Yehuda Amichai Amichai, Yehuda (Vol. 116) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Yehuda Amichai 1924–

German-born Israeli poet, novelist, short story writer, and dramatist.

The following entry presents an overview of Amichai's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 9, 22, and 57.

An influential member of Israel's first literary generation, Amichai synthesizes in his poetry the biblical rhythms and imagery of ancient Hebrew with modern Hebraic colloquialisms to try to make sense of the dislocation and alienation experienced by many Jews living in war-torn Israel. Many critics describe Amichai's early work as intensely intellectual and reminiscent of the metaphysical verse of John Donne, George Herbert, and W. H. Auden. In his later work Amichai incorporates sensual imagery and vernacular cadences in poems whose simplicity and wry humor belies their existential, often tragic, undertones.

Biographical Information

Amichai was born in Würzburg, Germany, in 1924. When he was twelve, he emigrated with his parents to Israel. His family avoided the horrors of Nazi Germany, but Amichai lost many friends and relatives in concentration camps, a loss that has haunted him ever since. He served in the British Army in World War II and later with Israeli defense forces during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. These experiences, along with witnessing Israel's other wars of the mid-twentieth century, strongly influenced Amichai's work; many of his poems and short stories revolve around themes associated with war and its aftermath.

Major Works

The turbulence of living in a society that is frequently at war has had a major impact on Amichai's world-view. In his poems dealing with sexual love, as well those dealing with war, he depicts human beings as ultimately separate and alienated from each other, unable to connect except for the briefest periods of time. Often he uses ironic humor both to distance himself from his serious themes of emotional and societal loneliness, and to emphasize in a subtle manner the mundane tragedies of the human experience. His poetry is frequently mistaken as lacking a comprehensive philosophical system because of his seemingly simple observations and syntax. But it is his ability to infuse ordinary moments of daily life with extraordinary metaphysical meaning that first drew international attention to his work. Amichai first gained the notice of British and American audiences with the English translations of Amen (1977) and Time (1978), two volumes of poetry Amichai translated with the English poet Ted Hughes. Both books address the spiritual and political concerns of the Jewish people. Amichai's preoccupation with history and its impact on individual lives is evident in much of his poetry and in his novel, Lo me-'akhshav, Lo mi-kan (1963; Not of This Time, Not of This Place), in which a Jewish archeologist is torn between returning to the German town where he grew up and staying in Jerusalem to carry out his extramarital affair. The novel is generally considered a seminal work of Israeli Holocaust literature, investigating two options for living with the knowledge of Nazi genocide: with the past or denying it. In Great Tranquillity: Questions and Answers (1983), Amichai addressed Israel's troubled political history and its paradoxical desert landscape, which is both arid and rich with promise. "Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela" is a sequence of fifty-seven poems in which Amichai analyzes his Jewish identity by comparing his life story with legends of a wandering medieval rabbi. Published separately in book-length form as Travels in 1986, this work also appears in The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (1986), a compilation of verse from ten volumes published over a thirty-year period. Amichai's short story collection, The World Is a Room, and Other Stories (1985), expands upon many of his verse themes. While some critics contend that the stories are unstructured and overburdened with poetic diction, others admire Amichai's startling metaphors and sensuous imagery. In Even a Fist Was Once an Open Palm with Fingers (1991), Amichai again drew from biblical stories to illustrate the individual's struggle with history. Yehuda Amichai, A Life of Poetry: 1948–1994 (1994) is a comprehensive collection containing representative verse from the time of the Arab-Israeli war through contemporary works translated by Benjamin and Barbara Harshov.

Critical Reception

Amichai is generally considered one of the most important poets of his generation of Israeli writers, focusing as he does on Israelis' painful and often ambivalent feelings about their post-Holocaust and post-liberation existence. His poetry is widely praised by an international audience for its spare, honest exploration of emotions many people find too painful to face. But Amichai is not without his detractors. Some critics find his work simplistic and missing a crucial core philosophy, since Amichai, like many of his peers, does not adhere to an orthodox ideology. Nonetheless, Amichai's work is admired overall for the strong, if sometimes sorrowful and confused, passion it displays.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Akhshav uba-yamin na-aherim [Now and In Other Days] (poetry) 1955
Ba-ginah ha-tsiburit (poetry) 1958
Be-merhak shete tikrot (poetry) 1958
Be-ruah ha-nora'ah ha-zot (short stories) 1961
Masa' le-Ninveh (drama) 1962
Shirim, 1948–1962 (poetry) 1962
Lo me-'akhshav, Lo mi-kan [Not of This Time, Not of This Place] (novel) 1963
Selected Poems (poetry) 1968
Selected Poems of Yehuda Amichai (poetry) 1971
Songs of Jerusalem and Myself (poetry) 1973
Amen (poetry) 1977
Time (poetry) 1978
Love Poems (poetry) 1981
Great Tranquillity: Questions and Answers (poetry) 1983
The World Is a Room, and Other Stories (short stories) 1984
The Selected Poetry of Yehudah Amichai (poetry) 1986
Travels (poetry) 1986
Poems of Jerusalem (poetry) 1988
Even a Fist Was Once an Open Palm with Fingers: Recent Poems (poetry) 1991
Yehuda Amichai, A Life of Poetry: 1948–1994 (poetry) 1994

Robert Alter (essay date 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Confronting the Holocaust," in After the Tradition: Essays on Modern Jewish Writing, E. P. Dutton and Co., 1969, pp. 163-80.

[In the following essay, Alter discusses three novels of the post-Holocaust period—including Amichai's Not of This Time, Not of This Place—that attempt to reconcile survivors of modern Judaism with the horrors of the Holocaust.]

Most people in our time have the face of Lot's wife, turned toward the Holocaust and yet always escaping.—Yehuda Amichai

With all the restless probing into the implications of the Holocaust that continues to go on in Jewish intellectual forums in this country, and at a time when there has been such an abundance of novels—even some good novels—by American Jews, it gives one pause to note how rarely American-Jewish fiction has attempted to come to terms in any serious way with the European catastrophe. Alfred Kazin, among others, has argued that no one can really write an imaginative work about the Nazi terror because art implies meaning, and Hitler's whole regime represented an organized annihilation of meaning. It would in any case be an act of spiritual presumption for someone other than a survivor to try to reconstruct the hideousness of the experience from within. But, even standing outside what actually happened, we all have to live with this irruption of utter meaningless-ness into history, which implies, finally, that we have to make some kind of sense of it. This is what historians, social commentators, literary intellectuals, and others over the past two decades have tried to do in introspective or even argumentative essays; it is just this that the more serious American-Jewish novelists have been unwilling or unable to do in their creative work. Two possible explanations for this disparity in response suggest themselves. It may be easier to reason discursively about the inconceivable, to box it in with words, than to assimilate it imaginatively; and, for a variety of reasons, American writers in recent years often seem to have found that the essay, not the novel, has offered the most dependable and penetrating kind of illumination into the dark areas of their inner life and the deepest perplexities of their moral world.

Although in Israel the reflective essay does not have this kind of ascendancy over the imaginative genres, there have been other reasons why Hebrew fiction, at least until fairly recently, has done almost as little as American fiction in the way of looking into the wound of consciousness left by the destruction of European Jewry. (Survivors of the Holocaust living in Israel and writing in Hebrew must of course be excepted from this and all that follows.) Israeli writers, to begin with, have all been participants in a very different kind of major historical event—the rebirth through armed struggle of an independent Jewish state. It was not only that this latter event was more immediate, more palpable, more humanly comprehensible than the grim events in Europe that preceded it, but also that those terrible events raised certain disturbing questions about the values and the very existence of the Jewish state which, at least for a time, Israeli writers were not prepared to confront. During the fifties, Hebrew fiction came to be more and more a medium for wrestling with problems, both personal and cultural, but not this particular problem. In a purely descriptive sense, I would say that there is something strikingly adolescent about Israeli fiction of the fifties. In a number of the important Hebrew novels of this period, the major characters are all, in fact, adolescents; plot and dialogue serve as means for the characters (and the writer) to work out identity crises in a sustained effort consciously to come of age. As one might expect, these adolescent heroes and their retrospectively adolescent authors have little interest in anything that is outside the immediate circumambience of a self struggling for definition, anything beyond the youth movement, the army, the party, Papa and Mama's bourgeois staidness or old-fashioned Zionism, sweet Dalia or Shula and that moonlit night of first nakedness on the shore of Lake Tiberias.

I am not completely sure whether Israeli fiction of the sixties is getting significantly better (though I suspect that it is), but it has clearly gone beyond this stage. Israeli writers now more typically turn to the adult society in which they actually live, where the problems of self-definition are set in the complicating context of urban existence, professional responsibilities, and married life, where the characters have lived through enough to realize that what is most profoundly relevant to them is not always identical with what immediately impinges on them. Even the retrospective novel of adolescence, as we shall see, is now able to imagine its subject in circumstances that more firmly engage it in a complex historical reality.

As the Israeli writer in recent years has been better able to see his own condition entangled in a broad network of social, cultural, historical particulars, both the passage of time and the pressure of public events have pushed the European experience more toward the center of his awareness. The Israeli-Arab war seems to have been a kind of collective trauma for many sensitive young Israelis. Several of the most serious Hebrew novels of the fifties tried to work out the terror of an experience in which the sons of the pioneer-conquerors of desert and swamp were called upon to fight people, to kill in the name of the state. But as the sharpness of this experience now gradually fades, the raw edges of the deeper, darker trauma that preceded it begin to be exposed. At the same time, the events of the past four or five years have repeatedly focused attention on Israel's morally problematic relationship with Germany. The imminent end of reparations made many people in Israel aware of the extent to which the country's economy was dependent on these payments from Germany for the horrors inflicted upon European Jews. The arms deal with Bonn pointed to an even more grimly ironic dependence of Jew on German for instruments of destruction. The prospect of diplomatic relations with Germany, finally realized in 1965, introduced a note of inescapable conclusiveness to the official acceptance by the Jewish state of postwar Germany. And looming behind all these events in the early sixties is the figure of the mass murderer in his glass cage in Jerusalem, with all the storm of worldwide debate, moral and legal, about him, about his being there, about what he represented.

It is against this general background that, in 1963, the first important novel by an Israeli dealing with the Holocaust appeared, Yehuda Amichai's Not of This Time, Not of This Place. For the sake of accuracy, I should say that Amichai was born in Germany, from where he was brought to Palestine in 1936 at the age of twelve. The fact of his German childhood, his awareness of kin and earliest friends murdered by the Nazis, clearly determines the broad direction of the sections of his novel set in Germany, and yet the general attempt of the book to make moral contact with the destruction and its perpetrators is eminently that of an Israeli beyond the experience, not of a European Jew actually torn by it. Indeed, the peculiar structure of the novel—a brilliant but not fully worked out invention of Amichai's—provides a kind of diagrammatic illustration of the difficulties Israeli writers have in trying to imagine this ultimate catastrophe and how one can live with the knowledge of it.

The hero of Amichai's novel is a young archaeologist at the Hebrew University—quite obviously, a man dedicated to digging up buried layers of the past. Like the protagonist of virtually every Hebrew novel of consequence over the last ten years, he has gradually fallen into an unsettling sense of aimless drift after the challenging years immediately before and after Israel's independence. At the beginning of the book, we find him wondering whether he ought to stay in Jerusalem for the vacation and perhaps find some great, intoxicating love (he is married and vaguely loyal to his wife), or spend the summer in Germany confronting the murderers of his childhood companion, Ruth. The wife of a friend—we afterward discover that she is about to be committed to an asylum—tells him that he must do both these things at once. And so he does. That is, the novel splits into two alternating narratives, one continuing in the third person to report a summer of sensual abandon in Jerusalem with an American woman named Patricia, the other switching to the first person to tell the story of the same character's return to his native city of Weinberg for the purpose of "wreaking vengeance," as he dimly and grandiosely puts it, on the Nazi murderers. The hero of the novel, to cite a mythic parallel that Amichai alludes to obliquely, is a kind of bifurcated Odysseus: he descends into the underworld in hope of encountering the spirits of the dead and learning from them his own future, and, simultaneously, he lolls in the paradisiac bed of Calypso, the alien goddess who keeps him from the responsibilities of home and people.

Amichai clearly means to suggest that both experiences—eros in the city of Jerusalem, thanatos in the town of Weinberg—must be exhausted to enable his hero to find some new point of anchorage for his life. But what actually happens in the novel is that the Jerusalem sequence is vividly and convincingly realized, while the German episodes, despite many arresting moments, occur in a hazy twilight region between memory and fantasy, history and self-dramatization. This attempt of the novelistic imagination to immerse itself in the aftermath of the horror ends up being a kind of earnest exercise in synthesizing the literature of nightmare—dramatic situations from Kafka; motifs from Rilke; and from Agnon, style (the aphorisms of the abyss), narrative technique (the expressionism of Agnon's Book of Deeds), and even symbolic plot outline (Agnon's A Guest for the Night, also about a man from Jerusalem who returns to a destroyed European hometown in a futile search for the world of his childhood). Amichai intends his protagonist to discover both the old and the new Germany, but in fact his archaeologist of the self wanders about in a Germany compounded of symbols through which historical actualities are only intermittently glimpsed. One gets the uneasy sense that events happen only in order to be available as symbols: there is a roller-skating competition in Weinberg, to serve as the occasion for reflections on the pointless way our lives go round and round in the postwar era; a little German girl is named Sybil, to trigger a meditation on pagan prophecy and apocalypse; a cynical Indian appears in Weinberg solely to gather material for a book about Despair, and to pronounce bleak epigrams on that subject.

The Jerusalem sections of the novel also reflect Amichai's fondness for symbols, but in this case the unique city he knows so intimately affords him a very natural symbolic landscape. No one else has caught with such sharpness the bizarre, slightly mad life of the intelligentsia in Jerusalem, with its serious academic types, its bohemian poets and artists, its drifting cultists from home and abroad, sundry amateurs of Yoga, Zen, vegetarianism, and the Kabbalah. No one else has been so imaginatively alive to the uncanny suggestiveness of Jerusalem's stark location at the borders of the desert, the sky, and the enemy.

Joel walked along, carrying the bundle of Patricia's dress under his arm. With great happiness he felt the dress and with great happiness he felt the city, its houses and empty lots, and the no-man's land beyond them. He felt the shards and rubble, the rusting oil drums, and the barbed-wire fences in which flying pieces of paper were caught as the wind shifted. No-man's land served as a kind of strainer. A strainer of hatred, of the past, of distant history. It was also the place of mines, the maps for which had been lost, so that no one knew where they were buried. And behind all the hubbub, the buildings and the walls, with no transition, the desert stretched out. All at once a desert of many hills rising in heavy, silent folds all the way to the mountains of Moab.

In passages like this, Amichai does not have to "work up" his symbols because they are already there in his city: the freight of meaning in landscape and objects is as immediately felt as the palpable burden of clothing imbued with Patricia's physical presence. But it is significant that the sense of reality radiates out from an object associated with sensuality; this explains much of the disparity between the two halves of the novel and, as I shall try to show, is an orientation explicitly shared by other Israeli writers in attempting to create a credible world against the unthinkable background of the Holocaust. Where horror has deadened the nerve of response to reality, made it difficult to believe in the real world, it seems as though there is a natural movement toward the primal act through which the body affirms life, in an effort to recapture the sheer sense of being alive. "They wanted to stretch out over reality," Amichai writes of his lovers, fusing the act of love with Elisha's miraculous resuscitation of the dead child in the biblical story, "eye to eye, mouth to mouth, and to give it life again with their own breath." But the miracle is not achieved, and Amichai's hero comes at some points to feel that the only fully credible reality is a purely sexual one: "The whole world seemed to Joel to be emptied, and covered over with canvas and tin and flimsy boards, like the world of stalls and stands in a fair. The last and only thing actual to him was Patricia's body. Not even her speech, but the sinking into her."

This sexual submergence, however, means forgetting both personal and collective history. Early in the novel, we are introduced to one of the protagonist's friends, a survivor of the death camps who has had the tattoo of a mermaid super-imposed upon the tattooed number on his arm—not in order to obliterate the grim blue figures but to leave them just barely perceptible through the lines of the mythological female form. As the image of the ambiguous tattoo floats in and out like an apparition through both halves of the narrative, Patricia is associated with the mermaid and the sea: she is seen as a bowsprit figure on an old ship, her favorite skirt is made of sailcloth, the pitch of ecstatic fulfillment to which she brings her lover makes him think of "waves, waves." Amichai finally turns her into a mythic embodiment of all the allurements of otherness for his protagonist (with a redeeming touch of playfulness, since he seems aware of the comic aspects of our modern penchant for mythicizing experience). Patricia is American and Christian, she is imagined by her lover as a sort of female Davy Crockett, a creature of the Wild West, half lizard and half mare; she is Venice, the sea-city that is the antithesis of mountainous Jerusalem, or, alternately, she is the Jerusalem of no-man's-land (the Hebrew equivalent literally means "area of abandonment"). The sea, however, remains the chief mythic sphere with which Patricia is associated, a sea at once attractive and potentially destructive to the man whose calling is to delve into the parched earth covering the dead past. As a physician friend dabbling in Kabbalah pointedly tells Joel, "Lilith comes from the sea."

The thematic complement to this absorption of life by erotic experience in Jerusalem is the fantasy of sexlessness in the German half of the novel. The narrator dreams of becoming an "angel" (the Hebrew malakh also suggests "messenger," a being with a single, appointed purpose) in order to carry out...

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Nancy Sullivan (review date May 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Snap Judgments," in Poetry, Vol. CXVI, No. 2, May 1970, pp. 120-25.

[In the following review, Sullivan praises Assia Gutmann's translations of Amichai's work.]

The poems by Yehuda Amichai in Poems have been translated from the Hebrew by Assia Gutmann. Since I do not know Hebrew and since, even if I did, the text is not bilingual, my reactions to Amichai's poems are based solely on these often brilliant translations. Michael Hamburger admits to a similar problem in his Introduction:

Poems are made of words, and I cannot read the words of which Yehuda Amichai's poems are made, cannot follow—let alone judge—his way with the Hebrew language, what he does with its ancient and modern, literary and vernacular components, how he combines and contrasts them to make them talk or sing as they have never talked or sung before.

I wonder why someone who knows Hebrew wasn't asked to do the introduction. Anyway and in addition, German, not Hebrew, was Amichai's first language; his family did not emigrate to Palestine until 1936 when he was twelve. It is obvious, even from the translations, that Amichai has read both contemporary German and English poets.

     Sometimes pus
     Sometimes a poem.
     Something always bursts out.
     And always pain.

says Amichai/Gutmann in "Ibn Gabirol." There is very little pus in this book; instead, there are many poems burst in fruitful pain from Amichai's confrontation with the vagaries of the human condition. Most of the poems are short, just one page long, occupying space frugally but no less importantly for that. Take, for instance, this poem called "A Pity. We Were Such a Good Invention."

     They amputated
     Your thighs off my hips.
     As far as I'm concerned
     They are all surgeons. All of them.
     They dismantled us
     Each from the other.
     As far as I'm concerned
     They are all engineers. All of them.
     A pity. We were such a good
     And loving invention.
     An airplane made from a man and a wife.
     Wings and everything.
     We hovered a little above the earth.
     We even flew a little.

In such poems, often in single lines—"I stroked your hair in the direction of your journey" or "Like the cry of paper tearing / Across the forty-two years of my life"—Amichai says it right, right there. This book is almost incentive enough to make me learn Hebrew.

John Pickford (review date 28 December 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hard and Soft," in New Statesman, Vol. 86, No. 2232, December 28, 1973, p. 978.

[In the following review of Not of This Time, Not of This Place, Pickford praises Amichai's evocation of "survivor's guilt" and his protagonist's ambiguous response to post-war Germany but, finds the novel somewhat disjointed and meandering.]

There is … a strong vein of autobiography in Yehuda Amichai's novel, newly translated, from the Hebrew by Shlomo Katz. But its impact is less urgent and direct than that of [Wolfgang] Borchert's stories, partly perhaps because Amichai was the luckier of the two—he left Germany before the war started. Not of This Time, Not of This...

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Noam Flinker (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Saul and David in the Early Poetry of Yehuda Amichai," in The David Myth in Western Literature, edited by Raymond-Jean Frontain and Jan Wojcik, Purdue University Press, 1980, pp. 170-78.

[In the following essay, Flinker examines Amichai's use of the biblical figures of Saul and David in his poetry.]

In a series of poems first published in 1958, a modern Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, revised the traditional stories of Saul and David to make these public, national heroes figures in the private world of an introspective speaker. His myths contrast markedly to the popular folk traditions about Saul and David that abound in the Israeli cultural landscape, extending...

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Edward Hirsch (essay date May-June 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Edward Hirsch: Poet at the Window," in The American Poetry Review, May-June 1981, pp. 44-7.

[In the following essay, Hirsch praises Amichai's book of poems Amen, in particular his love poems and his ability to evoke major metaphysical issues through microcosmic images.]


Yehuda Amichai has thus far published three books of poetry in English—Songs of Jerusalem and Myself, Poems, and Amen. These books are the work of an imaginative writer with a 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...

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Nikki Stiller (review date Fall-Winter 1983 and Spring-Summer 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In the Great Wilderness," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 11, No. 2, Fall-Winter 1983 and Spring-Summer 1984, pp. 155-68.

[In the following review, Stiller praises Amichai as a poet who is representative of the Israeli spirit and tradition, but who also adds an air of modernity to the historical consciousness of his poems.]

We recognize the speaker in the poem. His skin is leathery from long hours in the sun; he is rugged, muscular. He might be a farmer, but then again, he appears to have been doing something more abstract, going over accounts, say, someone else's as well as his own. In his mid-thirties, he has been through a couple of wars, many alarms....

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Naomi B. Sokoloff (essay date May 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On Amichai's El male rahamin," in Prooftexts, Vol. 4, No. 2, May 1984, pp. 127-40.

[In the following essay, Sokoloff examines the significance and use of language in El male rahamin as well as how the work fits into the modern Hebrew literary canon.]


In an essay that outlines some major trends in recent Israeli poetry and prose, Shimon Sandbank shrewdly assesses the unusual relationship to language that distinguishes modern Hebrew literature from other contemporary writing. Israeli literature comes only belatedly—with the New Wave writers of the 1950s and 60s—to a dismay at the inadequacy of words such as was typical of a...

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Gila Ramras-Rauch (review date Autumn 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The World Is a Room and Other Stories, in World Literature Today, Vol. 59, No. 4, Autumn 1985, pp. 652-53.

[In the following review, Ramras-Rauch offers a favorable impression of Amichai's volume of short stories, noting Amichai's ability to suffuse ordinary experiences with extraordinary insights.]

Amichai's prose is suffused with simile and metaphor, not unlike his poetry. Indeed, some of the present stories can be regarded as poetic presentations in prose. Amichai often breaks the narrative line, defying temporal succession with the immediacy of Homeric simile. One may even question whether the selections in The World Is a Room are...

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Hillel Halkin (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Yehuda Amichai: The Poet as Prose Writer," in Ariel: A Review of Arts and Letters in Israel, No. 61, 1985, pp. 20-4.

[In the following essay, which was originally presented as an address in February 1985 in Mishkenot Sha'ananim, Jerusalem, to celebrate the English translation of Amichai's volume of short stories, The World Is a Room, Halkin explains the differences between a poet and a prose writer and speculates on Amichai's decision to turn to prose to express himself.]

Yehuda Amichai, one of the finest Hebrew poets of our time, requires no introduction from me. On the contrary, since those gathered here, I am sure, know Yehuda and his work far better...

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Yair Mazor (essay date Winter 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Farewell to Arms and Sentimentality: Reflections of Israel's Wars in Yehuda Amichai's Poetry," in World Literature Today, Vol. 60, No. 1, Winter 1986, pp. 12-17.

[In the following essay, Mazor examines Amichai's unsentimental approach to the brutality of Israel's wars.]

War's a brain-spattering, windpipe-slitting art,
Unless her cause by right be sanctified.

Byron, Don Juan, 9.4

One may convincingly argue that all art is enduringly besieged by an intriguing paradox. A considerable part of any work of art is founded upon...

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Mark Irwin (review date Winter 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Toward a Tragic Wisdom and Beyond," in Kenyon Review, Vol. X, No. 1, Winter 1988, pp. 132-39.

[In the following review, Irwin praises the poems in Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai but questions the publisher's decision to have the poems retranslated.]

Toward the end of Camus' novel La Chute (The Fall), in which the narrator Clamence rambles on in a drunken soliloquy, we are told: "Pour que la statue soit nue, les beaux discours doivent s'envoler" (For the statue to stand bare, the fine speeches must take flight). The narrator's plight, one in which speech embellished with exaggeration and lies prolongs a hypocritical life, becomes a metaphor for...

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Chana Kronfeld (essay date September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'The Wisdom of Camouflage': Between Rhetoric and Philosophy in Amichai's Poetic System," in Prooftexts, Vol. 10, No. 3, September 1990, pp. 469-91.

[In the following essay, Kronfeld argues that, despite the opinion of his detractors to the contrary, Amichai demonstrates in his poetry a clearly defined philosophical and ontological system of thought and belief.]

Amichai's system? This playful, "easy" poet has a system? The poet for whom ideas are game pieces and objects in the world are "color blocks you can … rearrange at will, without too much concern for broadening our knowledge"? Ever since the first reviews of Amichai's poetry appeared in the early...

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Ezra Spicehandler (review date Winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Analysis of Yehuda Amichai," in Judaism, Vol. 41, No. 1, Winter 1992, pp. 97-104.

[In the following review, Spicehandler finds Glenda Abramson's The Writings of Yehuda Amichai: A Thematic Approach to be a valuable contribution to Amichai criticism.]

Yehuda Amichai has enjoyed international acclaim beyond any of Israel's poets. His works have been translated into many languages, particularly into English. He has taught as a poet-in-residence or lecturer at numerous universities. Although at least a hundred articles dealing with his poetry and prose (including fifteen in English alone) have been published, until recently, only one Hebrew book has...

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Gila Ramras-Rauch (review date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Life of Poetry: 1948–1994, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 2, Spring 1995, p. 426.

[In the following review, Ramras-Rauch presents a brief overview of Amichai's career and praises his collected volume A Life of Poetry: 1948–1994.]

"Life is lived forward and understood backward." This dictum of Soren Kierkegaard can, in certain cases, be applied to an extensive work of a creative artist. Yehuda Amichai (b. 1924) has been writing for over fifty years; he is still a prolific poet. In his early years he wrote fiction (Not of This Time, Not of This Place, a novel, and The World Is a Room, a collection of short stories)....

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David R. Slavitt (review date Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Two Jewish Ironists," in New England Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, Summer 1995, pp. 187-92.

[In the following review, Slavitt examines Amichai's characteristic use of irony.]

The language of Jews, the real mother tongue, is not Yiddish or Hebrew, as it certainly is not Russian, or Polish, or English, but … irony. The complicated experiences of five millennia have elicited a series of emotional and linguistic postures by which we Jews express ourselves, and it is these double messages that American Jews have always found particularly interesting as well as demanding. Until Korea, the United States had never lost a war, and there was a sappy optimism, part positive...

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Chana Kronfeld (essay date Summer 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reading Amichai Reading," in Judaism, Vol. 45, No. 179, Summer 1996, pp. 311-23.

[In the following essay, Kronfeld explores the ways in which Amichai retains accessibility while also using complex intertextuality in his poetry.]

Yehuda Amichai is the most distinguished Hebrew poet of our time and an internationally prominent literary figure. His poetry is part of the literature curriculum that new generations of readers are raised on, from Israeli school children to college and graduate students in Israel and the United States. His work is the subject of academic conferences and increasingly—though still insufficiently—of serious scholarship. In the hands...

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Gila Ramras-Rauch (review date Spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 2, Spring 1997, p. 448.

[In the following review, Ramras-Rauch presents a brief overview of Amichai's major themes and praises The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai as "another occasion to enjoy the work of a poet whose complex simplicity continues to challenge lovers of poetry."]

Yehuda Amichai's simple, beguiling, and challenging poetry continues to fascinate readers and translators alike. He is recognized in Israel and abroad for his seeming simplicity of tone, image, and syntax. The centrality of a speaker in Amichai's poetry inevitable reflects the man...

(The entire section is 604 words.)

John Haines (review date Summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poetry Chronicle," in The Hudson Review, Vol. 50, No. 2, Summer 1997, pp. 323-24.

[In the following review, Haines discusses the contemporary relevance of Amichai's work in The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.]

I should perhaps defer speaking of poems in a language I do not know and cannot read, but the poems of the Hebrew poet, Yehuda Amichai, as translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell, have offered a useful means of comparison with the work of a few of our more immediate American contemporaries…. I must … refer briefly to the poetry of a place and a situation all too representative of our present world, and which in these poems has been written...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bar-yaacov, Lois. Review of Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. Southern Humanities Review XXII, No. 4 (Fall 1988): 402-05.

Praises the translations of Amichai's works in Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai and presents Amichai as an Israeli writer observing Jewish history from the outside, disillusioned by historical experiences he did not witness first-hand.

Corn, Alfred. Review of Even a Fist Was Once an Open Palm with Fingers. Poetry CLIX, No. 3 (December 1991): 163-66.

Admires Amichai's ability to infuse ordinary images and scenes with extraordinary...

(The entire section is 224 words.)