Well-versed in the times

Yehuda Amichai’s daughter says her father’s openness to every given moment infused his poetry with balance and vitality.

YehudaAmichai311 (photo credit: .)
(photo credit: .)
It’s a bit strange to think of Yehuda Amichai in the past, but the fact is that the celebrated poet has been gone 10 years, and this week’s Poets Festival in Metulla fittingly includes a tribute to him.
Time, timing and – naturally – rhythm were integral parts of Amichai’s literary DNA. “He always moved with the times,” says his daughter Emmanuella Amichai. “He had this ability to move along the chronological axis, from past to present, to always be in the here and now while incorporating everything that happened before him. He had this sort of temporal balance about himself, and about his work.”
The Amichai tribute at the Poets Festival will take place on May 19 at 6 p.m., with the screening of a documentary about him made by Michael Carpin, called Lest My Right Hand Forget. The film is an odyssey in the footsteps of some of the poems Amichai wrote about his beloved Jerusalem. The principal figures in the documentary include David Broza, who put some of Amichai’s poems to music specifically for the film, author Meir Shalev, octogenarian Jerusalemite writer Haim Guri, singer-songwriter Yehudit Ravitz and Emmanuella herself.
Amichai was a blend of many worlds, some highly contrasting. He was born in Germany in 1924, to an Orthodox but liberal family. He grew up steeped in European culture but very quickly adapted to life in the Middle East, and cultures beyond. “Dad mostly loved classical music, Mozart especially, also Bach, Mahler and Stravinsky. But he also liked the Beatles,” Emmanuella says. “And when he went to Oslo to attend the peace accords ceremony there and heard [Irish pop singer] Sinead O’Connor sing he fell in love with her voice, too. In fact, when we drove in the car and my brother put some rap music on, Dad actually thought one of the songs was okay.”
IT IS partly due to that ability to go with the flow that Amichai is still thought of as Israel’s most popular poet. He is credited with making Hebrew more accessible to the masses, and often used colloquial turns of phrase, but, his daughter is quick to point out, he always approached the written word with the greatest reverence. “He didn’t incorporate slang but he revolutionized Hebrew through his use of contemporary energies. There was absolutely nothing archaic about his poetry even though he always remained steadfastly faithful to the roots of Hebrew, and had a deep understanding of the language – even when he was writing about the most mundane of subjects. He always lived in the reality of the times.”
Surprisingly for a German-born quintessentially Israeli poet, Amichai’s interest in that particular branch of the literary world was sparked by an accident which led him to cultivate an interest in British poets. “He was in the British army during World War Two, in Egypt, when an army truck with library books overturned,” says Emmanuella. “Dad picked up some books and they were poetry books by people like Dylan Thomas and T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. That had a very great impact on him.”
Amichai was also very strongly attached to Jerusalem. “He grew up there, as I did. He said he loved Jerusalem, but he also had a difficult relationship with it which he expressed in his poems. He was active in the Mapam party and he worked with Teddy Kollek, but I think you’ve got to work hard to gain Jerusalem’s love.”
Emmanuella also says her father related to his writing as a form of therapy, and was a realist. “He said that a poem has healing powers and that, when he wrote, it helped [him] – so maybe it could also help others. Not that he had any illusions about the ability of poetry to spark revolutions. He didn’t believe poetry could bring about radical change.”
In addition to this week’s Poets Festival tribute, Emmanuella continues to spread the word about her father’s work with a musical-poetry show called A Man in His Life, which she also presents to high schools up and down the country. On May 31 Beit Aviv Chai in Jerusalem will host an event dedicated to the veteran poetry publication Akhshav (Now) with Emmanuella as MC.