When the 1967 War occurred in Israel, soldiers packed their gear, clothing, and, often, a book of poems by Yehuda Amichai. It is rare for soldiers to need poetry in their barracks. But, having been a soldier of the Palmach in Israel in 1948 during the terrorist attacks by both British gangs and Arabs, Amichai knew what it felt like to be both a victim and a justified retaliator. He “refused to worship heroism, even though he identified with the national struggle,” and he “challenged the sacrifices it demands.” The articulation of his feelings and irreverant tone of voice resonated then and now with the Israeli public.
Nili Scharf Gold’s biography traces the development of Amichai’s poetic skill along with events in his life that contributed to his talent. She points out that just as the Hebrew language changed from World War II to the War of Independence, so did Amichai’s poems, which used modern terms as well as references to “airplanes, tanks, gasoline, iceboxes, legal contracts, and mathematical axioms”:
“storks flying over rural landscapes
became jet planes and
the eyes of a tired soldier close like
the portholes of a tank”
Before this, Gold notes, most poets kept to the use of classical Hebrew with no addition of current terms, which they felt might ruin its beauty.
In addition to a critical evaluation of some of Amichai’s poems, Gold reveals two major formative elements of Amichai little known to his public, who think of him as the quintessential Israeli. Amichai grew up in Wurzburg, Germany and his family did not emigrate to Israel until 1936, when he was twelve years old. Amichai rarely referred openly to his childhood years as Ludwig Pfeuffer, but Gold finds hidden references to his Germanic education in much of his poetry, especially the influences of the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Anderson, and Goethe. And he had a lifelong love for a classmate of his called Ruth Z. which Gold discovered from his letters which she obtained after his death. It is the happiness he shared with her and the agony of his life without her after she left Israel that is camouflaged in his work, she feels.
Nevertheless, Amichai remains the spokesman and major poetic influence for Israelis.