On Yom Kippur 5728, I donned
Dark holiday clothing and walked to Jerusalem’s Old City.
I stood for quite a while in front of the kiosk shop of an Arab,
Not far from Shchem (Nablus) Gate, a shop
full of buttons, zippers and spools of thread
Of every color; and snaps and buckles.
Brightly lit and many colored like the open Holy Ark.
I said to him in my heart that my father too
Owned a shop just like this of buttons and thread.
I explained to him in my heart about all the decades
And the reasons and the events leading me to be here now
While my father’s shop burned there and he is buried here.
When I concluded it was the hour of N’eilah (“locking the gates”).
He too drew down the shutters and locked the gate
As I returned homeward with all the other worshippers.
–from Achshav B’ Ra’ash (“Now, Noisily”) (Schocken, 1975), page 11-12
translation by Richard Silverstein
Yehuda Amichai was one of the great 20th century Israeli poets. He died in 2000 at the age of 76.
This is one of the many fine poems in Amichai’s Jerusalem 1967 song cycle. What has always attracted me to it is the poet’s deep empathy for the Arab shopkeeper because of his own father’s plight as a Jewish shopkeeper in Holocaust-era Poland. It is this ability to empathize with one’s foe; the ability to think not only of oneself, one’s family, and one’s couintry; but to also think of your enemy and how he/she would want to be treated–that I find immensely appealing.
In this day and age, of ceaseless tragedy and undying hatred, a serene poem about the Arab-Israeli conflict may not seem to some the most apt literary expression for the times. But to me, these types of poems which imagine a future between both peoples are more important than they ever were.
In 1967, this poem must have seemed to represent a bold viewpoint. I say “bold” because the period from 1948-1967 was one in which there was almost no direct contact between Israelis and Palestinians (Jordanians at the time). So for a poet to imagine a bond so deep between previously estanged peoples; and to compare an Arab shopkeeper with his own father (and a Holocaust survivor no less) seems both tremendously intimate and like breaking a taboo.
Another daring and new (at least to me) motif to modern Israeli poetry of that era is Amichai’s likening Israel’s conquest of the Palestinians in East Jerusalem to Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. To be clear, I am not saying that Amichai makes this link directly and explicitly. But he does so obliquely and indirectly, and therefore artfully. Amichai’s boldness is in his willingness to view the suffering of his father during the Holocaust as in some way resonant with the condition of this East Jerusalem shopkeeper.
In researching this post, I discovered a wonderful website devoted to the translation of modern Hebrew poetry, The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.