September 28, 2000
A Letter to Amichai
For Israelis your death was like the Americans losing Frost, the Russians losing Pasternak, the Spanish losing Lorca. Israel has no poet laureate, yet you were its laureate without portfolio. You stood apart in a country with army men as heroes. At the height of the country's military mythos, you cried out the fear of a young soldier: "I want to die in my own bed." Last Friday when you passed away at age 76 in Hadassah Hospital in your beloved Jerusalem, you almost got your wish.
In a contentious society, you were the point people agreed upon, one of the few Israelis both famous and cherished. Quietly, persistently, over five decades of prolific verse, you captured the country's heart.To what can be attributed this consistent affection? The answer lies in your poems: poems with eternal themes written in language so simple that anyone who can read can grasp it. People studied you in high school and kept on going. Every bookstore in the country has at least one of your 16 anthologies on its shelves, and they sell.
Your poetry is your autobiography.
The world hung heavy on you: "A man's soul is like/A train schedule/A precise and detailed schedule/of trains that will never run again." On your birthday you wrote: "Thirty-two times I put on the world/ And still it does not fit me.../I stand without camouflage before enemy eyes,/With obsolete maps in my hands/With growing opposition and amidst towers. Alone without recommendations/In the great wilderness." Your self description: "I am big and fat/For every pound of fat/I add a pound of sadness." And at forty: "If I were in Auschwitz/they wouldn't have sent me to work,/They would have burned me right away."
Born in Germany, you came to Israel as a child of 10. Although you shed the Diaspora, a tie to the world of your ancestors remained: "Grandfather, grandfather, Chief Rabbi of my life." You called yourself "a toy bear, big and hairy" for your children to play with, while "their longing for their future/And my longing for my childhood/ Pass by one another without meeting." When you were young "My mother baked the whole world for me/In sweet cakes." You searched doggedly for the link with your father: "And what did I learn from my father: to cry fully, to laugh out loud,/And to pray three times a day." Religion meant intimacy: "Yom Kippur without my father and without my mother/Is not Yom Kippur."
You are famous for your love poems: "You are beautiful, like prophesies,/ And sad, like those which come true." Even more famous for your death poems. The wars you served in cast a perpetual shadow: "People who left whole/Are brought home in the evening, like small change." About your son you wrote: "The first real/Big school outing/Is the outing from which/They never return." You said: "God has pity on children in kindergartens...But adults he pities not at all." And you lamented: "I have to kill my brother. My brother has to kill me." You called Jerusalem "the cradle city that rocks me," living there most of your life. You energized Israeli poetry with colloquial Hebrew, yet you wrote: "To talk now in this tired tongue,/Torn out of its sleep in the Bible."
Mortality was never far. Birth and death have "just a hyphen separating them. I hold on to the hyphen with all my being/As to a life raft, I live on it." This week the hyphen was finalized.
You were the lyre in the background of the State of Israel, the question mark that queried knowing there was no answer, the suitor beneath the cypress trees, the soldier, friend and father of soldiers, the immigrant Jew walking in the coppery heat of the Promised Land, the wandering Jew mourning lost continents and lost souls, the peace lover who said people were more important than stones. You resonated in a humble, confused, painful voice. You were a tentative prophet in a wilderness filled with too much certainty. People around the world read your poems in 33 languages. You were not lost in translation.
Numerous anthologies by Yehuda Amichai appear in English; one of the most comprehensive has recently been issued in paperback: Yehuda Amichai: A Life in Poetry 1948-1994 (translated by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav, Harper Perennial, 477 pp.)