Thursday, March 15, 2012

Amichai's Jerusalem

On a roof in the Old City
Laundry hanging in the late afternoon sunlight:
The white sheet of a woman who is my enemy,
The towel of a man who is my enemy,
To wipe off the sweat of his brow

In the sky of the Old City
A kite.
At the other end of the string,
A child
I can’t see
because of the wall.

We have put up many flags
They have put up many flags
To make us think that they’re happy
To make them think that we’re happy

(Jerusalem, Circa 1959)

Yehuda Amichai is the most widely translated Hebrew poet since King David. Amichai's Jerusalem is a 52 minute documentary film about him. And because Amichai lived almost his entire life in Jerusalem, Amichai’s Jerusalem is also a history of the city, beginning with the influx of socialist idealists before the first world war, and ending with the ambiguities of the post-Rabin era. It is history told through the eyes of a poet who scrapes away the layers of dogma to reveal the human presence that gives life to bitterly contested stones.

Who was Yehuda Amichai?

Amichai’s clear, compassionate and sometimes humorous voice has been translated into at least 37 languages including Afrikaans, Arabic, Chinese, Esperanto, German, Urhobo (a Nigerian dialect) and Yiddish. "The effect his poetry has on me" said British Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, "is to give me my own life — to open it up somehow, to make it all available to me afresh....and to free me from my mental prisons."

Amichai first arrived in Jerusalem in the 1930’s, and he died there in 2000. His love of, and exasperation with, the city - were always evident:

The air above Jerusalem is filled with prayers and dreams
Like the air above cities with heavy industry
Hard to breathe

(Jerusalem Ecology - 1980)

Amichai’s poems describe the city during British Mandate rule, then as the divided capital of the new State of Israel, with half the city in Jordanian hands, and finally as the unified – but troubled – metropolis it has been ever since 1967. Together with him we visit places which have been the objects of so much conflict and religious fervour - the ruins of the Jewish temple, the mosques, synagogues and churches. And together with him we wonder at the meaning of these places of pilgrimage:

Once I was sitting on the steps near the gate at David's Citadel

and I put down my two heavy baskets beside me. A group of

tourists stood there around their guide, and I became their point of reference. "You see the man over there with the baskets? A

little to the right of his head there's an arch from the Roman

period. A little to the right of his head." ….

I said to myself: Redemption will come only when

they are told, "Do you see that arch over there from the Roman

period? It doesn't matter, but near it, a little to the left and

then down a bit, there's a man who has just bought fruit and

vegetables for his family." (Tourists, 1980)

Perhaps because Amichai fought in two wars – he fought in both the British Army during World War II, and afterwards in Israel’s War of Independence – his poetry poignantly evokes the cost of war:

Mr BeMr Beringer, whose son

Fell at the Canal that strangers dug

So ships could cross the desert,

Crosses my path at Jaffa Gate.

He has grown very thin, has lost

The weight of his son.

That’s why he floats so lightly in the alleys and gets caught in my heart like little twigs

That drift away.

(Seven Laments for the War Dead - 1976)

Amichai’s gentle humanism leads us beyond the landmarks to a more intimate and personal Jerusalem – the universities and coffee shops where he taught and wrote, his modest home in the picturesque Jerusalem suburb of Yemin Moshe, the parks and playgrounds where he strolled, the hospitals where his children were born and where he battled cancer, and the secret places where love blossoms:

As from "Thou shalt not seethe a kid

in his mother's milk"

They made all the manifold laws of


But the kid is forgotten and the milk is forgotten

And the mother is forgotten

So from "I love you"

We made all our life together.

But I did not forget you

As you were then.

(Instead of a Love Poem)

Along the way we gain new insight into the lives of ordinary Jerusalemites – Jewish, Moslem and Christian who, despite the weight of the city’s history, must deal with the prosaic tasks of earning a living, finding earthly happiness, and managing to die in their own beds.

This English speaking documentary will feature interviews with Amichai, his family, contemporaries and students, and a soundtrack which includes several of the popular songs made by setting Amichai’s texts to music. Archival footage of historical events – the seige of Jerusalem in 1948, the six day war, terrorist attacks, Sadat’s visit - are interwoven with his poetry – some read by Amichai himself – to form a resonant portrait of both the city and the man.

Amichai’s Jerusalem gives us an inside look into this city of contradictions: a city important to many who live far away from it, but whose status as a symbol can often make life inordinately difficult for those who actually live there. A city of shrines and of pubs, of messianic dreamers and software programmers, a city with sewerage problems, and a city with a seeming direct pipe line to the divine:

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite mountain I am searching.
For my little boy
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure…

Afterwards we found them among the bushes
And our voices came back inside us, laughing and crying
Searching for a goat or a son
Has always been the beginning
of a new religion in these mountains.

(An Arab Sheperd 1980)

As we see the places which inspired some of Amichai’s greatest work, we emerge with greater understanding of both a uniquely poetic mind, and of a city which struggles to shake off the burdens of the past in order to forge a more satisfying future.

Jerusalem will be a key component of any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Amichai's Jerusalem makes accessible a prosaic, earthly Jerusalem, as opposed to the national and religious symbol so bitterly fought over by faiths and competing nationalities.


Amichai's Jerusalem: All rights reserved 2002. Amichai's Jerusalem is registered with The Writers Guild of America Registration Department (August 2002 No 883920), and with the South African Script & Story Register (February 2002 -SSR 2713/2002).

1 comment:

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