A Selection of Yehuda Amichai’s Poems About Jerusalem

A Selection of Yehuda Amichai’s Poems About Jerusalem

This post offers the English translation of a selection of poems about Jerusalem, written by the iconic poet, Yehuda Amichai, who spent much of his life in the city. Some of the poems mention significant sites in Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, Ammunition Hill, the Temple Mount, the Old City, Yad Vashem, Mount Herzl, the Tower of David, Mount Zion and Yemin Moshe. 

Jerusalem is a port city on the shore of eternity.
The Temple Mount is a great ship, a pleasure yawl
In splendor.
From the portholes of her Wailing Wall, jubilant saints
Peer like passengers. Hasidim on the pier wave
Goodbye, yelling hurrah, bon voyage. She
Is always docking, always embarking.
And the fences and docks
And policemen and flags and churches’ high masts
And the mosques and the smokestacks of synagogues and the chanteys
Of praise and mountain-billows.
The ram’s horn sounds out sunset: one more
Has set sail.
Yom Kippur sailors in white uniforms
Ascend between the ropes and ladders of tried-and-true prayers.
And the profits of market and gates and goldencap domes:
Jerusalem is the Venice of God.

JERUSALEM IS A SPINNING CAROUSEL

Jerusalem is a carousel spinning round and round
from the Old City through every neighborhood and back to the Old.
And you can’t get off. If you jump you’re risking your life
and if you step off when it stops you must pay again
to get back on for more turns that never will end.
Instead of painted elephants and horses to ride
religions go up, down and around on their axes
to unctuous melodies from the houses of prayer.

Jerusalem is a seesaw: Sometimes I go down,
to past generations and sometimes up, into the sky,
then like a child dangling on high, legs swinging, I cry
I want to get down, Daddy, Daddy, I want to get down,
Daddy, get me down.
And like that, all the saints go up into the sky.
They’re like children screaming, Daddy, I want to stay high,
Daddy don’t bring me down, Our Father Our King,
leave me on high, Our Father Our King!

TOURISTS

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 the 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 the top of Ammunition Hill.
They weep over our sweet boys
And lust over 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 down and a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.’”

VIEW OF JERUSALEM

On a roof in the Old City
laundry hanging in the late afternoon sunlight
the white sheet of a woman who is my enemy,
the towel of a man who is my enemy,
to wipe off the sweat of his brow.
In the sky of the Old City
a kite
At the other end of the string,
a child
I can’t see
because of the wall.
We have put up many flags,
they have put up many flags.
To make us think that they’re happy
To make them think that we’re happy.

AN ARAB SHEPHERD IS SEARCHING FOR HIS GOAT ON MOUNT ZION

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion and on the opposite mountain I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father both in their temporary failure.
Our voices meet above the Sultan’s Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the child or the goat to get caught in the wheels of the terrible Had Gadya machine.
Afterward we found them among the bushes and our voices came back inside us, laughing and crying.
Searching for a goat or a son has always been the beginning of a new religion in these mountains.

ECOLOGY OF JERUSALEM

The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers
and dreams
like the air over industrial cities.
It’s hard to breathe.
And from time to time a new shipment of history arrives
and the houses and towers are its packing materials.
Later these are discarded and piled up in dumps.
And sometimes candles arrive instead of people
and then it’s quiet.
And sometimes people come instead of candles
and then there’s noise.
And in enclosed gardens heavy with jasmine
foreign consulates,
like wicked brides that have been rejected,
lie in wait for their moment.

Jerusalem is a see-saw
Sometimes I dip down
into past generations
and sometimes I rise skywards and then
yell like a child yelling, his legs swinging way up
I want to get off, Dad, I want to get off,
Dad, help me off.

And that’s how all the holy men ascend to heaven
like children shouting,
Father I want to stay up here
Father, don’t get me down, our Father our King,
Leave us up here, our Father our King!”

IF I FORGET THEE, JERUSALEM

If I forget thee, Jerusalem,
Then let my right be forgotten.
Let my right be forgotten, and my left remember.
Let my left remember, and your right close
And your mouth open near the gate.

I shall remember Jerusalem
And forget the forest — my love will remember,
Will open her hair, will close my window,
will forget my right,
Will forget my left.

If the west wind does not come
I’ll never forgive the walls,
Or the sea, or myself.
Should my right forget
My left shall forgive,
I shall forget all water,
I shall forget my mother.

If I forget thee, Jerusalem,
Let my blood be forgotten.
I shall touch your forehead,
Forget my own,
My voice change
For the second and last time
To the most terrible of voices —
Or silence.

Jerusalem, 1967

On a roof in the Old City
Laundry hanging in the late afternoon sunlight:
The white sheet of a woman who is my enemy,
The towel of a man who is my enemy,
To wipe off the sweat of his brow.

In the sky of the Old City
A kite.
At the other end of the string,
A child
I can’t see
Because of the wall.

We have put up many flags,
They have put up many flags.
To make us think that they’re happy.
To make them think that we’re happy.

Jerusalem, 1967

On Yom Kippur 5728, I donned
Dark holiday clothing and walked to Jerusalem’s Old City.
I stood for quite a while in front of the kiosk shop of an Arab,
Not far from Shchem (Nablus) Gate, a shop
full of buttons, zippers and spools of thread
Of every color; and snaps and buckles.
Brightly lit and many colored like the open Holy Ark.

I said to him in my heart that my father too
Owned a shop just like this of buttons and thread.
I explained to him in my heart about all the decades
And the reasons and the events leading me to be here now
While my father’s shop burned there and he is buried here.

When I concluded it was the hour of N’eilah (“locking the gates”).
He too drew down the shutters and locked the gate
As I returned homeward with all the other worshippers.

Windmill of Yemin Moshe

This windmill never ground flour.
It ground holy air and Bialik’s
Birds of longing, it ground
Words and ground time, it ground
Rain and even shells
But it never ground flour.

Now it’s discovered us,
And grinds our lives day by day
Making out of us the flour of peace
Making out of us the bread of peace
For the generation to come.

Jerusalem, 1967

This year I traveled a long way to view the silence of my city.
A baby calms down when you rock it, a city calms down from the distance.
I dwelled in longing. I played the hopscotch
of the four strict squares of Yehuda Ha-Levi.
My heart. Myself. The East. The West.

I heard bells ringing in the religions of time,
but the wailing I heard inside me
has always been from my Judean desert.

Now that I’ve come back, I’m screaming again.
And at night, stars rise like the bubbles of the drowned,
and every morning I scream the scream of a newborn baby
at the tumult of houses and at all this huge light.

….

The city plays hide and seek among her names:
Yerusahlayim, Al-Quds, Salem, Jeru, Yeru, all the while
Whispering her first Jebusite name: Y’vus,
Y’vus, Y’vus
, in the dark. She weeps
with longing: Ilia Capitolina, Ilia, Ilia.
She comes to any man who calls her
at night, alone. But we know
who comes to whom.

A Touch of Grace

At times Jerusalem is a city of knives,
And even the hopes for peace are sharp enough to slice into
The harsh reality and they become dulled or broken.
The church bells try so hard to ring out calm, round tones,
But they become heavy like a pestle pounding on a mortar,
Heavy, muffled, downtrodden voices. And the cantor
And the muezzin try to sing sweetly
But in the end the sharp wail bursts forth:
O Lord, God of us all, The Lord is One
One, one, one, one.
(The Hebrew word for “one” also means “sharp” in Hebrew)

Eicha

“How doth the city sit solitary,” the prophet
lamented over Jerusalem.

If Jerusalem is a woman, does she know desire?
When she cries out, is it from pleasure
or pain? What is the secret of her appeal?
When does she open her gates willingly and when is it rape?

All her lovers abandon her, leaving her
with the wages of love necklaces earrings,
towers and houses of prayer
in the English, Italian, Russian, Greek, Arab styles,
wood and stone, turrets and gables, wrought-iron gates,
rings of gold and silver, riots of color. They all give her
something to remember her by, then abandon her.

I would have liked to talk to her again, but I lost her
among the dancers. Dance is total abandon.
Jerusalem sees only the skies above her
and whoever sees only the skies above–not

the face of her lover–truly does lie solitary,
sit solitary, stand solitary, and dance all alone.

Songs of Zion the Beautiful

Jerusalem’s a place where everyone remembers he’s forgotten something
but doesn’t remember what it is.
And for the sake of remembering I wear my father’s face over mine.
This is the city where my dream-containers fill up like a diver’s oxygen tanks.
Its holiness sometimes turns into love.
And the questions that are asked in these hills
are the same as they’ve always been: “Have you
seen my sheep?” “Have you seen my shepherd?”
And the door of my house stands open
like a tomb where someone was resurrected.

Jerusalem’s a place where everyone remembers
he’s forgotten something
But doesn’t remember what it is.

 

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