Yehuda Amichai grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home; his father was a shopkeeper, his grandfather a farmer. His mother tongue was German. Although he entered the government-sponsored Israelitische Volkschule at the age of six and learned to read and to write Hebrew, he did not begin to speak Hebrew until 1935, when he moved to Palestine with his parents and settled in Jerusalem. His outlook was influenced by the Socialist youth movement, to which most Jewish adolescents belonged in the Palestine of the 1930’s and early 1940’s. He fought with the British army in World War II, then with the Palmakh in the Israeli War of Independence of 1948. He also fought with the Israeli army in 1956 and 1973.
For most of his life, Amichai made his living as a schoolteacher and was a familiar figure on Jerusalem streets. His poetry was popular in Israel, and after the publication of his first book in 1955, his writing was an important source of supplemental income. Although there are fewer than three million readers of Hebrew in Israel, the collection of his early work, Shirim, 1948-1962 (poems, 1948-1962), several times reprinted, has sold fifty thousand copies. Translations brought thousands of new readers and additional income for Amichai. He was a visiting poet at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1971 and frequently traveled abroad to give poetry readings.
Though he always served his country militarily when called, he came to view warfare ever more cynically and sadly. When he died, his passing was particularly lamented by the peace movement in Israel and Jewish America, which had come to view him as a spokesperson. He was survived by a much-loved second wife frequently celebrated in his poetry, two sons, and a daughter.
Yehuda Amichai (ah-mee-KI), deemed by countless critics and scholars to be Israel’s master poet of the twentieth century, was born in Würzburg, Germany, in 1924. He immigrated with his family to Palestine in 1936, where they sought refuge from the persecution of the Nazis. Amichai was educated in provincial Hebrew schools and became a teacher in them after graduation. In World War II, Amichai served as a soldier with the British in Europe, an experience that provided inspiration for many of his writings. Shortly after the war, Amichai was once again called to military service, joining the fight for Israeli independence. Initially, he enlisted as a member of the Palmach (commando troops) of the Haganah, an underground Jewish militia. Later he saw active duty as an Israeli soldier, both on the Negev front and in the battle for Sinai, both major campaigns in the Arab-Israeli war of 1947-1948. Shortly thereafter, Amichai became an Israeli citizen.
Having grown up in a strict Orthodox Jewish household, Amichai obtained a solid background in Hebrew language, theology, and culture that strongly informs his writing. After completing military service, he embarked on a career as a writer, determined to contribute his distinctive voice to the fledgling Israeli literary movement. Even though his English was impeccable, he opted to write exclusively in Hebrew, a gesture of reverence to both Jewish faith and culture. Because of his strong early ties—both intellectually and politically—to Great Britain, Amichai’s early work shows the pronounced influence of the British metaphysical school. Many of his early poems pay homage to the elaborate metaphorical conceits and precise, ornate diction of seventeenth century English masters George Herbert and John Donne. However, his penchant for linguistic concision and emphasis on imagery in his poems clearly reflect the influence of English and American modernists such as W. H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound.
Despite his English-language influences, Amichai was first and foremost a Hebrew writer. By 1962 he had already published two volumes of poetry in...
(The entire section is 870 words.)
Several critics and scholars have lauded Yehuda Amichai as perhaps the most significant Hebrew poet of his, or maybe any, generation. His writings possess an unmistakable resonance and undeniable skill that have won him the adulation of readers throughout the world. In addition to scores of other accolades, Amichai won the prestigious Israel Prize in 1982 and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature on multiple occasions. However, Amichai never received the Nobel Prize. Some have attributed this to the outspoken political nature of his work, suggesting that his ideology was perhaps too audacious to curry favor with the selection committee’s more conservative members. However, even if one finds Amichai’s politics too overt or dogmatic, it is difficult to dispute his compelling and exceptional poetic gifts. It is indisputable that Amichai is one of the key figures of twentieth century poetry.