I Studied Love
by Yehuda Amichai
Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld
I studied love in my childhood in my childhood synagogue
in the women’s section with the help of the women behind the partition
that locked up my mother with all the other women and girls.
But the partition that locked them up locked me up
on the other side. They were free in their love while I remained
locked up with all the men and boys in my love, my longing.
I wanted to be over there with them and to know their secrets
and say with them, “Blessed be He who has made me
according to his will.” And the partition
a lace curtain white and soft as summer dresses, and that curtain
swaying to and fro with its rings and its loops,
lu-lu-lu loops, Lulu, lullings of love in the locked room.
And the faces of women like the face of the moon behind the clouds
or the full moon when the curtain parts: an enchanted
cosmic order. At night we said the blessing
over the moon outside, and I
thought about the women.
Perhaps the most quintessential mode of Jewish writing is poetry, yet for many of us it remains the most neglected genre. In the classroom, I rarely have seen a writer whose work so animates the moral imagination and aesthetic pleasure of my students as Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), whose poem here playfully explores the institution of the mechitza, the partition that divided men and women in the synagogue of his childhood, the allure of the forbidden.
One of the greatest revelations of my reading life as a Jewish academic and poetry lover are his works in Hebrew, available in translation by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell in The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.
Years after his death, Amichai is still an intensely felt presence in Jewish poetics, beloved as Israel’s national poet, whose enduring revolution in Hebrew literature expresses with extraordinary lyrical as well as colloquial language that love and war are the tragically entwined and cyclical condition of humanity.
Many of the most indelible poems from these intrinsic polarities of his art interrogate the meaning of Jerusalem, in both its temporal and heavenly dimensions. Others offer exuberant explorations of the attraction between men and women, as illustrated here.
More tragically, much of his oeuvre is also devoted to the tragic consequences of war, which is hardly surprising as Amichai served in the Jewish Brigade in Egypt during WWII, fought as an infantryman during Israel’s War of Independence and would serve again in the bloody wars of 1956, 1967, and 1973.
Throughout the portrayals of those conflicts, Jerusalem often stands out in his poetry as a sort of moral touchstone and representative symbol for the way the world’s reality perpetually eludes all the faithful adherents of the three monotheisms’ visionary preconceptions and longings.