The quiet subversiveness of Yehuda Amichai’s poetry has been too long overlooked.
My first meeting with Yehuda Amichai, in the fall of 1970, was what we call in Hebrew a chavaya metakenet, a “corrective” or “healing experience,” one that mends a messy or unpleasant earlier experience. Overeager and all too young, I was trying to put together a series called “Rendezvous with an Author” for Israeli Educational Television, which would allow high school students to meet with cutting-edge Hebrew writers in a relaxed roundtable discussion of the writers’ work. I was still reeling from a failed attempt to produce the series’ pilot: an author whose stories I adored was so sadistically cruel to the young students that we had to stop the taping! And then it came to me—Yehuda Amichai, of course.
He was invested in not playing the role of the Great Poet.
Having gotten into the habit of reading his poetry daily for my own emotional sustenance since age fifteen, I was sure: Yes, Amichai would be the one to start with. He would know how to connect with the students and put them at ease; he would be able to talk about the most complex poetic issues with utter simplicity and without egocentric affectation. I had never met him before, but from everything I heard, he was invested in not playing the role of the Great Poet—even though by 1970 his status as the most revolutionary, indeed the most important poet of the Statehood Generation (dor ha-mdina) had solidified and he was acquiring an international reputation. Regardless, he was synonymous with unpretentiousness. And indeed, in his Everyman appearance and unaffected manner, Amichai proceeded to treat the students as his equals, joking his way into all our hearts, and thus the series was off to an exciting start. That experience was the beginning of my lifelong friendship with the man and the catalyst for my dedication to study and teach the work of the poet.