Yehuda Amichai (ahm-ih-KI) has written three volumes of fiction and a book for children. Lo me-’akshav, lo mi-kan, a novel, was published in Hebrew in Tel Aviv in 1963 and translated into English as Not of This Time, Not of This Place in 1968. A collection of short stories, Be-ruah ha-nora’ah ha-zot, was published in Tel Aviv in 1961; a translation of about half the stories appeared in English in 1984 under the title The World Is a Room, and Other Stories. Amichai also wrote a play for the radio, titled Pa ’amonim ve-rakavot (1968; pr. as Bells and Trains, 1966). Two of his plays, No Man’s Land and Masa’ le-Ninveh (journey to Nineveh) were performed in 1962 and 1964, respectively.
With Amir Gilboa, Abba Kovner, and Dan Pagis, Yehuda Amichai was a leading member of the first generation of Israeli poets. They were born in Europe and Hebrew was not their mother tongue, yet they came to Palestine and were soon writing in the resurrected tongue of Hebrew.
A continuous tradition of secular Hebrew poetry has existed since 1000 b.c.e., flourishing first in Spain, Portugal, Provence, Italy, and the Netherlands, migrating in the nineteenth century to Central and Eastern Europe. However, the language that the poets used was literary rather than colloquial, and no one spoke it; the poet’s Hebrew was largely derived from sacred texts. Amichai and his contemporaries were the first literary generation to use Hebrew as a vernacular. The new generation felt the need to break with the preceding poetic traditions, yet the new spoken language alone did not suffice as a literary instrument. It was this first generation that provided different models and showed how an everyday language—though still replete with biblical and talmudic echoes—might be transformed into contemporary poetry.
Amichai was one of the leaders of this generation, and the various forms, tonalities, and influences that he introduced into Hebrew literature have had a lasting effect. As the critic Gabriel Josipovici has written, Amichai and his colleagues were European Jews first and Israelis second; the dreadful history of Europe and the Middle East in their lifetime forced them to contemplate their relationship to both Judaism and the State of Israel. Amichai’s generation was unique in Hebrew literature, and of this group, it is perhaps Amichai who explored the broadest range of poetic forms.
His poetry and prose were awarded the Shlonsky Prize, two Acum prizes, and the especially coveted Israel Prize. His radio play Bells and Trains won the first prize in Kol, the country’s competition for original radio plays. Although his country bestowed on him its top honors, the Nobel Prize, which many felt he rightly deserved, eluded him. His own belief was that he had been passed over because the choice had become increasingly politicized.
Although many readers find Yehuda Amichai’s poetry to be “political,” is political ideology actually the central concern of his poetry? If so, does it enhance or detract from his appeal?
In what ways do Amichai’s life and works intersect? To what effect does he use his own experiences—as a soldier, scholar, writer, and believer—to add resonance and power to his writings?
Do you find Amichai’s preoccupation with brevity and conciseness to be positive or a negative feature of his poems?
The narrative technique employed in Amichai’s novel Not of This Time, Not of This Place is unconventional. Do you find it effective? Why or why not?
Because Amichai wrote exclusively in Hebrew, his poems have presented problems for English translators. Compare the available English translations of his poems. How do the variations from one translation to the next affect your interpretation of Amichai’s poems?
Abramson, Glenda. The Writing of Yehuda Amichai: A Thematic Approach. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. First full-length English-language study devoted to the author. Examines Amichai’s thematic preoccupations across a variety of genres.
Alter, Robert. “The Untranslatable Amichai.” Modern Hebrew Literature 13 (Fall/Winter, 1994). A clear, succinct discussion of the problems of linguistic and cross-cultural translation, with attention to Hebrew writing in general and Amichai’s verse in particular. Alter, who has discussed biblical translation in earlier writings, is well equipped to elucidate the multilayered cultural heritage of Israeli poetry.
Amichai, Yehuda. “Yehuda Amichai.” Interview by Joseph Cohen. In Voices of Israel: Essays and Interviews with Yehuda Amichai, A. B. Yehoshua, T. Carmi, Aharon Applefeld, and Amos Oz, edited by Joseph Cohen. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990. An examination of five “new wave” Israeli writers regarded as literary spokespersons for their nation. Both the introductory essays on the individual writers and the questions asked in their interviews highlight the special opportunities offered creative artists by the environment of Israel, a nation resurrected from antiquity and precariously situated at a crossroads of global cultures.
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