Three Questions with Emanuella Amichai
By LA Markuson
In preparation of celebrating the life and work of Yehuda Amichai on May 21st, I wanted to get to know more about the importance of the beloved Israeli poet, one of the first people to ever write in the colloquial Hebrew language. Emanuella, a talented theater director and choreographer, collaborated with her family to discuss language, politics, and biblical juxtapositions.
LA: What is the importance of colloquial language overall, and more specifically, what do you see as the role of colloquial Hebrew in the world today?
EA: The Hebrew language was not a spoken every-day language until the Zionist movement has revived it from an exclusively religious use (in the Bible, in prayer, etc) to everyday spoken use. This is what my father said specifically about his language choice:
“My thinking was why not use the language I talk in as well as the language of my Orthodox background — the prayers, the Bible — together, juxtaposing and blending them. I discovered that this was my language. It was, I think, due to my unique personal background — I’d been raised in a very Orthodox home and the language of the prayers and the Bible were part of my natural language. I juxtaposed this language against the modern Hebrew language, which suddenly had to become an everyday language after having been a language of prayers and synagogue for two thousand years. This was very natural for me — there was nothing programmatic about it. This kind of mixed sensibility or imagination of the language was my natural way to write poems.” *
LA: I read that Yehuda Amichai has been called “the most widely translated Hebrew poet since King David.” What is the significance of that connection?
EA: According to the Jewish tradition King David wrote the book of Psalms.
As the Bible is the most translated book in the world, including King David’s poetry, and Amichai is the most translated Hebrew Israeli poet (about 40 languages) some people/critics have compared and connected between them.
Actually, Amichai showed a great interest in the character of King David and wrote several poems about him. He saw him as a complicated man of contradicting qualities: A poet, a musician, and a lover on one hand, and on the other hand a courageous warrior. A man who experienced great success and great tragedy in his life and yet managed to never lose his humanity and sensitivity to people and to the world around him.
LA: Amichai said all poetry is political. What is the political weight carried right now at this moment by words and art coming from such conflicted areas as Israel and the whole geopolitical region?
EA: Amichai wished for peace between Israel and its neighbors, and in the region. But he was not naïve: as a soldier who fought in 1948 Independence war and then in several wars after that, he believed that when it came to people’s lives being at stake and a country being invaded, sometimes war cannot be avoided. However, he was active in the relentless search and efforts for peace and was asked by the late Prime Minister Yitahak Rabin to accompany him to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo and read his poem “God has pity on kindergarten children” there. The prize was given to Prime Minister Izhak Rabin and to Arafat.
“I’ve often said that all poetry is political. This is because real poems deal with a human response to reality and politics is part of reality, history in the making. Even if a poet writes about sitting in a glass house drinking tea, it reflects politics.”
Amichai believed in peace and in a two-state solution: A Palestinian state and Israel. He spoke and wrote about it. For more insight into his thoughts, read his poem “Wildpeace” here.
Our celebration on May 21st will include poems from:
We will be joined by his children, Emanuella Amichai — a theater director and choreographer — and David Amichai — from the Jerusalem’s Museum On The Seam.
Our musicians for the evening will be:
Tali Rubinstein, Recorders
Yotam Ben Or, Harmonicas
Shachar Elnatan, Guitar
Contemplate the incomparable work of Yehuda Amichai and it’s continued power and resonance today, and enjoy community with us after the performances with a wine and cheese reception. See you on the 21st.
*From The Paris Review Yehuda Amichai, The Art of Poetry No 44. Issue 122, Spring 1992.