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  • Yehuda Amichai: The Making of Israel's National Poet
  • Boaz Arpaly
    Translated by Eythan Weg
Yehuda Amichai: The Making of Israel's National Poet, by Nili Scharf Gold. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England / Brandeis University Press, 2008. 445 pp. $35.00.

Nili Sharf Gold's book is important because it contains a report on the life of the poet and his writing until 1948. The report is supported by the author's visits to Würzburg, Germany, Amichai's childhood town, and is based on the author's interviews with Amichai's friends and contemporaries, on letters that Amichai wrote during the months between September 1947 and April 1948 to Ruth Z., a lover who moved to the U.S. and there married someone else, and on documents from Amichai's literary estate in the Beinecke Library at Yale University. At the same time, this is a wasted book because of its excited, exaggerated, speculative, and baseless conclusions and because of the invalid use of them (see, for example, what Robert Alter has written in the December 22, 2008 issue of the New Republic). It seems that the author forgot the lesson Amichai teaches in his poem "And we shall not get excited."

The description of Amichai's childhood in Würzburg and his life in Eretz Israel, a land he was brought to by his parents when he was twelve years old, and his love affair with a woman who moved to the U.S. before the eruption of 1948 Independence War are a real contribution to a full biography of the poet, a biography that has not yet been written. The survey of the contents of Amichai's letters to the woman and of documents from the estate is important [End Page 213] and new. Nili Gold does not provide direct contact with the documents themselves; the information about the documents is provided indirectly by the interpretation of texts which are not present in the book (probably their publication rights were not granted). The author's central factual claims are, as stated, interesting and draw attention to aspects of Amichai's life and poetry that have not been seriously discussed until now. Some of them are biographical: details about his childhood and his family in Würzburg, the circumstances of the family's immigration to Eretz Israel, the story about "little Ruth," a classmate, his enlistment in the British Army, and the story of his love for Ruth Z. Some of them relate to his poetry: his affinity to the his childhood language, German, continued to accompany him also in adulthood, among other things as a background to his Hebrew writing (according to Gold the archive includes German versions of drafts of poems and even of complete poems that were later translated into Hebrew), information on earlier and different versions of known poems, and a fledgling work that can explain his early poetry and representation of his early poetic thought (despite its problematic presentation in the book).

But Nili Gold is not satisfied with these findings. She argues for a complete change in the interpretation of Amichai poetry from now on. For this claim there is no real foundation. The attempt to interpret Amichai's poems on the basis of "German" or biographical hidden strata—to which many tiresome pages are dedicated—is neither convincing nor interesting. The greatness of Amichai as a Hebrew poet is not predicated on a German unconscious and translation work. Amichai was not by any interpretation "a German poet in Hebrew mask," although it is possible to identify remnants of German vocabulary and syntax in his language games (the same as remnants of Yiddish and Russian in the Hebrew of earlier poets). The biographical interpretation of poems in which there appear words such as 'train', 'translator', or 'snow' is imperfect, does not payoff poetically, and lacks the power to compete with existential interpretations of the same poems. The identification of components of the story of his relations with Ruth Z. in his later poems does not make her the heroine of these poems and cannot subordinate the variety of details in a poem to that story. "We loved here...


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pp. 213-216
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