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Two Ruths of Yehuda Amichai

Uncovering the personal history of Israel’s beloved poet.

Yehuda Amichai (1924 – 2000) was Israel’s beloved unofficial poet laureate. His poems, hugely popular with ordinary Israelis, are read aloud at weddings, babynamings and funerals. He has been published in 33 languages and rendered into English by many gifted translators.

In the fascinating, scholarly, yet eminently readable Yehuda Amichai: The Making of Israel’s National Poet (Brandeis University Press, $35), Nili Scharf Gold adds a rich complexity to our reading of this poet, discovering formative aspects of Amichai’s life he was determined to suppress as he became the quintessential Israeli poet during the early years of the modern state. Gold, a professor of Modern Hebrew Language and Literature at University of Pennsylvania, explores the poet’s German linguistic and literary roots, and his fascinating relationships with two females who evoked for him themes of abandonment and betrayal.

As this book shows, Amichai created a stirring and generous collage of the human experience in his accessible and sometimes deceptively simple poems, where he playfully and ironically combined in the same sentence everyday and exalted language, the mundane and the erotic, the profane and the holy. In addition to the Bible, he grew up with the Hebrew of the prayer book, and he commonly turned its phrases upside down. He often voiced anti-militaristic, anti-heroic feelings in poems such as “I Want to Die in My Own Bed.”

Before escaping with his family to Israel in 1936 at age 12, Amichai lived in Germany. Gold interviewed his childhood classmates and explored his old neighborhood, including the public garden he walked through to get to school and synagogue. And Gold brings us the story of Ruth Hanover, referred to in one of his poems — his childhood best friend, who walked to school with him everyday. When they were 10 they had an argument, with tragic repercussions; she rode off on a bicycle and was injured in an accident that required the amputation of her leg. Their relationship foundered, and a few years later, because of the amputation, she was unable to escape and was killed in the Shoah.

Gold illuminates Amichai’s absorption as a new immigrant and his assimilation as an Israeli through a relationship with another Ruth. Referred to in the book as Ruth Z., she was Amichai’s first adult love, and he hoped to marry her. Their romance lasted from January 1947 to April 1948, when she wrote to him from New York — where she had gone to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary — that she was marrying another man. Her letters from Amichai contain love poems he quoted to her and poems he wrote for her; they document both his development as a poet and his day-to-day experiences during a perilous and historic time in Israel, just before statehood was declared in May 1948. It is a gift to Amichai admirers that Ruth Z. chose to entrust to Gold the 94 letters from Amichai she had shown to no one for 60 years. Gold’s new book is truly a labor of love.

Naomi Danis is the author, most recently, of Splish-Splash, a board book for toddlers.