In 1944, Ludwig Pfeuffer was a 20-year-old soldier stationed in Egypt with the British Army. Born in Wurzburg, Germany, to a family that had lived there for centuries, the young Ludwig had fled the Third Reich with his parents in 1935 and made a new life in British-controlled Palestine. The British were not exactly popular with the Jews of Palestine—the government had limited Jewish immigration at a crucial moment and continually put off the creation of a Jewish state. But during World War II, with Nazi armies in North Africa, many young Jews had enlisted in the British forces as a matter of self-defense. By the later stages of the war, however, the Germans had been expelled from Africa, and there was little for Pfeuffer and his fellow Jewish soldiers to do in Egypt—except to smuggle weapons and immigrants to Palestine, in preparation for the postwar struggle everyone knew was coming.
One of the amenities provided for British soldiers were mobile lending libraries, which made the latest English books available. Decades later, in an interview with the Paris Review, Pfeuffer—who was now known around the world as the poet Yehuda Amichai—recalled a day when he came across a library truck that had overturned in the desert:
There had been some kind of storm, and one of the mobile libraries had overturned into the sand, ruining or half-ruining most of the books. We came upon it and I started digging through the books and came upon a book, a Faber anthology of modern British poetry, which I think came out in the late thirties. Hopkins was the first poet, Dylan Thomas the last. It was my first encounter with modern British poetry—the first time I read Eliot and Auden, for example, who became very important to me. I discovered them in the Egyptian desert in a half-ruined book. This book had an enormous impact on me—I think that was when I began to think seriously about writing poetry.
You could hardly invent a more vivid example of the innate cosmopolitanism of poetry. Here is a young man who speaks German at home, Hebrew among friends, and English in the army, who is turned into a writer by discovering the latest London poetry in an Egyptian desert. Such cosmopolitanism, and such polyglot fluency, were time-honored Jewish legacies; and they gave many European Jews a feeling of spiritual extraterritoriality, a belief that they belonged everywhere and nowhere. Indeed, with a slight change of course, Amichai might easily have become a very different kind of poet. He did not publish his first book until 1955, when he was 31 years old. By that time, he could have returned to Europe and become a German poet like his contemporary Paul Celan; or he could have moved to America and become an English poet, writing in the language of Eliot and Auden.
The idea that a writer’s calling is independent of his language, however, is one that modern assumptions about national literature find it hard to tolerate. It was totally normal in the middle ages for Jews who spoke Yiddish or Arabic to write their literary works in Hebrew—or, by the same token, for French- or Dutch-speaking Christians to write in Latin. By the 19th century, however, the rise of nationalism had created a new sense that a poet’s relationship to his native, spoken language was sacred and unique. Nation after nation turned to its poets to validate its linguistic and political identity. And Jews, who under the pressure of Zionism and Yiddish nationalism began to think of themselves as a political nation in this modern sense, were equally eager to use language to shore up national identity. Chaim Nachman Bialik was Israel’s national poet before there was an Israel.
If you were to ask who was the national poet of the State of Israel since 1948, the inevitable answer would be Amichai. At some point in his development, the man who had once been Ludwig Pfeuffer decided that he would live his life in Israel—mainly in Jerusalem—and that he would write his works in Hebrew. Where writers like Kafka and Celan spent their lives mourning their inner alienation from German, their mother tongue, Amichai gave himself a new mother tongue, and inhabited it with utter ease. He even changed his name in the most symbolic possible way, choosing to call himself Yehuda—the name from which the word “Jew” derives—Amichai—in Hebrew, “my nation lives.” He was, in a sense, exactly as old as his country, and his biography mirrored its history: Amichai fought in the Palmach in 1948 and fought again in 1956 and 1973.
Reading The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, the wonderful new collection of Amichai’s work edited by Robert Alter, those wars and that history are inescapable, entwining themselves with even the poet’s most private moments, as in these lines from “Songs of Zion the Beautiful”:
Our baby was weaned during the first days
of the war. And I rushed out to stare
at the terrifying desert.
At night I came home again to watch him
sleeping. He is starting to forget
his mother’s nipples, and he’ll go on forgetting
until the next war.
As these lines suggest, Amichai accepted the mantle of Israel’s national poet, only to find an entirely new way of wearing that heavy garment. He was never interested in rallying the people, inventing new myths for the state, giving crowds songs to sing, or any of the other tasks we might associate with a national poet. Nor, on the other hand, did he retreat into the alienated aestheticism of the modernist poets he discovered in the Egyptian desert—the hermetic verse of Eliot or early Auden, which repudiates the claims of the public by turning radically private. Instead, Amichai found a third way: He clung to his personality and his individuality yet opened himself up in order to allow the currents of national history to flow through him. Like Czesław Miłosz—another great poet who was simultaneously national and personal—Amichai manages to become a representative man; he is an Israeli and a Jew and soldier and a lover and a father, all at once. The clamor of these identities is accommodated by Amichai’s large irony, which extends even to subjects that for most people are deadly serious—sex, patriotism, religion.
How to write freely while living under political pressures was a question that imposed itself on many of the best poets of the late twentieth century. It is everywhere in Heaney, Walcott, and Brodsky; but none of those writers, arguably, lived in a more political place than Israel. As Amichai once said, “I can be a deeply involved, engaged writer because I don’t have to seek engagement. I am politically engaged because everyone in Israel—on the right or left—exists under political pressures and existential tensions.”
Yet Amichai found ways of keeping those pressures at arm’s length. Take, for instance, the remarkable sequence of poems he wrote after the Six Day War, “Jerusalem, 1967.” These were exalted, intoxicating days, when the conquest of Jerusalem brought the Jews’ holy city under Jewish sovereignty for the first time in 2,000 years. The country was singing Naomi Shemer’s song “Jerusalem of Gold,” with its triumphant verse: “The wells are filled again with water,/ The square with joyous crowd,/ On the Temple Mount within the City, / The shofar rings out loud.” But here is how Amichai writes about the city where he lived most of his life:
Jerusalem stone is the only stone that can
feel pain. It has a network of nerves.
From time to time Jerusalem crowds into
mass protests like the tower of Babel.
But with huge clubs God-the-Police beats her
down: houses are razed, walls flattened,
and afterward the city disperses, muttering
prayers of complaint and sporadic screams from churches
and synagogues and loud-moaning mosques.
Each to his own place.
This section of “Jerusalem, 1967” demonstrates that Amichai evaded the claims of the national by viewing Israeli history in a perspective at once smaller and larger than the nation. On the one hand, he is less a poet of the state than a poet of the city, of Jerusalem. He writes about Jerusalem with the intimacy of a disillusioned lover, a friend who remains faithful despite repeated trials and impositions; he empathizes with the very stones. And Jerusalem, while it is a Jewish city, is also a Christian and Muslim city, irreducibly multicultural. “The city plays hide-and-seek among her names: Yerushalayim, Al-Quds, Salem, Jeru, Yeru,” Amichai writes.
What unites these cultures is the ardor of faith, the belief that in Jerusalem you are closer to God than elsewhere. “In my land, called holy, / they won’t let eternity be: / they’ve divided it into little religions, / zoned it for God-zones,” Amichai writes in “North of San Francisco.” This is the other half of Amichai’s double vision—his wary, wry intimacy with God, which is to say, his Judaism. Like the city of Jerusalem, the faith of the Jews is much older than the State of Israel and offers a release from contemporary political obsessions.
Amichai grew up in a religious home—he was able to adjust easily to life in Palestine, he said, because he learned Hebrew so well at school—and his verse draws constantly on the Bible and the prayer book. Indeed, this is one of the challenges of reading Amichai in English translation. Robert Alter, the editor of The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, has selected and commissioned translations from a number of very distinguished translators, including Chana Bloch, Chana Kronfeld, Stephen Mitchell, Leon Wieseltier, and Benjamin and Barbara Harshav. Alter has also translated a number of poems himself. Yet as he writes in his introduction, “A good many subtleties and complexities … in Amichai’s poetry will inevitably disappear in translation.”
A good example is the love poem “But We Must Praise,” which begins “But we must praise/ a familiar night.” It would take a very acute reader to detect the fact that “But we must praise” is a translation of the opening words of the Aleinu prayer, “But we must praise the Lord of all” (Aleinu le’shabeiach la’adon hakol). Alter addresses this problem by adding an epigraph, attributing the phrase to “Hebrew liturgy.” But there is no recapturing the immediacy of the allusion to a Hebrew reader who is also a regular synagogue-goer, or the shock of seeing this pious phrase placed in an erotic context.
The Jewish vocabulary of Amichai’s poetry doesn’t mean that he is a believer. On the contrary, the deep pathos of his religious verse is that he has achieved a kind of sublime intimacy with a God who does not exist, at least not as the tradition conceives Him. What interests Amichai, writing in a post-Holocaust world, is not God’s power but His absence, or indifference, or simple debility. One of Amichai’s most famous poems is “God Takes Pity on Kindergarten Children”:
God takes pity on kindergarten children.
Less on schoolchildren.
On grown-ups, He won’t take pity anymore.
He leaves them alone.
Sometimes they have to crawl on all fours
In the blazing sand,
To get to the first-aid station
The wounded soldier crawling for help is on his own; but of course, Amichai knows and we know that the kindergarten child is also on his own. Help didn’t come for the million Jewish children killed in the Holocaust. What vanishes with age is not God’s concern but our trust. Yet as Amichai says in a poem from his last book, “Gods Change, Prayers Are Here To Stay”: The impulse to pray survives the belief in God. The sequence that takes this line as its title is overpoweringly moving—a masterpiece of modern religious poetry—because it demonstrates what it feels like for a Jew to live with a God who is no longer omnipotent:
“Our Father, Our King.” What does a father do
when his children are orphans and he
is still alive? What will a father do
when his children have died and he becomes
a bereaved father for all eternity?
Again, Amichai turns to the liturgy, this time the Avinu Malkeinu prayer from the High Holiday service. After the Holocaust, Amichai imagines God as a father who has lost his children; this paradoxically compels us to feel compassion for God, to pity Him rather than to blame Him. And pity is a way of maintaining a relationship with God, rather than rejecting Him altogether. “Prayer created God,/ God created human beings,/ human beings create prayers,” Amichai writes. We are responsible for the God who is responsible for us.
Another way of putting this is that what interests Amichai is not Jewishness—not the Jewish religion or the Jewish state—but Jews, who are simply human beings thrust into a situation of almost intolerable complexity. Zionism was supposed to create new Jews, men and women of ideological fervor and heroic fortitude, and in a way it did. But ever since, Israeli literature has been obsessed with the gaps between the ideal and the real people who are forced to live it. For Amichai, those gaps call for a tolerant irony, an affirmation of human frailty, that again unites him with great anti-political political poets like Heaney and Miłosz. This is the theme of “I Want To Die in My Bed,” its very title a protest in favor of the civilian virtues:
All night Joshua’s army had to climb
To make it to the killing fields on time.
Deep in the ground, the weft and the woof of the dead.
I want to die in my bed.
Like gun slits on a tank, their eyes took a narrow view.
They are the many and I am always the few.
Let them question me. I’ll have to say what I said.
But I want to die in my bed.
Coming from a soldier who fought in four wars, Amichai’s skeptical interrogation of military valor has a real authority. It is hard to draw any specific political message from Amichai’s poetry—he does not take sides on issues of the day—but The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai breathes a liberal humanism that is inimical to any kind of religious or patriotic chauvinism. “Whoever reads my poetry could never arrive at fundamentalist, absolutist thinking,” he has said.
For Amichai, the ultimate refuge from absolutism, and from the pressures of public identity, is the domain of sexual love. Various love affairs, and the different stages of those affairs, are reflected in poem after poem, but always with a frank emphasis on the bodily and the physical, and with an undisguised joy in sexuality:
We did it in front of the mirror
and in the light. We did it in darkness,
in the water and the high grass.
We did it in honor of man
and in honor of beast and in honor of God.
But they didn’t want to know about us,
they had already seen that sort of thing.
God and the animals are not interested in the lovers, and this indifference may be the greatest gift of all, since it is the key to love’s privacy. Throughout his life Amichai returned with a lover to the beach at Akhziv, on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, as to a refuge where the outer world can be forgotten. The series of “Poems of Akhziv” are among his most erotic: “At noon/ Your one leg was in the east, the other in the west,/ And I in the middle leaning on my forelegs,” he writes. Yet even here the voice of the tradition can be heard: The lines are an allusion to the famous poem by Yehuda Halevi, in which the poet says that he is in the west, in Spain, but his heart in the east, in the Land of Israel. For a poet writing a Hebrew saturated in ancient, medieval, and modern reference, such ghosts must be accommodated, and here too Amichai has need of his tolerance, his irony.
“Why Jerusalem, why me?/ Why not another city, another person?” Amichai cries out in one of the poems from his last book. But even if Amichai had taken another path, had become another person in another city or another language, he could not have escaped the weight of the past—no conscious Jewish poet can. And the heavier the past he carried in his work, the more resilient his spirit became. He is like a juggler who manages to keep the big, dangerous, awkward chainsaws—God, Judaism, Israel, Holocaust, war, sex and love—always in the air. The miracle is not that he doesn’t get hurt—he does—but that he always goes on.
To read more of Adam Kirsch’s literary criticism for Tablet magazine, click here.