Through Amichai’s Window
Editor’s note: We deeply appreciate the way that Yehuda Amichai was available to Tikkun magazine. He not only allowed many of his poems to be printed in Tikkun, but also participated in the Tikkun Conference in Jerusalem, where we brought together all the various factions of the Israeli peace movement to reflect on why they had been less successful than they could have been. Amichai’s presence there, and his reading of his poetry as part of the conference program, was a powerful statement of his commitment to peace and reconciliation with the Palestinian people.
A widely acclaimed poet of the 20th century, Yehuda Amichai was a voice of sanity in a world that often denies it. Born in Germany, Amichai immigrated to Palestine in the mid-1930s and spent the rest of his life trying to make sense of the calamitous events that his generation endured. He won numerous awards, both in Israel and abroad, and was a frequent contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. His work has been translated into more than thirty languages.“I’ve often said that I consider myself a “post-cynical humanist,” Amichai told The Paris Review in 1992. “Maybe now after so much horror, so many shattered ideals, we can start anew—now that we’re well armored for disappointment. I think my sense of history and God, even if I am against history and God, is very Jewish. I think this is why my poems are sometimes taught in religious schools. It’s an ancient Jewish idea to fight with God, to scream out against God.”
Down-to-earth, kind, and avuncular, Amichai continued to have faith in words and people despite the tumultuous times in which he lived. In fact, he was often the favorite poet and beloved teacher of many secular Israelis who identified with his easy-going, informal demeanor and ironic perspective of the country’s nationalist mythology.
What did Amichai see from his window? A soldier departing for war; a candle lit forever in memory of loved ones; a ship arriving at a sheltered port? When a poet writes a poem, a window is opened that affords us a view not only of our inner lives but also of the world around us; it helps us to clarify feelings and to reach deep inside. Although Amichai died fifteen years ago, he lives on in his poetry and other writings. What has he left us? How has he contributed to the tradition of Hebrew literature and poetry? And how has he enabled us to reinterpret what it means to be Jewish—indeed, to be human—in light of modern historical events?
Making The Amichai Windows
Over the past eight years, I feel like I have been living with Amichai as I work on a limited edition artist book, The Amichai Windows. Volumes of Amichai’s work in Hebrew and English have kept me company in my basement studio, along with a poster of Marc Chagall’s painting, “Paris View,” an old record player, book presses, and work tables. I have often gone to the Hebraica section of the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room of the Library of Congress, where I have researched, read, and occasionally translated old journal and newspaper interviews with Amichai. He has captivated me in readings on tape in which he spoke about being a poet and growing up in Wurzburg, Germany, a city that he and his family fled following the rise of the Nazis.
The Amichai Windows is a bilingual meditation on life in Israel and the vicissitudes of Jewish history. It will be a collection of eighteen Amichai poems, each wrapped and folded in an individual, handmade paper triptych. All of the poems will be collected in an enclosure that will be made to resemble a Jerusalem window. The series of poems will incorporate replicas of some of Amichai’s original handwritten poems as well as images of Jewish history and life culled from archives around the world. Readers will have to open up a separate triptych to read each letterpressed poem, just as one would open up different windows. The book will be issued in an edition of eighteen copies.
First Encounters With Amichai’s Poems
I no longer remember when I initially read Amichai’s work, but I was particularly drawn to poems that were ostensibly about his family—or his persona’s family. I was especially struck by this poem:
My Mother Once Told Me
My mother once told me
not to sleep with flowers in the room.
Ever since I don’t sleep
with flowers, I sleep alone
and without them.
There were a lot of flowers.
But there was never enough time.
And loved ones already are pushing off
from my life,
like skiffs from the shore.
My mother told me
not to sleep with flowers:
She won’t sleep; she won’t sleep,
the mother of my childhood.
The wooden bannister that I held onto
when they dragged me to school
was burned long ago.
But my grasping hands remain
This poem summarized all my feelings about my own childhood. Like the persona of the poem, I felt there was a date when I lost my childhood: I was nineteen years old the day I grasped onto my mother’s feet at the edge of the hospital bed and watched her take her last gasps of air. It was June 1977, a Sabbath eve. I will never forget that night. I still remember the sunset from the hospital window. That night, I pledged to try to fathom why God allows innocent people to suffer. My mother was in excruciating pain near the end of her life. I reluctantly let go of that banister, that connection to the idyllic childhood that I enjoyed while she was alive.
Reading Amichai in Hebrew
I distinctly remember, though, when I first received a copy of one of Amichai’s books in Hebrew. At the time, I was renting a room in the Kiryat Moshe district of Jerusalem from Cipporah Margolin, a Polish Jew who immigrated to Palestine in the 1930s. Mrs. Margolin worked as a teacher and raised three children on her own following the early death of her husband. When I arrived in Jerusalem in 1983, the municipality kept a list of residences for rent. Her small apartment bordered a factory area and the edge of the Jerusalem forest. Across the street was Angel’s Bakery, which made most of the bread, rolls, and cakes for the city. An elderly German woman, Mrs. Daniels, rented a room from her, too. Initially, I slept on the couch in the living room and then moved into the extra bedroom once Mrs. Daniels moved out.
I used to watch the sunset from my bedroom window, looking toward the Jerusalem forest, where I would go on long hikes on the narrow, dirt paths past boulders and almond trees. Stacked on the bookshelves were classics of Hebrew literature, including the works of S.Y. Agnon, poems by Rachel Bluwstein and Leah Goldberg, and volumes of the Hebrew Bible. I was studying Hebrew at a public ulpan (an intensive Hebrew language program) adjacent to where Adolf Eichmann was tried and convicted of engineering the mass deportation of Jews to Nazi concentration camps. Learning Hebrew so nearby tasted like revenge. Each new word was a triumph that helped to stave off the eradication of European Jewry. When I listened to radio programs on public buses and watched television with Mrs. Margolin and Mrs. Daniels, I could barely distinguish where one word began and another ended. Slowly, though, I discerned the meaning of words here and there.
When I returned home in the afternoon from the ulpan, Mrs. Margolin and I would sit in the kitchen and catch up with each other. She spoke a handful of languages, including English, German, Russian, Yiddish and, of course, Hebrew. We would talk in Hebrew over toast and homemade marmalade until I got so weary that I had to switch to English. She was my most beloved teacher. Long after I left the ulpan, she continued to encourage me. “Just talk – don’t worry about making mistakes. Just keep talking and it’ll come,” she would say. On my first birthday in Israel, she took me to Shekem—the department store for IDF soldiers and their families—to get a present. She put on her kerchief, took her pocketbook, and we walked to Herzl Street to catch a bus to the large department store, which was adjacent to the central bus station. We went down an escalator to the small book section and I picked out Achshav Be-Ra’ash—Now Amidst the Din—a book of poetry written by Amichai following the 1967 Six Day war. I read the poems over the next few months, looking up words in a thick Hebrew-English dictionary and staying up late into the night.
Amichai’s Life in His Own Words
Visiting Amichai’s papers at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University was like cupping my hands against a glass window and trying to peek inside Amichai’s life. I found photos of him in the British army in Cairo, making funny faces with his kids, and cooking in the kitchen. I found family recipes to make soup for Shabbat and his call-up notice from the Israel Defense Forces. I discovered that he married twice; he had a son, Ron, with his first wife, Tamar, and two children, David and Emanuella, with his second wife, Hana.
I knew little about Amichai when I first started to read his work but slowly the veil was lifted. Born as Ludwig Pfeuffer in 1924, he was raised in Wurzburg, a picturesque city in Bavaria. He went to the first Montessori Jewish kindergarten, and then to the Jewish state-owned school where, in first grade, he started to learn both German and Hebrew. “I lived only amongst Jews even before 1933 [when the Nazis rose to power],” Amichai recounted in a typewritten article in English entitled “Every Writer Uses His Own Life,” which I found at the Beinecke. “So, to my early childhood, the Jewish world and Jewish culture were there in southern Germany. There was a mountain nearby which for me was Mount Sinai. There was a valley, a place of many school excursions, which was nothing else but the very valley in which little David and giant Goliath had their bout. Ironically enough when many years later during a maneuver of the Israeli army, I told my company to camp for the night in the real Valley of Elah, I almost didn’t think about the deadly battle which had taken place 3,000 years back, and in a strange way David and Goliath went on fighting in that sweet romantic Schubert-music valley of Germany.”
Raised in an Orthodox family, Amichai was taunted by the Hitler youth as a young child. When his father—a traveling salesman and member of the Hevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society) in their native Wurzburg—heard that two Jews had been beaten to death, he decided to leave Germany. The family took a train to Venice and then sailed from Trieste to Palestine in 1935 or 1936 (the dates vary according to accounts). They settled in Petach Tikvah, where Amichai used to play amid the orange groves and go to synagogue with his father.
“While I was standing next to my father in the synagogue in Petach Tikvah in the 1930s—it was still a beautiful, agricultural colony—praying in Hebrew like in Germany, outside of the window the children were shouting in Hebrew at their play,” Amichai continued in “Every Writer Uses His Own Life.” “So, I found myself standing between the holy language and the street language, both Hebrew … my body learnt a new language and my mind changed a sacred language into everyday speech.”
After about a year, the family moved to Jerusalem and Amichai was sent to a religious high school at his father’s insistence. In 1942, after high school, he volunteered to join the British Army to help fight against the Nazis in World War II. At first he was stationed on the Atlit coast to protect against a possible German invasion, but he was later transferred to Egypt, where by chance he discovered a Faber anthology of modern British poetry that would ultimately change his life.
“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,” said Amichai in his interview with The Paris Review. “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.”
Whenever he could do so, he read voraciously at one of the British Army libraries while also smuggling arms and immigrants into Palestine for the Jewish underground. Following the end of World War II, he studied to become a school teacher, took a job at an elementary school in Haifa (which is when he changed his last name from Pfeuffer to Amichai) and eventually joined the Palmach, an elite fighting unit that was part of the Jewish army before the formation of the IDF.
Two wartime experiences in particular left a deep impression upon Amichai and strengthened his desire to become a poet. In the fall of 1947, Amichai was assigned to a unit under the command of “Dicky,” another German who happened to have immigrated the same year as him. The two became close friends; they had both served in the British Army and were a little older than the other recruits. Dicky, who was already married, became a father in December of that year but wasn’t able to visit his newborn daughter until the following summer because of all the action. Shortly after he returned to his unit, though, Dicky went out on a guerilla skirmish against the Egyptian army and was killed with his men. It was a devastating loss for Amichai, who easily could have gone with him, and he commemorated Dicky’s loss in many poems. The second instance, in the battle for Ashdod, was when Amichai carried a wounded buddy on his shoulders only to find out when he got to the first-aid station that his friend had already died.
“I started writing poetry, using my words to come to terms with my life’s extremes and heal myself and go on living,” Amichai wrote in an English holograph found at the Beinecke, entitled “I Write in Hebrew Because.” “I am very happy that the poems which have helped me to heal myself also help others. I strongly believe that art has to heal and comfort and not just present the cruel reality of our modern life in Israel and the world over.”
Amichai’s Revolution in Hebrew Verse
Amichai’s verse is informal, both in terms of its diction and rhyme scheme. At the same time, he draws deeply upon Jewish religious sources from his Orthodox upbringing and blends in snippets of Biblical, talmudic and liturgical poetry and prose in his work. He has a unique way of converting the everyday into the holy and vice versa, thereby reinventing the poetic tradition to incorporate modern doubts and experiences and redefine the Jewish experience.
As a young writer, Amichai arrived on the Hebrew poetry scene in the wake of Avraham Shlonsky, a writer searching for a new secular religion in Zionism and Socialism. Shlonsky often glorified working the land and Jewish pioneers. In addition, Natan Alterman, one of the other leading writers of the day, was composing neo-Romantic modernist works in elegant rhymes and regular meter. Alterman also wrote patriotic poems in the early stages of the 1948 War of Independence. After the war, though, people were struggling with their hopes and expectations in comparison to the realities of life in a new country: they wanted to live in peace, to quietly dwell in their own Altneuland. However, the disappointments of statehood soon ensued. Thousands of people died in the war and tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants were streaming into the country, only to be housed in tent camps.
Following the 1948 War of Independence, it was very difficult for new poets to get published. The major houses were only interested in the establishment figures. After Amichai got married, he was writing quite profusely but still hadn’t been published in more than a few newspapers. He was studying Bible and Hebrew literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A friend of Amichai’s showed a few of his poems to one of his professors, who got one published in a literary magazine. Another of Amichai’s poems won a poetry competition at the university. In 1955, Amichai published his first book, Now and In Other Days, with Likrat, a literary magazine and publishing house run by young poets including Natan Zach, Benjamin Harshav, David Avidan and later Dahlia Ravikovitch. His first book revolutionized the Hebrew poetry scene with its colloquial language, images from daily life, and allusions to religious texts. Amichai emphasized the individual as opposed to the national myth of being redeemed by the land and ideological movements.
“Amichai effected a vernacular revolution in Hebrew verse, rejecting the high literary language and the rhetorical thrust of the previous generation of Hebrew poets and finding ways to make poetry out of the plain words of everyday speech,” writes the esteemed Hebrew literary critic, Robert Alter, in an introduction to The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, a new collection of Amichai poems in English (FSG, November 2015).
As Amichai reflected in “Every Writer Uses His Own Life” in his papers at the Beinecke, “as a poet, I have a double loyalty: I’m part of the Jewish-Hebrew tradition but I also belong to the poetry of the mid-century, post-wars generation.”
Beyond Orthodoxy and Ideology
In 1958, Amichai’s next book of poetry, Two Hopes Away, came out and immediately sold 4,000 copies, which made it a bestseller and contributed to his changing the course and tenor of Hebrew poetry. He wrote about his own experiences, and by doing so, became a kind of proto-typical Israeli representative of the experiences of his generation. In fact, Amichai did not like belonging to groups and was not attracted to ideology. He did not take up the cause of cultural nationalism advocated by Ahad Ha’am or the pioneering nationalism of the early settlers. He saw so many ideologies come and go, among them Socialism and Communism, both of which had ardent supporters in Palestine. It was a characteristic that he inherited from his father, who was extremely skeptical of ideologies and political parties.
“After the Palmach, we all identified with the left,” he said in a 1981 interview with The Jerusalem Post, entitled “In My Heart is a Museum.” “But the social revolution disappointed me just as religion did. Man destroys ideals. That’s why I don’t hold with any party.”
Of all the disappointing ideologies and beliefs, the most heart-rending was the discrediting of the God of Amichai’s father and childhood. He sensed this betrayal from an early age, from when his childhood friend, Ruth Hanover, was hit by a car, lost her leg and was forced to use a prosthesis. He was the first one she called and he helped her learn to walk again. Later, the two of them were ambushed and beaten up by Hitler youths. Some of Ruth’s family escaped and even made it to Palestine, where they lived for a short time with Amichai’s family until they got resettled. Ruth herself made it to Holland but could not get a visa because of her disability. She was caught there in the German dragnet and rounded up. At twenty years old, she was murdered at the Sobibor death camp.
“They were usually big cowards,” Amichai said about the Hitler youths who once beat him up, in an interview for the Hebrew literary journal, Proza, in 1978. “Always three or four against one. They also knocked her down and I heard the artificial leg make a kind of metallic noise. And this is one of the things that has stayed with me, more than all the Auschwitz stories. I was not in Auschwitz, but I did hear the prosthetic leg. They knew her . . . They knew she was disabled.”
It is as if she became his own Anne Frank, a symbol of the Holocaust. While he wrote about Ruth in several poems without mentioning her by name, he penned “Little Ruth”, an elegy specifically about her in his collection A Fist Once Was an Open Palm and Fingers. It reads in part:
. . . If you were alive now, you would be a woman of sixty-five,
a woman on the verge of old age. At twenty you were burned,
and I don’t know what happened to you in your short life
ever since we were separated. What did you achieve, what insignia
did they put on your shoulders, on your sleeves, on
your brave soul, what shining stars
did they pin on you, what decorations of valor, what
medals of love did they hang around your neck,
what peace unto you, peace unto you . . . .
A Religious Argument With His Father
When Amichai gave up his religious practice as a teenager, it deeply aggrieved his father, who was an Orthodox Jew. They argued about it for years. In fact, Amichai continued to argue with his father long after his father died. He often changes prayers to create a sense of irony and reflect his own perspective. In an interview with Avirama Golan of IETV that Amichai gave a few weeks before his own death, Amichai’s views about religion remained as sharp as ever.
“I had this argument with God since I was a child,” said Amichai. “My father always wanted to prove to me that [God exists]. That I would understand one day. That there has to be some kind of big director in heaven but it doesn’t mean that because of that I’m forbidden to eat a sandwich with meat and cheese together.”
“But the director exists. . .”
“The director exists . . . but it doesn’t interest me. Call it nature or a higher intelligence . . .”
“It doesn’t matter to you if he’s Jewish or . . .”
“If he was a Jew I would fire him,” he remarked.
“You see what he did to the Jewish people?”
This exchange is typical of Amichai’s outlook on God and Jewish history. For example, in a poem about Yom Kippur that will appear in The Amichai Windows, Amichai plays with the Yom Kippur liturgy in which worshippers plea for God to remember them and to inscribe them in the book of life. Rather, Amichai suggests, the Jewish people would be better off if God forgets about them and allows them to live in peace.
Yom Kippur without my father and without my mother
is not Yom Kippur.
From the blessing of their hands upon my head
only the tremor remains like the tremor of a motor
that has not stopped even after their death.
My mother died just five years ago.
She is still caught in the bureaucratic process
between the heavenly offices above and the paperwork below.
My father, who died long ago, has already been resurrected
in other places but not in my place.
Yom Kippur without my father and without my mother
is not Yom Kippur.
Therefore I eat in order to remember
and drink in order not to forget
and arrange the vows
and classify the oaths by time and severity.
By day we cried out, “Forgive us,”
and in the evening we cried out, “Open the gates of heaven for us,”
but I say forget for our sake, forget us, leave us be
at the time of the locking of the gates, for day is done.
The last rays of sunlight are shattered
in the synagogue’s stained-glass window.
The sunlight is not shattered,
we are shattered,
the word “shattered” is shattered.
I don’t think that Amichai’s religious poems are simply an argument with his father, but a way to relate to God’s silence. Clearly, he distinguishes between being a devout Orthodox Jew and arguing with God, history or fate, which seemed to thwart him and those he loved. I think that Amichai—or the persona of his poems (it’s hard to distinguish between them)—was wrestling with God in light of the tragic nature of modern Jewish history, even though he didn’t believe in God’s existence. Nonetheless, he still sought a way to relate to God, to a being or entity that he didn’t trust.
“He surely no longer believed in the God of Jewish tradition,” writes Alter in his introduction to the new Amichai book of poems. “Yet God is not absent from his work, persisting as an idea to grapple with, a being to challenge or turn inside out, even occasionally as a kind of lingering ghostly presence.”
Turning Inwards And The Use of Irony
Devoid of traditional religious faith and collective ideals that had fallen short, Amichai turned to the most intimate moments of the individual—either embodied in love or familial relationships—and to memory as “a hedge against oblivion,” as poet Edward Hirsch wrote in a New York Times review. He found an anchor in the here-and-now, especially in a land weighted down by history. Taking refuge in the present liberated him from both the prevailing ideological straitjackets and the weighty historical past.
Reading an Amichai poem is like having a conversation with him. By using a gentle, wry irony, puns, alliteration, and other linguistic gymnastics, Amichai creates a sense of play in his poetry, even when he is dealing with painful subjects. He was influenced by English and German writers, including W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Thus, a sense of irony lightens his verse.
“I inherited a sense of humor and irony from my father, who always used humor and irony as a way of clarifying, clearing, cleaning the world around him,” said Amichai in his interview with The Paris Review.
This is a characteristically Jewish response to suffering and a God who seems more intent on afflicting than saving or comforting. My own maternal grandfather had a similar protest against God and history. My grandfather was a baker from Poland who was orphaned at a young age and ran away from the Russian army, which wanted him to dig trenches in the snow. He made money on the black market in Vienna and bought fake passports to Canada, where he paid to get smuggled over the American border. Like Amichai, my grandfather used humor as both self-defense and affirmation: “God loves me—that’s why he sends me tzuris,” he would say. Or with a thick dollop of irony, “I’m elected. Nu, let God pick someone else for a change.” For my grandfather, just as for Amichai, God was rarely there to save him at a difficult time.
Despite the ironic twists of Amichai’s poems, readers can discover a fleeting sense of innocence. Amichai searches for meaning even though he knows how illusory it is, searches for wholeness even though he’s keenly aware of how fragmented the world has become. Two such instances are when his daughter looks into his eyes “as into windows of a dark house of mourning. / But she sees within it / brides and grooms preparing for the ceremony” (from “My Little Girl Looks”) or when “children record the history of my life / and the history of Jerusalem / with moon chalk on the street” (from “God’s Hand in the World”). For Amichai, these moments offer hope despite the calamities of history, despite the historical events that have fragmented his life and our own.
Being a Reporter in Israel
I got an up-close glimpse of Jewish history when I began reporting in Israel during the first Palestinian intifada. After three years of studying Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University, I got a temporary job at the Associated Press, where I translated hourly news broadcasts and the major news stories of half a dozen Hebrew newspapers. Often, the main radio stations would interview a leading government official, such as the Defense Minister or the Prime Minister, and I would transcribe those interviews, too. I came in at 6:00 am and left twelve hours later. We had to be first with the news and beat out the other news agencies, such as UPI and Reuters. There was no time to think about what we were reporting or try to make sense of it—we just had to file our stories. It wasn’t a matter of meeting a daily deadline; we were on deadline all day.
As a reporter, I was thrust into the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without any preparation. Aside from the non-stop pace, I wasn’t familiar with the names of Palestinian towns, villages and refugee camps. It was also difficult to understand Palestinian stringers who phoned in with the latest clashes, both because of their accent and the line’s static. And I didn’t like the overly simplistic AP style: subject, verb, subject, verb. (“Don’t try to have any panache, just give it to me straight.”) My first three years in Israel seemed like a dream; I was learning Hebrew, studying at the university, and freelancing. After three months, I left the AP job and started to paint apartments to support myself. Another reporting job soon opened up in The New York Times bureau. I debated whether or not to apply but ultimately was hired by Joel Brinkley, the bureau chief and son of the famous television anchor, David Brinkley. Working at the Times was much easier than the AP. Having one deadline per day seemed like a vacation. I wrote some stories—usually cultural, business, or travel pieces—and also provided translations of the Hebrew press, TV, and radio news. Often, I had to replay the radio news clips several times to translate the words exactly. It took a toll on me. More often than not, innocent civilians got killed: an elderly Jew stabbed at a bus stop or a Palestinian woman shot while hanging up laundry.
At the start of the Persian Gulf war, I carried a gas mask kit in Jerusalem like it was a child’s lunchbox. It was absurd, of course, but it was even more so in Jerusalem, a city that symbolized peace yet has been conquered so many times. I still remember when the air raid sirens first went off in the middle of the night. As I got out of bed, I felt sucker punched and doubled-over. Still half-asleep, I muddled into a room that I was supposed to keep sealed against a chemical missile attack. I taped up the doorway behind me and settled down with my telephone, typewriter, canned food and water, flashlight, and transistor radio. A window that I encased in heavy plastic obscured the view of the Israel Museum’s sculpture garden with its L-O-V-E sculpture. I spoke to Mrs. Margolin, who was cooped up in her kitchen with a gas mask on her face. It felt like a scene out of European Jewish history. Wasn’t Israel’s founding supposed to eliminate these kinds of threats? After a couple of weeks of SCUD missile attacks, I was fed up with having to cower like a cat in a closet. Once, I was on a bus that had pulled over during an air raid siren alert and I asked the driver to let me out. He grudgingly opened the door. I walked through the Valley of the Cross at dusk, swinging my gas mask kit and cursing Saddam Hussein at the top of my lungs.
A year later, Brinkley returned to New York. Clyde Haberman, a convivial veteran foreign reporter, came in from the Rome bureau and became the new bureau chief. I was promoted, too. Essentially, I was now the deputy bureau chief in all but name. I had aspired to become a foreign correspondent for years. By the time I got the job, though, I was burned out and needed to rest. I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder without even knowing it. After a few months, I could no longer physically do the job, and asked for a leave of absence. I couldn’t get one, but it didn’t feel like I had a choice; I was emotionally and physically spent. Since I only had a work permit for this particular job, I needed to decide whether to stay or return to the States. It was the hardest decision I ever had to make. That’s why I was so glad when I got a job as the press liaison at the Israeli consulate in Philadelphia. It allowed me to live in Israel during the day and return home to America at night, so to speak. I savored the regular hours from 9:00 am. to 5:00 pm. In fact, the security guard came through every night at 5:00 pm and made everyone leave. I was hired to ghost write op-ed pieces for the consul general, coordinate media coverage of events, and talk to the Jewish community about the conflict in the Middle East.
Meeting Amichai and His Wife
It was through my work at the consulate that I met Amichai; I never expected to meet him. In 1995, we were hosting a conference of young American Jews and I suggested that Amichai be the keynote speaker. Before I knew it, everything had been arranged and I was assigned to escort him and his wife, Hana, around Philadelphia. When I greeted them at 30th Street Station, he was lugging a gigantic, beat-up suitcase and wouldn’t let me help with it.
“We all have to carry our own bags,” he said. Amichai had a knack of perceiving the symbolic in everyday situations and transforming them into dry ironic metaphors.
Later that night about fifty people awaited him at the Gershman Jewish Community Center. He read from a worn, tattered copy of his poems marked with numerous bookmarks. Between poems, he interspersed comments in his deep, hoarse voice about how a particular poem came to be written. As we headed back to the hotel, he lit his pipe. Its aromatic blend of tobacco filled the chill night air. It felt good to be together, just the two of us. I apologized for the relatively small turnout at his reading.
“If I wanted more fans, I would have been a soccer player,” he joked.
We stayed up for a while in the lobby, talking about our experiences in Israel. I was trying to use poetry to come to grips with being a war reporter there. I had not liked poetry in high school; in fact, I had disliked it immensely. But it kept beckoning to me as I searched for a way to deal with my experiences. Amichai encouraged me to continue writing and became like a father figure to me.
“Love won’t save you from war but it can help you deal with the pain,” he said when we were at the hotel. “Poetry can help, too. Words helped me to regain a balance in my life. You have to accept life on its own terms. If you try to fight it, you’ll break.”
Unlike my own father, who was strict and often chided me to “toughen” up, Amichai seemed softer, more open. He had spent his life as a teacher—a short while for elementary school, then for high school and university students—so perhaps he was used to instilling confidence and providing guidance to others. I reluctantly left him in the lobby of the Doubletree Hotel on Broad Street as he smoked his pipe in the lounge and gazed out the window.
I met Amichai and Hana again the next morning for breakfast. I told him about my Grandpa Harry and his protest against God, his wanderings across Europe, and getting smuggled into the States. We took our time, laughing and joking. Before I took them back to the station, I showed them the old section of Philadelphia with its narrow cobblestone streets and red brick houses. He marveled at a city with streets named for trees, such as Chestnut, Walnut, and Spruce. I also took them past Edgar Allan Poe’s house, a brief detour that he especially appreciated. Finally, I circled back to the 30th Street station in plenty of time, parked, and went inside, where he graciously thanked me.
“Here we are again,” he said. “We’ve come full circle.”
“It is probably just another stop for you,” I said, “but I hate to see you go.”
“Why don’t you come visit us in Jerusalem?” he suggested, scribbling down their home address and phone number. “I’ll give you a copy of my newest book and sign it for you.”
“I would like that very much.”
In Search of Amichai in Jerusalem
In 1999, I walked down Amichai’s street in Yemin Moshe, a collection of narrow alleyways on a steep incline, looking for his house number. I paused. I rechecked the slip of paper with the address scribbled on it. Which townhouse was it? The one with the purple bougainvillea climbing up the stone walls? Or the neglected villa with fallen oak leaves swirling in a corner of the entranceway? Unfortunately, many of the homes on Amichai’s street were unnumbered, and no telltale sign revealed which one belonged to him: no shelves of books propped in a window, no family name imprinted on a doorpost. I knocked on doors of a few houses, but no one answered. A few passersby weren’t able to help, either. Finally, I trudged up the stairs and made my way out of the neighborhood. Its blank-faced, empty houses looked out on landmarks of the Old City: the Jaffa Gate, David’s Tower, and the Dormition Abbey. All of these places appeared in his poems, a part of his daily life. Everything was here except him. I walked to a nearby park and leaned against a railing, gazing out at the Judean desert’s mauve hills.
Eventually I returned to the apartment that my wife and I were renting in the old Katamon section of Jerusalem. I called him but the line was disconnected. Disheartened, I phoned some people whom I knew from my reporting days. Finally, a Peace Now activist told me that he was being treated for lymphatic cancer in New York City. I went out for a walk to digest the news. The voice that had enthralled us all was being taken away. I gazed at the Jerusalem pines and clouds. We had, indeed, come full circle, but the ends of the circle did not meet.
A Window Onto Book Art
In 2003, I was walking down 27th Street in New York City when I saw a huge banner, “The Center for Book Arts.” Inside a well-lit studio, I fell in love with the poetry broadsheets, the huge guillotine paper cutters, the old-fashioned book presses and Vandercook printers. I started taking classes in basic bookbinding, miniature books, pop-ups, Japanese bookbinding, and other subjects. I took a class at NYU about starting one’s own press. In 2005, I founded a small poetry press. The name, Turtle Light Press, reflects our need to slow down and share one another’s light. In 2007, I suggested an edition of Amichai’s work to Hana. I wanted to focus on poems about his parents, wife, and children. She liked the idea of a limited edition but did not want it to be about his family.
“People will interpret the poems too autobiographically,” she said. “I won’t give you permission.”
A bit disheartened, I resolved to read through many of Amichai’s collections. When I came across a short poem entitled “Eternal Window,” it resonated emotionally and worked in terms of graphic design for me, too.
Within a garden I once heard
a song or an old blessing.
And above the dark trees
an eternal window is always lit
in memory of the faces that were in it,
themselves a memory of another lit window.
The six-line poem intrigued me because of the way one memory was endlessly tucked inside another. It was like each memory receded back in time to a garden—perhaps the Garden of Eden. A ner tamid, an eternal lamp of a synagogue, is converted into a halon tamid, an eternal window with people in it. In fact, the poem itself is ambiguous in terms of whether or not it is one or many faces in the window because the Hebrew word, panim, could be read as either singular or plural, and the source of light is not God’s presence but the memory of loved ones.
I became mesmerized by the idea of windows in Amichai’s poetry: a bus window, a boarded up window, a shattered window, arched Jerusalem windows. Light could be pouring in through a window, a landscape could be visible in the distance or a poet could be writing without looking out the window at all. After combing through his poetry, I selected eighteen window-oriented poems to reflect Amichai’s name, which means “My people lives!” In Hebrew, the letters have numerical equivalents and the word live, chai, adds up to the number eighteen.
In 2009, when I visited Hana with my wife and daughter, she ushered us into the living room, where Amichai often gazed out the arched windows or stepped onto the balcony to look at the ramparts of the Old City. It was hard to believe that I was in his house. He moved here when it was no-man’s land, a poor neighborhood abutting the Jordanian border from which shots were often fired. The valley that stretched out below, Gai Ben-Hinnom, was actually the biblical Gehenna, or Hell. Today, classical and rock concerts are held there in the summer. Wild rosemary bushes and dirt paths zigzag up the hillside opposite. As my daughter did a jigsaw puzzle, Hana served us tea and chocolate babka.
Hana liked the idea of a book that focused on windows. We discussed how it might work and which poems I might use. She allowed me to take photographs of the view of the Old City from their living room. All I could think of was that he would look out the same window with his own children on his lap.
“When my children were younger, I could see the wall [of the Old City and] David’s Tower through their diapers (pre-Pampers days), ” wrote Amichai in an unedited holograph of a 1988 article, “Memories of Israel,” that he did for Diversion, a journal for physicians at leisure. “My children played in a park to the west and sometimes they would come and say, ‘Please, Daddy, our ball fell into Herod’s tomb. Help us get it out.’”
Amichai just wanted to live an ordinary life like everyone else. While he decried the image of the poet as a fiery prophet, Amichai participated in many protests as a private citizen. He objected to the forced eviction of Christians from the Galilee villages Biram and Ikrit in 1948, took part in many Peace Now demonstrations including one against the slaughter of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, and lobbied in favor of equal army service for both secular and religiously observant Israelis. On the tumultuous nature of Israeli life, he said in an interview in 1982 with Esther Fuchs for her book, Encounters With Israeli Authors, “Sometimes, I feel the need to flee, to escape to a quiet and peaceful place, where I can listen to my own voice. When you live in Israel, [though], it is impossible to stand by and watch the scene as an outsider.”
Amichai’s View of Poetry
A poet’s home is in language, and words are a window into a poet’s heart. For Amichai, the function of poetry is to provide a way to comfort himself. Given the harsh realities that he faced, he needed a means to keep his balance, and poetry fulfilled that role.
“A poem is like a lullaby that you sing in order to calm yourself,” he wrote in the 1965 Ha’aretz interview, Between the Pen and the Paper. “There are poems that if I hadn’t written them, I would have been completely lost.”
As Amichai said to Fuchs for her book, Encounters With Israeli Authors, poetry is a release because “it helps me locate my pain and transform it into words.” He added, “It is my instinctive way of touching a wound. It also organizes the world for me. It puts some order into the ongoing chaos. It gives me something to hold on to, ‘meaning,’ if you like.”
“I measure my sensibilities against the objects which I find around me,” he continued. “Children do it all the time. You hear them say, ‘I love you like the sky, like the sun.’ The impulse to compare your inner world to the world around you is very natural, and this is how a metaphor is born. The basic thing is to establish a contact between time, space and words.”
For Amichai, metaphor is a way to escape loneliness, to reach out in a world that all too often tries to destroy or, at the least, confound individuals. “I think metaphor is a reaching out. We are groping for words,” he said in an interview in 1986 with David Montenegro in the American Poetry Review. “So we need something, again something real . . . You want to keep your head above water, so words become a kind of, I would say, solid thing, which you can hold on to in order to make yourself understood.”
Like T.S. Eliot, Amichai believed that poetry should reflect the speech of his generation and have a down-to-earth, colloquial tone. He combines fragments of daily speech, objects from his life and metaphors into a mosaic of images. It’s as if he is waiting by a window and then racing out to gather up fragments and piece them together in a poem. He easily leaps in time from his childhood in Wurzburg to being a schoolteacher in Haifa, from fighting in the Negev to falling in and out of love, from being a son to raising his own children.
Yes, Amichai experienced the horror of war, but he is always saying, as it were, don’t forget the softness. In fact, in his interview with IETV, he was asked about criticism of his work in which it’s said that he’s soft. “The world is not soft so I’m the opposite,” he replied. “I inject softness into daily life. It’s the only possibility—even in the army.”
As he wrote in this excerpt from The Travels of Benjamin of Tudelo, a lengthy poem that tapped events in his own life:
All the days of his life, my father tried to make me
a man, but I always slip back
into the softness of thighs and longings . . .
At his window, Amichai is surrounded by loved ones and by the familiarity of home. Poised on the threshold, he contemplates what lies beyond the window: his unfulfilled longings, his yearnings for other times and places, for people long gone.
“Every poem to me is a lament,” he said in The Lannan Literary Series. “Even happy poems are about something which you don’t have any more, which you miss . . . That’s why most love poems are sad. Because we remember something and we long for something that we don’t have any more.”
We no longer have Amichai, either, but we have his poetry—and for me, Amichai will always be there, gazing out his Jerusalem window.
Note: The English translations of Amichai poems and poem excerpts are reprinted by permission of Hana Amichai. All of the translations of poems, articles and interviews for this article were done by Rick Black.