During May, we mark the anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948, corresponding to 5 Iyyar 5708. It was also in May – on 3 May 1924 – that one of Israel’s greatest poets was born: Yehuda Amichai. Like many of his contemporaries, he was not born in Israel. And, like them, he changed his name. Yehuda Amichai came into the world in Wurzburg, Germany, as Ludwig Pfeuffer. Fortunately, his immediate family made Aliyah in 1936, so they did not endure the full horrors of the Sho’ah. Indeed, as a young man, Yehuda Amichai joined the Palmach, specifically, the Haganah, and then served as a soldier in the British Army during the Second World War. Later he fought in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, in the Sinai campaign of 1956, and in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. A true son of Israel, he was proud to declare with his chosen name, Amichai: ‘my people lives’.

Yehuda Amichai was also true to his gift as a poet, expressing the complexity of life in this all its shades and dimensions. Passionately patriotic, he eschewed an ‘us’ and ‘them’ binary vision, and his poems express his deep humanity. This Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, as we celebrate Israel, let us take some moments to reflect on the tragedy of the on-going conflict with the Palestinians by seeing it through the eyes of one of Israel’s most distinguished poets. Here are two poems I would recommend:

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion / and on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy. / An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father / both in their temporary failure. / Our two voices met above / the Sultan’s Pool in the valley between us. / Neither of us wants the boy or the goat / to get caught in the wheels / of the “Chad Gadya” machine. / Afterward we found them among the bushes, / and our voices came back inside us / laughing and crying. / Searching for a goat or for a child has always been / the beginning of a new religion in these mountains.


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.

Yehuda Amichai was invited by the then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to read from one of his poems at the ceremony at which Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat became joint recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1994. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli fanatic the following year (4 November 1995). Yehuda Amichai died of cancer at the age of 76 on 22 September 2000. Zichrono livrachah – May his memory be for blessing.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah (published in SJN, May 2017)