Zionist Poetry

Yehuda Amichai: Four Poems on Jerusalem

Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) was born in Germany and emigrated to Palestine in 1936. His work has been translated into thirty-seven languages including Chinese, Estonian and Albanian. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor.

From “Jerusalem 1967”

I’ve come back to this city where names
are given to distances as if to human beings
and the numbers are not of bus-routes
but 70 after, 1917, 500 B.C., Forty-Eight.
These are the lines you really travel on.

And already the demons of the past are meeting
with the demons of the future and negotiating about me
above me, their give-and-take neither giving nor taking,
in the high arches of shell-orbits above my head.

A man who comes back to Jerusalem is aware that the places
that used to hurt don’t hurt any more.
But a light warning remains in everything,
like the movement of a light veil: warning.

In vain you will look for the fences of barbed wire.
You know that such things
don’t disappear. A different city perhaps
is now being cut in two; two lovers
separated; a different flesh is tormenting itself now
with these thorns, refusing to be stone.

In vain you will look. You lift up your eyes unto the hills,
perhaps there? Not these hills, accidents of geology,
but The Hills. You ask
questions without a rise in your voice, without a question-mark,
only because you’re supposed to ask them; and they
don’t exist. But a great weariness wants you with all your might
and gets you. Like death.

Jerusalem, the only city in the world
where the right to vote is granted even to the dead.

Jerusalem is short and crouched among its hills,
unlike New York, for example.
Two thousand years ago she crouched
in the starting-line position.
All the other cities went out, for long
laps in the arena of time, they won or lost,
and died. Jerusalem remained in the starting-crouch:
all the victories are clenched inside her
hidden inside her. All the defeats.
Her strength grows and her breathing is calm
for a race even beyond the arena.

Tourists, Part 2
Once I was sitting on the steps near the gate at David’s Citadel
and I put down my two heavy baskets beside me. A group of
tourists stood there around their guide, and I became their point
of reference. “You see the man over there with the baskets? A
little to the right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman
period. A little to the right of his head.” “But he’s moving,
he’s moving!” I said to myself: Redemption will come only when
they are told, “Do you see that arch over there from the Roman
period? It doesn’t matter, but near it, a little to the left and
then down a bit, there’s a man who has just bought fruit and
vegetables for his family.”