Lived: May 3, 1924 – September 22, 2000
Why you should know her: One of the first Israeli writers to use colloquial Hebrew, Yehuda Amichai is considered Israel’s greatest modern poet.
Amichai was born in Germany to an Orthodox Jewish family that made aliyah (immigrated to the Holy Land) in 1936. He attended high school in Jerusalem and joined the Palmach, which was the elite strike force of the Haganah (precursor to today’s IDF), defending the Jewish community in what was then still British-mandate Palestine. Amichai fought in World War II with the British Army, and then fought for Israel during her War of Independence.
After helping Israel win her independence, Amichai studied the Bible and Hebrew literature at Hebrew University. He then published his first book of poetry in 1955. In 1956, he again served in the IDF during the Sinai War. In 1963, he published his first novel, about a German-born Israeli like himself visiting Germany after World War II to make sense of the Holocaust. Amichai again served his country in 1973, fighting during the Yom Kippur War even though he was nearly 50 years old. He continued to write and teach for the rest of his life, passing away from cancer in 2000.
Amichai’s poetry dealt with day-to-day life in Israel, as well as the meaning of life, and was full of references to God. For his work, he was awarded many prizes, including the 1957 Shlonsky Prize, the 1969 Brenner Prize, the 1976 Bialik Prize, and the 1982 Israel Prize. We’ll leave you with an ode he wrote to his home city, the Holy City, entitled “Jerusalem Is a Port City”:
Jerusalem is a port city on the shore of the ages of ages.
The Temple Mount is a great ship, a pleasure yawl
In splendor. From the portholes of her Wailing Wall, jubilant saints
Peer like passengers. Hasidim on the pier wave
Goodbye, yelling hurrah, bon voyage. She
Is always docking, always embarking. And the fences and docks
And policemen and flags and churches’ high masts
And the mosques and the smokestacks of synagogues and the chanteys
Of praise and mountain-billows. The ram’s horn sounds out sunset: one more
Has set sail. Yom Kippur sailors in white uniforms
Ascend between the ropes and ladders of tried-and-true prayers.
And the profits of market and gates and goldencap domes:
Jerusalem is the Venice of God.