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Love, War and History: Israel's Yehuda Amichai

Apr 22, 2007 (All Things Considered)

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For nearly 20 years, Henry Lyman hosted a radio program called Poems to a Listener out of WFCR in Amherst, Mass. He interviewed leading American poets of the day — writers like Richard Wilbur, Robert Penn Warren and Jane Kenyon. But one day in 1989, he sat down with the man many consider to be the poetic voice of Israel: Yehuda Amichai.

Amichai chronicled much of Israel's existence in poems about love, war and his beloved Jerusalem. He was born into a family of Orthodox Jews — then named Pfeuffer — in Wurzburg, Germany, in 1924. His parents were merchants whose ancestors had lived in the region since the Middle Ages. Amichai told Lyman that he left Nazi Germany with his parents in 1935 and settled in Palestine.

Amichai was intensely nationalistic. He fought in four wars, as well as in the Jewish underground that fought the British regime in Palestine. But Amichai was also known to write love poems in times of war. And his love for Jerusalem, in all its guises, was abundant. Amichai recited one section of his poem-cycle Jerusalem 1967 for Lyman. As translated by Stephen Mitchell, it begins:

On Yom Kippur in 1967, the Year of Forgetting, I put on
my dark holiday clothes and walked to the Old City of
                                                                     Jerusalem.
For a long time I stood in front of an Arab's hole-in-the-wall
                                                                         shop.

The poet, himself the son of a merchant, silently "describes" to the Arab shopkeeper all the forces of history that have landed them there face to face. But he says nothing openly:

I explained to him in my heart about all the decades
and the causes and the events, why I am now here
and my father's shop was burned there and he is buried here.

In another poem, "The Diameter of the Bomb," Amichai describes how a single act of violence reverberates through history, encompassing the whole world and God with it.

Lyman spoke with Yehuda Amichai in New York in 1989. We revisit their conversation as part of our April series for National Poetry Month.

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