Late Israeli poets wisdom continues to be a blessing

I almost never cry when famous people die. I feel sad for their loved ones and in some cases, for historic opportunities lost or lives ended too soon. But generally, I feel too detached from the lives of the famous to experience their deaths in anything more than a remote way.

When Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai died of cancer at 76 last month, however, I cried. No writer or thinker has influenced my life more than he has. It was as if I'd lost a mentor and a dear friend.

I found out about his death from an e-mail received during work hours. Instinctively I reached over to my bookshelf, where a worn, dog-eared collection of his poems sits between a thesaurus and a copy of "How the Web Was Won." Sometimes, caught in a maelstrom of dot-com madness, I'll take what I've come to regard as an Amichai break.

Amichai speaks a universal language. When he writes about war, he speaks both of the conflicts his country has witnessed and the battles we wage against ourselves. With language that is by turns sarcastic, tender, abundant and spare, he writes of the contradictions of life in his beloved Jerusalem, of memory and loss, of the complexities of romantic and familial love.

Once, my head sank down, tired, on my hairy chest and I found the smell of my father there again, after many years.

In Israel, Amichai's works cross all societal strata. His poems have been put to music. They are taught in schools and recited at celebrations and funerals. I once read about a group of Israeli students called to fight in the Yom Kippur War. Each packed gear, a rifle and a book of Amichai's poems.

I understand why. Amichai has a way of making the human experience accessible. He does so with a rare blend of realism and optimism.

When I went through the pain and confusion of a divorce, I found myself returning to this line: "He who was lost like a dog will be found like a human being and brought back home again." Those words served as a quiet reminder that we find a way out of even our darkest moments.

"Love is not the last room: there are others after it, the whole length of the corridor that has no end" helped me see, when I needed to see it most, that even when love ends, life continues.

Some years ago, as a budding journalist, I interviewed Amichai. I hardly knew his work at the time, but I remember feeling nervous. This, after all, was one of the most monumental talents I'd been assigned to interview. What if I stumbled on my words or lost my train of thought?

Amichai, as it turned out, struck me more as a kind, humble grandfather than an award-winning writer whose work has been translated into some 33 languages. He spoke softly. He was open and forthcoming, treating me like a peer rather than the star-struck young writer I was.

I asked him to read me a poem and he picked his most famous, "God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children."

He has less pity on school children. And on grownups he has no pity at all. He leaves them alone, and sometimes they must crawl on all fours in the burning sand to reach the first aid station covered with blood. But maybe he will watch over true lovers and have mercy on them and shelter them like the tree over an old man sleeping on the park bench.

I hadn't heard the poem before and found myself stunned by its beauty. Following our interview, I hungrily sought every Amichai poem I could find. I haven't stopped.

When I met Amichai, he told me that he views poems as prayers. Over the years, that's what his works have become to me.

May the poet's memory, and his words, be a blessing.

The writer is a former Bulletin staffer whose column appears on the fourth Friday of the month. Contact her through the Bulletin or at [email protected], and visit her Web site at

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.