The Reinvention Of Yehuda Amichai

Special to the Jewish Week
Friday, October 16, 2009

No alternate text on picture! - define alternate text in image propertiesAlong-buried love affair and the sensational discovery of an unknown cache of letters lie at the center of Nili Scharf Gold’s illuminating biographical study, “Yehuda Amichai: The Making of Israel’s National Poet.” Gold, an authority on Hebrew poetry and a professor at the University Pennsylvania, mines these materials to show how the internationally acclaimed poet Amichai became — well — Amichai.

The basic outline can be easily summarized: Born Ludwig Pfeuffer in the Bavarian town of Wurzburg in 1924, the future Israeli poet grew up speaking German, picking up enough Hebrew in religious school to participate in services at his father’s Orthodox synagogue. In 1936, the Pfeuffer family left Germany for Palestine, settling in Jerusalem, and 12-year-old Ludwig started going by his Hebrew name, Yehuda. It wasn’t until he was in his early 20s that he adopted the name Amichai, however. And it wasn’t until after serving in the Jewish Brigade during World War II and the Palmach during the Israeli War of Independence that his career as a poet really began.

Yet beneath those surface facts, Gold contends, lies a much more complex story.  Through careful analysis of hitherto unknown biographical papers as well as detailed readings of the poetry itself, she convincingly documents the various ways in which Amichai “camouflaged,” downplayed or suppressed various biographical particulars (starting with the emotional impact of his childhood in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power) in order to present and preserve his image as a kind of “Everyman” Israeli citizen-soldier whose poetic sensibility was born simultaneously with the creation of the State of Israel. 

I’ll get to why resort to such camouflage in a moment. But first, how Gold unlocked the key to Amichai’s self-transformation from a German-born refugee to a canonic Israeli writer who reinvented modern Hebrew verse is a literary detective story in itself.

Think of it as a real-life version of such classic fictional literary thrillers as A. S. Byatt’s “Possessed” or Henry James’ “The Aspern Papers.” As they sat together at a lecture in New York City in 1997, Amichai leaned over to Gold and pointed to a woman sitting three rows in front of them. “Do you remember the poem about the one who ‘ran away to America?’” he asked. “I wrote it about her.” Never before had he revealed the existence of this long-ago lover, much less hinted at her centrality to the formation of his own identity as a writer.

Even so, it wasn’t until two years after Amichai’s death (he died in 2000, at the age of 76) that Gold made the acquaintance and earned the confidence of this mystery woman who, with a continued air of secrecy, guards her privacy and is referred to throughout the book only as “Ruth Z.” Not only did Ruth Z. entrust Gold with the story of her intimate friendship with Amichai. She presented Gold with a sealed tin box, unopened for 60 years, filled with historic treasure beyond compare — 94 letters written by the youthful Amichai and addressed to the woman he had hoped to marry. (These letters will be housed at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, and because the passages Gold quotes are of high literary quality, filled with wit and eloquence, readers can only hope that they will eventually be published.)

Starting in 1947, when Ruth Z. departed what was then Palestine for America, and concluding in 1948, after her announcement of her engagement to someone else, Amichai wrote her faithfully several times a week, his ardor for her never flagging even when her waning attention surely warned him that a break was inevitable. In addition to recording the ups and downs of the love affair itself, these letters present an unparalleled portrait of Amichai’s development as a writer, and provide a detailed and often unsettling chronicle of the hope- and angst-filled months leading up to Israel’s independence and the start of fighting. 
As tantalizing as these revelations are in and of themselves, Gold places even more emphasis on their ramifications for understanding Amichai’s artistic achievement.  From Gold’s point of view, the popular conception of the genesis behind Amichai’s artistry — a version Amichai himself had helped mold — could no longer hold up to scrutiny.

For instance, in the year prior to her meeting Ruth Z., Gold had spent countless hours scouring the papers Amichai had personally deposited at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library; the earliest documents there dated from 1954, as if to suggest that nothing important to his artistic development had occurred before then. The papers in Ruth Z.’s possession, dating well prior to that, led to a far different conclusion. Indeed, as a birthday present surprise, Amichai had sent Ruth Z. a series of poems he had composed for her in 1947. Here was proof positive that even in his early 20s, Amichai was beginning to formulate the distinctive and original poetic style for which he would later become famous.

And, Amichai had confided to Ruth Z., he did want to become a famous poet. In fact, when the headmaster at the school where Yehuda Pfeuffer (as he was then known) taught asked him to change his “Old Country” last name to something more befitting their new homeland (a common custom at the time), Ruth Z. helped him choose the name that every Israeli would come to know.

Why all this subterfuge? In part, basic psychology tells us that hiding a failed love affair can soothe a wounded ego. And what artistic ego does not like the notion of having been formed whole, all at once, without obligation to or influence of others?  In addition, this self-mythologizing was an understandable product of Israel’s own need in the 1950s and 1960s, when Amichai first became known, to emphasize a forward-looking Israeli nationality rather than dwell on past horrors, and to exude a sense of pride and emotional strength rather than admit to any residual sadness or trauma. Such mournful frailty at that time simply would not do, explains Gold, who herself was born in Israel and whose half-sister died in the Holocaust.

Thus, Amichai’s massaging of some details of his biography:  He would claim that even before he arrived in his new homeland, his religious studies had already made him fluent in conversational Hebrew and that his transition from one country to another was seamless; but in reality, Gold found, his religious schooling in Wurzburg was confined to synagogue Hebrew, and his transition from one language to another was difficult. As for his contention that he never wrote poetry in German, Gold found lines or drafts of poems from early in his career that were composed first in German, only to be translated later into Hebrew. In these and other ways, Amichai tweaked the truth to present himself as blossoming suddenly and full-blown as a Hebrew poet in his mid-20s, and as an Israeli national who owed nothing to his original language, German.
To be sure, this kind of rewriting of personal history was hardly unique to Amichai.  As Gold puts it, “The negation of this past was an integral part of the Zionist construction of the national identity.” The more pertinent question is: Does this information help us to better understand Amichai’s poetry?

The answer is yes. As a biographer, Gold disentangles Amichai’s version from what actually happened; and as a literary critic, she demonstrates how the poet encoded his life experience within his work, in ways until now unguessed. Because Gold devotes so much of her book to detailed readings of Amichai’s poems, this is not a biography for the causal reader. But for anyone interested in the study of Hebrew poetry, Gold’s in-depth exploration of the hidden biographical roots of Amichai’s work is indispensable.

Diane Cole is a contributing editor of U.S. News & World Report and author of the memoir “After Great Pain:  A New Life Emerges.”

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