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.