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Yehuda Amichai, 1924-2000

September 29, 2000

Yehuda Amichai, who died last week in Jerusalem at the age of seventy-six, was Israel's pre-eminent contemporary poet, and one of the most widely esteemed writers in modern Hebrew. His poetry, celebrated for its lyric scope and formal range, its pensive clarity and exuberant vigor, and its persuasive embrace of both spiritual and sensual experience, has been translated into more than thirty languages, including Chinese and Arabic. In Israel he was long regarded as a national treasure, his poems recited at weddings and funerals and memorized by generations of schoolchildren. His stature in Israeli public life was affirmed at the ceremony in Oslo for the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded that year to Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, and Yasir Arafat. Amichai was on hand to read one of his early poems, "Wildpeace," and Rabin read another, "God Has Pity on Schoolchildren," in his acceptance speech.

Amichai's most recent book of poetry, Open Closed Open, came out earlier this year in an English translation by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld. Two poems from this edition originally appeared in The Atlantic Monthly -- "I Studied Love" (July 1998) and "After Auschwitz" (November 1999) -- and can be heard here in readings by Chana Bloch.

Yehuda Amichai was born in Wurzburg, Germany, of Orthodox Jewish parents. The family emigrated to Haifa, then part of the state of Palestine, in 1936. Amichai served in the British Army in World War II, and fought with the Jewish Palmach forces in Israel's war of independence in 1948. Following studies in Hebrew literature and Biblical texts at Hebrew University, he published his first book of poems, Now and in Other Days, in 1955. He went on to publish a dozen more volumes of poetry, a body of work that, in the words of the American poet Anthony Hecht, "exhibit a majestic and Biblical range of the topography of the soul."

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