Finding his rhythm

This groundbreaking book offers a new perspective on a man often considered Israel's national poet.

Amichai book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Amichai book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Yehuda Amichai: The Making of Israel's National Poet By Nili Scharf Gold Brandeis University Press 464 pages; $35 Over the past decade, Israeli mental-health professionals have started acknowledging that although the Jewish state had opened its arms to Holocaust refugees, it had often turned its back on their personal traumas and previous identities. The survivors were encouraged to shed the aura of victimization as quickly as possible and begin new lives as iconic battlefield heroes and can-do kibbutzniks with Hebraicized surnames. A familiarity with the ramifications of that mind-set is helpful in approaching Nili Scharf Gold's treatment of Yehuda Amichai's literary canon. This groundbreaking book offers a whole new perspective on the writings of a man often considered to be the country's national poet. Gold examines how Ludwig Pfeuffer was reincarnated as Yehuda Amichai, and how 12 years as a German schoolboy colored much of what the adult Israeli created - despite the poet's repeated insistence that they did not. An Israeli-born associate professor of modern Hebrew literature at the University of Pennsylvania, Gold is singularly equal to the task she appointed herself. She has the advantage of bilingual fluency and a deep affinity for the work of Amichai, her personal friend before his death in 2000. Amichai had revealed to Gold the identity of "Ruth Z.," the bygone love to whom Amichai referred in poems including "In the Public Garden" and "The Rustle of History's Wings, as They Said Then." Ruth Z. gave Gold 94 letters sent to her by the poet over the course of eight months, which she had kept locked up in a tin box since April 1948. These letters, in addition to a trove of personal papers at Yale University's Beinecke Library, provided overwhelming evidence of the role of Amichai's early years, including his native German language and literature, in writings previously considered by readers and critics alike to be quintessentially Israeli. Gold uses the word "camouflage" to describe Amichai's (sometimes subconscious) method of veiling references to his past in works that encompass 11 books of poems, two novels, a book of short stories and a collection of plays. Moreover, she posits that what he sought to suppress actually "contributed to making him the rich and layered poet we know today." "In striving to become an Israeli, Amichai had to repress his experiences as a child in Germany and his mother tongue, but in order to be a poet, he had to remember them," she writes. Although some of the material from Amichai's childhood provided a pleasant backdrop to his works - the Bavarian landscape, the liturgical Hebrew - much of it was tragic. Most obvious were the frightening experiences leading to his family's decision to flee Wuerzburg for Palestine in 1936, uprooting the preteen from life as he knew it. However, the pivotal event that shaped the poet's inner psyche was a bike accident in which his beloved playmate, "Little Ruth" Hanover, lost a leg. It was not only the accident itself that seared Amichai's soul, but the fact that he felt responsible for it, and that his friend's handicap caused her inability to escape the Nazi death machine. References to the doomed child are explicit in the novel Not of This Time, Not of This Place and in the poem "Little Ruth," where Amichai uses the metaphor of luggage on an airport conveyor belt to identify Little Ruth as "one suitcase that returns and disappears again." Gold presents many additional oblique references she has uncovered in Amichai's other works. The second Ruth in Amichai's life, Ruth Z., told Gold the story of her seven-month relationship with the fellow German émigré in Jerusalem when both were training to be teachers. The letters he later wrote to her doubled as "exercises" for the budding poet, as Ruth Z.'s departure transformed the 23-year-old Amichai "from a person who communicated intimately by talking into one who interpreted the world for his beloved exclusively by writing." The balance of the book, supported by copious footnotes, demonstrates how the stuff of life - romantic rejection, combat duty, a terrorist ambush, teaching fourth grade in Haifa - all asserted their mostly camouflaged influence on Amichai's innovative corpus of literature. Six poems are included in Hebrew and in English translation, and there is a section of photographs. Yehuda Amichai caps years of obviously painstaking and devoted research. Gold's skillful efforts have yielded an achievement of serious scholarship and academic significance, packaged in a format accessible to the general public. The question is whether the general public would indeed wish to access it. This lengthy and densely detailed tome seems to have quite limited appeal as popular reading material. For English-speaking Amichai aficionados as well as those interested in the development of Israeli poetry and of poets generally, there is much delightful insight to be mined from its pages.