‘A Poem about a Lie on Erev Shabbat’

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Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) is Israel’s best-known contemporary poet; his work has been translated into 40 languages.  In my bookcase stand several of Amichai’s volumes in the Hebrew original and several additional volumes in English translation.

One of my favorites among Amichai’s several hundred poems can be titled in English as “A Poem about a Lie on Erev Shabbat.”  The poem is not one of Amichai’s best-known works; it is not easy to find among the many collections of his writings in English translation.  Nevertheless, I have long been attracted to this poem about a lie because of its tension between innocence and sophistication:

“One erev Shabbat, at twilight of a summer’s day … / I began, in my youth, to lie to my father: / ‘I went to another synagogue.’ ”

Amichai goes on to confess, “I don’t know if he believed me or not.”

It could well be that his father had asked him at the Shabbat dinner table, “Why didn’t I see you at shul earlier this evening?”

Perhaps he chose to accept his son’s lie as an awkward and obvious cover for his youthful rebellion, his age-appropriate need to defy his father: “You can’t make me go to shul if I don’t want to.”

Whatever his father’s unspoken motives for not confronting his son, the young Amichai found that “the taste of that lie was good and sweet in my mouth.” And the poet carried within him the sweet taste of that lie well into middle age, never knowing for sure how his father interpreted his words, “I went to another synagogue.”

Amichai concludes his poem by looking back with a sense of bittersweet ambiguity and maybe a touch of regret: “And ever since then that lie is good and sweet in my mouth / and ever since then I always go to another synagogue. / But my father returned the lie to me when he died: ‘I have gone to another life.’ ”

On Nov. 2, 1997, Amichai spoke at the inaugural William G. Braude lecture at Temple Beth-El, in Providence.  At the event, Amichai read several of his better-known poems, many of which reflect the poet’s ongoing lover’s quarrel with his father and with the God of his father. Poems like “God Takes Pity on Kindergarten Children,” which begins, “God takes pity on kindergarten children, / less pity on school children / and on adults no pity at all.”

And he read poems such as “El Malei Rachamim,” (“God Full of Mercy”), which stands the traditional prayer of mourning and memory on its head: “God full of mercy, / were it not for the God full of mercy, there would be mercy in the world / and not only in Him.”

During the Q&A period following Amichai’s reading, I had the opportunity to ask the poet, “Are you still carrying on a lover’s quarrel with God?”

To which Amichai responded, without batting an eyelash: “I still haven’t worked out my relationship with my father.”

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.