Letters I Wrote To You (Extract)

Extract from a story in Issue 17, December 8, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Newly discovered correspondence with a first love only partly illuminates a poet's work. There can be few more exciting experiences for a literary scholar than discovering a trove of hitherto unknown manuscripts and letters written by the scholar's longtime object of inquiry. Such excitement has come to Nili Scharf Gold, associate professor of modern Hebrew literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Gold wrote her doctoral dissertation on Yehuda Amichai some 20 years ago and enjoyed a longstanding friendship with the poet. Three years before his death in 2000, Amichai, who remains widely regarded both as Israel's national poet and as the Israeli poet with the greatest worldwide reputation, accompanied Gold to a lecture in New York. In the audience was a woman whom Amichai quietly identified as his first love. Then, two years after the poet died, Gold befriended this woman, whom she calls Ruth Z., and gained access to her cookie tin of Amichai's letters and a notebook containing six previously unknown sonnets he had given Ruth Z. on her departure from Palestine in 1947. Excitement? One is tempted to label it hysteria. It was, of course, a genuine literary find and her resulting book is a valuable one. But Scharf makes such incessant, elaborate and inflated claims for the importance of these documents that one can only wonder about her judgment. Again and again throughout her very dense study Gold declares the unearthed material "the revolutionary blueprint for the later Amichai," "a benchmark for and a predictor of Amichai's future poetry," "a new interpretation," "the deepest foundations of Amichai's work," "an essential intertext for much of Amichai's corpus," "apparatus to understand Amichai's writing as a whole," "a sea change in the interpretation of Amichai's oeuvre from this point forward" and finally, if we haven't got the point by now, she states that the letters and poems "retrieve the abandoned landmarks of Amichai's work and secure their status in the scholarly discourse of Israeli literature." Methinks the lady doth protest too much. First of all, for all her claims that these writings from 1947-48 provide enlightenment for all of the Amichai to come, Gold herself largely limits her study to his early work, what she calls the "canonic" poems produced between 1948 and 1962. She thereby gives secondary status to, if not ignores altogether, the vast number of poems to come over the next 40 years. Second, Gold herself admits, or perhaps better, lets slip, the view that the newly discovered work is "seemingly traditional and amateurish." Finally, the facts seem to argue that the "great love affair" between Amichai and Ruth Z. that Gold insists upon may not have been all that great to begin with. Amichai and Ruth, both children of German families who had emigrated to Palestine before World War II, met in Jerusalem in 1946 at a teachers' training course. The evidence reveals that the 22-year-old Amichai was rather rapidly smitten, Ruth less so. Ruth, in fact, was already involved with an older man called Avraham. Politics, that Israeli curse, would eventually drive Ruth and Avraham apart. Nevertheless, Ruth would confide to Gold some 60 years later that Avraham remained "the love of her life." Amichai and Ruth meanwhile continued their studies together, which included an apparently idyllic fortnight of student teaching in a village near Haifa. The couple was indeed close. She helped Amichai (né Ludwig Pfeuffer) choose his Hebrew name. They, or at least he, talked about marriage. But suddenly Ruth was offered an opportunity to study in the United States and, in August 1947, she took it. Gold notes that "Yehuda recognized the value of studying abroad and, consistent with his considerate nature, encouraged Ruth to embark on her journey." OK… but that doesn't sound consistent with great passion. Indeed, within a year, Ruth announced she was marrying a man in New York. Within another year, once the War of Independence had settled down, Amichai was marrying someone else. Ruth never returned to Israel. Apparently Amichai never saw her again until the evening he pointed out Ruth to Gold. Contributing Editor Matt Nesvisky frequently writes about books. Extract from a story in Issue 17, December 8, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.