Yehu­da Amichai: The Mak­ing of Israel’s Nation­al Poet

Nili Scharf Gold

  • Review
By – January 3, 2012

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.

Eleanor Ehrenkranz received her Ph.D. from NYU and has taught at Stern Col­lege, NYU, Mer­cy Col­lege, and at Pace Uni­ver­si­ty. She has lec­tured wide­ly on Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture and recent­ly pub­lished anthol­o­gy of Jew­ish poet­ry, Explain­ing Life: The Wis­dom of Mod­ern Jew­ish Poet­ry, 1960 – 2010.

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