Poem of the Week / Yehuda Amichai on the Ups and Downs of Jerusalem

In honor of Jerusalem Day, Haaretz gives you a preview of the new column Poem of the Week, a look at Israeli culture and society through the eyes of poets.

Jerusalem is a Spinning Carousel

Yehuda Amichai

Jerusalem is a carousel spinning round and round

from the Old City through every neighborhood and back to the Old.

And you can’t get off. If you jump you’re risking your life

and if you step off when it stops you must pay again

to get back on for more turns that never will end.

Instead of painted elephants and horses to ride

religions go up, down and around on their axes

to unctuous melodies from the houses of prayer.

Jerusalem is a seesaw: Sometimes I go down,

to past generations and sometimes up, into the sky,

then like a child dangling on high, legs swinging, I cry

I want to get down, Daddy, Daddy, I want to get down,

Daddy, get me down.

And like that, all the saints go up into the sky.

They’re like children screaming, Daddy, I want to stay high,

Daddy don’t bring me down, Our Father Our King,

leave me on high, Our Father Our King!


Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden; published with permission of Hanna Amichai.

***

Wednesday, May 8, is Jerusalem Day – the official celebration of “the reunification of Jerusalem,” an occasion marked mostly by speeches and by raucous processions of flag-bearing youth. This poem by Yehuda Amichai first appeared in Hebrew in Haaretz on April 3, 1998, and things have not changed much in Jerusalem since then. In comparing the city to a carousel, the poet captures some of the cyclical nature of religious frenzy in the city, which like a carousel is curiously attractive and addictive in its way.

Stepping off the Jerusalem spin comes with high costs. Religions are the seats on this merry-go-round, not “painted” animals – which bring to mind the poem “Jordan (1),” a meditation on poetry and faith by Metaphysical poet and Anglican priest George Herbert (1593-1633): “May no lines pass, except they do their duty / Not to a true, but painted chair?”

In the second part of the poem, Amichai plays with the well-known distinction between the terrestrial Jerusalem and the celestial Jerusalem by positing a seesaw Jerusalem between them. The depiction of the thrills and chills of life as experienced in Jerusalem express the peculiar ambivalence felt toward the city even by nonreligious people like Amichai himself: “Sometimes I go down, to past generations and sometimes up.”

The “I” of the speaker here must be understood with caution. In the pages of Haaretz, Yitzhak Laor noted of Amichai’s poetry, “There is not a single ‘I,’ and within the one body, many live.”

“Our Father, Our King” refers to the High Holiday litany Avinu
Malkeinu
, which begins: “Our Father, our King, hear our voice / Our Father, our King / We have sinned before you / Our Father, our King, Have compassion upon us / and our infants and children..”

Yehuda Amichai was born in Wurzburg, Germany, on May 3, 1924, and died in Jerusalem on September 22, 2000. Beyond the excellence of his poetry, he is also notable for his activity in bringing modern Hebrew poetry to the attention of the world. He was one of the first to “export” Hebrew poetry abroad into other languages in journals like “Modern Poetry in Translation” founded by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort and at international poetry festivals. Equally, he was active in bringing the international poetry community to Israel.

This is only one of many poems Amichai wrote about the complexities of life in Jerusalem. For collections of translations of Yehuda Amichai’s poetry, see, among other volumes:

“Selected Poems of Yehuda Amichai,” translated from the Hebrew by Assia Gutmann, Harold Schimmel, and Ted Hughes, Penguin (London, England), 1971, published as “The Early Books of Yehuda Amichai,” Sheep Meadow Press (Riverdale, NY), 1988.

“Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry, 1948-1994,” translated by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav, HarperCollins, 1994.

“Open Closed Open: Poems,” translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2000.


Musings

*What are the costs of jumping off the carousel?

*Is the use of the quotation from the liturgy offensive? Should poets refrain from doing this sort of thing?