In 1997 I was one of several hundred international students in an auditorium in the Truman Centre at Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus Campus, listening to an array of speakers opening the celebrations of Israel’s Yovel – 50th anniversary. There were the usual rambling introductions by heads of schools, university vice presidents and other dignitaries. And, then, as though from another place, a quiet man walked up the podium, opened a book and began to read. I say quiet because everything about him oozed quietude and contemplation. His face was the face of the land with rivers and hills criss-crossing its plains, his hands worked slowly at the pages, his eyes following the lines, occasionally looking up to indulge in his audience’s capture. Even his voice soared somehow with the history of the place, weaving its way into our hearts and our imaginations.
He was Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and it was through him that we came to truly appreciate the magic of Israel. At the time we were not to know that Amichai was battling cancer, to which he would succumb just three short years later, dying at the age of 76 and leaving Israel bereft and in a state of national mourning.
I cannot imagine another state or people revolving so closely around a heart of poetry. And I cannot imagine another place where the death of a poet brings with it a pause in time. But in Jerusalem, people paused for Amichai’s funeral. Prime Minister Barak spoke of “One of the greatest poets of the Hebrew language, whose words gave meaning to our existence in this land,” the streets filled with an out pouring of sorrow.
This one quiet man came to symbolise the entire history of the modern State of Israel, its struggles and successes, its battles and its peace. As he himself said: “… summing up Israel’s 50 years is like summing up my life, with its joys and its sorrows, its hopes and its disappointments.”
But what was it that drew people to his poetry? Perhaps it was because unlike the complex tongues of other Israeli poets like Chaim Gouri, Bialik or Rachel, Amichai’s poetry was, and still is, for every man, its simple language and plain images constructing worlds that reflect those in which his audience live. Perhaps it is the startling economy – both of language and image – with which he creates these worlds? Perhaps it is the hidden complexity of Amichai’s mastery, a complexity that unravels as one delves deeper into the multi-layered fabric of his poetry. Perhaps it was just his quietude.
As Avraham Burg said at his funeral: “We loved your simple, but piercing words. We loved you because we understood you, because you understood us.”
Whatever it was, people are still drawn to him and probably will continue to be drawn to his verses for years to come.
As a poet, Amichai is internationally recognised, translated into over 22 languages, including Arabic, French, Albanian and Japanese. He was said to be up for a Nobel Prize before his death. When Yitzhak Rabin accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, it was Amichai he read –
G-d takes pity on kindergarten children,Less on schoolchildren. On grownups, he won’t take pity anymore. He leaves them alone. Sometimes they have to crawl on all fours In the blazing sand, To get to the first-aid station Dripping blood.
But it is his poetry of Jerusalem for which he is most renowned: “The air of Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams/ like the air over industrial cities./ It’s hard to breathe.” Indeed, Amichai was the epitome of a Yerushalmi, someone who lived and breathed Jerusalem, revelling in its magic and its curses. For him, “Jerusalem was built on the vaulted foundations/ of a held back scream. If there were no reason/ for the scream, the foundations would crumble, the city would collapse;/ if the scream were screamed, Jerusalem would explode into the heavens.”
No one has better captured the nature of Jerusalem, the nature of Israel and the nature of Judaism. For this, Amichai will always be remembered. But mostly, it will be his passion for poetry, love and life and his appreciation of its fleetingness that will linger –My G-d, the soul you gave me is smoke – from never-ending burnings of memories of love. The minute we are born we start burning them and so on until the smoke dies, like smoke.
Certainly, if the smoke of Amichai’s poetry continues to fill our air, and to be heeded, there is hope for peace and understanding, both in Israel and in the world at large.