WHAT MAKES POETS great to begin with is a living presence we feel in their words, the way we can “read” the body and the voice of the poet. That is why it is so hard to believe it is now fifteen years since the death of Israel’s greatest poet, Yehuda Amichai. His adopted Hebrew name Amichai—he was born in Germany in 1924 as Ludwig Pfeuffer—which means “my people live.” This name he made for himself also became prophetic because through his poetry his people surely live. Working with and helping to mold the freshly born language of modern Hebrew, he gave poetic voice to a “new-old” nation. For Israelis, he spoke as a national poet, but his work took on a life beyond that.
Rare are the poets whose vitality crosses over from one language to another, as Amichai’s did, from Hebrew to English. There are many reasons for this successful migration. But for those of us in the diaspora, most basic was our own need to receive him. If Walt Whitman was right that great poets need great audiences, that quality of need for a Jewish voice like Yehuda Amichai’s remains palpable. It is a longing. This is why this new and generous collection seems so welcome.
Robert Alter, the scholar of Hebrew literature, translator, and editor of this collection, is right to say in his introduction that the poet’s huge success in English may have created an over-simplified image of his work. Alter takes pains to explore some of the inevitable mistakes made over the years. He points to a rendering of Amichai’s “shatnez’ as “linsey-woolsey”—as if the earthy Israeli were suddenly a New England Puritan (I can almost forgive this lapse because it made me laugh out loud). The most delicate things of a culture just can’t be brought over—but one can be extremely grateful for how much Alter and the other esteemed translators, among them Stephen Mitchell and Chana Bloch—were able to recover for us.
Yet Yehuda Amichai himself, who with Ted Hughes translated some of these works, counseled us not to “get excited, for a translation/must not get excited.” “Quietly let us pass down/words from one to another, one tongue to other lips/unawares.”
The fact is, errors or not, his words were passed down in an intimate way. Almost alone among Israeli poets of his generation, Amichai made a tremendous impact in English. The reasons for this success have much to do with qualities that make his poetry not only explicitly Jewish in content, but intrinsically Jewish in method.
An obvious source of his universal appeal is Amichai’s frequent resort to Biblical material—often for ironic purposes. In this he captures the sensibility of a modern Jewish consciousness that cannot quite forget its past. It would be imprecise to say that Amichai makes Biblical allusions. That implies there was ever any separation between him and the Tanakh or the siddur which there was not. Rather the Tanakh and the siddur and Jewish culture in general were in his blood and breath. For him Judaism was not an –ism, it was a force in his nervous system, something electric and familiar and immediate that could be brought to bear at any point of time. It would have been unnatural for him to allude to what was already at hand.
We can see the fusion of Biblical overtone and erotic presence in “Jacob and the Angel” (translated by Robert Alter), which centers as so many of his poems do, on the intensity of romantic encounter.
Toward morning she sighed and grabbed him
so, and defeated him
And he grabbed her so, and defeated her.
The two of them knew that the hold brings death.
The Biblical story of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel suffuses the poem. The “hold” is a lover’s embrace—a last early morning embrace after an active night of love—and yet it is also the hold of the angel on Jacob’s thigh at dawn and the hold of Jacob on the angel—the hold that brings injury, but also may be a blessing. In Genesis, the angel asks Jacob’s name but will not tell him his own name. Likewise, in the poem the partners have agreed not to share their names; but then this pact is broken:
After they called her suddenly from above
As one calls a little girl from her game in the yard.
And he knew her name and he let her go.
Yehuda Amichai’s poems, with their seemingly simple surfaces, also engage us in a mystery of depth: of how earthy love is an opening to soul, how the need of the body can also be a door to the holy. In this poem, we see how a woman, or a man, could become a part-time angel, and still be a person.
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Tikkun 2017 Volume 32, Number 1: 65-70