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The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai: Has Elvis Left The Building?

Yehuda Amichai, the assumed name of Ludwig Pfeuffer, is arguably the de facto poet laureate of Israel if not that of modern day Judaism in general. His background suffering on the front lines of four military conflicts as well as the Palmach, the strike force of the Haganah1, served to convince him of Gods relative neglect of His children. His poetry as well as his prose cry out for more involvement from the Creator, begging for direct intervention, pleading for compassion, mercy, and if nothing else recognition from the Father. Alienation and loneliness are overarching themes in his works in general. There is no better example of Amichais entreaties than that found in his poem God Has Pity On Kindergarten Children:

God has pity on kindergarten children, He pities school children less. But adults he pities not at all.

He abandons them, And sometimes they have to crawl on all fours In the scorching sand To reach the dressing station, Streaming with blood.

But perhaps He will have pity on those who love truly And take care of them And shade them Like a tree over the sleeper on the public bench.
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The Haganah was the defense force of the Jewish settlements in what was at that time Mandate Palestine, a poorly defined area encompassing Palestine and what was then known as the Transjordan. The Mandate was established by the League of Nations via the Balfour Declaration shortly after World War I and persisted until 1948 when the Zionist state of Israel was established.

Perhaps even we will spend on them Our last pennies of kindness Inherited from mother,

So that their own happiness will protect us Now and on other days.

Amichai shows an abject frustration and delusionment with God, asking in so many words a question each of us addresses at some time in our lives: why do bad things happen to good people, and how could a God that is supposedly benevolent allow such things to happen? This frustration and its resultant skepticism stem in no small measure from his combat experiences, experiences which resulted in his rejection of the positive there are no atheists in foxholes2 to a more negative and, some would say, more evident position of alienation from God in times of greatest need (Aberbach, 2004). Amichais profound sense of alienation surfaces again in his Poem God Full Of Mercy, a work which asks in no uncertain terms why it is that He is the only repository of mercy, why He keeps it for His unique disposition, why there is so little of it found free in his world:

God-Full-of-Mercy, the prayer for the dead. If God was not full of mercy, Mercy would have been in the world, Not just in Him. I, who plucked flowers in the hills And looked down into all the valleys, I, who brought corpses down from the hills, Can tell you that the world is empty of mercy. I, who was King of Salt at the seashore, Who stood without a decision at my window,
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Attributed to Ernie Pyle, World War II journalist but probably originating with Capt. William Cummings in his sermon delivered at the Battle of Bataan (Pacific Theater) in 1942.

Who counted the steps of angels, Whose heart lifted weights of anguish In the horrible contests.

I, who use only a small part Of the words in the dictionary.

I, who must decipher riddles I don't want to decipher, Know that if not for the God-full-of-mercy There would be mercy in the world, Not just in Him.

In one of the poetic vignettes in Open, Close, Open, Amichai almost appears to call into question Gods origin as well as His existence:

I declare with perfect faith that prayer preceded God. Prayer created God, God created human beings, human beings created prayers That create the God that creates human beings.

This prompts his readers to ask the same questions of their faith, forcing us to consider the juxtaposition of Genesis 1:1 with John 1:1: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth3

Genesis 1:1 (NIV)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.4 Amichai was hardly an orthodox or even a devout and practicing Jew in the religious sense. His impressions and writings are as much a reflection of his use of religious metaphor in a somewhat antithetical and ironic manner as they are commentaries on Gods involvement or lack thereof in the lives of men and of the human condition in general. Stanza 7 in his poem Gods Come and Go; Prayers Remain Forever5, we get a definite sense of Amichais feeling that God has completely let him down, and not only him but Jews, the state of Israel, and all of humanity:

Our Father our King, What does a father do whose children are orphans while he is still alive? What can a father do whose children are dead and he remains a mourning father to the end of days? Weep and not weep, not remember and not forget. Our Father our King, what can a king do In the Republic of pain? Give them Bread and circuses, like all kings: Bread of memory and circuses of forgetting. Bread and longing, longing for God And for a better world. My Father my King.

Herein, Amichai clearly indicates his disappointment in God as a father, deserting his children even while He lives, choosing instead to mourn their passings instead, a passive spectator in His creation. Amichai issues a challenge to God in the phrases relating to our King when he points out that God could, as king, alleviate suffering in ways beyond those of show-time fluff. This harkens to the aphorism attributed to Marie Antoinette. When asked what should be done to alleviate the pain, suffering, and poverty of the lower and lower middle classes, she is purported to have quipped: Let them eat cake. I believe Amichai sees God in such a flippant light at best. He dilates his feelings in a poignant stanza from his Achziv Poems, in some ways recapitulating the foxhole dichotomy (vide supra). Interestingly, he asks the Creator for an explanation for Gods persistence, suggesting that if God cares so little for His people, why does He even bother to care at all
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John 1:1-2 (NIV) See http://www.thedrunkenboat.com/amichai.htm for the full text of this work.

Far from here, in another continent of time, I see clearly the dead rabbis of my childhood holding high above their heads the tombstones.

Their souls tied to my knotted life. Eli, Eli, why have you not forsaken me!? (emphasis added)

This is in direct opposition to both the Tanakh as well as what is written in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. In the first verses of Psalm 22, we hear the converse of this last line, David asking

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.6

These are echoed 1,000 years later in Marks gospel, Christ asking not why God (his Father) had not left but why he had:

And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? (which means My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?)7

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Psalm 22:1-2 Mark 15:34 (NIV)

Yehuda Amichai clearly has a rather pessimistic and jaded view of God the Creator, God the Father, and God the King. His view was akin to that of Job, a blameless and upright man chosen by God for arbitrary testing and persecution by Satan, as he lamented: I cry out to you, God, but you do not answer; I stand up, but you merely look at me. You turn on me ruthlessly; with the might of your hand you attack me. You snatch me up and drive me before the wind; you toss me about in the storm. I know you will bring me down to death, to the place appointed for all the living.8

Unlike Job, however, Amichai never had a chance to speak with God, or at least not to the point of hearing an answer to his questions. He, just as we, was left to his own devices to accept or not accept a role as a God apologist. He chose not to make excuses for God, accepting Gods withdrawal as fact, God alive and leaving His orphaned people to fend for themselves. Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that God is dead9. I think it is fair to say that Amichai would say that God is not dead; He simply doesnt care very much.

Works Cited/Consulted

Aberbach, David. "Religious Metaphor and Its Denial in the Poetry of Yehuda Amichai." Judaism 53.Summer/Fall (2004): 279-287. Print. Amichai, Yehuda, Chana Bloch, and Chana Kronfeld. Open Closed Open: Poems. New York: Harcourt, 2000. Print. Barrick, William. "The Openness of God: Does Prayer Change God?." The Masters Seminary Journal 12/2.Fall (2001): 149-166. Print.

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Job 30:20-23 (NIV) In Nietzsche's view, recent developments in modern science and the increasing secularization of European society had effectively 'killed' the Abrahamic God, who had served as the basis for meaning and value in the West for more than a thousand years. Nietzsche was not referring to the literal God Being.

"Famous Poets and Poems - Yehuda Amichai." Famous Poets and Poems - Read and Enjoy Poetry. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2012. <http://famouspoetsandpoems.com>. Saab, Ann. "Judaism." Current Problems in the Middle East. University of North Carolina - Greensboro. Blackboard, Greensboro NC. 1 Jan. 2007. Class lecture.