“In my land,called holy, Yehuda Amichai


man in camouflage suit holding shotgun
“How to write freely while living under political pressures was a question that imposed itself on many of the best poets of the late twentieth century. It is everywhere in Heaney, Walcott, and Brodsky; but none of those writers, arguably, lived in a more political place than Israel. As Amichai once said, “I can be a deeply involved, engaged writer because I don’t have to seek engagement. I am politically engaged because everyone in Israel—on the right or left—exists under political pressures and existential tensions.”
Yet Amichai found ways of keeping those pressures at arm’s length. Take, for instance, the remarkable sequence of poems he wrote after the Six Day War, “Jerusalem, 1967.” These were exalted, intoxicating days, when the conquest of Jerusalem brought the Jews’ holy city under Jewish sovereignty for the first time in 2,000 years. The country was singing Naomi Shemer’s song “Jerusalem of Gold,” with its triumphant verse: “The wells are filled again with water,/ The square with joyous crowd,/ On the Temple Mount within the City, / The shofar rings out loud.” But here is how Amichai writes about the city where he lived most of his life:
Jerusalem stone is the only stone that can
feel pain. It has a network of nerves.
From time to time Jerusalem crowds into
mass protests like the tower of Babel.
But with huge clubs God-the-Police beats her
down: houses are razed, walls flattened,
and afterward the city disperses, muttering
prayers of complaint and sporadic screams from churches
and synagogues and loud-moaning mosques.
Each to his own place.
This section of “Jerusalem, 1967” demonstrates that Amichai evaded the claims of the national by viewing Israeli history in a perspective at once smaller and larger than the nation. On the one hand, he is less a poet of the state than a poet of the city, of Jerusalem. He writes about Jerusalem with the intimacy of a disillusioned lover, a friend who remains faithful despite repeated trials and impositions; he empathizes with the very stones. And Jerusalem, while it is a Jewish city, is also a Christian and Muslim city, irreducibly multicultural. “The city plays hide-and-seek among her names: Yerushalayim, Al-Quds, Salem, Jeru, Yeru,” Amichai writes.
What unites these cultures is the ardor of faith, the belief that in Jerusalem you are closer to God than elsewhere. “In my land, called holy, / they won’t let eternity be: / they’ve divided it into little religions, / zoned it for God-zones,” Amichai writes in “North of San Francisco.” This is the other half of Amichai’s double vision—his wary, wry intimacy with God, which is to say, his Judaism. Like the city of Jerusalem, the faith of the Jews is much older than the State of Israel and offers a release from contemporary political obsessions.




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