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Between Perspectives of Space: A Reading in Yehuda Amichai's "Jewish Travel" and "Israeli Travel"
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Jewish Social Studies 11.3 (2005) 141-161

A Reading in Yehuda Amichai's "Jewish Travel" and "Israeli Travel"

Vered Shemtov

"My body is in the East, my heart in the extreme West"

The Land knows where the clouds come from and whence the hot wind
Where hatred and whence love.
But its inhabitants are confused, their heart is in the East
And their body in the far West.
Like migratory birds who lost their summer and winter,
Lost in the beginning and the end, and they migrate
To the end of pain all their days.

Amichai's poetic sequences "Jewish Travel: Change Is God and Death Is His Prophet" and "Israeli Travel: Otherness Is All, Otherness Is Love" seem to touch a controversial issue regarding Jewish space. To what extent did the Zionist movement succeed in creating a Jewish identity that bridges the gap between physical and mental space? Does this new identity completely replace the concept of "the wandering Jew" with a new Jew who is rooted in his land? Is there really a substantial difference between a Jewish and an Israeli- Jewish concept of place?

In his introduction to A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, Eli Barnavi claims that the Jewish consciousness "constantly shifts between awareness of physical spaces (the birth place, for example) to spaces of reference (the ancestral homeland, Hebrew, etc.), a shift which actually constitutes the Jewish spatial experience." This definition, he argues, includes the perspective of the Israeli Jew, "My body is in the East, my heart in the extreme West—an inversion of Halevi's verse seems most appropriate to the inhabitants of Israel" he writes. "The present protagonist in the mental drama created by a differential and discontinuous space is no longer the Diaspora Jew but the Israeli."

Since the 1990s, we find that—even among the many scholars who claim that the establishment of a Jewish center in Israel created a fundamental shift "from an existence outside time and space to an existence with space"there have been growing tendencies to view Israeli culture (especially after the 1970s) as reflecting a tension between a nomad identity and a "native's identity." Zali Gurevitch and Gideon Aran, in their oft-quoted article "Al ha-makom" (About the Place), revealed the gap between mental and physical place in Jewish and Israeli culture. Risa Domb looked at the increasing number of novels in which the Israeli protagonist travels abroad in search of self. These journeys reflect more than the "state of mind of the modern humanity, which has lost the sense of belonging." Domb puts these travels also in the specific context of the Jewish-Israeli search for locus, and she refers to works by Dan Miron and others, including A. B. Yehoshua, who, as she claims, argues that "Zionism failed to tie Jewish consciousness to one place."

A number of recent novels written by authors who were born in Israel (or who are second or third generation) also question the existence of one personal and national geographical center. Ronit Matalon's novel The One Facing Us takes place outside Israel, following pictures from a family album, and does not locate "home" necessarily in Israel. Maya Arad's Makom aher ve-ir zarah (A Different Place) ends with the protagonist's acknowledgment that his home is not in Israel. Sidra DeKoven Ezrakhi argues that "there are growing signs of dislocation, shifts in the center of gravity corresponding to increasingly mobile boundaries of the Hebrew self. 'Exile' as the repressed other becomes the critique of a culture of the static and the whole. The stagnant waters and mirrors that reflect an ossified relationship to sacred space are beginning to show ripples and cracks." Although Israeli literature has always reflected the tension between different (and often conflicting) definitions of identity and homelessness/home/homeland, these recent cracks expose a more critical version of the issue.

Thus, though it is probably much too early to conclude whether Zionism succeeded in establishing a wholly new perspective of place in the Israeli-Jewish consciousness, we can already witness the process of rethinking "Jewish Space" in Israeli literature. Yehuda Amichai's poems present a particularly interesting example of...

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