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.