The Full Severity of Compassion
The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai
Chana Kronfeld



“Be an Other’s, Be an Other”

A Personal Perspective*

What is left for one
to do except renounce oneself in joy
donate one’s blood and kidneys
donate one’s heart and soul to others
be an other’s, be an other.
—Yehuda Amichai, “Deganya”1

I. A Personal Perspective

My first meeting with Yehuda Amichai, in the fall of 1970, was what we call in Hebrew a chavaya metakenet, a “corrective” or “healing experience,” one that mends (brings a bit of tikkun to) a messy or unpleasant earlier experience. Overeager and all too young, I was trying to put together a series called “Rendezvous with an Author” (Pgisha im sofer) for Israeli Educational Television, which would allow high school students to meet with “cutting-edge” Hebrew writers in a relaxed roundtable discussion of the writers’ work. I was still reeling from a failed attempt to produce the series’ pilot: an author whose stories I adored was so sadistically cruel to the young students that we had to stop the taping! And then it came to me—Yehuda Amichai, of course. Having gotten into the habit of reading his poetry daily for my own emotional sustenance since age fifteen, I was sure: Yes, Amichai would be the one to start with. He would know how to connect with the students and put them at ease; he would be able to talk about the most complex poetic issues with utter simplicity and without egocentric affectation. I had never met him before, but from everything I heard, he was invested in not playing the role of the Great Poet—even though by 1970 his status as the most revolutionary, indeed the most important poet of the Statehood Generation (dor ha-mdina) had solidified and he was acquiring an international reputation. He was synonymous with unpretentiousness. And indeed, in his Everyman appearance and unaffected manner, Amichai proceeded to treat the students as his equals, joking his way into all our hearts, and thus the series was off to an exciting start. That experience was the beginning of my lifelong friendship with the man and dedication to study and teach the work of the poet.

Over the years, as I became increasingly engaged in literary theory, I discovered that almost every theoretical issue in which I found myself interested—from intertextuality and metaphor, through modernism and gender, to larger questions such as the principles underlying literary historiography and the ontological status of aesthetic categories in poetry—all these issues large and small were ones on which Amichai’s poetry, in its subject matter or rhetoric, articulated a profound, indeed often a revolutionary position. I would try to theorize from—rather than into—his poetry. More often than not, I found that the aesthetic, philosophical, and political insights embedded in his verbal art compelled me to rethink quite a few of the views dominant in various changing critical fashions and trends.

I wanted to start with this personal story in order to situate clearly and openly what is at stake for me in this study. To put it bluntly: the revolutionary Amichai has been occluded by his very canonicity, even though his work—its apparent simplicity notwithstanding—presents a coherent poetic system, not unlike the work of Blake, Yeats, and Stevens. Amichai’s oeuvre—like Brecht’s and Auden’s—offers an unrelenting critique of the dominant ideology of its time. Because for him a critique of ideology engenders a deeply empathic affinity for “the lonely people” or “the lovers,”2 who regularly fall victim to the manipulations of institutional power, Amichai’s oppositional stance has been all too easily ignored by defenders and detractors alike. It is important for me, therefore, to show that this empathy itself must not be mistaken for some vague, universalizing neoliberalism. Through a close reading of his poetry I have come to see the relational, empathic mode of Amichai’s poetry, the commitment to “be an other’s / be an other,” as a direct complement of his sustained struggle against historically specific dehumanizing systems of privilege and exclusion.

Ironically, Amichai’s great popularity and success also brought about an odd marginalization. In Israel especially, I now encounter many young progressive intellectuals who have come to reject the appropriated, co-opted, and watered-down Amichai they were raised on. For them, Amichai’s poetry is no longer readable independent of the context in which they were introduced to it: poems that had to be memorized and shallowly interpreted for matriculation exams, recited at assemblies, and declaimed with great pathos at any number of official celebrations and commemorations, in total disregard for their complexity, irony, and uncompromising critical edge. In fact, Amichai’s poetic egalitarianism itself may have resulted in the ambivalent, at times even begrudging critical reception of his work among Israeli literati, despite (or perhaps because of) his immense popularity among common readers, his profound influence on three generations of Hebrew writers, and his unprecedented international acclaim. Somewhat differently, but ultimately with a similar result, I find that the great popularity of his poetry in the United States has been accompanied by some readerly obtuseness to what this poetry actually says and does. Amichai has often found his way into the Jewish American prayer book and rabbinical sermon, but not because of a prevailing interest in his iconoclastic engagement with Jewish sacred texts—although, thankfully, that type of countertraditional reading is becoming increasingly “kosher,” leading a growing number of “alternative” Jewish American congregations and their rabbis to read Amichai’s poetry for its irreverence, feminism, and critique of the establishment tout court. All too frequently, however, have I seen Amichai’s poems embraced by American readers who, knowing very little about the sacred texts he takes apart, remain unaware of—and uninterested in—his resistant, anticlerical poetics and are lulled into complacency by the apparent simplicity of his poems’ surface. The mere reference to prayers, God, and the Bible in his poetry has qualified him for the role of a religious Jewish poet laureate for the Jewish American community. Thus, Amichai’s poetry is not infrequently used to provide readers in the United States with something textual to hold onto, either as a marker of some fuzzy, feel-good Jewish identity or, more generally, for its pleasantly vague sense of Old World tradition.

For both Israeli and American audiences, I want to make the experimental, iconoclastic, and critical Amichai readable again, without marginalizing his empathic “postcynical humanism”—his own poignant term.3 The Amichai I started reading daily in my teens wrote about topics that had never before been considered worthy of poetry in the Holy Tongue, from housing projects to one-night stands. In his philosophical explorations of the quotidian, he was one of the first to boldly make poetic use of newly minted Hebrew slang and to invoke intertextually not only the Bible but also “subcanonical” popular culture—from children’s language to bureaucratese and legalese, and from movie captions to pop songs. What’s more, he would often—Heaven forfend!—juxtapose these lowly expressions with allusions to sacred texts, refusing to privilege the latter over the former. Thus, for example, the early poem titled “Jacob and the Angel” (first published in 1963) uses a stylistic collage of children’s Hebrew, military slang, and an allusion to a pop song from the 1956 Sinai Campaign to transform a single night of intimacy between a man and a woman into a contemporary equivalent of the sacred encounter between the human and the divine. And it is—horror of horrors—the woman who is the angel in this encounter!4 The outrage early critics expressed toward his work had as much to do with his irreverent style as with his thematics and his critique of ideology, be it clerical or nationalist (ideology that in those days—as again in our own—went by the name of “values,” arakhim).

II. The Book: An Overview

How then did this revolutionary poet, described by critics and politicians as heretical, even dangerous, in the first two decades of Israeli statehood, become identified with the establishment a mere decade after writing poems such as “Jacob and the Angel”? Arguing that revolutionary poetry is indeed too “dangerous” to be left alone to do its work, the first chapter of this book deals with the appropriation of Amichai’s work by the same institutions of authority that his poetry struggles against.5 I analyze some of the ways he has been misread both in Israel and in the United States in order to rigorously interrogate these misreadings not simply as mistakes that should be corrected, but as symptomatic expressions of the processes of institutional appropriation and readerly interpellation6—processes that are always at work in canon formation and in the hegemonic taming of canonical writers.

The Amichai I wish to reclaim in this study is the poet for whom simplicity and accessibility are serious ethical principles, guidelines for a poetic effect and a verbal art that can be part of the fabric of everyday life, not simply the mark of “a playful poet” writing “easy,” “unstructured” verse who has “no worldview,” as some scholars have argued, mistaking his egalitarian imperative for a lack of philosophical gravitas in his work. This is the poet who insisted that all his books in Hebrew have the same small format (10 × 18 centimeters) so they would fit in a reader’s back pocket—something ordinary people could take along on their arduous journey through workaday reality. He practices an ethics and aesthetics of what he calls “the wisdom of camouflage,” since flaunting “the splendor” of artistic vision is as dangerous as leaving the lights on during an air raid.7 Hence, the commitment not to “stand out,” to write “Not Like a Cypress” (the title of one of his most famous early poems) “but like the grass, in thousands of cautious green exits.”8

In chapter 2, I outline the major principles that underlie Amichai’s poetics, principles that focus on the state of beynayim or “in-between-ness” as the privileged yet endangered site of poetic subjects–cum–ordinary human beings. These are often metonymically represented by the lovers, or by a nonnational “we” made up of “self” and “other” (man and woman, Jew and Arab) who try to break down socially constructed binary divisions and become “an other’s” without erasing the self.9 For when one donates blood or a kidney (as in the first two images cited in the epigraph), one’s embodied self lives on, even as it sustains the life of another; and when one becomes an organ donor after death (a fresh figurative take on the poems’ afterlife as part of the life of future readers), one’s body (of work) vicariously continues to live through the other. Note that linguistically in Hebrew, body and soul—of which only the first can of course be literally donated—are both perceived as embodied: nefesh (soul) in biblical Hebrew is the soul-as-throat. And indeed for Amichai, “what is not of the body will not be remembered” (ma she-lo shel guf lo yizakher), as he says in the last line of his poem “Hayi shalom” (translated by Stephen Mitchell as “Farewell”).10 This central intersubjective—and metapoetic—principle is wryly encapsulated by the title of Amichai’s early poem (turned popular hit in Israel) “The Two of Us Together and Each of Us Alone,” which makes philosophical poetry out of the legalese of a rental contract (the Hebrew equivalent of “the party of the first part and the party of the second part”).11 Though they are invariably crushed between “the grindstones” of world and national history,12 or between the forces of politics and religion,13 these subjects continue to try to make a life for themselves in that tight, pressured space, or in the brief temporal interim Chana Bloch has brilliantly rendered as the “twilight betweenlight” (beynayim arbayim).14 For Amichai this spatial and temporal beynayim (“in-between-ness”) is not only—or even mainly—a theme. Throughout the book I describe an array of systematic correlations between liminality as the governing feature of his poetic worldview and many of his signature rhetorical practices such as juxtaposition, intertextuality, and metaphor, all of which map two domains together without ignoring their distinctness. Liminality as the product of perfect or imperfect rhetorical and intersubjective mapping is thus an organizing principle that permeates all levels of the text, but it also extends to the relationship between poet and reader, and between the contemporary writer and his textual precursors, which—in Amichai’s case—are often traditional Jewish sources, their interpretive legacies, and their diverse literary or exegetical genres.

Chapter 3 thus takes on the radical intertextual ethos that forms an important part of both Amichai’s stylistic signature and his view of poetry and the poet. His intertextual practices famously consist of iconoclastic allusions to sacred texts and parodic uses of traditional Jewish genres, from biblical poetry and narrative to rabbinical exegesis, and from midrash to liturgy. I ask: What makes it possible for Amichai to use these sources so extensively, subjecting them to irreverent close-readings-as-rewritings without producing a hermetic and exclusionary poetic surface, even when these sources are no longer familiar to many of his readers? How, in other words, does his complex practice of intertextual collage coexist, in contradistinction to Eliot’s, with an ever-increasing commitment to lucidity and readerly accessibility? I then proceed to retheorize intertextuality through Amichai’s rhetorical practice and its thematization in his work, both of which call into question contemporary Western theories in the field. Using Amichai’s unique combination of Jewish and matrilineal notions of literary tradition and (inter)textual exegesis, I engage critically with Harold Bloom’s model of “the anxiety of influence,” a model that focuses on a bourgeois-individualist, male-Oedipal struggle between “strong poets.” But I also critique the poststructuralist view of intertextuality as an anonymous tissue of citations through Amichai’s reinscription of a historically inflected human agent as central to any process of recycling and recasting a culture’s precursor texts. This agency, though “censored and pasted and limited,”15 offers a possibility of resisting interpellation by the mere act of changing the words of its subjugating command, as Judith Butler has taught us. Through Amichai’s poetics, I read Butler’s critique of Althusser as a theory of Jewish radical intertextuality.16

One of the most intriguing intertextual practices privileged in Amichai’s poetry is translation, a practice I am personally implicated in for better or worse as the cotranslator—with Chana Bloch—of his last book, Open Closed Open. In chapter 4, I examine Amichai’s theorizing of the work of translation as a model for the poet’s own in-betweenness, as well as for the translator/poet’s inescapable secondariness. For Amichai, I argue, the fact that the poet, like the translator, holds an immanently mediational position, always recycling the words of others, “words [that] accompany my life,”17 is a source of comfort rather than anxiety. This view of the poet’s role sheds a new light on contemporary theories of translation as cultural negotiation and its attendant focus on the asymmetrical power relations between source and target language. I read closely Amichai’s early and late poems about translation as celebrating the imperfect “recycling of words,” in which translation is described as the epitome of all poetic intertextuality and, ultimately, of the creative process itself. Through Amichai’s ecology of language, I interrogate the cultural and ideological blindspots behind the numerous mistranslations that Amichai has been subjected to—again, not in order to advocate some correct or perfect rendition, but rather to suggest the ways in which they function as meaningful symptoms of what Gayatri Spivak has termed “the politics of translation.”18

Metaphor (and figurative language tout court) is another articulation of Amichai’s principle of in-between-ness, which has a vital significance within his poetic system, far exceeding its rhetorical role. Metaphor, for Amichai as for Wallace Stevens, provides a tenuous yet necessary bridge across semantic and conceptual distances, creating a tentative rapport between reality and the imagination. In chapter 5 my discussion focuses on the ways in which novel poetic metaphor acts as the central marker of liminality, the hyphen of survival and resistance: “The pressure of my life brings my date of birth closer / to the date of my death, as in history books / where the pressure of history has brought / those two numbers together next to the name of a dead king / with only a hyphen between them. // I hold onto that hyphen with all my might / like a life line, I live on it.”19 Metaphor for Amichai must never erase that hyphen, the marker of the disparate domains that it brings together (hence his preference for simile!), even while it strives to make the gap between these domains productive of meaning. In highlighting the ways Amichai’s metaphors resist the erasure of difference, I enlist his poetry to critique some poststructuralist views of figurative language that still have purchase today, especially Paul de Man’s attack on metaphor. Retheorizing metaphor from Amichai’s poetic practice, I present an alternative model based on a historicized, context-sensitive reworking of prototype semantics, which builds upon the work of Eleanor Rosch, George Lakoff, and Eve Sweetser and focuses on the cognitive-linguistic notion of an “image schema.” I explain how Amichai’s images, while as novel and surprising as those of any seventeenth-century Metaphysical poet, nevertheless strike us as completely “right,” as visually and experientially familiar, because of their perceptually primary basis as well as the extensive and rigorous mapping they provide for the distant source and target domains.

“My divided fate [gorali ha-mefulag] has willed it so that I should be planted in between two generations, a sort of double agent [meragel kaful],”20 Amichai declared in a 1968 lecture. In chapter 6 I discuss the ways in which Amichai extols the poet’s freedom to oscillate between generational trends and poetic styles, while cherishing his outsider role and calling into question the underlying assumptions behind the generational model itself. His self-description as an intergenerational “double agent” has presented a real problem for normative Hebrew literary historiography, with its teleological, unidirectional notions of a literary lineage, and has occasioned an impassioned debate. Far from being just a poetico-political joke, this literally subversive statement also articulates Amichai’s post-Marxist critique of teleological historicism; his aversion to chronological order, represented by the “Gods of Order [elohey ha-seder] of the Seder night” (the Seder is the Passover meal but literally “seder” is the ordinary Hebrew term for “order,” hence: “the night of order”)21; and his preference for a simultaneous representation of personal and collective temporalities either as a fragmentary “archaeology of the self” or as a fault-line geology (Now in the Earthquake [Akhshav ba-ra'ash] is the title of his 1969 book). This is the background against which I explore Amichai’s resistance to the normative historiographic narrative of Hebrew literature, as well his refusal to reject his literary predecessors, a rejection prescribed in the manifestos of the self-proclaimed leader of the Statehood Generation, Natan Zach, who famously led a rebellion against the “Troika” of the moderna poets of the 1930s and 40s, Avraham Shlonsky, Leah Goldberg, and especially Natan Alterman. In this context I tease out the tensions between Amichai’s centrality for Israeli and Western consumers of literary culture and his self-consciously marginal association with established literary movements of Israeli and international modernism. I examine in some detail the group poetics of Likrat, the first Statehood Generation modernist circle in Israel, its belated affiliation with Anglo-American imagism, and Amichai’s ambivalent position toward and within it. This leads me to reexamine critically some common views of the concepts of a literary period or movement, developing further a project I undertook in my earlier work.22 Amichai’s poetry is then discussed in its troubled (multiple, yet partial) affinities with a variety of transnational literary and cultural “isms.” How, I ask, does the critique of trend affiliation, as theorized by Amichai’s explicit and implicit poetics, make us rethink Zach’s largely accepted account of Statehood Generation poetry? Ultimately, if it is acknowledged that Amichai is not alone in rejecting Zach’s normative account but is in fact joined by the other major poets of dor ha-mdina, Dahlia Ravikovitch, Dan Pagis, and David Avidan, both in inscribing the political in their work and in refusing to reject their modernist predecessors, what alternative historiographic narrative of this generation’s poetics is then allowed to emerge?

III. An Aside on Amichai’s Fiction and the Writing of the Shoah

Although Amichai published two novels, a collection of short stories, and numerous dramatic works (both for the stage and radio), as well as children’s books and translations (most notably of works by Else Lasker Schüler and Rolf Hochhuth), my book focuses exclusively on the poetic oeuvre.23 Amichai’s avant-garde lyrical fiction still awaits the scholarly attention it so richly deserves. I can only hope that serious research will be done sooner rather than later, especially on his challenging 1963 Lo me-akhshav, lo mi-kan (Not of This Time, Not of This Place), the first postmodernist Hebrew novel.24 This book remains an extraordinary, wide-ranging work of experimental fiction, featuring two parallel plots—and the same protagonist—and taking place simultaneously in Jerusalem and in Germany. It provides one of the first challenges in Hebrew fiction to the then-dominant belief that the Shoah can only be represented in the documentary or realist mode. In that sense, Not of This Time, Not of This Place is the precursor that provides the conditions of possibility for David Grossman’s great antirealist Shoah novel, Ayen erekh ahava (See Under: Love).25 Furthermore, as Michael André Bernstein has pointed out, Amichai’s novel—like his poetry—refuses to fetishize the Shoah through either the theological model of apocalyptic history26 or “backshadowing”—the tendency to blame in hindsight the victims who didn’t see it coming.27

Unlike Nili Scharf Gold, I find that Amichai’s poetry and fiction from their earliest moments engage profoundly both with the Jewish trauma of the Shoah and with the Germans’ willingness to surrender power to the institutional “super-organism” of the fascist state, which made the genocide possible.28 These, in fact, are some of the central ethical and political concerns that unify Amichai’s poetry with his fiction and motivate his unrelenting critique of ideology. These concerns are often expressed stylistically and structurally rather than through direct statement or in the linear, documentary fashion characteristic of writing on the Shoah up until the 1980s; but the Shoah informs every aspect of his verbal art, poetics, and ethics.

IV. Amichai’s Life in Poetry29

Amichai’s poetry has left its mark not only on Hebrew and Anglo-American literature, for it has been translated into forty languages so far, frequently via the English translation. While I have had to limit my study to his poetry’s Hebrew and English receptions and articulations, there is work to be done on the various “Amichais” these many translations have produced.

Amichai has been described by Robert Alter as one of the greatest poets of our time,30 and he is widely considered the greatest Jewish poet since Paul Celan (with whom he developed a friendship and exchanged a couple of important letters).31 Interestingly, despite his Everyman persona, internationally renowned poets often use rarified regal terms to describe Amichai’s achievement. His contemporary, the noted Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, wrote in a poem dedicated to Amichai: “You are a king, and I’m only a prince.”32 And Pulitzer Prize–winning American poet Anthony Hecht proclaimed: “Amichai’s splendid poems, refined and cast in the desperate foundries of the Middle East . . . exhibit a majestic and Biblical range of the topography of the soul. . . . He is a psalmist utterly modern, yet movingly traditional.”33 A poet’s poet in spite of his populist poetics, Amichai’s work won the admiration of many major poets when they were first introduced to it in the mid-1960s at international poetry festivals in Spoleto and London, where he read alongside Auden, Neruda, Pound, Ginsberg, Berryman, Ungaretti, and others.34 In their 1976 anthology of late-modernist international poets, Charles Simic and Mark Strand include Amichai among a select group of “mythological poets” and single him out—alongside Vasko Popa—as a poet who has been more influential “on young poets in the United States . . . than Stevens, Eliot, or any other of their American forbearers [sic].”35 Former British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, a longtime friend of Amichai’s, declared, in a year-end poll in the Times Literary Supplement in 1997, taken less than a year before his own death: “I’ve become more than ever convinced that [Amichai] is one of the biggest, most essential, durable poetic voices of this past century. . . . One of the real treasures.”36 While Hughes is often credited with making Amichai’s work known to English and American readers,37 it was actually Hughes’s second, common-law wife, Assia Gutmann, whose brilliant translations of Amichai’s early poetry first presented him in English in book form, shortly before she too, like Sylvia Plath, committed suicide.38 Amichai’s international reputation, which—as I have suggested—began to solidify during the 1960s, was expressed, inter alia, in numerous prestigious titles and awards, from honorary doctorates to induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1986) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1997), all of which he accepted with his characteristic mixture of delight, humility, and a heaping dose of self-deprecating humor. At the time of his death on September 22, 2000, after a heroic struggle with lymphoma,39 Amichai had been a perennial finalist for the Nobel Prize in Literature and had won numerous international awards, a sampling of which includes the Malraux Prize (France, 1994), the Literary Lion Award (New York, 1994), an Honor Citation from Assiut University (Egypt, 1996),40 and the Bjørnson Prize (Norway, 1996). He was awarded all the major Israeli literary prizes, including the Shlonsky Prize (1961), Brenner Prize (1969), Bialik Prize (1976), and Agnon Prize (1986), and most notably in the Israel Prize, the highest national honor (1982).41

None of these international and national honors made Amichai less personally available to his readers. The Yehuda Amichai Papers at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library are filled with letters from ordinary people who shared their troubles and joys with him. On more than one occasion I heard him take phone calls on his publicly listed home line from readers who never hesitated to contact him. And many people who would run into him in the streets of Jerusalem have stories about friendly conversations with the poet they did not personally know.

Yehuda Amichai (né Ludwig Pfeuffer) was born on May 3, 1924 in the town of Würzburg in southern Germany to an Orthodox Jewish family. The German Jewish state school he attended fostered bilingual and bicultural education, allowing him at an early age to engage in the textual study of Hebrew, which he would pursue and deepen even after he renounced religious life as an adult. Amichai would always wistfully emphasize that his childhood Hebrew studies were sponsored by the German state, invoking the tragic gap between pre-1933 Jewish existence in Germany and the horrors that were to follow. In an interview with me, Amichai described it as follows:

I learned to read and write Hebrew in the first grade, even though it was a German-speaking school. I had already learned a bit how to speak Hebrew in kindergarten, but the language of play was German. . . . My elementary school was a German public school which Jewish children attended, not a Jewish school.42

His father, Friedrich, was a farmer’s son, who made a living as a notions merchant. Friedrich was a decorated World War I veteran of the German army and a Jewish community activist, but he also acquired a knowledge of German poetry despite the family’s strict orthodoxy. The father’s love is one of the strongest sources of inspiration for Amichai’s poetry, and a central motif in his work. Indeed, the father’s tenderness becomes a model for what Amichai describes in a late poem as the traces of the female in the male and “the yearning of a woman in a man.”43 This figuration of the father provides the poetry with a decidedly diasporic ideal of an alternative, “soft” masculinity that is very different from the normative Israeli one. Dan Miron describes Amichai’s rejection of militantly Oedipal models of literary lineage as related to the fact that this is “a revolutionary with a father” (mahapekhan im aba).44 But the father, despite being an active, affiliated Orthodox Jew and—until Hitler’s rise to power—a devoted German army veteran, also instilled in his son a profound suspicion about any institutional power. In another interview with me Amichai describes this as “something very paradoxical.” He explains:

My father . . . always warned me about the establishment and it made no difference whether it was the rabbis—the religious establishment—or the political one. “Don’t take those speechifiers seriously . . . question them; question anything that claims to be in the name of Great Ideas.” He simply didn’t realize how far I would take this dictum (I took him too seriously . . .), because for him there was just a single Great Idea which he never questioned, and that was God.45

Despite his family’s generations-long roots in Germany, Friedrich decided to move the family to Palestine in 1936, when harassment by the Nazis became increasingly threatening. Amichai’s childhood love, Ruth Hanover, daughter of the local rabbi, remained behind: because she was disabled, she was refused an affidavit by the British and U.S. immigration authorities even though her father and his family were granted entry to the United States in 1940.46 Ruth perished in the Sobibor death camp in Poland in 1943, after numerous failed attempts by her father as well as by Amichai’s father to rescue her.47 Amichai’s poetry consistently resists making political capital of the Shoah, as Israeli politicians are wont to do (“I Wasn’t One of the Six Million” is the title of one of the sections in his last book).48 The figure of “Little Ruth” (Ruth ha-ktana), however, remains a haunting presence throughout his poems and fiction, and is the subject of some of his most poignant kinot (the Jewish genre of the lament), culminating in the alliterative kinot in Open Closed Open that explicitly—though metonymically—link the genocide with the “Othering” of one group of human beings by another: “Ruth Ruth Ruth, little girl from my youth—/ now she’s a stand-in for Otherness” (Ruth Ruth Ruth, ha-yalda min ha-yaldut / akhshav hi netzigat ha-acherut); “Otherness killed Ruth” (ha-acherut harga et Ruth); and finally, Amichai’s own irreverent and poignant version of the Kaddish prayer for Ruth: “Ruth Ruth, who died in my youth, now the two giants, / Yitgadal and Yitkadash, Magnified and Sanctified, / will watch over your death / in place of the two other giants, May He Bless and May He Keep, / who failed to watch over your life” (Ruth Ruth, she-hikdamt le-fanay la-mut, akhshav / shney ha-anakim, yitgadal ve-yitkadash yishmeru al motekh / bi-mkom shney ha-anakim, yevarekhekha ve-yishmerekha, / she-nikhshelu ve-lo shamru al chayayikh).49

Arriving in 1936 in the mostly secular and predominantly socialist Jewish Yishuv in Palestine as a religious preteen from a petit bourgeois German Jewish home, Ludwig Pfeuffer had not only a name that was distinctly “uncool,” but an appearance that stuck out like a sore thumb. Amichai describes the grotesque figure that he cut with a mixture of self-irony and compassion in the opening lines of his great surrealist autobiographical poema,50 “The Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela” (“Mas'ot Binyamin ha-acharon mi-Tudela”), which moves nonlinearly among the speaker’s childhood memories; his present sense of a post-1967 Middle Eastern apocalypse; and a fragmentary collage of historically important characters, from Josephus to Bialik, and of biographically significant figures, from his protective parents to the God of his childhood. The speaker addresses the child that he was in the second person, drawing a tragicomic analogy between the arrival of the pathetic-looking boy and the world poised on the brink of disaster both in the 1930s and in his own present moment:

. . . you came
in your twelfth year, in the Thirties
of the world, with short pants that reached down to your knees,
tassels dangling from your undershawl
sticky between your legs in the sweltering land.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Clocks were set, according
to the beats of the round heart, train tracks
according to the capacity of children’s feet.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Tanks from America, fighter planes from France, Russian
jet-doves, armored chariots from England, Sisera’s regiments
who dried the swamps with their corpses, a flying Massada,
Beitar slowly sinking, Yodfat on wheels, . . .
Massada won’t fall again, won’t fall again,
won’t fall again, Massada, won’t . . .

— — — — — — — — — — — — — —

M.I.R.V., S.W.A.T., I.C.B.M., I.B.M.,
P.O.W., R.I.P., A.W.O.L.,
S.N.A.F.U., I.N.R.I., J.D.L., L.B.J.,
E.S.P., I.R.S., D.N.A., G.O.D.
Sit down. Today is the day of judgment. Today there was war.51

Stephen Mitchell’s translation from the last quoted strophe is an ingenious attempt to find American correlatives for Amichai’s sarcastic and iconoclastic juxtapositions of rabbinic acronyms with military ones, drawing in the process an implicit causal chain between religious dogma, nationalism, and war. Autobiographic poetry, then, as I will argue below, is the occasion for Amichai’s “archaeology of the self,” as Robert Alter has called it,52 which is always also the archaeology of the world. The autobiographical for him is both the subject of the (necessarily accessible, quotidian) poem and an occasion for the disruption of linear chronology and orderly history, whether personal or collective. Thus, various way-stations in Amichai’s life become material for poetic contemplation, part of what Michael André Bernstein has cogently described as Amichai’s “prosaics of a history figured in terms of its most quotidian exigencies.”53 At the same time, life events—both personal and historical—are imaginatively refigured through the kaleidoscopic multiple perspectives of his verbal art, resisting simple, coherent narration.

After about a year of living in Petach Tikva, where Ludwig—who was now using his Hebrew given name, Yehuda—attended the Orthodox grade school Netzach Israel, the Pfeuffer family moved to Jerusalem, the city that was to become Amichai’s home for the rest of his life. While his education continued to be Orthodox (he attended the religious high school Ba-Ma'ale), by the time he volunteered for the Jewish Brigade of the British army in 1942 in order to join the fight against fascism, he had become thoroughly secular. Being secular, however, never involved for Amichai—as it did for many Israelis of his generation—an antireligious stance. It was clericalism and the political trade in the sacred, not textual or even ritualistic traditions themselves, that elicited his most sarcastic critique.

During his service in the brigade, Amichai discovered Anglo-American modernist poetry54 and published his first poem,55 a sonnet titled ambiguously “Be-motza'ey ha-chofesh” (translated as either “The Night after Liberty” or “At the Ends of Liberty”—the first word of the title plays on the term for the end of a holy day or the Sabbath, as in the expression motza'ey shabbat; the second puns on the double sense of “leave [from the army]” and “freedom”). Between serving in the British army (1942–1946) and enlisting in the Palmach, the strike forces of the pre-State army during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Yehuda Pfeuffer studied in a teachers’ college. Because it was a condition of his first teaching position in Haifa, he Hebraized his last name, choosing “Amichai” (“my folk lives”). In the immediate aftermath of the Shoah, this choice unmistakably asserted both his own Jewishness and the survival of his people or folk (am), as distinct from the nation (uma).56 As an infantryman in the Palmach, Amichai took part in some of the toughest battles in the Negev, on the southern front, during the 1948 war. Here he lost his close friend and commander, Dicky Lucksberger (1920–1948) from Kibbutz Giv'at Brenner, whom he described in many conversations with me as “a father figure, although he was only four years my senior.” Dicky appears in several of Amichai’s poems, most notably in the dedication of the powerfully minimalist “Geshem bi-sde krav” (Rain on a Battlefield).57 Amichai served as well in the 1956 and 1973 wars. As Chana Bloch suggests, these war experiences shaped him just as much as his father’s love did.58 Indeed, in his best-known sonnet cycle, “Ahavnu kan” (We Loved Here),59 Amichai connects these two shaping influences, explicitly linking the father’s loving efforts to spare his son the horrors of war with his attempt to develop in the son—even before he was born—an empathy for the victims of war, regardless of which side they are on. But, as the speaker concludes in the sonnet’s volta, the father did all this in a way that ultimately cannot work: no war in the present can prevent war in the future. The father “spent four years inside their war,” the war to end all wars, although—like Yeats’s Irish Airman60—he “did not hate his enemies, or love” them. The father “filled his eyes” with all “the nameless dead” (the Hebrew mile eynav ba-hem has the sense of “stuffing” his eyes with the dead) in a tragically ineffectual form of future inoculation meant to make his unborn son “recognize” and “love” those dead when he sees them years later in his father’s eyes, and thus not treat other human beings as killing objects. This empathic gaze, the ability to recognize the eyes of the dead “others” in his own father’s eyes, was supposed to prevent the son from dying like them “in the horror” (ba-zva'a). But the father was wrong: the son still goes out to all his wars (el kol milchamotay yotze ani). There is, however, another profound sense in which the father’s lesson in empathy did succeed: it provided a model for the war-weary poet, already evident in the other poems in this early sonnet cycle, molding him into the antiwar poet he was to become, a poet who would systematically refuse the notion of a meaningful or redemptive war. As Michael André Bernstein poignantly suggests, Amichai “saw enough combat and bloodshed to be thoroughly repelled by the thematics of a redemptive violence as the catalyst of higher truths.”61

In 1949, immediately after the war, Amichai married Tamar Horn, with whom he had one son, Ronny, born in 1961. They separated in the early sixties. On March 22, 1949, Amichai mailed—still from his military postal address even though the war was over—a sampling of his poems to Leah Goldberg, the major woman poet of the previous modernist generation, the moderna, who was to become his poetic mother of sorts (see chapter 3). In this letter he tells Goldberg that up to that point he had been writing “more or less continuously for about four years.”62 While we are not sure how Goldberg reacted, the fact remains, as Giddon Ticotsky observes, that about three months later a grouping of poems by Amichai was published in the literary supplement of the socialist paper, Al Ha-Mishmar (On Guard), where Goldberg had a regular column. And when his first book of poems was met with the unbridled wrath of the old guard, including descriptions of his poems as “paper cockroaches” and “ape-like feats” of “trickery,” Goldberg was one of the first to write in enthusiastic defense of his poetic achievement.63

Thus, by the time Amichai started his studies of Hebrew literature and the Bible at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in the winter of 1952, he was already a published poet. This was in advance of the formation in the summer of that same year of the modernist group centered around the journal Likrat (Towards), whose first issue appeared in June 1952 and whose second issue, in August of that year, featured two poems by Amichai. As we shall see in chapter 6, Amichai preferred to remain on the margins of the group and its literary politics, although he was to become one of its major poets.64 His first book of poems, Akhshav u-va-yamim ha-acherim (Now and in Other Days), was indeed published by Likrat in 1955, even though by then the group had officially disbanded.65 The book was thus both the group’s swan song and its crowning achievement.

During his studies at the Hebrew University, Amichai deepened his erudition in Hebrew and world literature and supplemented his early religious Bible study in Würzburg and in the religious high school in Jerusalem with the (then mainly German-inspired) secular biblical scholarship in Israeli academia. It was then also that Amichai fell in love with medieval Hebrew poetry from Spain (Al Andalus) during the Golden Age of Hebrew-Arabic poetic coexistence; and it was then that he started modeling his own quatrains on the Persian and Arabic traditions of the Rubaiyat and their medieval Hebrew rearticulations. “The quatrain actually plays the role here [in the Middle East] which the sonnet played in Western culture,” he told me in an interview.66 He was particularly fascinated by the work and life of the eleventh-century poet Rabbi Shmuel Ha-Nagid, whose influence he freely acknowledges. In the same interview with me he attributes his fascination with Ha-Nagid to the latter’s “forthright and blunt . . . encounter with the real.” He adds: “[Ha-Nagid’s] poem revolves around the world of quotidian reality the way the Oral Torah [torah she-be-al-pe, the Talmud and rabbinical exegesis in general] revolves around the [biblical] verse” (Berkeley, 1986). Thus, Ha-Nagid is for Amichai such a powerful early paragon because, though writing within a traditional Jewish world that Amichai no longer inhabits, he offers a model for textualizing and thus sanctifying the mundane. In the Amichai archives at the Beinecke Library I found a seminar paper on the poetry of Shmuel Ha-Nagid, which Amichai wrote for a course at the Hebrew University taught by Professor Chaim Shirman, then the leading authority on the subject and editor of the standard annotated medieval Hebrew Diwans.67 The paper focuses on Ha-Nagid’s war poetry and calls for a modernist, “stereoscopic co-interpretation” of his poetry alongside the historical reality of the period.

Amichai is not alone among the Israeli modernists to recover medieval poetry for a post-theological age. The numerous connections between the poetry of the Statehood Generation of the 1950s and 60s and the Andalusian Hebrew and Arabic models remain to be fully explored. A particularly interesting aspect to study would be the analogy between Anglo-American modernism’s rediscovery of English Metaphysical poetry as a legitimizing poetic precursor and the Israeli poets’ turn toward medieval poetry in Spain. Ironically, not only were the modernist English models intertextually important for the Israeli ones, but seventeenth-century Metaphysical poetry itself may have had its manneristic style shaped in part—via the mediation of Provençal—by its medieval Andalusian precursors. Tova Rosen has taken important steps in recovering those links, analyzing the structural and generic affinities of Amichai’s poetry with Ha-Nagid’s unique form of poetic meditation on the mundane.68 Not coincidentally, the other main maverick of the Statehood Generation, the poet Dan Pagis, would become one of the major scholars of medieval Hebrew poetics.

An experienced elementary and high school literature teacher by the time his first books of poetry were published, Amichai went on—from the mid-1960s—to teach both overseas students and prospective teachers at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. To his work at the Hebrew University he brought the same relaxed dialogic style and an erudition tempered with wit that I first witnessed in his TV roundtable with teenage pupils. This continued to be his signature teaching style in the various visiting lectureships he held over the years in graduate Hebrew literature and creative writing programs at major American universities, from New York University to the University of California, Berkeley, where I was fortunate to study the fiction of Agnon with him in the late 1970s. Till his retirement, Amichai continued to describe teaching rather than writing poetry as his real work. Poetry, he would say, is neither a vocation nor an avocation. He writes because it is the easiest, most pleasurable thing for him to do. At other times he’d say, only half-joking, that he writes poetry because he’s too lazy to do real work. Labor, ordinary work, is hard and important, not poetry. These statements were, of course, an integral part of his poetics: a principled refusal to privilege poetry and the poet, and an ethical commitment to foreground the quotidian struggles of workaday human beings.

From 1964 till his death in 2000, Yehuda Amichai’s life partner was Hana (Sokolov) Amichai, who was born in 1938 in Petach Tikva, the same town where Amichai’s family first lived when they immigrated to Palestine a couple of years earlier. With Hana, Yehuda had two more children, David (Dadi), born in 1973, and Emanuela, born in 1978. All the dedications in his poetry books from Akhshav ba-ra'ash (1969) on are either to Hana or to his children, and there are numerous poems expressing romantic or paternal love, usually in the shadow of history, war, or death—even when the tone appears playful and witty—a shadow that makes the love in these poems all the more poignant. “Love,” Amichai said in an interview with me, “is the material that holds everything together, the glue.”69 For me the most powerful expression of this sensibility is the poem “Inside the Apple,” where the speaker is metaphorically the little worm inside the apple, hanging on to his beloved who has come to be there with him. As together they hear “the knife / paring around and around” them, he knows that she will stay with him “until the knife finishes its work.”70

“I have never written a war poem that does not mention love in it, and I have never written a love poem without an echo of war,” Amichai said in an interview.71 This mutual implication of love and war is not just a reiteration of 1960s peace slogans, for throughout his poetry the lovers—and in the later poetry the children as well—are described as always in that hazardous in-between space, surrounded by the threatening forces of death and war: inside the apple with the paring knife coming closer and closer, or in the arena, compelled by the powers-that-be to perform before the warring camps and provide them with distractions of bread and circuses. The unbearable pressure sometimes requires comic, if poignant, relief. For example, when his son Dadi is drafted into the Israeli army, Amichai writes, “I want my son to be a soldier in the Italian army / with a crest of colorful feathers on his cap, / happily dashing around with no enemies, no camouflage.”72

Amichai writes about many of the major events in his family life, from his wedding to his mother’s death, and from the birth of his daughter to his son’s aforementioned conscription into the army.73 These life events are clearly not only part of an autobiographical poetics but also express very genuine and personal feelings; indeed, they occasion some of the most moving poems in Amichai’s oeuvre. Yet in reading his personal love poetry we must not reduce them, as some critics have done, simply to biographical gossip. As in the poetry of Ha-Nagid on which Amichai’s autobiographical poems are modeled, the personal often serves as an opening narrative exemplum taken from familiar life events, which functions in the course of the text as a springboard for poetic, metaphorical elaboration and far-ranging philosophical meditation.74 Amichai thus draws on his own biography throughout his oeuvre as a source of philosophical reflection, creating in the process the poet’s Everyman persona. This move presents, I believe, a self-conscious violation of the impersonal imperative typical of Anglo-American modernism that Zach’s version of Statehood Generation poetics aimed to emulate. This rhetoric of autobiography is an important component of Amichai’s egalitarian poetics, and at the same time it engenders a radical reconsideration of the nature of personal and collective history: it reinscribes the personal as political. Autobiography under conditions that Amichai describes as a national and universal earthquake can only result in an archaeological simultaneity of the various layers in the ruins of self and history, and in a shifting geology of fragments that repudiates the possibility of both a coherent personal narrative and a linear collective chronology.

The genre of autobiography undoubtedly occupies a privileged position in Amichai’s rearticulation of the avant-garde lyric as both revolutionary and egalitarian, for it is never what we now take to be the solipsistic, romantic, lyrical “I” that we encounter in his poetry. In creating the rhetorical impression that poetry is simple autobiography, Amichai’s work also subverts traditional distinctions between the poetic and the prosaic, fiction and nonfiction, written text and oral discourse. In similar fashion, his fiction—which lies outside the purview of this study—privileges the lyrical and presents one of the first postmodernist critiques of novelistic notions of representation in Hebrew literature. This insistence on a nonromantic prosaics of autobiography has far-reaching consequences for Amichai’s rejection of Western models of high culture. In particular, it takes the form of a sustained aversion to the perception of poets as unique “individual talents” who possess some special gifts that separate them from ordinary human beings, granting them the privilege of being difficult (as Eliot did) or singling them out as spiritually chosen or inspired (as Yeats did). But Amichai’s rhetoric of autobiography is also part of his self-conscious alignment with the discursive practices of women’s modernism on the one hand, and with the situation of a minor literature on the other. I will explore these dimensions of Amichai’s writing in terms of his explicit acknowledgment of a poetic matrilineage and his identification with great women poets who were on the margins of their literary trends (especially the German Jewish expressionist Else Lasker-Schüler and the Hebrew moderna poet Leah Goldberg).75

But it is precisely this type of valorization of the autobiographical that has led to a critical tendency to reduce Amichai’s lyric to the personal, a tendency that is most common in the reception of women’s writing. More recently this critical biographism has reached a new extreme, with the demand that Amichai’s lyric needs to be nothing short of documentary in its narration of the poet’s personal history.76

Because Amichai’s poetry has become for so many ordinary Hebrew and English readers an essential part of their own lives, I am committed not to reduce it to the specifics of his own biography. This integration of Amichai’s work into the daily lives of human beings validates my own “religious” belief in the power of poetry. And the strength of this belief lends a special urgency to my attempt in this study to reclaim Amichai’s poems from their—very different—Israeli and American institutional appropriations, and to read them closely and seriously as parts of a coherent yet open-ended aesthetic and ethical system. This book aims, therefore, to open up a dialogue between the Hebrew and the English reading communities about Amichai’s epoch-making poetry, and through this dialogue to offer a theoretical and textual interrogation of some crucial issues in the contemporary poetics of culture.


* I am grateful to Naomi Lowinsky for her invaluable input into this Introduction.


From “Deganya,” Gam ha-egrof haya pa'am yad ptucha ve-etzba'ot (The Fist, Too, Was Once the Palm of an Open Hand, and Fingers), 97. Translation mine, but I had a lot of help: I wish to thank Maya Kronfeld, Margaret Larkin, and Ma'ayan Sela for their input into the translation of this challenging passage. Given the context of a poem whose title names a kibbutz, the difference between the Hebrew and English sense of “donate,” li-trom, needs to be acknowledged up front. Li-trom has much more of a sense of contributing to one’s community than the primarily financial connotation of the English word “donate.” Fortunately, both languages use the same term to describe blood and organ donors.

2. See, for example, “Ka-anashim ha-bodedim” (“Like the Lonely People”) in the title poem of this study, “Be-khol chumrat ha-rachamim” (To the Full Severity of Compassion), in Amichai, Shirim 1948–1962, 219; translation mine. The posthumously published Hebrew edition of his collected poetry, titled Shirey Yehuda Amichai (The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai) (5 vols.) is a scanned boxed set replete with errors. I have therefore cited in this book from earlier editions of his Hebrew poetry. See discussion of this poem in chapter 3. And see also the lines, “metos ha-silon oseh shalom bi-mromav / aleynu ve-al kol ha-ohavim ba-stav,” in “Re'ach ha-benzin oleh be-api,” Shirim 1948–1962, 22. In Stephen Mitchell’s translation: “The army jet makes peace in the heavens / upon us and upon all lovers in autumn,” in “The Smell of Gasoline Ascends in My Nose,” Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, 3 (henceforth, Selected Poetry); emphases added. See discussion in chapters 5 and 6.

3. Amichai used this term on many occasions. See, for example, Amichai’s statement in a 1992 interview with Lawrence Joseph in the Paris Review: “I’ve often said that I consider myself a ‘postcynical humanist.’ Maybe now, after so much horror, so many shattered ideals, we can start anew—now that we are all armored for disappointment.” “Yehuda Amichai: The Art of Poetry,” 239. In an earlier interview with me at his home in Jerusalem in the summer of 1986, Amichai explains: “The concept of postcynical humanism grew out of a series of lectures I’ve given this year.” Throughout this book I cite from a series of interviews with Amichai I conducted in person between 1984 and 1996 at his house and at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, at New York University (NYU) during his sabbatical there, and at our Berkeley home, as well as at the University of California, Berkeley.

4. Hebrew original in Shirim 1948–1962, 226–27; English translation by Stephen Mitchell in Selected Poetry, 40. For a close reading of this poem, see chapter 3.

5. A similar point is made by Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi about the reception of another poet of the Statehood Generation, Dan Pagis. See her “‘Atem sho'alim keytzad ani kotev?’: Dan Pagis ve-ha-proza shel ha-zikaron” (“You Ask How Do I Write?” Dan Pagis and the Prosaics of Memory). As I argue below, the same point can be made about other poets of the Statehood Generation as well. In this sense, my book is part of a larger project of reevaluating the historiography, reception, and appropriation of dor ha-mdina poetry.

6. See Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” 127–88.

7. See the poem “Ma lamadeti ba-milchamot” (What Have I Learned in the Wars), in Amichai, Gam ha-egrof, 15–16; translated by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav as “What Did I Learn in the Wars,” in their Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry (henceforth, A Life of Poetry), 412–12; and discussion of this principle in my article, “‘Wisdom of Camouflage,’” 469–91.

8. Amichai, Shirim 1948–1962, 76–77; Selected Poetry, 12–13.

9. On becoming-other, see also Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical. An application of this theoretical framework to modern Hebrew literature was first proposed by Eyal Bassan in his Master’s thesis, “Gnessin: Likrat sifrut minorit” (Gnessin: Toward a Minor Literature).

10. Shirim 1948–1962, 156. Translation mine. For Mitchell’s translation, see Selected Poetry, 31.

11. “Shneynu be-yachad ve-khol echad le-chud” (The Two of Us Together and Each of Us Alone), Shirim 1948–1962, 13. Set to music by Hanan Yovel. Previously untranslated. Translation of this poem by Chana Bloch and me is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in Robert Alter, ed., The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.

12. “Ani lo hayiti echad mi-sheshet ha-milyonim. u-ma meshekh chayay? patu'ach sagur patu'ach,” #1, and “Ani navi shel ma she-haya,” #8, in Patu'ach sagur patu'ach, 126, 47; “I Wasn’t One of the Six Million: And What Is My Life Span? Open Closed Open,” #6, and “I Foretell the Days of Yore,” #7, in Open Closed Open, 7, 13.

13. Rak shneynu nohav li-fney ha-machanot (just the two of us will love before the [warring] camps), in “Shneynu be-yachad ve-khol echad le-chud”; see n. 11 above.

14. “Beynayim,” in Gam Ha-egrof, 35; “Between,” Selected Poetry, 173–74.

15. Ha-zman (Time), #29; Selected Poetry, 124.

16. Butler, Excitable Speech.

17. In “Menuchat kayitz u-milim,” Gam haegrof, 65–66; “Summer Rest and Words,” A Life of Poetry, 428–29.

18. Spivak, “The Politics of Translation,” 179–200.

19. “Chatuna me'ucheret,” in Me-adam ata ve-el adam tashuv (From Man Thou Art and Unto Man Shalt Thou Return), 75. “Late Marriage,” in Selected Poetry, 163–64.

20. “Dorot ba-aretz (ne'um bi-ve'idat ha-sofrim)” (“Generations in the Land,” speech at writers conference), La-merchav, May 3, 1968. Cited in Weissbrod, Ba-yamim ha-acherim: tmurot ba-shira ha-ivrit beyn tasha'ch le-tashka'ch (In Other Days: Shifts in Hebrew Poetry between 1948–1967), 327.

21. “Mas'ot Binyamin ha-acharon mi-Tudela” (Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela), in Akhshav ba-ra'ash (Now in the Earthquake), 109, 114; Selected Poetry, 67, 70.

22. On the Margins of Modernism.

23. But see Kurzweil, “Sipurey Yehuda Amichai” (The Stories of Yehuda Amichai); “He'arot le-lo me-akhshav lo mi-kan” (Remarks on Not of This Time, Not of This Place); 221–30, 246–57; Zach, “Sipurav ha-shiriyim shel Yehuda Amichai” (The Poetic Stories of Yehuda Amichai), 26–30; Sandbank, “Ha-ga'agu'im el ha-patu'ach” (The Longings for the Open), 94–101; Kramer, Re'alism u-shvirato: Al mesaprim ivriyim mi-Gnessin ad Applefeld (Realism and Its Decline: On Hebrew Writers from Gnessin to Applefeld), 197–202; Shaked, “Hoy dori ha-atzuv ve-ha-mukeh” (Oh, My Sad and Beaten Generation), 89–124; Friedman, “Olam ha-dimuyim ve-ha-tadmiyot shel Yehuda Amichai: Iyun be-ba-ru'ach ha-nora'a ha-zot” (Yehuda Amichai’s World of Similes and Imagery: A Study of The World Is a Room), 311–12; Pelli, “Ha-nefesh ha-mefutzelet bi-mtzi'ut chatzuya le-achar ha-Shoah: Iyun ba-roman shel Yehuda Amichai” (The Divided Soul in a Split Post-Shoah Reality: A Study of Yehuda Amichai’s Novel), 492, 509; Abramovitch-Ratner, “Beyn ha-mesaper le-veyn shiro: Le-sugiyat ha-korelatzya she-beyn shira le-veyn siporet” (Between the Storyteller and His Poem: The Problem of Correlation between Poetry and Prose), 227–46; Milner, Ha-narativim shel sifrut ha-Shoah (Narratives of Holocaust Literature). For a theoretically sophisticated recent study of the different poetics of Amichai’s short fiction and novel, see Bassan, “Metaphorization vs. Interpellation.”

24. Amichai, Lo me-akhshav, lo mi-kan. The English translation by Katz (Not of This Time, Not of This Place, published in 1968) unfortunately omits large sections of the Hebrew. In conversations with me, Amichai would often talk wistfully about the 200 pages or so of the original Hebrew manuscript that were cut by Dan Miron, the book’s editor for Schocken at the time, and the fact that no other copy of the full manuscript has survived. Miron told me the manuscript is unfortunately no longer in his possession.

25. For Grossman’s acknowledgment of his debt to Amichai in a different context, see chapter 1. Yoram Kaniuk is another antirealist exception to the documentary norm. It is interesting that Hebrew poetry never adhered to this criterion. On the intricacies of “documentation as art” and the norm of “concentrationary realism,” see Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi’s pioneering study By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature.

26. Amichai’s sharpest critique of the theological account is provided in the poem “After Auschwitz, No Theology” (“Acharey Auschwitz eyn te'ologya”), which starts by rewriting Adorno’s famous dictum in order to blast—via the metonymies of white versus black smoke—both the Catholic Church’s conduct during the Nazi genocide and the Jewish notion of a divinely chosen people, and leads up to the surreal and shockingly macabre assertion: “the numbers on the forearms / of the inmates of extermination / are the telephone numbers of God, / numbers that do not answer / and now are disconnected, one by one” (Ha-misparim al amot asirey ha-hashmada / hem misperey ha-telefon shel ha-elohim / misparim she-eyn mehem tshuva / ve-akhshav hem menutakim, echad, echad). In “Elim Mitchalfim, hatfilot nish'arot la-ad,” #27, Patu'ach sagur patu'ach, 18–19; “Gods Change, Prayers Are Here to Stay,” #23, Open Closed Open, 46–47. And see on this question Bloch and Kronfeld, “Amichai’s Counter-Theology: Opening Open Closed Open.”

27. Bernstein, Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History, 111, 125–26 ff.

28. Gold’s biography, Yehuda Amichai: The Making of Israel’s National Poet, is discussed critically below in the context of Amichai’s rhetoric of autobiography.

29. The title of this section is a paraphrase of the title of Benjamin and Barbara Harshav’s anthology of Amichai’s poetry. See n. 7.

30. Alter, “Israel’s Master Poet.”

31. Felstiner, “Writing Zion: An Exchange between Two Great Poets.” For comparative analyses of Amichai and Celan, see Eshel, “Eternal Present: Poetic Figuration and Cultural Memory in the Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, Dan Pagis, and Tuvia Rübner”; and Rokem, “German-Hebrew Encounters in the Poetry and Correspondence of Yehuda Amichai and Paul Celan,” 97–127. The full extent of the literary dialogue between these two great Jewish poets merits further exploration and is the subject of a book-length study by Rokem (in preparation).

32. “Bo ty jesteś król a ja tylko książe.” Published in David Weinfeld’s Hebrew translation in Ha'aretz, May 13, 1994. The Hebrew version presents the poem as dedicated to Amichai on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. The English version does not mention this occasion. See Herbert, “To Yehuda Amichai,” 489. For the full English text of the poem see chapter 4. Robert Alter uses a specifically Hebraic royal analogy when he suggests that “Yehuda Amichai . . . is the most widely translated Hebrew poet since King David.” See his “The Untranslatable Amichai,” 28. For a discussion of this point, see DeKoven Ezrahi, “Yehuda Amichai: paytan shel ha-yomyom” (Yehuda Amichai: Liturgical Poet of the Quotidian), 143–67.

33. From the blurb to Selected Poetry.

34. Amichai kept a record of his budding friendship with these poets in a notebook dated 1966–1967. Inter alia, Amichai refers to Ginsberg as “a cowardly Rasputin” and expresses surprise to discover that Berryman speaks some Hebrew and admires his poetry. See Amichai archives at the Beinecke Library, Box 43, Folder 1486. The importance of Auden’s poetry for Amichai’s work predates this notebook. One of Amichai’s rare essays about poetry dates from the mid-1950s and is titled “Auden kore mi-shirav ha-acharonim” (Auden Reads from His Latest Poems), La-Merchav/Masa, December 2, 1955. During his first visit to the United States in 1955, Amichai heard Auden read in New York. I am grateful to Hana Amichai for this information. On the complex genre of this essay and its role in theorizing influence in the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, see discussion in chapter 3, n. 63.

35. Simic and Strand, Another Republic: 17 European and South American Writers, 18–19.

36. “International Books of the Year,” 8–14. Many sources erroneously date this to December 1998, though Hughes died in October of that year.

37. See, for example, Scharf Gold, Yehuda Amichai, 10; and Michael Karpin’s film, “Jerusalem Is Full of Used Jews”: Yehuda Amichai’s Poems of Jerusalem, 2006; documentary film synopsis,

38. Poems by Yehuda Amichai. See her biography by Koren and Negev, Lover of Unreason: Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’ Doomed Love, esp. 166–69. Gutmann (Wevill’s) biographers follow the accepted narrative that the translations were more Hughes’ than hers, disregarding the fact that she was the one who, having lived in Israel, knew Hebrew. Furthermore, having been born in Germany and maintaining her love of German literature and art even after the Nazi genocide, like so many other Yekes (German-born Israelis), she was very much in tune with Amichai’s modernist German models. Since the poetics of her translation seems quite different from that of Hughes’s own poetry or of his subsequent translations of Amichai (with the poet’s collaboration), I remain skeptical about this translation being primarily his. See Amichai’s poem written shortly after her death, “Mota shel Assia G.,” in Ve-lo al menat li-zkor (Not for the Sake of Remembering), 102; “The Death of Assia G.,” in A Life of Poetry, 216. I found in the Amichai archives at Yale University’s Beinecke Library thirteen pieces of correspondence directly between Assia Gutmann and Amichai, quite apart from his extensive correspondence with Hughes; these letters to and from Gutmann discuss specifics of the translation. See Box 5, Folder 210. It is true, however, that as coeditor and founder, with Daniel Weissbort, of the journal Modern Poetry in Translation, Hughes included some poems by Amichai (in Gutmann’s translation!) in the very first issue (1965) and thus helped introduce him to the English-reading public.

39. Though Amichai would cringe at such a characterization. “No Greek tragedies,” he told my collaborator Chana Bloch during her last visit with him, when she was visibly shaken by how ill he looked in his hospital bed.

40. I wish to thank Sasson Somekh and Hana Amichai for their help with the dating of this award.

41. And not, as Natan Zach claims, in 1978, after Zach supposedly rejected it for political reasons. Interviews that the poet’s widow, Hana Amichai, conducted with the Israel Prize Committee unambiguously refute this account. See conversation with her by Na'ama Lensky in Israel ha-yom, April 8, 2011; and Hana Amichai’s article “Al menat li-zkor: Yehuda Amichai, Natan Zach ve-uvdot she-ra'uy le-hatzig” (For the Sake of Remembering: Yehuda Amichai, Natan Zach, and Facts That Should be Presented), 27–33.

42. Interview conducted at the Amichais’ home in Yemin Moshe, Jerusalem in summer 1986.

43. Kmihat isha ba-ish, in “Leshon ahava ve-te al shkedim kluyim,” #1, in Patu'ach sagur patu'ach, 92; “The Language of Love and Tea with Roasted Almonds,” # 1, Open Closed Open, 93.

44. In a series of three articles in Ha'aretz commemorating the fifth anniversary of the poet’s death: “Yehuda Amichai: Mahapekhan im aba” (Yehuda Amichai: A Revolutionary with a Father).

45. Interview in Amichai’s Bleecker Street apartment, NYU Housing, New York City, July 26, 1984.

46. See Amichai’s description of the father’s decision to leave Germany after he witnessed, as an honorary member of the Burial Society (the chevra kadisha), the deadly results of the brutal beatings of two rural Jews by Nazis. Interview with Arye Arad, “Pa'amonim mevasrim ra'ot” (Ominous Bells). A year earlier there was also an attack on the young Ludwig and his friend Ruth Hanover by Hitler Youth. Ruth, who had lost a leg in an accident and was wearing a prosthesis, was thrown to the ground together with Ludwig by three or four of the young thugs. “I heard the prosthesis make a metallic sound. That sound has remained with me more than all the books about Auschwitz,” he said in an interview with his good friend, poet Dan Omer. See “Ba-aretz ha-lohetet ha-zot, milim tzrikhot li-hyot tzel” (In This Scorching Land, Words Must Provide Shade), 4.

47. See the essay by Hana Amichai that accompanies two diary pages of Amichai’s about Little Ruth excerpted from the Beinecke Archives, “‘Ruth ha-ktana hi Anna Frank pratit she-li’” (“Little Ruth Is My Own Private Anne Frank”), Ha'aretz, December 9, 2010. As Hana Amichai points out, the girl was called “Little Ruth” by family and friends to distinguish her from her stepmother’s older daughter, also Ruth, and that is how she is often named in the poems.

48. Patu'ach sagur patu'ach, 126–29; Open Closed Open, 3–8.

49. Patu'ach sagur patu'ach, 20, 138–39; Open Closed Open, 31, 131–32.

50. A Russian genre that was very common in modern Hebrew poetry from the Enlightenment (Haskalah) on, but to which Amichai gives a decidedly unconventional avant-garde twist, blending it with the fictional Jewish travelogue and the modernist epic. See discussion in chapters 2 and 6.

51. Selected Poetry, 60–86. Mitchell translated only part of the poema. See Akhshav ba-ra'ash, 95–139. And see the excellent translation by Ruth Nevo of the entire poema, titled Travels.

52. In an unpublished paper.

53. Bernstein, Foregone Conclusions, 126.

54. See my analysis of Amichai’s account of this discovery in chapter 3 as a parable on intertextual agency. For a different version of the same story, see Amichai’s interview with Eilat Negev, “Ani navi ani she-chozer ba-tzohorayim ha-bayta” (I Am a Poor Prophet Who Returns Home for Lunch), in her Sichot intimiyot (Intimate Conversations), 226.

55. As he reports, for example, in his interview with Dan Omer. The poem, a sonnet, was published in the military newspaper Ha-Gilgal under the auspices of the British Mandate authorities on January 18, 1945. See interview with Omer, “Ba-aretz ha-lohetet ha-zot,” 5. I thank Giddon Ticotsky for his astonishing help with archival work on Amichai, for locating this poem, and for sharing this and other findings with me. And see his article, “‘Be-ozvi et chayay, karati bo, va-tov li’: Yehuda Amichai ha-tza'ir kotev le-Leah Goldberg” (“‘When I Left My Life, I’d Read It, and All Was Good’: The Young Yehuda Amichai Writes to Leah Goldberg”), 216n2. Scharf Gold contradicts her own claim that Amichai hid the fact that he started writing and publishing before 1948 by acknowledging his account in this interview with Omer. See Yehuda Amichai: The Making of Israel’s National Poet (2008, 158). Amichai clearly asserts in this interview that his first poem was published before the establishment of the state. As my book is going to press, Raquel Stepak has just published seven newly discovered poems by Amichai from 1943–1946. Stepak reveals that Amichai sent these poems to literary scholar Dov Sadan, who never responded, and they ended up in the file of “censored and uncensored documents” of the Davar newspaper, whose literary editor at the time was Sadan. As Stepak points out, the poems already bear the stylistic and thematic signature of Amichai’s mature work. “Ma le-shirim shel Amichai u-le-tik ha-tzenzura shel iton ‘Davar’” (What Are Amichai’s Poems Doing in the Davar Newspaper’s Censor File), Ha'aretz, September 9, 2014. I am grateful to Yishai Boyarin for bringing these discoveries to my attention.

56. See, for example, Scharf Gold, Yehuda Amichai: The Making of Israel’s National Poet, 205–6ff. Hebraizing names was a culturally common move at the time, which cannot be divorced from its Zionist implications. But note that the particular names he chose, roughly translated as “Judea,” pronounced Yuda in colloquial Hebrew (which makes it very close phonetically to the German for “Jew,” Jude), and “my folk lives,” emphasize the Jewish rather than the antidiasporic identification common in the naming practices of the period. Thus, his choice of “Yehuda Amichai” deviates from the then-fashionable “Canaanizing” trend in naming, which was explicitly associated with an erasure of the Jewish deterritorialized past (compare the pagan, ancient Near Eastern or martial Hebraized names of some of his fellow writers of the Statehood Generation: Tammuz, Keynan, Sivan, Ratosh, Oz, etc.). The name “Amichai” was invented (as a first name) by the grandfather of my late husband, Amichai Kronfeld, the teacher and composer Mordekhai Honig, who named his son Amichai Honig. The “original” Amichai became the first Eretz-Israeli pilot in the British Royal Air Force and was killed in action during World War II.

57. Shirim 1948–1962, 21; A Life of Poetry, 10.

58. In her Introduction to Selected Poetry, xii.

59. Shirim 1948–1962, 42–59. Only four sonnets were included in “We Loved Here,” Selected Poetry, 8–9; and six sonnets were included in “Here We Loved,” A Life of Poetry, 23–26.

60. “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” starts: “I know that I shall meet my fate / Somewhere among the clouds above; / Those that I fight I do not hate; / Those that I guard I do not love.” Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, 145.

61. Bernstein, Foregone Conclusions, 126.

62. See Ticotsky, “‘Be-ozvi et chayay, karati bo, va-tov li,’” 216.

63. See the attack by Tzemach in “Matzevet ve-shalakhta” (an untranslatable reference to Isa. 6:13); also included in his Shti va-erev (Woof and Warp), 216–35; and see my discussion in chapter 2. For Goldberg’s favorable reviews see her “Gefen ha-yayin be-kharmey zarim” (A Wine Vine in Foreign Vineyards); and her “Ad barzel” (Unto Iron), Al Ha-mishmar. Both are included in Goldberg’s collection of essays, Ha-ometz le-chulin (The Courage to be Secular), 220–27, 217–19.

64. Likrat: Bita'on pnimi shel chug sofrim tze'irim (Likrat: Internal Mouthpiece of a Young Writers’ Circle), 9, 13.

65. Akhshav u-va-yamim ha-acherim (Now and in Other Days). Amos Levin, however, in his study of the group, gives the publication date as October 1954! The official notice disbanding Likrat is dated September 21, 1954. See Amos Levin, Bli Kav (No Line).

66. At our home in Berkeley, California in the spring of 1986. For a detailed discussion of this point, see chapter 6.

67. Box 35, Folder 1230. This 37-page seminar paper (for which Amichai received an “A”) is erroneously indexed as Shirman’s own work.

68. “‘Kemo be-shir shel Shmuel Ha-Nagid’: beyn Shmuel Ha-Nagid li-Yehuda Amichai” (“As in a Poem by Shmuel Ha-Nagid”: Between Shmuel Ha-Nagid and Yehuda Amichai), 83–106. DeKoven Ezrahi discusses these connections in “Yehuda Amichai: paytan shel ha-yomyom.” See also my discussion in chapter 3.

69. Interview in Amichai’s Bleecker Street apartment, NYU Housing, New York City, July 26, 1984.

70. “Be-tokh ha-tapu'ach,” Me-adam ata ve-el adam tashuv, 37; Selected Poetry, 164. For a close reading of this poem, see chapter 5.

71. Cited by Ari Brookman in his online essay, “Yehuda Amichai,” Fall 2001,

72. “Bni mitgayes,” # 2, Patu'ach sagur patu'ach, 162; “My Son Was Drafted,” # 2, Open Closed Open, 155.

73. See, e.g., “Chatuna me'ucheret,” “imi meta be-Shavu'ot,” and the section “Mot imi ve-ha-kravot ha-avudim al atid ha-yeladim” (My Mother’s Death and the Hopeless Battles for the Children’s Future), all in Me-adam ata ve-el adam tashuv, 75, 15–16, 7–21; and “Ba-yom bo nolda biti lo met af ish,” in Shalva Gdola: She'elot u-tshuvot (A Great Tranquility: Questions and Answers), 44; and the section “Bni mitgayes” in Patu'ach sagur patu'ach, 162–68; English versions: “Late Marriage,” “My Mother Died on Shavuot,” and “On the Day My Daughter Was Born No One Died” in Selected Poetry, 163–64, 161, 131–32, and the section “My Son Was Drafted” in Open Closed Open, 153–59.

74. Rosen was the first to explore this meditative elaboration of the personal in her comparison of Amichai and Ha-Nagid. See “‘Kemo be-shir shel Shmuel Ha-Nagid.’

75. See chapters 3 and 6.

76. In the unauthorized biography mentioned above, Yehuda Amichai: The Making of Israel’s National Poet, Nili Scharf Gold argues that the fact that Amichai’s poems do not directly document his German childhood “proves” that he was trying to hide his German origins so as to situate himself more effectively in his “desired role” as Israeli National Poet. First, Scharf Gold takes literally the autobiographical rhetorical impression his poetry creates, not noting that this is part of Amichai’s progressive/feminist critique of the elitist formations of Anglo-American modernism. She then feels cheated by the fact that “his poems seem to be the personal diary of an authentic ‘I’ who is documenting his life in his writing” (10, emphasis added), but turn out to be neither diaries nor documents! She proceeds to accuse Amichai’s poetry of hiding the poet’s German past, and uses his metapoetic concept of “the wisdom of camouflage” as evidence of his sustained attempt to “suppress” his childhood. Quite apart from this claim being factually wrong (many poems do engage major biographical way-stations, including the German past!), it reveals her problematic presuppositions about the way lyrical poetry engages history, including personal history. As Robert Alter asks, in an uncharacteristically scathing review of Scharf Gold’s book, is it the task of the poet to represent his life directly and in full? He adds: “Do we say that Wallace Stevens or T. S. Eliot suppressed his childhood because there is not much evidence of it in his poems?” “Only a Man,” New Republic, December 31, 2008,