0418 jpop poetry koz3th

Image: Leigh Guldig


In greeting a fellow Jew, traditionally one says “shalom aleichem,” aleichem being second-person plural, as in “Hello to all of you, to all those who have come before you, all the way back to Moshe Rabbeinu.”

The poet Yehuda Halevi wrote 900 years ago, “My heart is in the East, and I am in the West.” In Israel, streets are named after poets — Hebrew poets who, like Halevi, wrote about Eretz Yisrael. To walk down one of these streets — tree-lined and teeming with people, or moonlit and solitary — is to walk through Jewish history and memory.

For Yehuda Amichai to write poems named after past Hebrew poets is to include them in time present. To name is to ensure remembrance. In his essay on Moses, Hebrew philosopher Ahad Ha’Am wrote in 1904, “Moses made laws for the future, for a generation that did not yet exist.” Ahad Ha’Am also has a street in Tel Aviv, its buildings yellowed and seemingly ancient.

Chaim Nachman Bialik, a poet of the Hebrew revival, wrote Hebrew poetry in Odessa from 1893 to 1924, but his writing was never meant solely for the Jews in Odessa. To write in Hebrew is to write for the world. Bialik, too, has a street, not far from the beach, the air smelling of salt and sea. The Talmud says that a father is obligated to teach his child to swim and to read Torah. To swim is to know how to save others and yourself. In the Mishnah, we read, “Whoever saves a life saves the entire world.”

From the poem “My Son was Drafted” by Yehuda Amichai:

I remember giving them a stern warning:

“Never, never stick your hand out the window of a moving bus.”

To teach your children to swim is to teach them to take notice of the world that surrounds them.

Once we were on a bus and my little girl piped up, “Daddy, that man

stuck his hand into the outside!”

To teach your children to read is to teach them how, as Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

That’s the way to live: to stick your hand into the world’s

infinite outside, turn the outside inside out,

the world into a room and God into a little soul

inside the infinite body.

In Hebrew, there are many names for God. Yet God has no street in Tel Aviv. But He appears in Hebrew poetry in existence and as extinct; as abandoner and the one who is abandoned; as the one spoken of now in the mouths of those present, and as the God in the time of our ancestors. Amichai writes in his poem “Ibn Gabirol”:

But through the wound in my chest

God peers into the universe

I am the door

to his apartment.

He invokes the language of Ibn Gabirol as well as the poets who came before Ibn Gabirol. And Amichai writes as himself, too. A line runs from Moses to Amichai: Hebrew poets as writers of midrash. In a 1985 interview, Amos Oz said, “A story is bound, almost by definition, to relate the past.”

Exchange the word “people” for “story,” and Oz speaks about us. In 2012, Shani Boianjiu wrote her first novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, in English, though both she and her story are Hebrew. The book ends with a passage in the language of Amichai:

Through the window of the bus, I saw her dark hands holding it as she stood on the sidewalk. Then the driver accelerated, and I could not see her anymore. And that was the beginning.

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid — as whom we are writing to and for, in the history of the Jewish people, in the city of Tel Aviv — could be a street name. 

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