First, a disclosure: though I grew up in a ritually observant Jewish household and went to religious school three times a week for six years, my command of Hebrew is close to nonexistent. True, if I happened to run into an Oriental potentate, I could probably flatter and cajole him in phrases that ancient Jews thought appropriate for the Almighty. But I would stumble over buying a melon in Jerusalem or reading the headlines at a kiosk in Tel Aviv.
I have over the years fallen short at quite a few things I’ve attempted to learn—downhill skiing without fear, for example, or sight-reading at the piano—but failing to learn basic Hebrew as a language of everyday life, notwithstanding the expenditure of so many hours in the classroom for so many years, is one of my most decisive defeats. No doubt a certain lack of native ability was a factor, as it was with skiing and piano, but since it is possible for people of the most modest abilities to master any language, provided only that they start early enough, and since I began to attend religious school at the age of six or seven, the principal source of the failure must have resided elsewhere.
In the 1950s, though I went regularly to something called “Hebrew School,” there was virtually no interest in teaching Hebrew as a modern language. The concern was almost exclusively with making it possible to recite the ancient liturgy. Comprehension was not actively discouraged, but it was by no means required. Indeed, in the case of archaic seasonal rituals that bore no relation to the climate of New England, comprehension might only have stood in the way of adequate performance. Still more perhaps, facilitating a clear-eyed understanding of prayers that celebrated God for His unfailing love of His chosen people might, in the immediate wake of the Shoah, have raised more awkward questions than it resolved.
As for modern Israel, though there was certainly a great upwelling of support among American Jews like my parents, the Jewish state was too new to provoke much interest in fostering competence in its language, a language whose pronunciation was disagreeably distant from the familiar, homely chanting of the synagogue. So it was simply chanting that we were taught to do, as if it had its own magical power. Assimilated Jews in mid-twentieth-century America in this regard resembled mid-fifteenth-century Catholic laymen, trained to recite the Latin liturgy they were not meant to understand.
My teacher for three of the six years that I crept like a snail unwillingly to Hebrew School was a wiry German refugee named Carl Cohen with iron-rimmed glasses, vast learning, and a volatile temper. Poor Mr. Cohen had no pedagogical gifts suited for the bored, cosseted American suburban children in his charge. And though someone told us once that he had a difficult lot, caring for a crippled wife, we had no mercy on him and absolutely no interest in what, with his heavy German accent, he was trying to teach us. We did not ask ourselves how he had wound up where he was; we only did not want to be there in the same room with him.
Periodically, when he had reached the limit of his patience, he would slam a ruler on the table and scream at a particularly egregious offender to stand up at attention. “Up now! Up!” Glaring at the ten-year-old who might have been throwing little cinnamon candies across the room or giggling at a picture drawn on his desk, he would try to tell us about his time at the concentration camp in Buchenwald, where the prisoners had been made to stand at attention for hours on end and where to slump down from the accumulating agony of this posture was punishable by death. In the grip of this recollection or aware perhaps that he had assumed the role of one of the hated camp guards, he would after a minute or so gesture in despair at the child who had vexed him and tell him wearily to sit down. We thought only, “There he goes again.”
What Mr. Cohen really cared about was a mystery to us. It certainly was not teaching the Hebrew language, and he did not seem to us particularly religious. Periodically, he would try to explain to us what drove him—I do not know why—and it would only deepen the mystery. “Put down your pencils,” he would solemnly declare; “No notes, absolutely no notes.” He was about to tell us something very important, something, he said, for which the world was not ready. “No notes.”
I am not sure that our interest was ever aroused by this announcement, not even the first time he made it. We were too distracted or spoiled or simply uncomprehending, as if we had somehow wandered into an advanced physics classroom at MIT. “I have made a discovery in the Widener Library at Harvard,” he would tell us, “a great discovery about Yehuda ben Yitzhak Abravanel.” We hadn’t a clue who Yehuda Abravanel was, and the fact that he was, as his name revealed, the son of Isaac (“Yitzhak”) Abravanel made it no better. The notion that we might take notes and hence reveal prematurely to the world whatever it was that our teacher had found seemed altogether risible to us then, though it seems almost unbearably poignant to me now.
Poignant and also frustrating, for the secret, whatever it was, went to the grave with Mr. Cohen. I would dearly like to know what he had stumbled upon more than a half-century ago, for I now know who Yehuda Abravanel was. Born in Lisbon around 1465, the heir to one of the great Iberian-Jewish families, Yehuda (or Judah, as we customarily anglicize the name) went into exile after the expulsion of the Jews. A physician in the Spanish court, he was, as a mark of special favor, offered the chance to stay—as a Jew—in Spain, provided only that he turn over his young son to be converted to Catholicism. He refused. (His little boy was seized anyway and turned over to the Dominicans for a Catholic upbringing.)
In the more tolerant atmosphere of Naples, where he was known as Leone Ebreo (Leo the Jew), Yehuda forged a new life for himself. Though he continued to crave the sight of his son and though his own life remained unsettled and on occasion dangerous, he managed to fashion a significant place for himself within Italian humanist culture. In the midst of a busy medical practice, he found the time to write the Dialoghi d’amore, perhaps the greatest Renaissance treatise on love. It was an immensely ambitious work that had at its core the project of reconciling Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and pagan traditions, through the revelation of a sublime love that would, if it was properly understood, cancel out the murderous hatreds that had caused so much needless pain. “When the universe was created,” he wrote earnestly, “God’s love for it also came into being as that of the father for the newborn son.” The end of this love, its guiding purpose, was not only to preserve the universe, “but also, and more truly, to guide it to its ultimate perfection in blissful union with divine Beauty.”*
And with this intoxicating humanist dream of beauty, at once Jewish and universal, we find ourselves not only in a largely forgotten corner of the past but also in the lyrical vision of the great twentieth-century poet Yehuda Amichai. This latter-day Yehuda was also the scion of a religiously Orthodox household—he was raised speaking both Hebrew and German; he was driven from the country of his birth; he changed his name and fashioned an identity for himself in a new land; and he wrote with visionary power about love.
Born in 1924 in Würzburg (where he was named Ludwig Pfeuffer), Yehuda Amichai left Germany with his family and emigrated to Palestine in 1935, the year that the Nuremberg Laws were declared. The flight averted almost certain destruction—years later he brooded about a childhood friend, Ruth Hanover, who was not so fortunate—but the Palestine to which he came was hardly the peaceable kingdom. Amichai volunteered and fought first with the British army during World War II, then in the Haganah in 1948 in the war against the British and the Arabs, and then in 1956 in the Sinai War, and then in 1973 in the Yom Kippur War. Moving from city to city in early-sixteenth-century Italy, as Yehuda Abravanel had done, one step ahead of the Inquisition, seems positively tranquil as a fate compared with this state of almost constant war.
There are moments, in this capacious collection of poems in able English translation by a range of hands, in which Amichai does not sound like a love poet at all. “His blood was flung hastily and carelessly,” begins one of the early poems (here in a translation by the volume’s distinguished general editor Robert Alter), “like the clothes/of someone much too tired.” We are almost in the world of Wilfred Owen or Isaac Rosenberg. “The ones who blew up houses,” another early poem begins, slightly in the manner of A.E. Housman or Thomas Hardy, “are now abandoned like an abandoned village/and still/the earth turns,/carpeted in countries.” A later poem nearly evokes Henry Reed’s World War II classic “Naming of Parts”: “What I learned in the wars:/to march with rhythmically swinging arms and legs/like pumps that pump from an empty well.”
The whole of Amichai’s poetic career was shadowed by violence. “The city where I was born was destroyed by gunfire,” he writes in one of the Songs of Zion the Beautiful.
The ship that brought me here was later sunk, in the war.
The barn in Hamadiya where I made love was burnt down,
the kiosk in Ein Gedi was blown up by the enemy,
the bridge in Ismailiya that I crossed
back and forth on the eve of all my loves
was torn to tatters.
The places he has lost often bear names in his poetry, as they do here, but “the enemy” rarely does. “Half the people in the world/love the other half,” he writes; “half the people/hate the other half.” Amichai himself seems to have been indifferent to ideology. War for him was not a chronicle of victory over evil, or heroic nation-building, or even mere survival, his own or that of the Jewish people. It was rather a succession of personal losses, bound up with all the other losses—the thousand natural shocks, as Hamlet calls them—that flesh is heir to. “My life is being blotted out behind me according to a precise map,” the poem continues. “How much longer can those memories hold out?/They killed the little girl from my childhood and my father is dead.”
If Amichai was not primarily a war poet, it was perhaps because for him, as for virtually everyone in his murderously contested part of the world, war was not an exceptional state; it was close to the ordinary condition of things. Jerusalem was the cradle city that rocked him, he wrote, but it was also the place that forced him constantly to keep his eyes open and remember the faces of passersby: “Maybe he will love me,/Maybe he planted a bomb wrapped like a package/Gift-wrapped for a lover.” Though this perpetual alertness could have produced in him, as in anyone, a state of obsessive fear and loathing, Amichai was strangely immune to hate. It was as if hatred would have distracted him from all that he was determined to observe and to feel.
The surprise is not that the Angel of Death hovers over so many of these poems but rather that there is so much room in them for love and desire. For it is here, in the expression of desire—insistent, recurrent, irrepressible, coarse, haunting, and haunted—that Amichai found his own distinctive voice. “They fooled us,” one of his poems from the late 1960s begins. “They told us: We’ll die, we’ll be wiped out/in one of the wars.” But it didn’t happen, and the next stanza lurches in a different direction:
This spring I wonder sometimes:
What did you mean when you told me, “I will give you
one night only.” Did you think
all the days of our lives meant nights, one night,
or did you say it out of the great terror?
For people who live in a zone of perpetual war, the “great terror” threatens to shrink the scope of every intimacy. But it is the other possibility—“Did you think/all the days of our lives meant nights, one night”?—that marks something distinctive about Amichai. Intimacy is concentrated and intensified by duress, until a single night of love and lovemaking is made to bear the expansive power of all the days of our lives.
Readers familiar with the Haggadah—the text read at the Passover Seder—will hear in Amichai’s lines an echo of a famous crux in the biblical verse that instituted the annual observance: “That you may remember the day when you came forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life.” The ancient rabbis worried, with characteristic obsessiveness, about “all” in the phrase “all the days of your life”: there could be nothing superfluous in the word of God, and yet that little word seemed superfluous, a mere intensifier. The solution, in a characteristically Jewish celebration of hermeneutical gymnastics, found its way into the festival itself: a gifted scholar of the second century CE is honored in the Haggadah for explaining that “all” referred to the nights as well as the days of your life.
Amichai’s poetic imagination is saturated with such liturgical and biblical echoes, many more no doubt than I, so far removed from the language and the proper religious education in which he was steeped, can hear. From the Passover Chad Gadya: Must I go through “all the appalling stations,” he asks, “cat, stick, fire, water, butcher,/between the kid and the angel of death?” From the Rosh Hashanah Unetanneh Tokef: “And I asked my soul, Where are the deeds and where are the words/that once were on the screen? Who by fire and who by water?” From the Yom Kippur Ashamnu: “To the confession ‘We have sinned, we have betrayed’ I would add/the words ‘We have forgotten, we have remembered.’” From the Song of Songs: “Down we went to the walnut grove,/You and I.” From the Genesis account of Abraham’s purchase of the double cave—HaMachpelah—in Hebron:
And like one who, still alive,
buys a gravesite for himself,
already now I love
all that’s given me to love
in the hours of the night and the heart of the double cave.
These pervasive allusions might have been expected to serve as a barrier, making Amichai’s poetry accessible only to a coterie audience. That they do not restrict access—that his work has in fact a remarkably broad appeal—has to do with the way in which he constantly addresses deep and universal themes: the love of children, the fear of death, the cravings of the flesh. In one of his most ambitious long poems, “The Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela” (here in a marvelous translation by Ruth Nevo), Amichai reflects on the way in which the prayers of his childhood fall from above “like bullets that missed their mark and return/long afterwards, to earth.” Using one of the central Hebrew prayers—“Hear O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One”—he then gives a graphic example of what returning to earth means:
Hear O Israel in bed. In bed
without Hear O Israel. In a double bed
The double cave of the bed. Hear, oh hear.
This is an instance, of course, of the blasphemy with which Yehuda Amichai has often been charged by more pious readers. The double cave becomes the double bed, just as “all the days of your life” become a night of lovemaking. But for me at least it is a sign of what this Yehuda shares with his great predecessor Yehuda Abravanel. The Renaissance Jewish philosopher of love thought that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, despite their differences, were consumed with the same longing to reach a blissful contemplation of the divine. His goal was to reach up through Judaism to the universal soul. The modern Jewish poet of love could no longer bring himself to believe in the mystical ascent to God. But he too was determined to reach a place in which the bitter differences fall away. His goal—and to an astonishing degree his achievement—was to reach down through Judaism to the body, his own and that of all humanity.