The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai and Jerusalem
Yehuda Amichai 1924-2000 was an Israeli poet, and a poet for all us. We would not remember him if he had not consistently seen under the surface of ordinary things where a common core of human experience could be imagined. He observed the world and turned out lightly-rolled poems that bite enough as they redeem ordinary life by showing us things we couldn’t see on our own.
The first lines of one poem are,
A gym teacher once lived in this deserted house.
Her skin was brown and soft as silk.
and of another,
It’s sad to be
the mayor of Jerusalem–
What can he do with it?
Build and build and build.
There is the biblical religion, the prophets and the kings and the generations of Jews and their special, tragic stewardship of the law and the land in Amichai and, of course, Jerusalem.
The first city I ever knew for more than a weekend shopping trip was Jerusalem. I was barely twenty years old, from a small town on the prairie. I arrived sleepy to what was then the hubbub inside Jaffa Gate. I thought how lucky I was to have parents who had never been out of the country pay my way for a semester there, so that I could experience what they could never even imagine: the sights, smells and sounds of the damp spicy streets of the Old City. The next morning I woke to the amplified call to prayer from a Jerusalem mosque. I thought I was in a crazy heaven. In a way I was, waking up in Jerusalem. The spirit of God’s law and of human wickedness are baked into the stones of Jerusalem. Soldiers patrol the streets as prayers of Jews, Christians and Muslims fill the air along with the sneers of the secular herds passing through.
Even as a young man I liked religion. I liked the way religion sometimes got people to sit quietly, even when they were busy or sad or bored. In religious services people sang together. They might eat a ritual meal with strangers or plan a way to take care of poor people and speak up for them. For me religious faith was never mainly about believing in God. It was about admiring and imitating people who made godly and principled decisions, who performed helpful rituals, who developed strong habits of kindness and forgiveness
Amichai carries the God of Israel, the God of his ancestors, in his poems, whether his agents and publishers wanted him to or not. In an interview, Amichai told how he grew up in a religious household where prayers were a part of his daily life. His early life in Judaism made Amachai a poet. Religion gave him a rooted vocabulary, a standpoint from which to mine his language and culture. This does not mean that he was conventionally religious, went to synagogue services, kept the holidays, asked the rabbis questions, etc., but the material of his religious heritage jumps out from his poems, even from a casual poem like this one:
I am tired like a very ancient language
invaded by foreign words.
I cannot defend.
As an adult Amachai left the ritual world of Judaism, and stopped believing in God. What I pointed out before in a post about an American poet who said a similar thing, goes double or more for Amichai. Whether he believed in God or not is beside the point. He was a religious poet. The heartbreak of the Hebrew Bible is all through him. For Amichai to say that he did not believe in God is like a person saying that he does not believe in water. It doesn’t matter. The water is in you, all through you, all around you. The God of Israel is asleep all over Amichai’s poems, and breathing in them.
I declare with perfect faith
that prayer preceded God.
Prayer created God,
God created human beings,
human beings create prayers
that create the God that creates human beings.
The other fine thing about Amichai is that he is a love poet. When it’s all said and done, the only poems that need to be written, and the only ones that will last, are love poems:
This is how it started: suddenly it felt
loose and light and happy inside,
like when you feel your shoelaces loosening a bit
and you bend down.
It takes a pile of words to get some poets going. Amachai was different. He got right into it with opening lines:
My child has the fragrance of peace.
When I lean over him,
it’s not just the scent of soap.
My eldest son’s eyes are like black figs
For he was born at the end of summer.
The scent of the orange groves lingers here
among the houses that have replaced the groves.
Like an amputee who feels the amputated leg,
the pain lingers and the sweet tingling lingers
in the empty places.