Sixteen years ago the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) passed away. Many Israelis, especially in my generation, cherish a special Amichai’s moment, I was lucky, that as a program director at the Hillel House in the University of Iowa I met him, twice, when he came to Iowa City to give poetry readings
I shall start with an anecdote from his second visit: as we were walking toward Hillel House where he was giving a reading, Amichai suddenly turned to me and said: “I always feel a bit uncomfortable before readings, these young students expect the writer of all those love poems, to be a great lover and here I am a short middle-aged man.”
But as soon as we entered the room it was clear that Amichai was in his elements: the audience, most of whom were students at the renowned Writers’ Workshop, had long known his poetry and admired him. Moreover, since Amichai’s poems worked so well in English, they regarded him as one of their own –a great American poet.
Many people, in Israel and abroad, believe that Amichai is the greatest Israeli poet of his time. He was well aware of this status, but still was not afraid to show vulnerability. I suspect that the apprehension that Amichai had felt before his reading contributed to his personal and heartfelt performance during the reading.
When one of the students asked him about his work habits, he answered that he did not write every day, and that most of his poems came to him when he was taking walks. The students seemed quite surprised at his honest answer, they must have expected him to say that he wrote every day at his study.
At a reading in Princeton, the writer Jonathan Safran Foer told the audience that in his senior year at Princeton in 1999 he heard Yehuda Amichai give one of his final readings in the Stewart theater. While listening to Amichai, Foer realized that he wanted “to somehow move somebody” just as Amichai had moved him. “I wouldn’t be up here if it weren’t for Amichai.”
Safran Foer’s anecdote illustrates Amichai’s power to touch and change people’s lives. But even his small gestures made a memorable impression. Several years prior to his visit at Hillel House, he gave a reading at the university. Somehow I was asked to give him a ride to his hotel. Once we got there I suddenly realized that it was still early and he was on his own. Thus I invited Amichai to my home, and he accepted gladly. My husband was there as he stayed behind taking care of our young daughters. When we got home Amichai asked first to see my two sleeping girls, and stood at the dark room looking at them for quite a long time.
The English poet Ted Hughes, who translated Amichai’s poems into English together with Amichai himself, wrote in the Times Literary Supplement: “I’ve become more than ever convinced that Amichai is one of the biggest, most essential, most durable poetic voices of this past century – one of the most intimate, alive and human, wise, humorous, true, loving, inwardly free and resourceful, at home in every human situation.”
This quote from the poem “Tourists” is an example of those qualities, and it is also a perfect wish for the New Year:
“Salvation will come when the guide tells those tourists: you see the Roman arch over there? It doesn’t matter, but next to it, to the left, down below, sits a man who bought fruits and vegetables for his family.” “Tourists” 1980 (my free translation).