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Called "perhaps our greatest living poet" by The New York Times, Amichai was born in Germany in 1924 and he and his family moved to Palestine in 1936. Amichai's entire life is intertwined with the history of Israel. He is so beloved in that nation that soldiers carried books of his poetry into battle during the Yom Kippur War. His poetry, written in Hebrew, emphasizes Jewish and Israeli themes, but my favorite poems of his deal with universal theme of love.

A Dog After Love
A Pity. We Were Such a Good Invention
This morning (22 September 2000) Yehuda Amichai died in Jerusalem. The not-very-highbrow Israeli electronic media ran this item as the first story on all news broadcasts.

Amichai was probably the greatest Hebrew-language poet in the generation that came after Nathan Altermann. His poems have an amazing ring to them, as Amichai gives literal minded interpretations to everyday phrases. Thus, describing what will happen when the Messiah comes, he says "And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares / And vice versa". But most are impossible to translate:

God is full of mercy.
Were it not that God was full of mercy,
There'd be mercy in the world not just in Him.
(all translations mine, without the Hebrew text in front of me; since he translated some of his work to English, you should go pick up a much better translation.) In Hebrew, the first 2 lines are an amazing play on words, a pun even. And then he goes on to explain why he thinks there is no mercy in this world...

His Hebrew was always easy, but never simple. He always had something to say (though it was not always pleasant). In some ways he was an e e cummings, but unlike him kept to "proper" grammar.

Amichai fought in the War of Independence in 1948; this formed a basis for much of his earlier work. But he also wrote about love, about his memories of his father, and about Jerusalem.

I don't think I ever saw him. Sometimes he'd be on TV for one reason or another, saying interesting things, but nothing like his poems; I'd usually get bored and go do something else. But I already miss him.

Tombstones break, words swap, words are forgotten,
The lips that spoke them have returned to dust.
Languages die like people,
Other languages are resurrected
Gods change in the heavens, gods swap,
But prayers stay forever.

(translation my own from text)

Yehuda Amichai was the Poet Laureate Israel never had. His ability to take words and phrases from the Tanach and Jewish litergy and make them relevent to modernity opened a completely new way of looking at the Hebrew language.

He developed a friendship with Ted Hughes (Britain's previous actual Poet Laureate) and they translated some of his work together. As I understand it, Amichai did a quick, literal translation and Hughes would craft it into a poem. There couldn't have been much for Hughes to do, as most of Amichai's poems can cope with a literal translation and still 'work'. The only thing that's lost is the art of the double or triple-entendre, where a word has a whole bunch of references that only work in Hebrew.

At his funeral, the speaker of the Knesset, Avraham Burg, referred to Yehudah Amichai as "God's favourite Chiloni (secular jew)".

His funeral brought together the politicians, army-men, writers, and academics in Jerusalem's town square for a moment of quiet contemplation. Jewish funerals are quick affairs; the day's newspaper reported that Yehuda Amichai had died and the funeral would be that afternoon. I was in Jerusalem and I went.

People remarked that it was the end of an era, and that Amichai's dream of peace was finally coming to fruition. They were half right. Within a week, the second Intifada had started

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