Yehuda Amichai, Jerusalem, and the Fate of Others

By Omer-Sherman, Ranen | Cross Currents, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Yehuda Amichai, Jerusalem, and the Fate of Others


Omer-Sherman, Ranen, Cross Currents


Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) remains a profoundly influential influence on Israeli literature's grappling with the problem of competing claims to the land's sacred spaces. More than any other poet, he transformed the Hebrew language into a colloquial and immediate medium for addressing the troubling violence to which he bore witness. (1) Many of Amichai's most timeless and compassionate poems examine the meaning of Jerusalem, in both its temporal and heavenly dimensions, as a shared space in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims sometimes coexist, and sometimes struggle against the Other. This essay grapples with a few of the important ways in which the poet engaged and was engaged by the troubled city. Reading Love Poems (1981) and the more politically fraught 1988 Poems of Jerusalem, one is impressed by how the ostensibly disparate categories represented by these two collections distinctly echo off each other. (2)

In the classroom I have often noticed how, it is the indelible tone he achieves--a confluence of humor, indelible irony, and more than a hint of melancholy that always withstood existentialist despair even when it was not unfashionable--which ensures the likelihood of Amichai's enduring stature as one of the most distinctly representative Israeli voices as the modern Hebrew canon continues to evolve. Whenever and wherever one happens to be situated in relation to the peaks and valleys of Israel's triumphs and heartbreaks, to read Amichai is to experience an iconoclastic movement between the tribal and the universal, the personal and the collective. But as a forcefully Jewish voice he also stands as one of the most dazzlingly literate and intertextual of our age, moving fluidly between Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekial, insistently demanding that readers grapple with allusions to festivals and ritual life presented in unexpected ways. As he explained of the critical condition of the modern Hebrew poet: "Every word we use carries in and of itself connotations from the Bible, the Siddur, the Midrash, the Talmud. Every word reverberates through the halls of Jewish history" (quoted in Abramson, 14). Yet in spite of that vast spatial and temporal landscape, Amichai's poems are refreshingly startling in the way they encounter Jerusalem without the seductive masks and retreats of Active or archetypal personae.

For many years, Amichai lived in Jerusalem as a true pedestrian at heart, ambling through the city's streets and open markets. In this way, he was in acute proximity to the inexorable and vulnerable limits of Israeli and Palestinian bodies surrounded by the city's stony eternity. In the aftermath of Amichai's passing, numerous readers reverently remarked on the nature of the poet's relation to his city, though not always with a great deal of specificity. Poet David Biespiel felt that Amichai consistently sought to create "a language of and for the city, merging the contemporary and the eternal" while Aviya Kushner magnanimously declared that the poet was simply "Jerusalem's great friend. He wrote of her as a child, a lover, a companion, and an enigma. She was always on his mind, and he was always trying to understand her" (613-14). (3) Few poets before Amichai succeeded so well in writing of the city directly out of the continuum of Jewish textual tradition while still managing to address its deep contemporary conflicts, the vexing new reality of inhabiting rebuilt Jerusalem. In other words, the poet's rich intertextualrty never lets the reader forget that in these ancient sources, the "ideal" is already at odds with the "real."

Born in the Bavarian town of Wurzburg during the unstable days of the Weimar Republic, Amichai's Orthodox Jewish family emigrated to Palestine in 1936. Amichai left behind Ruth, a childhood girlfriend who was killed in the Holocaust. (4) After a brief stay in Petah Tikva, the family moved next to Jerusalem where Amichai would remain until his death (except for a sojourn in Haifa and brief periods when he taught in the United States), bequeathing the poet the sense of a casual intimacy with the city that resonates throughout his works. …

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