(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

One of Israel’s greatest modern poets, Yehuda Amichai, who died in September, 2000, at the age of seventy-six, has written a series of poems in Open Closed Open that are among his best accomplishments in verse. They are written in free verse with very strong rhythms and striking metaphors and similes. The title of the collection derives from a rabbinic tale describing the fetus in its mother’s womb, when its mouth is closed and its navel is open, but at birth the reverse is true. In one of the first poems in the collection, “I Wasn’t One of the Six Million: And What Is My Life Span? Open Closed Open,” Amichai writes:

. . . Before we are born, everything is open
in the universe without us. For as long as we live, everything is closed
within us. And when we die, everything is open again.
Open closed open. That’s all we are.

In the rest of the poem and in the poems that follow, Amichai tries to open himself and his world to readers, and he very largely succeeds. Despite a few cryptic utterances, his poetry is lucid and powerful, studded with arresting imagery and allusions that help the reader visualize and understand what he is driving at. He is also a master of irony, as the title of his next poem,“I Foretell the Days of Yore,” suggests. In this poem he proclaims that he is “a prophet of what has already been.” He goes on to describe the future:

. . . As when a man sees a woman with a beautiful body
walking before him in the street
and looks after her with desire, but she doesn’t turn
to look back, just smooths her skirt a little,
pulls her blouse tight, fixes the back of her hair, then
without turning toward the man’s gaze
quickens her step. That’s
what the future is like.

It is attractive, but elusive and mysterious. Only the past can be known. Life is “a series of rehearsals/ for the real show.” Extending the metaphor, Amichai says that a rehearsal still allows for changes up until “the real show.” Then there is no changing, and “The show closes right after opening night.”

Though not conventionally religious in an orthodox sense, Amichai nevertheless is well versed in the Bible and in Jewish tradition. For example, in “The Bible and You, the Bible and You, and Other Midrashim” (Midrashim are commentaries on the Bible and stories), he writes about Gideon choosing his army at the Spring of Harod, Moses, Abraham and his sons, King Saul, Ruth, and others. His account of Abraham and his sons is especially interesting, since Amichai says Abraham had three sons, not two: Yishma-El [Ishmael], “God will hear”; Yitzhak [Isaac], “he will laugh”; and Yivkeh, “he will cry.” The youngest is the son no one has ever heard of. He was the one Abraham loved best, and the one Abraham sacrificed; he was the ram. At the end of this section of the poem, Amichai writes: “Yishma-El never heard from God again,/ Yitzhak never laughed again,/ Sarah laughed only once, then laughed no more.”

God is very much a presence in these poems, as in “Gods Change, Prayers Are Here to Stay.” Here Amichai describes the kind of god he wants and the kind he finds:

I want a god who is like a door that opens out, not in,
but God is like a revolving door, which turns, turns on its hinges
in and out, whirling and turning
without a beginning, without an end.

In Amichai’s view, prayer preceded God, created God, and paradoxically only then God created human beings, who create prayers. God is now absent, but when he “packed up and left the country, He left the Torah/ with the Jews. They have been looking for Him ever since.” Jews read the Torah every week aloud to God, “like Scheherazade who told stories to save her life.” By the time Simchat Torah rolls around (the end of the cycle of reading Torah, the last of the High Holy Days), “God forgets and they can begin again.” God’s love for the Jewish people, His people, is “an upside-down love”: first “crude and physical,” creating miracles, plagues, and commandments; then “more emotion, more soul/ but no body, an unrequited ever-longing love/ for an invisible god in the high heavens. A hopeless love.”

In this poem Amichai recalls his own religious upbringing, attending synagogue services, remembering what it felt like to draw out his tallith (prayer shawl) from its velvet bag, putting it on with its striped decoration (“Stripes come from infinity and to infinity they go,/ like airport runways where angels land and take off”), beating his chest on Rosh Hashanah during the days of penitence, remembering the women behind the...

(The entire section is 1934 words.)