Israeli Poetry

Who are We? What are our Roots?

Tourists by Yehuda Amichai

Visits of condolence is all we get from them.
They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,
They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall
And they laugh behind heavy curtains
In their hotels.
They have their pictures taken
Together with our famous dead
At Rachel's Tomb and Herzl's Tomb
And on Ammunition Hill.
They weep over our sweet boys
And lust after our tough girls
And hang up their underwear
To dry quickly
In cool, blue bathrooms.

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David's Tower,
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side.

A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. "You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there's an arch
from the Roman period. Just right of his head." "But he's moving, he's moving!"
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
"You see that arch from the Roman period? It's not important: but next to it,
left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family."

  • What does Amichai believe is the tourists' priority?
  • How are we perceived when we visit new locations?
  • On what do we focus?
  • What is the most remarkable part of touring a new place? Do we appreciate it?
  • What does this poem say about our history and our roots?

If I Visit One Day by Vered Alpert

If I visit one day

To Cairo

I will go to see the street

El Geish 182

That was once called

Farouk Street

To see where

My father was born

After that

I will go by foot

To the Great Synagogue

Sha'ar Hashamayim

In Adly Street

In the neighborhood of Ismaleyiah

Where worked

My grandfather

After that

I will look for the school

Maoise Katooi

Where my father studied,

I will also search for,

The Jewish Hospital

Where he worked -

Or maybe first I will go to see

The Nile,


First I will go to see

The Nile.

  • What is Vered Alpert's priority in her travels? Why?
  • What would ours be?
  • What does this poem say about our history and our roots?
  • How does it compare to Amichai?

My Heart is in the East by Yehuda ha-Levi, Spain, 12th C.

My heart is in the east and I in the uttermost west:

How can I find savor in food? How shall it be sweet to me?
How can I make good my vows, my pledges, while yet

Zion lies beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in Arabian chains?
A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain
Seeing how precious in my eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.

  • For what is the author yearning?
  • What does this poem say about our history and our roots?

My Body is in the East, My Heart in the Extreme West by Yehuda Amichai

The land knows where the clouds come from and whence the hot wind

Where hatred and whence love.

But its inhabitants are confused, their heart is in the East

And their body in the far West

Like migratory birds who lost their summer and winter,

Lost in the beginning and the end, and they migrate

To the end of pain all their days.

What is the author saying about Israeli attitudes toward the land of Israel?

How does the author feel about Israel?

How does it compare with Yehuda ha-Levi?

What does this poem say about our history and our roots?

The Amen Stone by Yehuda Amichai (Translated by Chana Bloch)

On my desk there is a stone with the word “Amen” on it,

a triangular fragment of stone from a Jewish graveyard destroyed

many generations ago. The other fragments, hundreds upon hundreds,

were scattered helter-skelter, and a great yearning,

a longing without end, fills them all:

first name in search of family name, date of death seeks

dead man’s birthplace, son’s name wishes to locate

name of father, date of birth seeks reunion with soul

that wishes to rest in peace. And until they have found

one another, they will not find a perfect rest.

Only this stone lies calmly on my desk and says “Amen.”

But now the fragments are gathered up in lovingkindness

by a sad good man. He cleanses them of every blemish,

photographs them one by one, arranges them on the floor

in the great hall, makes each gravestone whole again,

one again: fragment to fragment,

like the resurrection of the dead, a mosaic,

a jigsaw puzzle. Child’s play.

  • What do the stones represent?
  • Who is the man?
  • What does this poem say about our history and our roots?

Jews in the Land of Israel by Yehuda Amichai (Translated by Chana Bloch)

We forget where we came from. Our Jewish

names from the Exile give us away,

bring back the memory of flower and fruit, medieval cities,

metals, knights who turned to stone, roses,

spices whose scent drifted away, precious stones, lots of red,

handicrafts long gone from the world

(the hands are gone too).

Circumcision does it to us,

as in the Bible story of Shechem and the sons of Jacob,

so that we go on hurting all our lives.

What are we doing, coming back here with this pain?

Our longings were drained together with the swamps,

the desert blooms for us, and our children are beautiful.

Even the wrecks of ships that sank on the way

reached this shore,

even winds did. Not all the sails.

What are we doing

in this dark land with its

yellow shadows that pierce the eyes?

(Every now and then someone says, even after forty

or fifty years: "The sun is killing me.")

What are we doing with these souls of mist, with these names,

with our eyes of forests, with our beautiful children,

with our quick blood?

Spilled blood is not the roots of trees

but it's the closest thing to roots

we have.

  • How is Israel portrayed?
  • Why do we return to Israel?
  • What does this poem say about our history and our roots?

Sonnet (My Father Fought) by Yehuda Amichai (Adapted from a translation by A.Z. Foreman)

Four years my father fought that war of theirs,
And did not love or hate his enemies.
But I know he was forming me, even there,
Day by day, out of his tranquilities,

The precious few tranquilities he gleaned
Between the smoke and bombs for a child's sake
And put them in the knapsack tattered at the seams,
With leftovers of mother's hardening cake.

He gathered with his eyes the nameless dead.
The many dead for my sake unforsaken,

So that I should not die like them in dread,
But love them, seeing them as once he saw.

He filled his eyes with them. He was mistaken.
Like them, I must go out to meet my war.

  • What wars do you think Amichai is discussing here?
  • How does he feel about the wars?
  • What does this poem say about our history and our roots?


My Father by Yehuda Amichai

The memory of my father is wrapped up in
white paper, like sandwiches taken for a day at work.

Just as a magician takes towers and rabbits
out of his hat, he drew love from his small body,

and the rivers of his hands
overflowed with good deeds.

Each of Us Has a Name by Zelda (Translated by Marcia Falk)

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls

Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

A Man Doesn't Have Time in His Life by Yehuda Amichai

A man doesn't have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn't have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
Was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history
takes years and years to do.

A man doesn't have time.
When he loses he seeks, when he finds
he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves
he begins to forget.

And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur. It tries and it misses,
gets muddled, doesn't learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.

He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there's time for everything.



Wildpeace by Yehuda Amichai (1966)

Not the peace of a cease-fire,

not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,

but rather

as in the heart when the excitement is over

and you can talk only about a great weariness.

I know that I know how to kill,

that makes me an adult.

And my son plays with a toy gun that knows

how to open and close its eyes and say Mama.

A peace

without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,

without words, without

the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be

light, floating, like lazy white foam.

A little rest for the wounds—

who speaks of healing?

(And the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation

to the next, as in a relay race:

the baton never falls.)

Let it come

like wildflowers,

suddenly, because the field

must have it: wildpeace.

Untitled by Yehuda Amichai

Don't stop after beating the swords into plowshares, don't stop! Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them.

Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into plowshares first.

One More Poem

Song of the Weeds

By Shuli Rened, based closely on Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav

Do know that each and every shepherd

Has his own very special nigun

Do know that each

and every blade of grass

Has its own special poem

And from the melody of all the weeds

A nigun of a shepherd

is made.

How beautiful,

How so beautiful and lovely

When one hears their song

It's so good to pray among them

And with joy to worship Hashem.

And from the songs of the weeds

the hearts fills with longings.

And when the heart fills up from the songs

aspiring to Eretz Yisrael

A great light then stretches on and on

From the holiness of the Land to its core

And from the song of the weeds

A nigun of the heart - forms.