4.41. Yehuda Amichai, poem ‘Jerusalem is a port city on the shore of eternity’ (1968)

The return to the Old City of Jerusalem, conquered in the Six-Day War of June, 1967, was the subject of Naomi Shemer’s song Jerusalem of Gold in the preceding Chapter. It is also the subject of Yerushalayim, 1967 (“Jerusalem, 1967”) by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), a cycle of 22 poems, of which Yerushalayim ir namal al sefat ha-neẓaḥ (“Jerusalem is a port city on the shore of eternity”) is the penultimate. *Amichai, “Jerusalem is a port city.” Translated by Stephen Mitchell. The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai 54. Reproduced by permission of University of California Press Books. The cycle is again part of the collection of poems Akhshav ba-raʿash (“Now in the Storm”), the title of which is an allusion to the Six-Day War. *Benjamin Harshav’s translation of the title as “Now in the Din before the Silence” (Harshav, Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry 1948-1994 vi), with its inversion of the usual saying, is taken from one of the poems: “Now in the din before the silence / I can tell you things / I didn’t say in the silence before the din.” (Ibid. 143).

The persona of Jerusalem, 1967 visits the Old City of Jerusalem, for the first time since 1948, on Yom Kippur, 1967. He is relieved that the city is no longer divided in two by entanglements: “A man who comes back to Jerusalem is aware that the places / that used to hurt don’t hurt anymore.” (poem 2). At the same time, the city has become unfamiliar to him and he realizes that the conquest of Palestinian territory will lead to new, severe problems: “And already the demons of the past are meeting / with the demons of the future and negotiating about me / above me . . .” (poem 2). The cycle concludes with the metaphor of Jerusalem as an unfinished operation, left by surgeons who took a nap in faraway skies (poem 22).

In the turmoil of pessimistic personal, political, and religious thoughts in the 22 poems of the cycle, the only ray of hope is poem 21, Jerusalem is a port city, in which the shofar on the Temple Mount marks the decisive moment.

Jerusalem is a port city on the shore of eternity.
The Temple Mount is a huge ship, a magnificent
luxury liner. From the portholes of her Western Wall
cheerful saints look out, travelers. Hasidim on the pier
[5] wave goodbye, shout hooray, hooray, bon voyage! She is
always arriving, always sailing away. And the fences and the piers
and the policemen and the flags and the high masts of churches
and mosques and the smokestacks of synagogues and the boats
of psalms of praise and the mountain-waves. The shofar blows: another one
[10] has just left. Yom Kippur sailors in white uniforms
climb among ladders and ropes of well-tested prayers.

And the commerce and the gates and the golden domes:
Jerusalem is the Venice of God.

Nautic metaphors dominate the whole poem about this city without a sea or a river, at the edge of a desert. The chronotope of the Temple Mount is not the static center of Jerusalem and the world, but a dynamic, imaginary ship, that sails, at a shofar blast, in any direction. While the narrow ridges in the landscape are the waves, the Temple Mount is a cruise ship with the Dome of the Rock as a bridge, the minaret of the Al-Aqsa mosque as a mast and the openings in the walls as portholes. The square before the Western Wall is a quay with the fences as piers, and the flags of the State of Israel.

The cycle’s chronotope is the Old City on Yom Kippur, and many details connect the “ship” of the Temple Mount to synagogal service. The waving of the Ḥasidim in vv. 4-5 probably alludes to their shokeling at the Western Wall and their hoorays allude to their prayers, while the sirot (“boats”) in v. 8 sound almost similar to the shirot (“songs”) in v. 9. *Cf. Alter, “Yehuda Amichai: Jerusalem is a port city” 210. More explicit references to the Yom Kippur service are the white uniforms of the sailors in v. 10, which resemble the white clothes or kittels of the congregation on Yom Kippur. The shofar blast, compared with a blast on a ship’s horn, as well as the “always arriving” in v. 6 can be related to the tekiʿah gedolah at the end of the Yom Kippur service, followed by the prayer of the congregation: “Next year in Jerusalem!” *The Koren Yom Kippur Maḥzor 1200 whereas “another one / has just left” in vv. 9-10 could be connected to the same shofar blast, which is sometimes interpreted as the departure of God’s presence. *The ArtScroll Machzor Yom Kippur 765, Note. The shofar blast in the poem follows the paratactic passage with nine times “and . . .” of vv. 6-9. In the Hebrew original, the sudden shofar blast produces even more effect, with the concise word od (“another”), just before the enjambment: Kol shofar nishma: od / aḥat hifliga. (“The shofar is heard: another / one has sailed away.”)

In poem 5 of Jerusalem, 1967, there is another passage which refers explicitly to Yom Kippur: more precisely, to the end of Neʿilah. The shop of a Palestinian reminds the persona of his father’s former shop in the Old City and in his thoughts, he enters into an intimate conversation with the shopkeeper; at the end of the day, the closing of the gate alludes to the closing of the Ark at the end of Neʿilah, after the prayer: “May He who makes peace in His high places, / make peace for us and all Israel” *The Koren Yom Kippur Maḥzor 1198 and the tekiʿah gedolah on the shofar:

I explained to him in my heart about all the decades
and the causes and the events, why I am now here
and my father’s shop was burned there and he is buried here.

When I finished, it was time for the Closing of the Gates prayer.
He too lowered the shutters and locked the gate
and I returned, with all the worshipers, home.

*The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai 49. These verses reveal the character of the cycle as both a personal and general document from the Six-Day War, the war which pulled down the barbed wire fences between the two parts of Jerusalem. The literary historian Glenda Abramson states: “To Amichai’s lyric ‘I,’ whose personal history is one of discontinuity, Jerusalem represents more than piety, redemption, restored beauty, or historical closure; the city is seen as a projection of himself and his divided life.” *Abramson, The Writing of Yehuda Amichai 126. In Jerusalem, 1967, the opening of the Old City marks the beginning of the painful process of healing the wounds in the city that was his home for many years, and, at the same time, the wounds in his conscience; it is doubtful whether this will succeed, as the cycle concludes with “Jerusalem. An operation that was left open.”

In contrast, Naomi Shemer’s song Jerusalem of Gold reveals not a divided life but instead, only a divided land. The difference between the two views is stressed by the references in both works to Josh. 6 about the conquest of Jericho. In Shemer’s song, this reference in stanza 4 is part of a mental and military monologue: “We’ll take the Dead Sea road together, that runs through Jericho,” in which the presence of Palestinians is not perceived. Poem 6 of Amichai’s cycle, however, is a dialogue: “Now / I’ve got to learn Arabic too, to reach all the way to Jericho / from both ends of time[.]” The Palestinian shopkeeper is not only noticed by the persona but moreover, he has common characteristics with the persona’s father. Very sensitive is the “explanation” without accusation, exculpation or details: “I explained to him in my heart about all the decades / and the causes and the events[.]”

In both Amichai’s poem and Shemer’s song, the Past—the biblical Past of Joshua in the song and the liturgical Past of Yom Kippur in the poem—is altered by the Present of the Six-Day War, but in opposite ways. In the title of the collection, “Now in the Din before the Silence,” Naomi Shemer represents the “din,” whereas Yehuda Amichai represents the “silence”: Shemer wrote her song in the flush of victory and even contributed to it, whereas Amichai wrote his cycle after the War, distancing himself from “this summer of wide-open hatred / and blind love” (poem 7). Equally different is the role of the shofar in both works; the shofar blast in Shemer’s song accompanies the static image of the beloved city: “The wells are filled again with water, the square with joyous crowd, / On the Temple Mount within the City, the shofar rings out loud.” (stanza 4), whereas the shofar blast in Amichai’s poem marks the dynamics of arrival and departure in the city.

A shofar metaphor related to that of the ship’s horn in Amichai’s Jerusalem is a port city occurs in Es ist alles anders (“Everything’s Different”), a poem by Paul Celan, written in 1962. Just as Jerusalem, 1967, this poem represents a return to places and times from the lives of two Jewish poets, the Romanian poet Paul Celan (1920-1970) himself and the Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam (1891-1938), to places that were inaccessible under Hitler’s and Stalin’s rules. The high point of this poem is a shofar blast:

. . . you row
down the waterways, lagoons, Dutch canals,
[25] by the light of words,
on the stern no why, on the bow no whither, a ram’s horn lifts you
like a trumpet blast over nights into day, the augurs
devour one another, man
[30] has his peace, God
has his, . . .

*Celan, “Everything’s Different.” Poems of Paul Celan 247. V. 26 “On the stern no why” means that they do not know why the boat, a metaphor for their lives, has arrived where it is, whereas “on the bow no whither” says that they do not know the ship’s destination, though v. 28 with the “trumpet blast over nights into day” suggests a positive future. Just as in Amichai’s Jerusalem is a port city, the symbolic ship’s horn blast of the shofar in Celan’s Everything’s Different is a call for independent thinking, freed from the “devouring augurs” in vv. 28-29 from Celan’s poem as well from the “demons of the past” and “demons of the future” in stanza 2 of Amichai’s poem.

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