JERUSALEM — Yehuda Amichai, Israel's world-renowned poet and one of its leading writers, is an earthy, sad-eyed man whose work might seem, to the casual reader, to be marked by an obsession with God. But for this sensual poet of the land, the word God is just a convenient name for describing that unknowable, hovering mystery, what Dylan Thomas called "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower."
Amichai (the word means my people lives ) is a man of strong convictions, who believes that the conflict between religious and secular Jews is Israel's greatest internal problem.
This singular Hebrew poet, who was born in Germany in 1924 and came to Palestine in the mid-1930s, has no patience for the nationalist camp--they were and are "fascists" to his mind, and he characterizes their greatest poet, the late Uri Zvi Greenberg, as a blusterer, ornate icing on a Mussolini wedding cake. The secular socialists, on the other hand, have always been the backbone of the renascent Jewish homeland, Amichai believes.
Amichai, who until recent years did not experience financial security during his long writing career, now lives in a recently remodeled house in the gentrified former slum of Yemin Moshe. From the windows of his house, one sees Mt. Zion, the Old City wall, a purple haze over the Valley of Kidron and the ravine called Gehinnom in the Bible--Gehenna, or hell. But he treats this heavy historical view with the same skepticism and irony that one senses in his poetry.
In his book, "Songs of Jerusalem and Myself," Amichai, who came to Jerusalem more than 50 years ago, wrote a poem called "I've Been Invited to Life," in which he said: "I sign the guest book of God: I was here, I stayed on, I loved it, it was great, I was guilty, I betrayed, I was much impressed by the warm welcome in this world."
Jerusalem for him is the "port city on the shores of eternity," and it represents pain and peace.
Although Yehuda Amichai's first language was German, he was brought up in an Orthodox-Zionist home and learned Hebrew at the Jewish state school he attended in Wurzburg in southern Germany. His father and six aunts and uncles all came to Palestine during the first two years of Hitler's reign. Amichai had great respect for his merchant father, and though he would soon break from the religion--as did so many members of his generation of young Palestinians--he knew that something of the tradition would be carried on, a sort of spiritual DNA. In a poem called "My Child," he would write: "My father's movements in prayer /And my own in love / Lie already folded in his small body." His father's life and death is a powerful component of Amichai's work.
Did he stop being a believer when he broke with the religion during his teens? There are "different kinds" of belief, says Amichai: "Believing means that there must be some kind of power about which we'll never find out, and that's it. I just don't want to spend much time thinking about it."
Amichai characterizes the prevalence of God in his poetry as utilitarian and symbolic: "I use it as I use father and mother . . . instead of saying 'the supreme power' or 'supreme intelligence'--this kind of silly bending over backward to avoid saying God-- I use it, in the way I called my father abba and didn't call him 'a genetical machine for providing semen from past generations to the future.' "
Critic Aloma Halter has written that "God is always hovering over Amichai's prose, charging even the most secular subjects with the particular intensity of the inverse; religion brought in to evoke the ultimate in sanctity or blasphemy. There is a tendency to use religious imagery and metaphors as tailors use interfacing to stiffen collars and cuffs, putting it in wherever the material might develop an ungainly sag."
Though every schoolchild knows that the Earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa, we still say, "the sun is going down into the sea." And according to Amichai, "There are two languages: one as things seem to us and the other of knowledge."
He's a grounded man, who uses everyday life and language to weave a complex vision of this new nation with its biblical roots. While a tourist visiting Yemin Moshe may be awestruck by the historical importance of Mt. Zion 100 yards away, Amichai lives here, and sees different things: "Most of the time when I go out I see I have to take laundry in; or when the children were small, the diapers; or I'd see that some stones were loose and the paint is cracking on the fence . . . but sometimes, I do have a feeling of really seeing Mt. Zion and the Old City wall and everything. But I'm a very down-to-earth person."
Three hundred yards from his balcony is yet another stage, the Mount of Olives and the Valley of Kidron, the place of the resurrection of the dead at the End of Time. Amichai has written a poem, called "Resurrection":
\o7 Afterwards they will get up
all together, and with a sound of chairs scraping