Yehuda Amichai 1924-2000
Israeli poet and novelist.
Yehuda Amichai is Israel's most celebrated poet. His many volumes of poetry encompasses issues of both modern and ancient Jewish identity, tradition, faith, and history. His innovative combination of modern, colloquial Hebrew with references to ancient biblical texts has been celebrated as a major contribution to Hebrew literature. Amichai's early work is often viewed as reminiscent of the metaphysical verse of John Donne and W. H. Auden, while his later verse is noted for its weighty themes belied by a simple style and wry humor.
Yehuda Amichai was born in Wurzburg, Germany, May 2, 1924, into an Orthodox Jewish family. In 1936, when Amichai was twelve, the family immigrated to Palestine (now Israel), thus escaping the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews during World War II. Many of Amichai's friends and relatives perished in concentration camps; this loss haunted him throughout his life. Amichai served in the British army during World War II. Later, he fought against the British in guerilla combat before the formation of the state of Israel. Amichai also served in the Israeli army during the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1948, 1956, and 1973. Amichai's experiences with war strongly influenced his work. Many of his poems deal with themes of war and its aftermath. Amichai died in 2000.
The turmoil of living in a country that is frequently at war, and the loss of loved ones to war, had a major impact on Amichai and his poetry. His poems are often characterized by themes of alienation and loneliness. His first volume of poetry, Now and in Other Days (1955) expresses his strong feelings about the state of Israel. In these poems, Amichai combines biblical references with events from Jewish history. Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela (1976) is a long autobiographical poem, considered by some to be Amichai's masterpiece. It charts the spiritual and artistic development of the poet from youth to middle age, making reference to the lives of major figures from Jewish history. The Selected Poems of Yehudah Amichai (1986) includes translations of poetry written between 1955 and 1986. Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry, 1948-1994 (1994) includes poetry written throughout the first forty-six years of the state of Israel, and reflects Amichai's broad historical perspective. Open Closed Open (1998), considered Amichai's magnum opus, consists of a sequence of twenty-five poems which represent the writer's craft in its most mature, developed form.
Since the 1960s, Amichai has been internationally celebrated as Israel's greatest poet. Critics generally concur on the strengths of his poetry, which delves into themes of Jewish identity in modern Israel in the context of Jewish history and biblical tradition. He successfully addresses issues of modern Jewish identity in Israel through reference to ancient Jewish texts as well as figures from throughout Jewish history. Amichai's experiences as an immigrant from Germany, and as a soldier in World War II as well as several major Arab-Israeli conflicts, serve as material for the expression of suffering and loss. His poetry is often compared to that of major English poets such as the metaphysical poet John Donne and the romantic poet William Wordsworth, as well as modern poets Dylan Thomas and W. H. Auden. Amichai is praised for the lyrical qualities of his poetry, which draws from the specifics of Jewish experience to express universal themes of love, war, suffering, loss, religious questioning, and family relationships. Critics agree that Amichai's poems are often deceptively simple, exploring complex themes through relatively simple imagery and metaphors.