Stanley Kunitz to which Yehuda Amichai would readily assent, while finding it too self-evident to bear underlining. He lives in history as a fish does in water. Born in Würzburg, 1924, Amichai emigrated with his family to Israel in 1936. Würzburg, one of the rococo showcases of Central Europe, was on March 16, 1945, “eighty-five percent” demolished by Allied bombers in, if I recall, thirty-five minutes. I spent two weeks in that town in 1963 and never encountered anyone who had been living there in 1945. To the expectant eye, the notable buildings were still standing, their façades recognizable from the architecture books. The buildings had been restored, the population replaced. Throughout Europe, but especially in Germany and Poland, nothing is more uncanny than this palpable existence of something which is not really there! And this theme of dislocation, of places wiped out behind him, while remaining nominal, haunts the verses of Amichai, who has been witness...
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SOURCE: Abramson, Glenda. “Amichai's God.” Prooftexts 4 (1984): 111-26.
[In the following essay, Abramson discusses the theme of faith in Amichai's poetry, concluding, “Amichai's God is like no other God in Hebrew poetry.”]
One of the most noteworthy facts about the poetry of the first Israeli generation of writers, popularly called the Palmach generation, is its shift in religious orientation, the culmination of a process which had begun with the Haskalah. They demonstrate their own detachment from the past and abandonment of interest in parochially Jewish matters in lyric poetry which is predominantly secular in feeling and intent, by the imaginative use of Jewish religious symbols and imagery set in secular contexts and by reinterpreting the biblical and rabbinic sources to suit their modern environment. The recalled biblical or liturgical text serves as a springboard for wholly modern ideas, creating variations of inspiration on ancient themes. Yehuda Amichai excels in this process which, through its ideological dialogue with the past, has created a unique form of poetic discourse and, in effect, a new exegesis. Amichai reapplies traditional observations and judgments to his own existential world, and so demonstrates not only a knowledge of the sources concomitant with an intensively orthodox upbringing, but also an instinctive awareness that they can be of value to his life and that of his...
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SOURCE: Abramson, Glenda. “The Love Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.” American Journal of Semiotics 11, No. 2 (Fall, 1986): 221-47.
[In the following essay, Abramson discusses the theme of love in Amichai's poetry.]
If Yehuda Amichai does not use as topics for his work all three of those that Dante considered fundamental to poetry, salus, venus, and virtus, the second, venus, appears as a pervasive theme, perhaps the most pervasive throughout his work, revealing a consistency of idea which has unfailingly moved through the structured verse of the early volumes to the less tersely conceived poems of later years. One of the primary topics of his poetry is the alteration of love within a variety of contexts: time, war, youth and maturity, memory and religion. Love is the framework in which most of the events of the poetry take place, and it is itself celebrated or mourned in a number of long lyric cycles, particularly in the early books, written between 1948 and 1968. This poetry proposes an idealized, perhaps illusory love which is not only romantically perfect in itself, but which in its perfection will serve to replace religious belief and practice no longer of spiritual or emotional benefit in the life of the lyric “I.” It describes the search for this perfect love, which may also serve as a means of escaping guilt for the abandonment of God, or of providing a substitute for the...
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SOURCE: Gold, Nili Rachel. “Flowers, Fragrances, and Memories: The Different Functions of Plant Images in Amichai's Later Poetry.” Hebrew Studies XXXIII (1992): 71-92.
[In the following essay, Gold discusses the recurring imagery of plants and flowers in Amichai's poetry.]
Although Yehuda Amichai won the prestigious Israel Prize for the “revolution he created in Hebrew poetry,”1 his later poetry, from 1968 to date,2 has been neglected or even ignored by academic studies and largely denounced by reviewers. His early work (1948-1968)3 which received great attention at the time of its publication4 has been hailed as the Amichai canon. This article seeks to demonstrate the significance of Amichai's later poetry and to argue that these poems should be considered integral to his literary achievement.5
Amichai's work from the late 1970s and 1980s is characterized by an intensified command of poetic language and devices. His voice becomes more suggestive and individualized. This turn inward is manifested specifically by an idiosyncratic reworking of conventional linguistic materials. The tensions between existing literary or spoken use of language and the poet's personal diction, between the common and the rare, and between the general and the specific combine to create the distinctive texture of the later poetry.
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SOURCE: Gold, Nili Scharf. “A Burning Bush or a Fire of Thorns: Toward a Revisionary Reading of Amichai's Poetry.” Prooftexts 14 (1994): 49-69.
[In the following essay, Gold analyzes recurring motifs throughout Amichai's oeuvre.]
I've filtered out of the Book of Esther the residue of vulgar joy, and out of the Book of Jeremiah the howl of pain in the guts. And out of the Song of Songs the endless search for love, and out of the Book of Genesis the dreams and Cain, and out of Ecclesiastes the despair and out of the Book of Job—Job. And from what was left over I pasted for myself a new Bible. Now I live censored and pasted and limited in peace.
Hazman 29; Time, 29
Yehuda Amichai won the prestigious Israel Prize for the “revolution he created in Hebrew poetry.” He is often described as a pillar of modern Hebrew literature, and his later work, from 1968 to date, is very popular in Israel and widely known abroad in translation.1 Nevertheless, in the last two decades he has been neglected, even ignored, in academic studies and largely denounced by reviewers, most of whom think he has already said what he had to say, as though his work after 1968 were superfluous, self-epigonic, even insincere. His early work, from 1948 to 1968, widely praised when it first appeared, has been hailed as his canon and still enjoys that status.2...
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SOURCE: Bloch, Chana. “Wrestling with the Angel of History: The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.” Judaism 45, No. 179 (Summer, 1996): 298-300.
[In the following essay, Bloch discusses the ways in which Amichai's poems address the meaning of the Jewish experience in history.]
A friend of mine tells a story about some Israeli students who 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. It is a little hard to envision this scene: these days we don't think of soldiers as resorting to poetry under fire, and Amichai's poetry is not standard government issue. It isn't patriotic in the ordinary sense of the word, it doesn't cry death to the enemy, and it offers no simple consolation for killing and dying.
Still, I know what these young soldiers were after, because I have often found myself turning to Amichai's poetry as a kind of restorative. Pungent, ironic, tender, playful and despairing by turns, it draws me by the energy of its language, the exuberant inventiveness and startling leaps that freshen the world, making it seem a place where anything is possible. And by the humor, too—a briny Jewish humor that can set the teeth on edge. And I am attracted by a certain astringent quality of mind, a skeptical intelligence that is impatient with...
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SOURCE: Hirsch, Edward. “Yehuda Amichai: Poet at the Window.” In Responsive Reading, pp. 140-52. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Hirsch explores central themes in the poetry of Amichai, such as love, war, history, and Jewish identity.]
For more than thirty years Yehuda Amichai has been conducting his own highly personal war on forgetfulness and silence. He has the unique ability to render and enact the complex fate of the modern Israeli, the individual man locked in and responding to history. Amichai is a historical poet of the first order, a political writer in the deepest sense of that term. At the same time, he is a writer who always speaks of his own concerns, his private love pangs and personal questions, his parents' history and his own intimate secrets. Part of the achievement of Amichai's work has been the conjoining of these two spheres, always speaking of one in terms of the other. Indeed, one of the central themes of his work has been the way the personal is implicated in the historical, the private impinged upon by the public. Always his poems register the human implications of the political event—in Lorca's phrase, the drop of blood that stands behind the statistics. In a way, the poet is like one of Emerson's “representative men” transferred to Jerusalem and updated for the second half of the twentieth century, a...
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SOURCE: A review of Open Closed Open. Publishers Weekly 247, No. 13 (March 27, 2000): 71.
[In the following review, Publishers Weekly offers a favorable assessment of Amichai's poetry collection Open Closed Open.]
Constructing a lineage in which to place himself, Amichai begins these verses of personal and cultural history with a stone from a destroyed Jewish graveyard; and moves on to enact the story of David, recall poems by Ibn Ezra, and even consider Jesus as an instance of “Jewish Travel.” Within this vast context, the 25 longish poems of the collection, originally written in Hebrew, offer everyday acts of alternately joyous and somber reverence for God, “with the same body / that stoops to pick up a fallen something from the floor.” Amichai, who emigrated to Palestine in 1936 and is now 76, places imagined Holocaust memories (“I wasn't among the six million who died in the Shoah. / I wasn't even among the survivors”) adjacent to irreverent reconfigurations of Torah characters, investigates “The Language of Love and Tea with Roasted Almonds,” and asks “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Why Jerusalem.” The English-only text is generally well-rendered by poet Bloch and Hebrew scholar Kronfeld, but the rhymes can show jingly signs of strain: “Our father Jacob, on the beaten track / carries a ladder on his back // like a window washer to the VIPs. / He does God's windows, if you...
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SOURCE: Bloch, Chana, and Chana Kronfeld. “Amichai's Counter-Theology: Opening Open Closed Open.” Judaism 49, No. 2 (Spring, 2000): 153-67.
[In the following review, Bloch and Kronfeld discuss Amichai's perspective on God and Judaism, as expressed in his poetry.]
On the cover of Open Closed Open, Yehuda Amichai's new collection of poems, there is a fragment of a broken gravestone with the word “Amen” carved on it. The stone, from a Jewish cemetery destroyed nearly a thousand years ago in his birthplace, Wirzburg, Germany, was given to Amichai by a German professor of theology who has devoted himself to reassembling the broken pieces and reconstructing the gravestones. That “toy of history and fate” is now a decorative object on his writing desk, “a thing of beauty, weighing down papers so they won't fly away.” Five poems referring to the Amen stone are situated at intervals throughout the volume, and other poems conclude with Amen (a secular Amen, to be sure) or incorporate bits of prayer. These poems suggest the nature of Amichai's project in Open Closed Open, a book that gathers up the broken pieces of personal and Jewish history. Like the German professor, Amichai is engaged in the exacting work of recovery, though his object is not to make the pieces “whole again, once again.” He refuses to restore the fragments of history and memory to a spurious wholeness,...
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SOURCE: Hadary, Amnon. “A Yad for My Friend Yahuda.” Judaism 49, No. 4 (Fall, 2000): 411-15.
[In the following essay, Hadary offers a general assessment of Amichai's poetry, at the time of his death in the year 2000.]
At Jerusalem's Safra Square on September 24th, we went to say Shalom Haver to yet another general, Yehuda Amichai, the reluctant poet laureate of Israel, felled by cancer, “the chief of staff in the war to liberate Hebrew literature,” Yossi Sarid said. He liberated Hebrew from the oy and the goy, from the pathos and piety, the rhyme scheme and the dead letter of tradition and ritual in literature as in life. For all that, he continued to shoulder the Jewish sack of images and insights and expressions as a beloved sacred weight, just as he persisted in carrying the memory of his dead friend who fell in the battle of Ashdod in the War of liberation.
I carried my comrade on my back. And since then I feel his dead body always Like a sky weighing heavily upon me, And he feels my bent back beneath Like a convex segment of the globe. For in the terrible sands of Ashdod, I fell Not just he.
There we were at the public leave-taking of Amichai, hundreds of us, Yehuda's soldiers in the 50-year campaign to make the Zionist state Jewish in a civil, humanist, peace-loving, law abiding, socially just way—we who were Jewish by birth, commitment, culture,...
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SOURCE: Biespiel, David. “‘A Final Hard Amen’: Yehuda Amichai, 1923-2000.” Parnassus 25, No. 1-2 (2001): 126-35.
[In the following review of Amichai's Open Closed Open, Biespiel offers a favorable assessment of the poet's accomplishments.]
For nearly half a century, Yehuda Amichai was Israeli poetry's patriarch, a man embodying and embracing his revolutionary time. His followers will remember a period, especially in the Seventies and Eighties, when Amichai seemed to be everywhere. Here in the United States, he gave readings, interviews, and lectures at synagogues, Jewish community centers, Hadassah meetings, and college campuses, from Cleveland's Shaker Heights to Houston's Meyerland, from Yale to Iowa. With his Old Country accent, he presented himself as a regular guy, just your ordinary poet. But he still came across like a prophet from the Promised Land, singing in a language reborn.
I remember seeing him at Dartmouth in the mid-Eighties, after the publication of Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell's Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. In those days, afternoon readings were held in the library. (Even octogenarian Richard Eberhart was an habitue. During most readings, after the introduction was made and the poet began to warm up the small audience, Eberhart, sitting in an easy chair, twiddling his thumbs, would fall into a sound sleep.) Amichai's reading, however,...
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Alter, Robert. “Poetry in Israel.” In After the Tradition: Essays on Modern Jewish Writing, pp. 241-56. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1969.
An overview of Israeli poetry since the formation of the state of Israel.
———. “Israel's Master Poet.” New York Times (8 June 1986): 40.
An overview of Amichai's life and literary career.
Bar-Yosef, Hamutal. “Hebrew Poetry in the Years Following the Establishment of the State of Israel.” Jewish Book Annual 26 (1968-1969): 34-48.
An overview of developments in Hebrew poetry since the formation of the state of Israel.
Eshel, Amir. “Eternal Present: Poetic Figuration and Cultural Memory in the Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, Dan Pagis, and Tuvia Rübner.” Jewish Social Studies 7, no. 1 (fall, 2000): 141-66.
Examines the issue of Jewish cultural memory in the works of three Jewish poets.
Fenton, James. A review of Time. London Review of Books 1, no. 4 (6 December 1979): 16.
A brief, negative review of Amichai's Time.
Fishelov, David. “Yehuda Amichai: A Modern Metaphysical Poet.” Orbis Litterarum 47, no. 3 (1992): 178-91.
Compares Amichai to the seventeenth-century English metaphysical poets,...
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