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Yehuda Amichai

The Making of Israel's National Poet

Nili Scharf Gold

Publication Year: 2009

Yehuda Amichai is one of the twentieth century's (and Israel's) leading poets. In this remarkable book, Gold offers a profound reinterpretation of Amichai's early works, using two sets of untapped materials: notes and notebooks written by Amichai in Hebrew and German that are now preserved in the Beinecke archive at Yale, and a cache of ninety-eight as-yet unpublished letters written by Amichai in 1947 and 1948 to a woman identified in the book as Ruth Z., which were recently discovered by Gold.

Gold found irrefutable evidence in the Yale archive and the letters to Ruth Z. that allows her to make two startling claims. First, she shows that in order to remake himself as an Israeli soldier-citizen and poet, Amichai suppressed ("camouflaged") his German past and German mother tongue both in reference to his biography and in his poetry. Yet, as her close readings of his published oeuvre as well as his unpublished German and Hebrew notes at the Beinecke show, these texts harbor the linguistic residue of his European origins. Gold, who knows both Hebrew and German, establishes that the poet's German past infused every area of his work, despite his attempts to conceal it in the process of adopting a completely Israeli identity.

Gold's second claim is that Amichai somewhat disguised the story of his own development as a poet. According to Amichai's own accounts, Israel's war of independence was the impetus for his creative writing. Long accepted as fact, Gold proves that this poetic biography is far from complete. By analyzing Amichai's letters and reconstructing his relationship with Ruth Z., Gold reveals what was really happening in the poet's life and verse at the end of the 1940s. These letters demonstrate that the chronological order in which Amichai's works were published does not reflect the order in which they were written; rather, it was a product of the poet's literary and national motivations.

Published by: Brandeis University Press

Front Cover

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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-x

An analytic study of Yehuda Amichai must address the conflict between the poet’s German past and his new homeland. I have spent most of my adult life in the United States, far from my Hebrew mother tongue, and I knew the struggle inherent in linguistic double allegiance and the substitution...

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1. Introduction: Camouflage as the Key to the Poetry of Yehuda Amichai

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pp. 1-25

One evening in 1997, I went to a university lecture in New York City with Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s best-known poet. We sat in a back row at the end of a crowded hall and waited for the speaker to begin, when suddenly he touched my arm and said, almost in a whisper, “Do you see, three...

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2. Childhood in Wuerzburg: A Dubious Paradise

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pp. 26-46

Although Yehuda Amichai’s hometown of Wuerzburg is masked by generalizations or anonymity in his poetry, its sites, sounds, and people remained in the poet’s consciousness. An autobiographical novel, a few radio skits, short stories, and a long epic poem recall Wuerzburg, and...

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3. The Murky Mirror of Wuerzburg in Amichai's Work

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pp. 47-100

A reader who scours Amichai’s verse for traces of the world the poet left behind will find very few. Wuerzburg and the highlights of Amichai’s childhood years are missing. The absence of the bad times is also striking: there is no sign of the Nazis’ impact on him or his family. The memories of the friends who accompanied Amichai throughout his childhood, including...

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4. Hiding Between the Languages: The German Mother Tongue in Amichai’s Universe

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pp. 101-150

A few German words, scrawled across the page in Amichai’s elongated script, encapsulate the fate of the immigrant child: he “hides himself between the languages” (“versteckt sich zwischen den Sprachen”).1 This phrase, which is found in a small, gray notepad marked “November–December 1957,” forms only a single line in a draft of a substantial poem. Its...

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5. Growing Up in Palestine

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pp. 151-159

Ludwig clutched the rucksack with his most precious keepsakes to his chest. From the train window, he bid farewell to the rivers, forests, and church spires of his childhood.1 At the border post between Switzerland and Italy, the Pfeuffers waited anxiously among the trunks and packages that held all that remained of their lives in Wuerzburg. They need not...

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6. "And the Migration of My Parents Has Not Subsided in Me"

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pp. 160-178

Amichai, who was unwillingly forced out of the land of childhood, always carried with him the trauma of that passage.1 As an adult, however, he insisted that the experience of immigration was “a joyous event”2 and that there was “nothing traumatic” about it.3 When he identified

Photo Insert

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pp. 179-190

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7. The Love Story

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pp. 191-208

As the new veteran Yehuda Pfeuffer climbed the stairs of the Bet Hakerem Teachers Seminary1 in Jerusalem on a bright Sunday in June 1946, he did not know that at the top was the woman who would eternalize for him the connection between ships and sadness. The crash course from which they would both graduate was already well underway. It was...

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8. The Literary Legacy of the Love Story: “Binyamina, 1947” and “We Loved Here”

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pp. 209-242

Ruth Z. did not take many belongings with her when she left Haifa, but tucked deep in her bag, she did carry the hand-bound blue notebook on whose cover the words “Binyamina, 1947” were inscribed. The six sonnets in this notebook depict the light-filled, blissful days that she and Yehuda...

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9. The Lovers in the Public Garden

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pp. 243-266

A small booklet entitled Bagina hatsiburit (In the Public Garden) was published by the Akhshav publishing house shortly after the appearance of Amichai’s second volume, Two Hopes Away.1 This sequence is preserved in Amichai’s first collected volume, Poems: 1948–1962, in which the poems are arranged according to the dates of each book’s...

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10. The Haifa Letters: The Making of an Israeli

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pp. 267-289

Thirteen years had passed between August 24, 1936, when Amichai first saw the Carmel ridge from the deck of the Gerusalemme, the ship that brought him to Palestine, and his return to the city on the slopes of the Carmel as a temporary home. Although Haifa is almost completely absent from Amichai’s poems, the footprints of the dramatic personal changes...

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11. The Making of a National Poet

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pp. 290-312

For six decades, Ruth Z. has been the guardian not merely of a collection of love letters or a record of national events, but of historical literary documents that encapsulate Amichai’s maturation as a poet. These letters are also a work of literature in their own right. They weave an intimate narrative, at the...

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12. Conclusion: Retrieving the Abandoned Landmarks

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pp. 313-323

The discoveries and analyses presented in this book demand a sea change in the interpretation of Amichai’s oeuvre from this point forward. Indeed, in order to fully appreciate his wondrous poetry, it is essential to look toward the true subtexts of his work: the German language, the landscapes...

Appendix A: Texts of Poems Discussed in Their Entirety

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pp. 325-349

Appendix B: Map of Wuerzburg

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pp. 350-351


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pp. 353-423

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 425-436


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pp. 435-445

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781584658122
E-ISBN-10: 1584658126
Print-ISBN-13: 9781584657330

Page Count: 468
Publication Year: 2009