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Yehuda Amichai: The Making of Israel's National Poet (review)

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 3, Number 1, January 2010
pp. 67-69 | 10.1353/jji.0.0070

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Any reader for whom Yehuda Amichai is a cherished poet will find much to value in Nili Scharf Gold's expertly researched and rigorous biography. Far more than a conventional biographical study, Yehuda Amichai in fact constitutes a profoundly important scholarly corrective to which the future corpus of Amichai criticism will likely be heavily indebted. Gold proves an able archeologist of the deepest layers of Amichai's life, offering truly fascinating evidence of the poet's strategic suppression of his German birthplace and childhood in Wuerzburg, and, through meticulously close readings, vividly presents Amichai's lyrical aesthetics of camouflage and subterfuge in presenting an "Israeli" identity at pivotal moments in his career.

The young Amichai's partial effacement of his origins is hardly unique among Israeli artists, (and others of his generation). Thus, it is not unreasonable that "more than anything, Amichai wanted to be known as an authentic Hebrew, Israeli poet with local roots, whose childhood had taken place in Jerusalem during the British Mandate and whose youth had passed in preparation for…military service. In order to present himself as such a poet, he had to hide the exilic universe he carried inside him" (47). In this context, Gold anticipates complaints by those who would insist that the poems do contain evidence of Amichai's European past. She concurs that, while these vestiges are indeed present at times, they are generally "hidden by generalizations, metaphorical overabundance, hermetic language, and Israeli landscapes that blur their foreign origin….Wuerzburg only peeks out through a few scattered metaphors" (49, 50), especially in the seminal volume Poems: 1948-1962. In her examination of this crucial collection, Gold produces an especially rich analysis of the development of "Elegy on the Lost Child," the memorable epic work that established the poet's reputation and 'Israeliness.' For example, a line in the published Hebrew version of "Elegy" invokes the child who "hid in the stones of tomorrow's houses" whereas the earlier, German original in the archived notes reads "the child hides between the languages" (61), clearly describing the painful process of transition between cultures, languages, and identities.

At the same time, Gold believes that elsewhere (in cryptic lyrical allusions to Jerusalem as a "river-less city" or to lush forests), Amichai expresses deep, unresolved attachment to Wuerzburg's river and the nearby countryside. Moreover, in the young poet's German notes (which Gold consulted in Yale's Beinecke Library), she discovered copious expressions of alienation, loss, vulnerability, and even a degree of nostalgia for Europe. But a 1959 visit to Wuerzburg proved a catharsis that inspired the rich sensory details that inform his novel Not of this Time, Not of this Place (its protagonist a fairly close surrogate for Amichai). Gold justifiably considers this work a direct confrontation with the identity his earlier verse refuses to claim. It is also a memorial to a lost Jewish world. And she also reveals myriad instances in which Amichai's late poems do present memorable instances of his reconciliation with his own "foreignness" (as well as his lyrical comparisons between Jewish dispossession in Germany and that of Palestinians in Israel). Yet what remains most compelling is the striking degree to which the artistic and psychological process that led to that arrival was filled with ambivalence and conflict, as even these posthumously published lines (titled simply "Wuerzburg") suggest: "Pass quickly before the place/where you were born/Travel to the places where others will be born."

Gold creates a remarkably lively portrait of pre-Holocaust Wuerzburg, where the poet spent the childhood years that he struggled later to efface in his verse and public image. From 1924-1936, Amichai was, after all, known as Ludwig Pfeuffer; accordingly Gold insists on referring to him as such whenever addressing his childhood. Thus, for the first time, many readers will come to appreciate the poet's diasporic heritage. This biographer's attention to this period proves especially invaluable in her focus on Pfeuffer's religious life—the texture of which remained intrinsic to Amichai's lyrics throughout his lifetime. And the crucial figure of Amichai's father emerges vividly, as a compassionate if authoritarian man. As Amichai once remarked of his...

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