An examination of Yehuda Amichai’s ‘Jewish Time Bomb’


Those of you who have found yourselves in the main lobby of Providence’s Temple Beth-El have probably noticed a striking art installation just to the left of the doors leading into the synagogue’s meeting hall: a pale green glass disc about 5 feet in diameter and an inch and a half thick. A narrow, shallow trough about 2 feet long runs vertically through the center of the otherwise perfectly smooth and polished surface. The artist, Dan Clayman, has created a work that embodies the power and the depth of unadorned simplicity.

Above the glass disc are three Hebrew words: patuach, sagur, patuach. An English translation – “open, closed, open” – is nowhere to be found. Nor is it noted that “Patuach Sagur Patuach” is the title of the last collection of poems by Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), Israel’s best-known contemporary poet, whose work has been translated into 37 languages.

It is not until the 16th poem, out of a total of 23, that Amichai addresses the title of his final work. In section 4 of “I Was Not One of the Six Million. And What is the Course of My Life? Open Closed Open,” Amichai writes: “Open closed open. Before you are born/Everything is open in the world without you. While you are living, everything is closed/Within your life. And when you die, everything is again open./Open closed open. This is all you are.” (All translations of Amichai are my own.)

At first glance, Amichai seems to have it backwards: Doesn’t it make more sense to say that it is only when we are alive that the world is open to us? And before we are born and after we die, isn’t the world closed to us? Upon reflection, however, Amichai seems to be suggesting that death destroys our need for limits; everything is once again open.

It is during our lifetime that we must impose limits upon the world around us; to preserve our very sanity, we need to close out most of the infinity of stimuli that is continually bombarding us. We can only make our subjective experience manageable by choosing where to focus, where to place our finite energy, what to embrace, what to ignore. Indeed, it is by choosing what to see, what not to see, what to hear, what not to hear, what to learn, what not to learn, that we can shape the “I” at the core of our personalities.

Open closed open. Patuach sagur patuach. Amichai points to a central paradox: We can only be open to the fullness of life when we voluntarily choose to close the door on the overabundance of experience and learn to live within our human limitations.

In wrestling with this paradox, Amichai devoted much of his poetic energy in the final years of his life to an exploration of the subtle interplay between forgetting and remembering, which he sees as analogous to the processes of opening and closing. To forget everything is to obliterate our identities. To remember everything is to drown in the ocean of undifferentiated time; if we permit all our memories to be equally significant, if we view our past experience as holding no mountains and no valleys, then our past is a flat line, a living death.

Forgotten … remembered …forgotten. … All is balance.

The last poem in Amichai’s final collection, “Pitsitsat Hazman Ha-Yehudi,” (“The Jewish Time Bomb”), begins with his musings about the “Amen stone” on his desk, the stone to which he refers in four other poems in this same volume: “On my desk there is a stone upon which is engraved the word ‘Amen,’ a fragment/rescued from thousands upon thousands of fragments of broken tombstones/in Jewish cemeteries. …”

The poet goes on to say that these fragments and pieces of shrapnel have filled up what he calls “the great Jewish time bomb.” In addition to these broken bits from Jewish graves, the Jewish time bomb is stuffed with fragments from the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, broken altars and crosses, rusty nails from the Crucifixion, shards of houseware, shattered sacred vessels, pieces of bone, eyeglasses, shoes, artificial limbs, discarded dentures, empty canisters of Zyklon B – a time bomb filled with the explosive memories of defamation, degradation, annihilation.

Despite this burden of memory, which Amichai says “will fill the Jewish time bomb till the end of days,” the poet affirms that the “Amen stone” on his desk offers him shalvah, tranquility, peace. It is “a stone of witness to all the things that have ever been/and all the things that will ever be, a stone of Amen and love./ Amen, Amen, and so may it be God’s will.”

“The Jewish Time Bomb” testifies to Amichai’s ongoing struggle between the duty to remember and the need to forget, the need to be closed in order to be open and the need to be open in order to be closed.

The last words of “And Who Will Remember the Rememberers?,” the poem that immediately precedes “The Jewish Time Bomb,” form in Hebrew a rhyming couplet:  

Shachuach, zachur, shachuach/Patuach, sagur, patuach.

“Forgotten, remembered, forgotten. Open, closed, open.”

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at