Yehuda Amichai Is Awarded the Israel Prize for Poetry

April 28, 2019


Yehuda Amichai receives the Israel Prize for poetry jointly with Amir Gilboa.  The other winners are: architect Avraham Yaski, chemist Yehoshua Yertner, former Agriculture Minister Haim Gvati, archaeologist Ruth Amiran, economist Roberto Bachi and educators Ze’ev Vilnay and David Benvenisti.

Born Ludwig Pfeuffer in Würzburg Germany on May 3, 1924, Yehuda Amichai becomes one of Israel’s foremost poets. He is raised in an Orthodox Jewish family that moves from Germany to Palestine in 1935 shortly after the rise of the Nazi party to power. In 1936, the family settles in Jerusalem.  The city becomes a central theme and setting in many of his poems.  He adopts the Hebrew surname Amichai, meaning “my people live” and begins using his given Hebrew name Yehuda sometime around 1946.

Amichai is drafted to the Jewish Brigade of the British Army during World War II. He serves in Egypt where he finds an anthology of British poetry that includes works by famed poets Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. After the war, Amichai becomes a teacher. He then serves in Israel’s War of Independence, as a commando with the Palmach, an underground strike-force of the Haganah.  He also participates in the 1956 and 1973 Wars.

Considered by many to be Israel’s greatest poet, Amichai’s canon is extensive and his works have been translated into over forty languages. Amichai’s work is distinctively modern, utilizing stark language to find the transcendent in  everyday  objects,  such  as  airplanes  and  bombs,  and  to  depict  erotic  intimacy  while alluding  to  the  Bible.  He often connects his personal experiences of family, religion and war to themes of love and loss. In his later years, his poems focus more on aging and mortality.    On the day after Amichai’s death, in September 2000, Robert Alter, a scholar of Hebrew literature who publishes an English language collection of 550 Amichai poems in 2016, stated, ”There is a tension between personal experience and the violent pressures of history. Writing about himself, [Amichai] is also writing about Everyman.”

Amichai publishes nineteen collections of poetry, two prose novels, several short stories, a series of plays, and countless articles. At the Israel Prize ceremony on April 28, 1982, his poetry is cited for “its combination of lyrical and everyday themes express the world of a disillusioned generation.”

In 1982, in recognition of his outstanding achievements in poetry, Amichai is awarded Israel’s most prestigious award, the Israel Prize for literature.  The archive of Amichai’s work and correspondence is housed at Yale University in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Contained therein is Amichai’s personal diary, which he maintained for 40 years. There are also 1,500 letters written to Amichai from the early 1960s through 1990, and Israeli correspondence from politicians, authors, poets, and intellectuals. Overseas correspondence includes letters from the likes of Ted Hughes, Arthur Miller, Erica Jong, Paul Celan. In addition to the letters, the archives holds Amichai’s numerous unpublished poems, stories and plays and fifty of Amichai’s notebooks and notepads.

The photo shows Amichai reading in 1986.  Source:  Moshe Shai/Flash90