restricted access 10. The Haifa Letters: The Making of an Israeli
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10 The Haifa Letters the making of an israeli 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 that occurred during the eight stormy months that he spent there were never erased. The letters that he wrote to Ruth Z. during that period bear witness to how his world was changing. Against the backdrop of September 1947–April 1948 in Haifa, the young man culminated his transformation from the immigrant child, Ludwig Pfeuffer, into the Israeli patriot, Yehuda Amichai. As the War of Independence shook the country and devastated the city of Haifa, Amichai consciously began to identify himself as an Israeli whose individual fate was synonymous with that of the new nation and its people. Indeed, Amichai’s letters to Ruth are a unique record in this respect. They open a window into his daily life, his feelings, thoughts, and opinions during the period when he took his first steps as a poet and his worldview as an adult was being forged. Amichai’s letters are a testimony to his evolution from an impressionable young man in love, a neophyte teacher, and a categorically lyrical poet into an Israeli man whose poetry contained the history of his people and their land. During this liminal period, the psychological and linguistic experiences that Amichai brought with him from Europe were not covered up and are detectable in his correspondence with Ruth Z. to a degree that would never be matched in his public writing. During their correspondence, however, Amichai’s identification with the Israeli reality grew and his notion of what it meant to be a poet went through a transformation. As the violence in Palestine escalated and Amichai’s patriotic identity solidified, the values espoused by his poetic destiny and his national duties collided. Although Amichai still believed that a poet must draw on his childhood, his developing national identity dictated that his diasporic past—his foreign childhood—had to be repressed. After the war, as a mature poet, he would find a creative solution for the dichotomy between his two selves: not to delete, but rather to cloak that past with his newly acquired self-identification as an Israeli. During these tumultuous months, Amichai developed into a poet who was both personal and national, a poet whose voice was that of the middle-of-the-road Israeli man. This was precisely the voice that would make him “the people’s poet,” the only canonic poet whose works are read by the Israeli masses.1 Years later, Amichai insisted that he had not planned to become a poet, but rather began writing poetry around age twenty-five as a coping mechanism during the fierce battles in the Negev: “That one, decisive year spent at war in the desert had a great impact on my life and actually made me a poet.”2 As we have seen, however, the letters that he wrote to Ruth Z. reveal that he knew poetry was the essence of his being for a year or two before Israel’s War of Independence . It is possible that his denial of his early aspirations stemmed from an effort to erase his ill-fated romance with Ruth and her mark on his poetry from that period. It is also possible that by delaying the date of his initiation as a poet until the period of the battles, Amichai intended to imply a stronger, more inherent connection between his patriotic side and his creative one. * * * When Ruth Z. arrived in New York, some of Amichai’s letters were already waiting for her. These were the first of ninety-eight aerograms that he would mail in the months that followed. Ninety-four of them reached their destination , where Ruth read them before carefully placing them in a tin box.3 With endless patience, exemplary order, and meticulous detail, Amichai told Ruth about his life. Underlying these descriptions is the writer’s desire to share his new experiences with the woman he loved. He wanted to arouse her longings for the Land of Israel and for him, the man who was waiting for her and planning their future together.4 The text of the letters can...