A profile of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000)
Amichai studied at the Hebrew University, and then earned his living by teaching the Bible and Hebrew literature in secondary schools. Amichai had started to write poetry in 1949. His first collection, Achshav Ubayamin Na'acherim, was published in 1955. With his second collection, Bemerchak Shetey Tikvot (1958), Amichai established himself as one of the major poets of the "Palmach generation," writers who emerged out of Israeli's war for independence. [Palmach was part of the Haganah, the Zionists' armed forces in pre-independence days.] It included such names as Nathan Zach (b. 1930), Dalia Ravikovitch, T. Carmi, and Dan Pagis.
Much of Amichai's fiction is autobiographical. "My personal history has coincided with a larger history," he has said. "For me it's always been one and the same." His first novel, Not of This Time, Not of This Place (1963) was about a young German Jew living in Israel after World War II and trying to understand the world which had created the Holocaust. His second novel, Mi Yiteni Malon (1971), was about an Israeli poet living in New York. It was published while Amichai was a visiting poet at an American college. In 1971 and 1976 he was a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Dorot Visiting Fellowship (1983-84), and a visiting poet at New York University (1987).
In the background of Amichai's work is the biblical Hebrew, in which he incorporates colloquial expressions and language of the modern day world. Sometimes it follows the rhythms of biblical language. In "National Thoughts," Amichai wrote: "To speak, now, in this tired language, / Torn from its sleep in the Bible - / Blinded, it lurches from mouth to mouth - / The language which described God and the Miracles, / Says: / Motor car, bomb, God." Grief, unresolved. hidden rage, and irony are elements of "The Smell of Gasoline Ascends in My Nose," in which the army jet "makes peace in the heavens / upon us and upon all lovers in autumn".
Amichai's poems have often been recited on public occasions. Yitzhak Rabin read lines from his famous early work, "God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children," as part of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. In the poem Amichai continues the title line with the words: "He has less pity on school children / And on grownups he has no pity at all."
According to a story by Chana Bloch, "some Israeli students were called up in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. As soon as they were notified, they went back to their rooms at the university, and each packed his gear, a rifle, and a book of Yehuda Amichai's poems" (from the introduction to The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, 1986). However, similar stories have been told about young Russian, French, German, etc., soldiers who take a book by their favorite poet to the front.
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