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.
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.
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.
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.