Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) is the third in a line of Hebrew poets who have earned a place in the Israeli consciousness as “national poets.” The first of such men, Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934), lived and died before the state of Israel was born. Then came Natan Alterman (1910-1970), whose 1947 poem, “Magash HaKesef (The Silver Platter),” anticipated the formidable sacrifices that the population would have to make in order to establish Israel, on May 14, 1948.
Amichai was a very different kind of poet from either Bialik or Alterman. He was among the first to infuse his poems with the everyday sounds and cadences of the evolving Hebrew spoken on the streets of Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. His work, often deceptively simple upon first reading, becomes, after repeated readings, increasingly complicated by layers of irony and ambiguity.
My friend and colleague Rabbi Leslie Gutterman, knowing the depth of my appreciation for Amichai’s work, recently sent me an article from the Aug. 28 “Israel from the Inside with Daniel Gordis” (danielgordis.substack.com) in which Gordis analyzes one of Amichai’s older poems, “The Place Where We Are Right,” published in 1965.
The poem, set to music by Israeli entertainer Yoni Richter in 2012, is currently being discussed by the Israeli public on radio as well as in a variety of print and online venues. The reason for this particular poem’s renewed attention is that it raises pointed questions regarding the explosive cultural and political conflict brought on by the actions of Benjamin Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing government.
The poem begins, “From the place where we are right/flowers will never grow/in the spring.”
The phrase, “where we are right” is loaded with irony in the Hebrew; the root of the word tsodkim (we are right) is tsedek (justice), closely related to the Hebrew word tzedakah (charity). However, Amichai shrewdly implies that men and women who claim to be “right” are anything but virtuous, just or charitable. To the contrary, such people are self-righteous, self-satisfied, shut off from all viewpoints other than their own.
Indeed, their insistence on being “right” at all costs deadens the possibility of flowers (contrary opinions) ever blooming in the spring; they have poisoned the soil for living discussion.
Stephen Mitchell translates the second verse as follows: “The place where we are right/is hard and trampled/like a yard.”
While I have long considered Mitchell to be one of the most talented translators of both biblical and modern Hebrew, I feel that he is missing the subtlety here. I have tried to capture the nuance with this translation: “The place where we are right/is trampled down and unyielding/like a courtyard.”
That is to say, when our insistence on being right becomes unyielding, like the trampled ground of a heavily trafficked courtyard, we are hardened against seeing any truth but our own.
Amichai concludes his 12-line poem by suggesting that our ability to doubt and to love – love is always seasoned with doubt – enables us to soften up the hardened certainty of that place where we are right.
What does this poem mean to the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have been protesting for months from the place where they are right to oppose Netanyahu’s right-wing government? And what does this poem say to those settlers who have been protesting from the place where they are right to oppose those “leftist” protesters?
And what about us liberal-oriented Americans? What makes us so certain, from the place that we are right, that MAGA Republicans are a threat to our nation’s democracy? And how do MAGA Republicans, from the place that they are right, view the lunatic left?
What can it possibly mean for any of us to speak from “the place where we are right”?
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.