WHAT MAKES POETS great to begin with is a living presence we feel in their words, the way we can “read” the body and the voice of the poet. That is why it is so hard to believe it is now fifteen years since the death of Israel’s greatest poet, Born in Germany in 1924 as Ludwig Pfeuffer, Yehuda Amichai. literally made a name for himself, Amichai means “my people live.” This name became prophetic because through his poetry his people surely live. Working with and helping to mold the freshly born language of modern Hebrew, he gave poetic voice to a “new-old” nation. For Israelis, he spoke as a national poet, but his work took on a life beyond that.
Rare are the poets whose vitality crosses over from one language to another, as Amichai’s did, from Hebrew to English. There are many reasons for this successful migration. But for those of us in the diaspora, most basic was our own need to receive him. If Walt Whitman was right that great poets need great audiences, that quality of need for a Jewish voice like Yehuda Amichai’s remains palpable. It is a longing. Almost alone among Israeli poets of his generation, Amichai made a tremendous impact in English. The reasons for this success have much to do with qualities that make his poetry not only explicitly Jewish in content, but intrinsically Jewish in method.
An obvious source of his universal appeal is Amichai’s frequent resort to Biblical material — often for ironic purposes. In this he captures the sensibility of a modern Jewish consciousness that cannot quite forget its past. It would be imprecise to say that Amichai makes Biblical allusions. That implies there was ever any separation between him and the Tanakh or the siddur which there was not. Rather the Tanakh and the siddur and Jewish culture in general were in his blood and breath. For him Judaism was not an -ism, it was a force in his nervous system, something electric and familiar and immediate that could be brought to bear at any point of time. It would have been unnatural for him to allude to what was already at hand.
We can see the fusion of Biblical overtone and erotic presence in “Jacob and the Angel” (translated by Robert Alter), which centers as so many of his poems do, on the intensity of romantic encounter.
Toward morning she sighed and grabbed him
so, and defeated him
And he grabbed her so, and defeated her.
The two of them knew that the hold brings death.
The Biblical story of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel suffuses the poem. The “hold” is a lover’s embrace — a last early morning embrace after an active night of love — and yet it is also the hold of the angel on Jacob’s thigh at dawn and the hold of Jacob on the angel — the hold that brings injury, but also may be a blessing. In Genesis, the angel asks Jacob’s name but will not tell him his own name. Likewise, in the poem the partners have agreed not to share their names; but then this pact is broken:
After they called her suddenly from above twice,
As one calls a little girl from her game in the yard.
And he knew her name and he let her go.
Yehuda Amichai’s poems, with their seemingly simple surfaces, also engage us in a mystery of depth: of how earthy love is an opening to soul, how the need of the body can also be a door to the holy. In this poem, we see how a woman, or a man, could become a part-time angel, and still be a person.
That depth can even touch down to the mystical Jewish theology that teaches that the divine presence, the Shekhinah went into exile with the Jewish people, that the Shekhinah lies in the dust of exile. The divine presence is no longer to be found exclusively in the holy Temple, but in every place and every moment. This comes across, in “Lying in Wait for Happiness,” with the force of a sacred encounter:
On the broad steps leading down to the Western Wall
A beautiful woman came up to me: You don’t remember me,
I’m Shoshana in Hebrew. Something else in other languages . . .
Given that he meets “Shoshana in Hebrew” at the Western Wall, the “something else in other languages” acquires an archetypal resonance. A midrash states the Shekhinah, or divine presence, “never moved from the Western Wall” and this is repeated in the Zohar. Amichai keeps the encounter embodied, and makes no direct reference to these mystical ideas — yet the poem remains open to such languages, for there is a spiritual intensity in the questions he asks “Shoshana:”
What are you doing here between the promised and the forgotten,
Between the hoped for and the imagined?
What are you doing here lying in wait for happiness
With your lovely face a tourist advertisement from God
and your soul rent and torn like mine?
She answered me: My soul is rent and torn like yours
But it is beautiful because of that
Like fine lace.
To discover the deepest meaning of exile from a moment’s encounter was the work Yehuda Amichai did for us again and again in his long career as a poet. In a time of alienation, he showed us a pathway out of the dusty materialism of mere facts into the sacred.
I can see the logic of those who see his work as strictly secular. He certainly had no patience with the norms of piety. When I hung out with him in Jerusalem in the summer of 1986 he described to me with glee his notion that oil would be discovered under that same Western Wall where he met “Shoshana” — so that all the theocratic politicians would have to choose be-tween money and religion. When I told him I was going to a kabbalah class in the Old City he scoffed that kabbalah was just “bad poetry.”
Nonetheless, his poems always from start to finish are in deep and profound conversation not only with Hebrew text, but with the essence of Jewish spirituality, which is finding the blessing in the particular, the transcendence in the everyday.
I knew him just a little bit — I met him first in an airport in Baton Rouge where I had the beautiful duty of host-ing him for a reading. His face was lined and worn, but he was light and almost silly. He insisted he had flown through Pepsi Cola and I couldn’t convince him it was Pensacola. It was in 1985, a very difficult time in my life. I had recently lost a son. Yehuda came out of the air like a father on to the un-likely ground of Louisiana and though I don’t remember speaking of those matters much, we agreed I would see him that next summer when my family and I would be living in Jerusalem. It was an act of generous consolation.
Yehuda had been asked by the Israeli government to make speeches when invited by local Jewish federations. I don’t think he was really comfortable in that role but he did his duty. He told me he was a Labor party man. Nine years later he was asked by Rabin to read poetry at Oslo on the occasion of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize. Those days are gone — those old hopes of peace are almost gone — but Yehuda Amichai’s poetry was designed to survive political machinations and mishegas, fake piety, and murderous religiosity. He built the brokenness into the poetry.
In the last poem in this collection, “A Jewish Time Bomb,” he speaks of a rock on his desk. It is a fragment from a Jewish cemetery with one word carved on it, amen. And “Amen” comes in answer to the terrible brokenness of life, to the binaries he lived of love and of war, and those emotional polarities he speaks of in another poem as “the precision of pain and the blurriness of joy.” At the same time, his poetry comes to blur for a time the pain and to make more precise the joy. Amen to that.
Yet the blessing is not easy. The “Jewish time bomb” is full of broken pieces, and the broken pieces become “the touchstone no one touches, more philosophical /than any philosopher’s stone … more whole than any whole-ness.” It is a touchstone because, as in the Lurianic kabbalah, brokenness is one phase of a process that also leads to tikkun, to repair. It’s fitting that the last poem of this collection touches on “Amen” because Amichai’s poetry, as secular as it surely is, also makes a powerful prayer, even if it is never entirely clear who, or if, the God is that Amichai implicitly addresses.
I don’t remember his political speech in Baton Rouge in 1985 but I do remember the reading. Yehuda was asked by a student that impossible question. “What is poetry?” Yehuda answered walking from the lectern. “It is like this, you are walking down the street — and then you start to stumble” — here, he play stumbled — “and you are about to lose your footing but you do a little dance to recover it” and then he did a little cartoon shuffle. “Poetry,” he said, “is that little dance.”
To see him dance like that was especially wonderful because his body was so solid. It was like a line in one of his earlier poems (“Autobiography in the Year 1952”), where a woman’s body “is heavy/ And full of time.”
Yehuda Amichai was full of time. He fought in four wars: World War II, the war of Israeli Independence 1948-49, in 1956, and again in ’73. He was not a man of war, but he knew war and its necessities; he was not a poet of war, but a poet of love interrupted by war, by the sorrow of parting and of never returning.
The poem he read at Oslo for Rabin — who was murdered a year later in the terrible war that is still going on between Jew and Jew and which we are all losing — was from his first book. It speaks of how God “takes pity on kindergarten children” but on grownups, the poet tells us, God has no pity left:
Sometimes they have to crawl on all fours
In the blazing sand,
To get to the first-aid station
One great power of his poetry arises from the very compact landscape of Jerusalem that is simultaneously heavenly and earthly. When he looks around that landscape, he can see the actual places where he fought and the actual places where he loved. In the same way that the heavenly and the earthly, the biblical past and his own present are interfused, so too are love and war.
While the juxtaposition of love and war is an ancient poetic theme, Amichai brings to it the jarring particularities of one who has been in battle:
People in the dark always see those In the light.
This is an ancient truth, since the creation
Of sun and night, people and darkness and electric light.
A truth exploited by warriors
For an easy kill in ambush . . .
(“People in the Dark Always See”)
The imminence of war and the intensity of love and how they crowd each other is something Amichai shared with all Israelis. His poems are rooted in what the rabbis of the midrash on Genesis call “the world of two,” the dialectical world we live in since eating from the tree of good and evil. This is a world of divisions between male and female, sacred and profane, Jews and the other nations, the present and the past, and definitely, love and war.
Amichai crowds together the dichotomies in his work until they spark. This dynamism suggests the compressed pace of the Israeli history he lived, including the four wars he fought from World War II to 1973. He cannot think a thought without contemplating its opposite; he cannot consider the past without also bringing the poem up to the present. He cannot talk of a child without talking of a parent, or of love without thinking of war. A dynamic unfolding of oppositions governs his composition to a large degree — and this quality in his work of energetic juxtaposition is eminently translatable. It also has a profound emotional meaning. In Amichai’s work, composition is a form of composure. And because the anxiety of Israeli life is so great, the need for composure for an Israeli poet is also great.
Raised to Orthodoxy by parents who emigrated to Palestine from Germany, Amichai left the formalities of Jewish religion early on, but religion never left him. Instead it emigrated into his poetry and made his poetic practice intensely Jewish.
It is easy to see how the bulk of his work is Jewish in subject matter, deeply informed by Jewish texts, the Jewish calendar, and the landscape of Israel. Also, importantly, writing with real life-giving vulgarity, breaking away from any stiffness or formality, helped birth Hebrew into modernity as a poetic language.
The intrinsic Jewishness of his work is more subtle — the spiritual kinship between his poetic practice and Jewish practice.
To begin with, his poetry is a plea for the particular — in one poem he cries out that poets must give us “details.” This parallels the rootedness of Jewish law in the everyday particulars of life. To be an observant Jew is also to observe what one eats, what one does, it is to live in details. To be an observant poet, likewise.
In this he’s very much a modernist, he realizes William Carlos Williams’ ideal of “no ideas but in things.” But where in Williams somehow the details too often stay on the surface, Amichai’s poetry always moves us through deep contemplation of particulars to metonymies. His poems parallel the practice of Jewish blessing, as taught to me by Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man. A religious Jew is to strive to make a hundred blessings a day, so that each particular moment — seeing a beautiful person, eating a piece of bread, or drinking a glass of wine — has its own blessing, and thereby an act of perception can be elevated to its highest power or plumbed to its greatest depth. In the same way Amichai elevates his “details,” these moments of perception, into a poetic blessing.
The power of metonymy can be seen in “A Great Tranquility: Questions and Answers”, the title also of a 1980 collection. Amichai’s poem follows a form similar to Whitman’s “When I heard the learn’d astronomer”. Like Whitman, Amichai finds himself disenchanted with abstraction as people in a large auditorium “spoke about religion/in the life of contemporary man/ and about God’s place in it.” He just has to escape this lecturing tone:
I opened an iron door marked “Emergency”
and entered into
a great tranquility: Questions and Answers
The door is not a symbol. It is an actual iron door — which is what makes this a moment of metonymy — an instance that speaks deeply to the whole.
He teaches us to see that in the simple events unfolding around us — opening an exit door — are possibilities of enormous depth. So his poetry is spiritual in an entirely grounded way. He is actively annoyed by talk about a God that is too abstract. God does not have a “place in the world” but as it is said, God is the place of the world. That too could be merely a pious or abstract statement. But the poet, doing his little dance, stumbles on the detail that opens a door into a great tranquility.
This focus on the possible depth of the particular is a way of looking at the world that rhetoric associates with the metonym. In conventional terms metonymy is the instance that deepens into a whole, as when one says, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” But Amichai’s constant recourse to metonymy goes much beyond that textbook explanation.
For me it is the figure where the specific moment becomes a sacred moment, and an object becomes a sacred object, not by force of metaphor but by depth of contemplation. Metonymy as my teacher, the mystical Jerusalemite Colette Aboulker-Muscat once told me, is “when the unique becomes the One.”
Because this way of seeing metonymically was so innate and so much a part of who Amichai was — so natural — he fulfilled the deepest ideal of a Jewish return from exile — an ideal in which the natural landscape and occurrences in the local geography could be infused with the ever-evolving in a constant play and tension between the vulgar and the holy, “the hoped for and the imagined.”
This interfusion presents a model for a grounded spirituality, cleansed of piety by desire.
Again and again in his poems he speaks of the “search for a new religion,” or says, “This might be a new religion.” What is the new religion he keeps speaking of? It is certainly not a return to synagogue or habitual piety. It is not Judaism or any other -ism.
I believe it is the practice of poetic perception itself, the deepening of details into metonymies, the lively alternation of opposites, all leading to a new world, a world between, where he can see “Sorrow and joy alternating/ like water and vapor and ice, sorrow and joy from the same substance.”
In a late poem, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Why Jerusalem” he proclaims
“Why is Jerusalem, Yerushalayim, always two, the Heavenly and the Earthly
I want to live in an in-between Jerusalem . . .”
This is where his poetry lives, in the in-between. Detail by detail, metonymy by metonymy, his poetry builds the in-between Jerusalem.
The in-between is sensual, erotic, and given to depth of feeling. It is the missing dimension or world of religious experience that we hunger for, the mediation between the concrete material world and the lofty spiritual world — the mediation the kabbalists — those “bad poets” — called the world of yetzirah or formation. In the four worlds scheme of the Lurianic kabbalah, Yetzirah is situated between the ground level experience of assiyah and the lofty ideas of beriah. It is said to be the realm of feeling, of metaphor, of dreams, and of angels. It is certainly the realm of poetry, and Yehuda Amichai both inhabited it and peopled it for us.
Emphasizing its mediating quality, Yehuda Amichai in several poems calls this dimension of experience he is always searching for, the place between.
And what a wonderful between we made
for each other between body and body.
A between of eyes, between waking and sleep.
A twilight between light, not day and not night.
It is the place of possible relationship between man and woman, between love and war, between all the oppositions the rabbis of Genesis call “the world of two.” The way into this “new religion” is through noticing the details, and then deepening them into metonymies.
In one very powerful evocation, he contemplates the shop of an Arab tailor in the Old City of Jerusalem and sees the Holy Ark:
On Yom Kippur in 1967, the Year of Forgetting, I put on
my dark holiday clothes and walked to the Old City of Jerusalem.
For a long time I stood in front of an Arab’s hole-in-the-wall shop,
not far from the Damascus Gate, a shop with
buttons and zippers and spools of thread
in every color and snaps and buckles. A rare light and many colors,
like an open Ark. (“Jerusalem, 1967”)
The poet carefully notes the details of the hole-in-the wall shop, “buttons and zippers and spools of thread,” then he elevates them with a simile: the open door is “like the open Ark” where observant Jews in synagogue would be gazing on Yom Kippur, in a moment in the service of great spiritual intensity. But the poet is not in synagogue; his worship is in his poetry; his prayer is in his heart addressed to the unknown and unnamed “Arab.”
I told him in my heart that my father too
had a shop like this, with thread and buttons.
I explained to him in my heart about all the decades
and the causes and the events, why I am now here
and my father’s shop was burned there and he is buried here.
Historically, “Jerusalem 1967” is composed after the epochal moment of the reunification of Jerusalem. And this dating of the poem is important also because while Amichai was constantly deepening his experience of his world through metonymy and other poetic operations he could never fully escape the limitations of that world, and most especially the barriers between Israeli and Palestinian, though it’s worth noting and rather unfortunate that he never came to use that term in his work. He speaks instead in his poems of Jew and Arab.
Yet in this poem written in the hour of victory, for Amichai and for Israel, there was an aspiration to reach out to “the Arab” and explain the parallels between the life of the “Arab” and the life of the Jew. He wished to point out that his father had a similar shop that was burned in Germany, and for that reason he fled with his family to Palestine.
Amichai is trying to explain how it is that a Jew named Pfeuffer born in Germany now has a claim on Jerusalem. Clearly this poem does not present a true dialogue with the other, it remains only a prayer, an aspiration.
As far as there being an in-between Jerusalem, this is one place in his poetry he cannot quite find the imaginative in-between, or truly bridge the gap between him and the other. He is never quite able to find the place “between” the Israeli and the Palestinian.
Looked at now more than forty years later, it’s hard not to notice this lack of dialogue. The poet says it is all “in my heart.” We can see now more clearly that the “Arab” in this poem is only addressed, he is not given a voice. In many of Amichai’s poems, the “Arab” is treated more as an object of contemplation than as someone with agency, and this contrasts greatly with the many dialogues in Amichai’s work between men and women for instance, or between Jew and Jew.
I am not judging Yehuda Amichai for the limits of his time or his aspiration. He is a poet of Israel also in this limitation. Even in his longing for a dialogue “in his heart” he represents for me a great and painful lost ideal. The hope for dialogue with Palestinians embodied in this poem had a real political expression in the fall of 1993 with the handshake on the White House lawn. We all know what hap-pened next, after 1995 when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, and we are now living in what Rimbaud called the time of the assassin. And sadly there have been assassins on both sides.
In observing the effect of history on this particular poem, I am only following in Yehuda Amichai’s foot-steps. He was always and ever a poet engaged with the mystery of time, so why should his poems be immune to the effects of time? He was always and ever contemplating both joy and its departure, both joy and the sorrow of lost joy. Because he is a poet of detailed sensuality, this sorrow even has a specific taste, as in the poem when he remembers nothing of the letter he sent to a lost lover, “but the bitter glue of the stamp on his tongue.”
In the last stanza, after the silent prayer in his heart, Amichai returns to the shop; only now the simile, “like an open Ark,” has become a pure metonymy.
When I finished, it was time for the Closing of the Gates prayer.
He too lowered the shutters and locked the gate
and I returned, with all the worshipers, home.
The Arab’s shop is no longer just a shop, its gates are no longer just gates. The simple gesture of lowering shutters and closing the gates, has acquired a sacred depth, so much so that the poet “returned, with all the worshippers, home.” In the world of Amichai’s poetry, the moment of sacred encounter can be found at any time and anywhere. There is hope in this gesture despite all the many failures to make it real. This is the “new religion” of his poetry, and it is a gift that can be translated everywhere. ■
A version of this essay appeared in Tikkun Winter 2017 issue. Thanks to the editors.
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