Yehuda Amichai: My Father (From Hebrew)

Every generation that goes to war hopes that the next will not have to do likewise. The hope is often misplaced, as when The War to End All Wars proved to be no such thing in the face of its even more deadly and infinitely more tragic sequel. 
Yehuda Amichai's father, with whom this poem begins, served in WWI on the side of the Germans. Later Amichai himself volunteered and fought in WWII in the British army as a member of the Jewish Brigade, and then as a commando in the Negev Brigade during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, on which note the poem abruptly ends.
In the case of the father fighting for the Germans, the war is rightly described as "theirs." Yet for Amichai, the wars are understood as being very much his own, fighting as a Jew for his people. (The year after this poem was published, Amichai would serve yet again in the Sinai War, and again after that two decades later in the Yom Kippur War.)
The poem is understatedly tragic, as many of Amichai's poems are. The father had hoped to give his son wisdom, the understanding that all human beings are in some sense to be loved - a love which his son was to experience by seeing through his father's gaze. Yet the son cannot afford to accept that wisdom and vision. Like the leftovers of mother's cake in the father's knapsack, such understanding can no longer give sustenance. There is no place for universal love now, as he goes off to fight for his people. 
In the logic of the poem, though, the son will not be able to develop an understanding like that of his father in the wars he goes to. His father could only do so because he fought in someone else's (their) war, a war in which he could afford to see enemy combatants in a detached way. The son, now fighting a war of his own, will be forced to have a different perspective. As the people on whose side the father fought saw the war as their own and thus could not achieve the perspective the father did, so the son now in a war for his own people will presumably not be able to develop such a wisdom. He will also not be able to impart it to his own children. The wisdom and worldview of his forbears are dead, collateral damage in the cause of a people's nationhood. 
My translation is a function of this reading. This reading, in turn, is my own, and a function of my own perspective. Whether I am merely a tendentious fabulator, or am picking up on undercurrents of Amichai (not restricted to this poem) that many readers have not wanted to see, is really up to you to decide. 

My Father
By Yehuda Amichai
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Hebrew

Four years my father fought that war of theirs,
And did not love or hate his enemies.
But I know he was forming me, even there,
Day by day, out of his tranquilities,

The precious few tranquilities he gleaned
Between the smoke and bombs for a child's sake
And put them in the knapsack tattered at the seams,
With leftovers of mother's hardening cake.

He gathered with his eyes the nameless dead.
The numerous dead he gathered so I'd know
And love them, seeing them as he saw, instead 

Of dying, as they died, in gore and terror.
He filled his eyes with them. He was in error.
Onward like them to all my wars I go. 

The Original: 


אבי היה ארבע שנים במלחמתם
ולא שנא אויביו ולא אהב.
אבל אני יודע, כי כבר שם
בנה אותי יום-יום משלוותיו

המעטות כל-כך, אשר לקט
אותן בין פצצות ובין עשן,
ושם אותן בתרמילו הממורטט
עם שארית עוגת-אימו המתקשה.

ובעיניו אסף מתים בלי שם
מתים רבים אסף למעני
שאכירם במבטיו ואוהבם.

ולא אמות כמוהם בזוועה…
הוא מילא עיניו בהם והוא טעה:
אל כל מלחמותיי יוצא אני.



Aví hayá arbáˁ šaním bemilħamtám
Veló sané oyváv veló aháv.
Avál aní yodéaˁ ki kvar šam 
Baná otí yom-yóm mišalvotáv

Hamuˁatót kol-káx ašér lakát
Otán beyn petsatsót uvéyn ašán,
Vesám otán betarmiló hamemurtát
ˁIm še'erít ˁugát-imó hamitkašá.

Uveˁeynáv asáf meytím bli šém
Meytím rabím asáf lemaˁaní
Še'akirém bemabatáv ve'ohavém.

Veló amút kamóhem  bazvaˁá...
Hu milé ˁeynáv bahém vehú taˁá:
El kol milħamotáy yotsé ani. 

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