Yehuda Amichai: Jerusalem’s Poet

“Jerusalem—the only city in the world, where the right to vote is granted even to the dead.”  —Yehuda Amichai

“The most wonderful thing about Jerusalem is that I always find little corners that I don’t know. It is the biggest smallest city in the world,” Yehuda Amichai said of the city where he spent most of his life. With his death at the age of 76 on Sept. 22, 2000, Jerusalem lost its “most lyrical lover,” wrote Avi Katzman in Tel Aviv’s Ha’aretz. “He was a permanent feature in the landscape, such a nice man, a modest man, who promised a bit of eternity in his poems, in pictures of a moment.”

Jerusalem, a place everyone remembers / they have forgotten something but they do not remember what they have forgotten. / And in order to remember I / wear on my face my father’s face. / This is my city where the vessels of my dreams / are filled like oxygen tanks for deep-sea divers. / The holiness there / sometimes turns into love.

Yehuda Amichai was Israel’s most quoted and beloved poet, who wrote the survival guide to Jerusalem for the people who live there. He was a voice from the street, who wrote about love with an echo of war, and about the war while hinting at love.

Amichai came from an Orthodox background and in 1935 moved from Würzburg, Germany, to Palestine. “I am lucky; I am from one of the very few Jewish families from Central Europe where the whole tribe lives in Palestine,” Amichai once recalled.

He fought as a volunteer in the British Army and later in the Palmach, the underground pre-Israeli-state commando force. He studied literature and biblical studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and taught at a secondary school for many years. During his long and prolific career, he wrote about 1,000 poems and published 25 books of poetry. He received the 1982 Israel Prize for Hebrew Literature, the Brenner and Bialik prizes, and was also a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.

Yehuda AmichaiAlthough Amichai’s work was nourished by the Bible and the Jewish liturgy, along with German lyricism and English modernism, his poetry is contemporary, both in language and substance. His language is intimate, detached from the national pathos that had characterized Hebrew poetry in the past. And his voice sometimes had a political edge. “My slogan, so to speak, in recent years, has been: Not what yes, but what no. The ideal is no longer peace, but the absence of war.”

“When we read Amichai, we feel as if he has written his verse in our kitchen, in our living room, in our bedroom,” Israeli novelist Amos Oz commented in Tel Aviv’s Yediot Aharonot.

“With Amichai, one hardly feels when one switches from speech to poetry, from the profane to the sublime and back again,” wrote Doron Rosenblum in Ha’aretz. “He was the person who enriched our difficult lives with mercy and a modicum of serenity,…through the act of living among us. He always sounded and talked like an ordinary citizen—a genuinely concerned, unpretentious citizen.”

Amichai himself once said that he wrote “in order to comfort myself. About life, about wars, about difficulty. I write poems after things are finished. During war and love, poems are not written.”

Indeed, his poetry was a “balm of comfort” for his readers, remembered Israeli author Meir Shalev in Yediot Aharonot about his friend. “Whoever was thirsty [would read Amichai], whoever was hungry, whoever hunted beauty, whoever sought out wisdom… We, his admirers and orphans, will be comforted by the poems he willed to us.”


More on the topic:

The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, Tel Aviv:
In Memoriam Yehuda Amichai

American Jews and Israel: A Symbiosis


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