Removing the Mask

Yehuda Amichai: The Making of Israel's National Poetby Nili Scharf GoldBrandeis University Press, 464 pages, $35

Poetry illuminated by biography is the linchpin of Nili Scharf Gold's exhaustively documented Yehuda Amichai: The Making of Israel's National Poet, whether one looks at it as a biography dotted with close readings or an interpretation of Amichai's work infused with biographical detail. Gold's particular claim is that Amichai consciously constructed himself as an Israeli poet and muted the fact that he was the product of German culture.

Although Amichai is a Hebrew poet, and the author is a professor of modern Hebrew literature at the University of Pennsylvania whose mother tongue is Hebrew, the book was written in English. Perhaps the book's initial appearance in English indicates that for English speakers, Amichai is the representative Israeli poet or, at the least, just about the only Israeli poet with a large body of work translated into English and widely read. So there is something fascinating about watching how this "representative" Israeli developed out of another culture and (re)created himself.

I think a major part of Amichai's unprecedented acceptance in English has everything to do with this adopted Israeli persona, because the image of Amichai is also the one that, in my experience, many American Jews want to have of Israelis: a bit less macho than the stereotype, a bit more familiar with Jewish sources, warmhearted and democratic, accepting of the other.

Most readers of Hebrew poetry may know somewhere in the back of their minds that Amichai (1924-2000) emigrated with his parents from Wuerzburg, Germany, to Mandatory Palestine at the age of 12, in 1936. Yet, according to Gold, Amichai consistently minimized Wuerzberg's role as his hometown, especially in interviews he granted in Israel and repeatedly used the phrase "my childhood in Jerusalem," as if his experiences before his migration to Israel had never occurred. Most of us probably never did the math and questioned how Amichai could have grown up in Jerusalem, except metaphorically.

Gold finds that what Amichai omitted from his poetry, he faced in his fiction. In Amichai's novel "Not of This Time, Not of This Place," Gold writes, one finds "an authentic documentation of Amichai's early years." However, and perhaps not surprisingly, in English translation "much of the detail of the German background was cut," she says.

In any case, readers typically don't give much thought to the notion that, as Gold shows, Amichai was emotionally rooted in the German language and landscape. One of the main points of her book is how his Germanness affected his art. Despite Amichai's efforts to cover his tracks, which Gold calls "camouflage," she found evidence of his close connection to the German language by digging into the Amichai papers at Yale University's Beinecke Library.

"Despite Amichai's firm denial that he had ever written poems in German, there are long series of uninterrupted lines in German that can be read as complete poems," Gold writes, adding that Hebrew and German are frequently interwoven in his writing, and he sometimes starts a line in one language and ends in another. She finds that the "infant stages of some of Amichai's most famous poems are hidden in these pads a number of them originally written in his mother tongue."

Gold also traces the influence of German-language poets like Richard Beer-Hoffman and Rainer Maria Rilke, whose work Amichai cited in the original in his notebooks and letters. He then translated them into Hebrew and responded with his own Hebrew poems.

Perhaps one of Gold's most important biographical discoveries is a cache of 100 pages of love letters that Amichai wrote over seven months in 1947-'48 to a woman identified only as Ruth Z., after she left Palestine to study in the United States, where she remained. According to Gold -- who interviewed Ruth and got access to the letters from her the letters are important as literary history because Amichai himself thought of them as exercises for poems, and because in them he often explained his writing process. The letters also served as incubators for imagery that turns up in his later poetry, a process tracked by Gold. No doubt publication of the letters in the original Hebrew or in English translation would be welcomed by scholars as well as by readers of Amichai who are interested in his early personal life.

Gold's biographical approach often leads her to felicitous interpretations of poems, as when she follows the bilingual Amichai's recurrent metaphor of translation. "This metaphor," Gold writes, "lends itself easily to depicting [Amichai's] creative process, the verbal communication between individuals, the pain of living in a foreign language, and even romantic love, because a poet who does not write in his mother tongue [faces] a vast translating project."

In an untitled German poem by Amichai that Gold found in his papers at Yale, an immigrant's beloved "feels to him like a translated language (uebersetzte Sprache); she is 'mine and yet foreign.'" In 1956, in Seasons, a Hebrew poem omitted from his first book, Amichai used the concept of translation to speak of lovers who remain in the pocket of a cold winter, unable to bloom in the spring, writes Gold. And in "And We Shall Not Get Excited," a poem that was included in his first book, Gold notes that a religious court translator who is traditionally supposed to remain neutral "becomes a model for the poet" and a link in the chain of poetic tradition.

Her analysis of Amichai's 1961 "Elegy on an Abandoned Village" as an ode to his life in Wuerzburg as well as in the nascent Israeli state --which often passes as a politically correct lament for displaced Arabs -- is eye-opening. Amichai himself said he wrote "[a]nti-war poems on abandoned villages," but Gold traces the images in the somewhat cryptic poem to three sites known to Amichai -- including an empty Arab village visited in 1948, but also a Jewish town in the Negev evacuated in 1947 and Jewish Wuerzburg.

"The enormous snow was set down far away," writes Amichai in the poem (as translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell). "And if someone should love us, surely the distant snow/ will realize it, a long time before we do."

Gold argues that while some aspects of the poem support the association with an Arab village, Amichai's own letters to Ruth put the elegy in a different light. In one letter, he details his stay at an abandoned kibbutz, writing that "the sand was like snow." This and other details of the letter, Gold says, explain "the elegy's seemingly illogical evocation of snow in the midst of the Middle Eastern landscape." Indeed, where could that snow have come from?

In addition, Gold traces the alliterative German sources of Amichai's lines that the speaker "must hire the wind to demonstrate the wailing of women" to the German words "weinen" (crying) and "wind" (wind) -- an alliteration lost in Hebrew but reoccurring in the English translation.

That Amichai is so accessible in translation does not mean that he is easy to translate. Amichai was a clever writer who cited Jewish texts with irony; when his translators deal with his intertextuality they must make decisions about how much to explain and how much they are willing to lose. Like most great Hebrew poets, Amichai made use of the conciseness of the language and of Hebrew?s capacity, because of its formation from a limited number of root words, for surprising multiple meanings that disappear in English. Some part of his success in English may be attributed to gifted translators, the best of whom, to my mind, include Bloch, Mitchell and Assia Gutmann Wevill (who worked with Ted Hughes).

Amichai's poetry sometimes takes notice of usually unnamed Arabs whom we --(and no doubt he) would now view as Palestinians. Since the reaction to the other is pleased, readers may imagine a situation of coexistence. When I first moved to Israel, in 1983, young American visitors often bought and wore kaffiyehs, apparently in an attempt to identify with Israelis as an indigenous, foreign population, though perhaps without considering that this mark of local authenticity was a Palestinian rather than a Jewish-Israeli signifier. It is not surprising that Amichai wanted to become Israeli, or that his image of the Israeli partly, and somewhat paradoxically, draws from Arabness. Perhaps the time has come, however, to pay critical, and not merely admiring, attention to the construction Amichai adopted.

Arab shepherd, Jewish father

At the opening of the 2008 Jerusalem Film Festival at the Sultan's Pool, the words of a well-known Amichai poem, "An Arab Shepherd is Searching for his Goat on Mount Zion," whose protagonists are situated in the Sultan's Pool area, was projected on the screen in English and Hebrew before the movie. In the poem, the Arab shepherd and the speaker, "a Jewish father," are presented in parallel; both have lost something -- the Arab a goat and the Jew a child -- that in the end they each joyfully find. Amichai writes:

"An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion / and on the opposite mountain I am searching for my little boy. / An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father / both in their temporary failure."

The original Hebrew poem and the translation, by Bloch, masterfully engage the violence of the Passover song "Had Gadya"; the double meaning of "kid" fortuitously surfaces in the English translation, and the idea of scapegoating is transmitted in both languages. When the poem was flashed briefly on the screen, the Swedish journalist sitting next to me was disturbed by the inequity of the apparent parallel, which can be read critically for assigning the Arab a goat rather than a child -- though a careful reading shows that the poem does not necessarily dehumanize the Arab shepherd.

An anonymous stereotypical Arab reappears in the fifth section of Amichai's "Jerusalem 1967," though the Arab's store is cited in the first stanza: "For a long time I stood in front of an Arab's hole-in-the-wall shop." The speaker of the poem speaks to the Arab only in his mind, silently, in the second stanza: "I told him in my heart that my father too/ had a shop like this." The Arab is depicted lowering his shutters in the third stanza, without our knowing what he thinks. It may be that we simply cannot ask Amichai to be more analytical than the culture of his time.

But we may note that Palestinians are now often named in Israeli poetry. I'm thinking of Agi Mishol's Woman Martyr, in which even the suicide bomber who attacked Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda market in April 2002 Andaleeb Takatka is given a name, as are her victims. Other examples include Shai Dotan's "In the Matter of Iman al-Hamas," about a Palestinian schoolgirl shot by an Israeli soldier, and Aharon Shabtai's "J'Accuse," which names Mohammed al-Dura, a Palestinian boy whose death during a clash between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers, allegedly at Israel's hands, was shown on TV in a tape whose authenticity has since been refuted. In some sense, these are constructions of an even more caring representative Israeli, versed in the details of injustice and not just the general acknowledgement that an other an Arab exists. True, Amichai's Jews are also frequently nameless, and the Jewish father may seem no less anonymous or symbolic than the Arab shepherd, but the strong speakers in Amichai's poetry are identified with him and with his representative Israeli Jew. And they have their say.

I would argue that the Israelis and Arabs, stereotypical or not, who are depicted in Amichai's poetry can be seen as products of his consciously constructed Israeli identity. However, Gold's focus on the arguably artificial nature of Amichai's identity is misleading.

That?s because Israeli culture as a whole like all cultures is ultimately constructed by social and political powers that transcend any single individual, as French philosophers like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, among many others, have argued. Poets, too not just Amichai, but American greats like Walt Whitman and Sylvia Plath are shaped by their surroundings, even as they help shape them.

Israeli literary critic and scholar Hanan Hever has written extensively about the connection between Israeli literature and nation building. Poetry reveals feeling, but it also reveals cultural forces at work, rather than any absolute truth. So it is interesting to imagine a continuation of Gold's book that would carry on one step further and analyze Amichai's construction of himself and of Israeli society to see what exactly they reveal about those constructions and about us, not only about Amichai's desire to belong.

Rewriting and constructing are the province of all writers, not just Amichai; one writes, and then rewrites more critically, as a self-editor. Sometimes we change the truth for the sake of art, or for the sake of our public image. And then too, poems are like dream worlds that are not completely in our control. Whether we think up images spontaneously or consciously, what emerges is an encoded picture of our psyches, not a collection of facts.

It may well be the case that, as Gold argues, Amichai masked the Germanness of his poetry. But knowing this does not mean we have finished reading his work, for it is also about the world his poems create in his case, an Israeli world that liked to think it was compassionate about the other.

After dozens of novels by Aharon Appelfeld that focus on Middle Europe and Amos Oz's widely acclaimed memoir, which emphasizes the European identity of his parents, it is not really so surprising to think about the Germanness of Amichai that is so painstakingly uncovered by Gold. Dan Pagis is another great Israeli poet with German-language roots. Meir Wieseltier first spoke Russian, Agi Mishol Hungarian. And this is not to mention the dozens of multilingual Central and Eastern European poets who wrote modern and avant-garde Hebrew poetry at the dawn of the 20th century, or the many poets, most of them not as famous as Amichai, who switched from their mother tongues to Hebrew, becoming part of Israeli culture and helping construct it.

Perhaps after 60 years of statehood, we can now face the fact that never mind the Bible and thousands of years of Judaism as a religion modern Israel is a construction, and the sources of its culture are as varied as the lands where Jews lived. Lo norah That's not so terrible.

Lisa Katz is the author of Shihzur (Reconstruction, Am Oved 2008), a book of her poems translated by Shahar Bram into Hebrew and the translator of "Look There: The Poetry of Agi Mishol" (Graywolf Press, 2006) and of "Approaching You in English: The Poetry of Admiel Kosman" (forthcoming from Zephyr Press).