Yehuda Amichai (ah-mee-KI) is generally regarded as one of Israel’s foremost poets. He was born to a family of Orthodox Jews in Würzburg, then a Jewish center in southern Germany, and in school he first learned Hebrew as a language of prayer and study. In 1936, when Amichai was twelve, his family emigrated to Palestine. After first settling in Petach-Tikvah, a small agricultural colony, they moved a year later to Jerusalem.
During World War II Amichai volunteered for the Jewish Brigade, a unit of the British Army. After the war he smuggled arms and Jewish refugees into Palestine as a member of the Haganah underground. In Israel’s War for Independence, beginning in 1947, Amichai served in the Palmach, a strike force of the Haganah. His Haganah and Palmach experiences are recounted in his first short-story collection, Ba-ruah ha-nora’ah ha-zot (in this terrible wind).
While in the Haganah, Amichai began reading modern English poets, especially W. H. Auden. The influence, particularly of Auden, was evident when Amichai himself started writing poems in the 1950’s. Although denying any conscious intent to initiate a new literary wave, Amichai is considered the forerunner of a movement in Hebrew poetry toward approximating the rhythms of ordinary speech and the prosaic quality of everyday language.
Amichai’s debut poetry collection, Akshav u-ve-yamim aherim (now and in other days), was awarded the Shlonski Prize. His next collection, Be-merhak shete tikvot (two hopes apart), introduced autobiographical themes that recur throughout his work. Along with love, war, and displacement, these include his ambivalent relationship with his father, with whom Amichai remained close despite having rejected orthodoxy in his adolescence. The critic Glenda Abramson declared that this work “distilled the disillusionment of an entire generation,” a reference to the first generation after the Holocaust that not only used Hebrew as a vernacular but also, having grown up in Israel and fought in its wars, lacked romanticized notions about the land.
In 1959 Amichai returned to a Würzburg devastated by...
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