Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s best-known and greatest poet of the past generation died at age 76 in 2000. The noted critic Irving Howe wrote about him: “At his best, he is the best.” Amichai writes in a simple, natural, style poems whose contents a frequently sharp, witty, sensuous, ironic, sometimes brutal, and yet pleasing. The New York Times wrote that Amichai’s poetry is “The kind of resonantly simple poetry that is the work of a great poet.” He writes about war, love, family, sex, God, and frequently mocks biblical stories or, at least, makes readers rethink what they previously thought about the tales. He has the ability to create memorable phrases, to say in a few words, or a simple phrase, what others would need a full page to say. His poems are far better in their original Hebrew, but are still superb in translation. He describes Jerusalem, for example, as “a port city on the shore of eternity,” and also “Jerusalem, the only city in the world / Where the right to vote is granted even to the dead.” He describes its inhabitants as full of used Jews, “used by history / secondhand Jews, with small flaws, bargains.” He describes the biblical Jacob who had a dream of a ladder with God at its top, “Our father Jacob, on the beaten track, / Carries a ladder on his back / like a window washer to the VIPs. / He does God’s windows, if you please.” Thinking of Jewish history, he writes “spilled blood is not the root of trees / bit it’s the closest thing to roots / we have.”
The following is a sample of some other poems:
The famous French king said, Après moi, le deluge!
Noah the Righteous said, Before me, the flood,
and when he left the ark he declared, The flood is behind me.
But I say, I am right in the middle of the flood,
How do the visions of the prophets see me?
The burning bush sees me as a man extinguished but alive.
The Jewish people read Torah aloud to God
all year long, a portion a week,
like Scheherazade who told stories to save her life.
By the time of Simchat Torah rolls around,
God forgets and they can begin again.
Communal prayer: Is it better to ask “Give us peace”
with cries of woe, or to ask calmly, quietly?
But if we ask calmly, God will think
we don’t really need peace and quiet.
We are all children of Abraham
but also the grandchildren of Terah, Abraham’s father.
And maybe it’s time the grandchildren
did unto their father as he did unto his
when he shattered his idols and images, his religion, his faith.
That too would be the beginning of a new religion.