The Man Sitting Next To The Roman Arch: Yehuda Amichai

This morning, on the radio, for the second Pesach holiday: “Reshet Bet,” had a special program about Yehudah Amichai to remember him 15 years after his death.

At the end of the last war, I wrote and essay about him and used  the last three lines from his poem “Tourists” as an appropriate motto for the new year. This morning those beautiful lines came up again. Surely,  after the election they are as relevant, and even symbolic, in predicting what awaits for us after the holiday.

“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.” (my free translation).

 Many Israelis, especially in my generation, cherish a special Amichai’s moment, I was lucky to have more than one:

As we were walking toward the hall where he was giving a  reading, the poet Yehudah Amichai  (1924—2000) suddenly turned to me and said: “I always feel so awkward  before readings, the students expect the writer of all those love poems, to be a great lover and here I am a short middle-aged man.”

At that time I was the program director at the Hillel House of the University of Iowa, and Yehudah Amichai was our guest lecturer.

As soon as we entered the room it was clear that Amichai was wrong; the audience, most of whom were students at the 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.

Amichai is considered by many, both in Israel and internationally, as Israel’s greatest modern poet. He was well aware of his stature, but still was not afraid to reveal a more vulnerable side. I suspect that the apprehension that Amichai  felt before his reading contributed to his very personal and warm performance during the reading.

I remember that 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 that answer, as 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.”

With subtle human gestures Amichai touched people’s lives and he certainly touched mine. Several years prior to that reading in Hillel House, he came to Iowa City for a reading. At its end I was asked to drive him to his hotel. Once I got there I suddenly realized that it was still early and he was on his own and invited Amichai to our home, he accepted gladly. My husband was there with our young daughters. When we got home Amichai asked first to see my two sleeping girls. I was  deeply touched.

This anecdote reminds me of another, somewhat similar  story. When Yitzhak Rabin visited the White House, president Jimmy Carter asked him if he wanted to see the sleeping Amy.  Rabin, perhaps out of shyness, declined and missed an opportunity to bond with the parents of the sleeping girl.  Many political analysts, and Carter himself in his memoir, regard this famous incident as a serious faux pas

In contrast,  Amichai’s  human approach and  exceptional personal  skills, combined with his strong and timeless poetry which so easily translated into English, contributed to his great success outside Israel. Evidence of his popularity can be seen in the fact that Amichai sold his archive for over $200,000 to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University.

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.”

I agree, and to illustrate his power, I translated this love poem, about another war– the Israeli Independence war (1948). Today we no longer write  poems like this one about wars, heroism or the women who wait at home, but still it has the special Amichai voice.

The Ballad Of The Long Hair And The Short Hair

His hair was shaven  when he got into the camp

Her hair remained long with no answer

“I can’t hear you in this growing noise”

You long hair, my girl, my short hair


Throughout the summer flowers practiced blooming,

Inside the patient earth as they built their strength .

“I returned to you, but was not the same.”

Your long hair, my love, my short hair

The wind broke the tree, the tree broke the wind

They had many options and very little time to rest

“It’s raining, come home quick”

Your long hair, my girl, your short hair


The world became for them, an indirect speech.

Didn’t touch them, slowly they began to sing

“I set my watch when are you coming back?”

Your long hair, my girl, your short hair


Then they fell silent, like distant steps

The sky opened, the book of laws closed

“What  are you saying, and what are you?”

Your long hair, my girl, your short hair

About the Author
I have a PhD in English literature from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and I usually write about issues concerning women, literature, culture and society. I lived in the US for 15 years (between 1979-1994). I am widow and in March 2016 started a support/growth Facebook group for widows: "Widows Move On." In October 2017 I started a Facebook group for Older and Experienced Feminists. .
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