Love, War and History: Israel's Yehuda Amichai

Yehuda Amichai i i

Celebrated poet Yehuda Amichai wrote of loss and of Jerusalem, of love and war, and in his later years of aging and mortality. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University hide caption

itoggle caption Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
Yehuda Amichai

Celebrated poet Yehuda Amichai wrote of loss and of Jerusalem, of love and war, and in his later years of aging and mortality.

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Web Extra: Archival Audio

Poet Yehuda Amichai spoke with Henry Lyman in New York in 1989.

For nearly 20 years, Henry Lyman hosted a radio program called Poems to a Listener out of WFCR in Amherst, Mass. He interviewed leading American poets of the day — writers like Richard Wilbur, Robert Penn Warren and Jane Kenyon. But one day in 1989, he sat down with the man many consider to be the poetic voice of Israel: Yehuda Amichai.

Amichai chronicled much of Israel's existence in poems about love, war and his beloved Jerusalem. He was born into a family of Orthodox Jews — then named Pfeuffer — in Wurzburg, Germany, in 1924. His parents were merchants whose ancestors had lived in the region since the Middle Ages. Amichai told Lyman that he left Nazi Germany with his parents in 1935 and settled in Palestine.

Amichai was intensely nationalistic. He fought in four wars, as well as in the Jewish underground that fought the British regime in Palestine. But Amichai was also known to write love poems in times of war. And his love for Jerusalem, in all its guises, was abundant. Amichai recited one section of his poem-cycle Jerusalem 1967 for Lyman. As translated by Stephen Mitchell, it begins:

On Yom Kippur in 1967, the Year of Forgetting, I put on
my dark holiday clothes and walked to the Old City of
                                                                     Jerusalem.
For a long time I stood in front of an Arab's hole-in-the-wall
                                                                         shop.

The poet, himself the son of a merchant, silently "describes" to the Arab shopkeeper all the forces of history that have landed them there face to face. But he says nothing openly:

I explained to him in my heart about all the decades
and the causes and the events, why I am now here
and my father's shop was burned there and he is buried here.

In another poem, "The Diameter of the Bomb," Amichai describes how a single act of violence reverberates through history, encompassing the whole world and God with it.

Lyman spoke with Yehuda Amichai in New York in 1989. We revisit their conversation as part of our April series for National Poetry Month.

On Yom Kippur in 1967 ...

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On Yom Kippur in 1967, the Year of Forgetting, I put on

my dark holiday clothes and walked to the Old City of

                                                                    Jerusalem.

For a long time I stood in front of an Arab's hole-in-the-wall

                                                                          shop,

not far from the Damascus Gate, a shop with

buttons and zippers and spools of thread

in every color and snaps and buckles.

A rare light and many colors, like an open Ark.

I told him in my heart that my father too

had a shop like this, with thread and buttons.

I explained to him in my heart about all the decades

and the causes and the events, why I am now here

and my father's shop was burned there and he is buried here.

When I finished, it was time for the Closing of the Gates

                                                                          prayer.

He too lowered the shutters and locked the gate

and I returned, with all the worshippers, home.

Everyone hears a step at night ...

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Everyone hears a step at night,

not only prisoners, everyone hears.

Everything is steps at night,

receding or approaching,

but never arriving close enough

to be touched. That is man's

mistake about God and God's mistake about man.

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