Yehuda Amichai Amichai, Yehuda - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Akhshav uba-yamin na-aherim [Now and in Other Days] 1955

Shirim: 1948-1962[Poems: 1948-1962] 1967

*‘Akhshav bara‘ash 1968

Selected Poems 1968

Selected Poems of Yehuda Amichai 1971

Ve-Lo al Menat Lizkor [Not for the Sake of Remembering] 1971

Me-Ahorei Kol Zeh Mistater Osher Gadol [Amen] 1974

Ha-Zeman [Time: Poems] 1977

Love Poems 1981

Shalva gedola [Great Tranquillity: Questions and Answers] 1983

The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai 1986

Poems of Jerusalem: A Bilingual Edition 1988

Gam ha’egrof haya pa‘am yad petuḥah ve’etsba‘ot [Even a Fist Was Once an Open Palm with Fingers: Recent Poems] 1989

Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems: Bilingual Edition 1992

Poems: English and Hebrew 1994

Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry, 1948-1994 1994

Exile at Home 1998

Open Closed Open 2000

Lo me-’akhshav, Lo mi-kan [Not of this Time, Not of this Place] (novel) 1963

The World is a Room: And Other Short Stories (short stories) 1984

*Contains Mas‘ot Binyamin ha’aḥaron miTeluda [Travels of the Last Benjamin of Teluda]

Vernon Young (essay date 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Young, Vernon. A review of Time: Poems by Yehuda Amichai. New York Review of Books 22 (November 22, 1979): 40-41.

[In the following review of Time,Young addresses Amichai's use of language, his religious themes, and the historical context of his poetry. Young concludes that Amichai's poetry “fills the reader with wonder.”]

That “a poet without a sense of history is a deprived child” is an aphorism of Stanley Kunitz to which Yehuda Amichai would readily assent, while finding it too self-evident to bear underlining. He lives in history as a fish does in water. Born in Würzburg, 1924, Amichai emigrated with his family to Israel in 1936. Würzburg, one of the rococo showcases of Central Europe, was on March 16, 1945, “eighty-five percent” demolished by Allied bombers in, if I recall, thirty-five minutes. I spent two weeks in that town in 1963 and never encountered anyone who had been living there in 1945. To the expectant eye, the notable buildings were still standing, their façades recognizable from the architecture books. The buildings had been restored, the population replaced. Throughout Europe, but especially in Germany and Poland, nothing is more uncanny than this palpable existence of something which is not really there! And this theme of dislocation, of places wiped out behind him, while remaining nominal, haunts the verses of Amichai, who has been witness to the same kind of dispersal and replacement during all the days of his exile. As he says in one of his poems, “and since then the town / and since then the whole world.”

Such information as we are given about Yehuda Amichai is sketchy. He fought in the British army during World War II, for the Hagganah in 1948, and in the war of 1968. He wrote a novel, dated 1955, Now and in Other Days, which has been translated into English. A radio play in 1962, Bells and Trains, was followed by a theater piece staged by the Habbimah Theatre, 1964—The Journey to Nineveh. All these were, I presume, written in Hebrew. Time is Amichai's fourth volume of poems published in English. Previous volumes were translated by, or written with the help of, Ted Hughes; this one, I understand, Amichai wrote himself in English.

He writes lyrics in Biblical cadences. Reading them, we may remember that Hebrew, largely the language of the Old Testament, is the ultimate source of what we admire as “free verse.” By a miracle of continuity and empathy, the several translators of the vintage Bibles infused English with the tropes and cadences of the Hebrew and the Aramaic tongue. Hence it may be no surprise to discover that an Amichai poem is alive to the ear and never reads like a translation. Even so, to reflect that Amichai's first non-Hebraic language was German is to concede him an astonishing talent for writing our language unimpeded by a lingering trace of the structures and compounds of German syntax.

People here live inside prophecies
          that came true
as inside a thick cloud after an
that did not disperse.
And so in their lonely...

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Glenda Abramson (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Abramson, Glenda. “Amichai's God.” Prooftexts 4 (1984): 111-26.

[In the following essay, Abramson discusses the theme of faith in Amichai's poetry, concluding, “Amichai's God is like no other God in Hebrew poetry.”]

One of the most noteworthy facts about the poetry of the first Israeli generation of writers, popularly called the Palmach generation, is its shift in religious orientation, the culmination of a process which had begun with the Haskalah. They demonstrate their own detachment from the past and abandonment of interest in parochially Jewish matters in lyric poetry which is predominantly secular in feeling and intent, by the imaginative use of...

(The entire section is 6845 words.)

Glenda Abramson (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Abramson, Glenda. “The Love Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.” American Journal of Semiotics 11, No. 2 (Fall, 1986): 221-47.

[In the following essay, Abramson discusses the theme of love in Amichai's poetry.]

If Yehuda Amichai does not use as topics for his work all three of those that Dante considered fundamental to poetry, salus, venus, and virtus, the second, venus, appears as a pervasive theme, perhaps the most pervasive throughout his work, revealing a consistency of idea which has unfailingly moved through the structured verse of the early volumes to the less tersely conceived poems of later years. One of the primary topics of his poetry...

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Nili Rachel Scharf Gold (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gold, Nili Rachel. “Flowers, Fragrances, and Memories: The Different Functions of Plant Images in Amichai's Later Poetry.” Hebrew Studies XXXIII (1992): 71-92.

[In the following essay, Gold discusses the recurring imagery of plants and flowers in Amichai's poetry.]

Although Yehuda Amichai won the prestigious Israel Prize for the “revolution he created in Hebrew poetry,”1 his later poetry, from 1968 to date,2 has been neglected or even ignored by academic studies and largely denounced by reviewers. His early work (1948-1968)3 which received great attention at the time of its publication4 has been hailed...

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Nili Scharf Gold (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gold, Nili Scharf. “A Burning Bush or a Fire of Thorns: Toward a Revisionary Reading of Amichai's Poetry.” Prooftexts 14 (1994): 49-69.

[In the following essay, Gold analyzes recurring motifs throughout Amichai's oeuvre.]

I've filtered out of the Book of Esther the residue
of vulgar joy, and out of the Book of Jeremiah
the howl of pain in the guts. And out of the
Song of Songs the endless search for love,
and out of the Book of Genesis the dreams
and Cain, and out of Ecclesiastes
the despair and out of the Book of Job—Job.
And from what was left over I pasted for myself a new Bible.
Now I live censored and pasted and limited in peace.


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Chana Bloch (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Bloch, Chana. “Wrestling with the Angel of History: The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.” Judaism 45, No. 179 (Summer, 1996): 298-300.

[In the following essay, Bloch discusses the ways in which Amichai's poems address the meaning of the Jewish experience in history.]

A friend of mine tells a story about some Israeli students who were called up in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. As soon as they were notified, they went back to their rooms at the University, and each packed his gear, a rifle, and a book of Yehuda Amichai's poems. It is a little hard to envision this scene: these days we don't think of soldiers as resorting to poetry under fire, and Amichai's poetry is not...

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Edward Hirsch (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hirsch, Edward. “Yehuda Amichai: Poet at the Window.” In Responsive Reading, pp. 140-52. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Hirsch explores central themes in the poetry of Amichai, such as love, war, history, and Jewish identity.]


For more than thirty years Yehuda Amichai has been conducting his own highly personal war on forgetfulness and silence. He has the unique ability to render and enact the complex fate of the modern Israeli, the individual man locked in and responding to history. Amichai is a historical poet of the first order, a political writer in the deepest sense of that term. At...

(The entire section is 4226 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Open Closed Open. Publishers Weekly 247, No. 13 (March 27, 2000): 71.

[In the following review, Publishers Weekly offers a favorable assessment of Amichai's poetry collection Open Closed Open.]

Constructing a lineage in which to place himself, Amichai begins these verses of personal and cultural history with a stone from a destroyed Jewish graveyard; and moves on to enact the story of David, recall poems by Ibn Ezra, and even consider Jesus as an instance of “Jewish Travel.” Within this vast context, the 25 longish poems of the collection, originally written in Hebrew, offer everyday acts of alternately joyous and somber reverence...

(The entire section is 345 words.)

Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (review date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Bloch, Chana, and Chana Kronfeld. “Amichai's Counter-Theology: Opening Open Closed Open.Judaism 49, No. 2 (Spring, 2000): 153-67.

[In the following review, Bloch and Kronfeld discuss Amichai's perspective on God and Judaism, as expressed in his poetry.]

On the cover of Open Closed Open, Yehuda Amichai's new collection of poems, there is a fragment of a broken gravestone with the word “Amen” carved on it. The stone, from a Jewish cemetery destroyed nearly a thousand years ago in his birthplace, Wirzburg, Germany, was given to Amichai by a German professor of theology who has devoted himself to reassembling the broken pieces and...

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Amnon Hadary (essay date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hadary, Amnon. “A Yad for My Friend Yahuda.” Judaism 49, No. 4 (Fall, 2000): 411-15.

[In the following essay, Hadary offers a general assessment of Amichai's poetry, at the time of his death in the year 2000.]

At Jerusalem's Safra Square on September 24th, we went to say Shalom Haver to yet another general, Yehuda Amichai, the reluctant poet laureate of Israel, felled by cancer, “the chief of staff in the war to liberate Hebrew literature,” Yossi Sarid said. He liberated Hebrew from the oy and the goy, from the pathos and piety, the rhyme scheme and the dead letter of tradition and ritual in literature as in life. For all that, he continued to shoulder...

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David Biespiel (review date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Biespiel, David. “‘A Final Hard Amen’: Yehuda Amichai, 1923-2000.” Parnassus 25, No. 1-2 (2001): 126-35.

[In the following review of Amichai's Open Closed Open, Biespiel offers a favorable assessment of the poet's accomplishments.]

For nearly half a century, Yehuda Amichai was Israeli poetry's patriarch, a man embodying and embracing his revolutionary time. His followers will remember a period, especially in the Seventies and Eighties, when Amichai seemed to be everywhere. Here in the United States, he gave readings, interviews, and lectures at synagogues, Jewish community centers, Hadassah meetings, and college campuses, from Cleveland's Shaker...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Alter, Robert. “Poetry in Israel.” In After the Tradition: Essays on Modern Jewish Writing, pp. 241-56. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1969.

An overview of Israeli poetry since the formation of the state of Israel.

———. “Israel's Master Poet.” New York Times (8 June 1986): 40.

An overview of Amichai's life and literary career.

Bar-Yosef, Hamutal. “Hebrew Poetry in the Years Following the Establishment of the State of Israel.” Jewish Book Annual 26 (1968-1969): 34-48.

An overview of developments in Hebrew poetry since the formation of the state of...

(The entire section is 535 words.)