Amichai’s ‘Poems of Jerusalem’

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I have in my home library a number of volumes of the poetry of Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), perhaps Israel’s best-known post-state poet. Many are in the Hebrew original, others are English translations, and two or three are Hebrew-English bilingual editions.

Of these dozen or so books of Amichai’s poetry, my most cherished is a timeworn paperback dual-language edition of “Poems of Jerusalem,” published by Harper Row in 1978. This collection includes 36 relatively short poems, plus excerpts from two much longer poems. Eight different translators worked to echo Amichai’s vernacular, though richly allusive Hebrew, in the rhythms and sounds of spoken English.

“Poems of Jerusalem” does not, in my opinion, represent Amichai’s best poetry; many literary critics would argue that that distinction belongs to his final volume, “Patuach Sagur Patuach” (1998; an incomplete English translation by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld appeared in 2000, published by Harcourt). What makes “Poems of Jerusalem” so special to me is that Amichai himself signed my copy after delivering the inaugural William G. Braude Lecture at Providence’s Temple Beth-El on Nov. 2, 1997.

Moreover, it was this very volume that I carried with me on my last two trips to Jerusalem. In the fall of 1995, my son David spent the first semester of his junior year in high school as a student in the Reform Movement’s Eisendrath International Exchange program, housed in the movement’s Beth Shmuel, next door to the world-renowned King David Hotel.

It was during my visit with David that on Saturday evening, Nov. 4, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. As I read and reread passages from “Poems of Jerusalem” during those subsequent tear-filled days in a city convulsed, the poet’s depth of insight about the place he knew so intimately helped to restore my emotional and spiritual balance.

I was back in Jerusalem in March of 2002, during the height of the Second Intifada; this time I was attending the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Once again, Amichai’s “Poems of Jerusalem” offered me the perspective I needed to face a city almost devoid of tourists because of a seemingly endless string of terrorist bombings.

Reading Amichai’s poems celebrating and criticizing the city he loved so deeply convinced me that Jerusalem was precisely where I needed to be at that time as a Jew and as a rabbi, despite the threats posed by the Intifada – or rather, because of those threats.

At home in the United States, I shared two of the poems in “Poems of Jerusalem” with a class of Barrington High School students to help them grasp some of the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In “The Diameter of the Bomb,” the poet tells us that “The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters/and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters/with four dead and eleven wounded.” Amichai continues to expand the circles of pain and bereavement until he concludes with these despairing words: “And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans/that reaches up to the throne of God and /beyond, making/a circle with no end and no God.”

The students explored with me, their guest teacher, the poet’s bitterness about the ongoing random bombings perpetrated by Arab terrorists, and yet …. And yet he has included in his “Poems of Jerusalem” a selection, “An Arab Shepherd is Searching for his Goat on Mt. Zion,” composed in a very different tone, a tone of sympathy, understanding, even reconciliation with “the other”: “An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mt. Zion/and on the opposite mountain I am searching/for my little boy.”

Amichai looks beneath the shepherd’s identity as an Arab and finds a man of shared humanity: “An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father/both in their temporary failure./Our voices meet/above the Sultan’s Pool in the valley between us.”

Amichai chooses to end his poem with words of haunting ambiguity: “Searching for a goat or a son/has always been the beginning/of a new religion in these mountains.”

By the end of that lively session at Barrington High School, many of the students came to sense the intolerable pain and almost compulsive need to even the score that has poisoned the relationship between Israeli Jew and Palestinian Arab for decade after decade. The tonal tension between Amichai’s “The Diameter of the Bomb” and “An Arab Shepherd …” prod us to acknowledge the tragic consequences of harboring vengefulness within our hearts and souls: Should we take revenge upon our enemies, we will wind up destroying ourselves.

As an old Middle East proverb puts it: If you want revenge, dig two graves – one for your enemy and one for yourself.

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