Dr. Wendy Zierler Explores How Yehuda Amichai's Poem Resonates in Our Time

Dr. Wendy Zierler, Sigmund Falk Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies, discusses the poem “We Loved Here” by Yehuda Amichai, and its relevance to the Presidential Inauguration, for her weekly “Shir Hadash shel Yom.”

The specific matter of the moment, is Inauguration Day: a day of new beginnings, a solemn day of national rituals, liturgies, and poetry, a day for all of us to commit to what we love about this country.

For the past two years, during which I have been saying Kaddish first for my father and then for my mother, I have been giving a weekly class at the end of morning minyan, called “Shir Hadash shel Yom,” in which I present a modern Hebrew poem that has relevance to matters of prayer and issues of the day. It has been an effort to bring intentionality to an otherwise repetitive experience of reciting the same words day in and day out. It has also been an effort to combine my scholarly and pegagogical interests as a professor of Modern Jewish literature and Feminist Studies at HUC-JIR with my devotional life and my rabbinical studies at Yeshivat Maharat.

And so I have chosen as this week’s Shir Hadash, “Ahavnu kan,” “We have Loved Here,” by Yehuda Amichai, the 20th and title sonnet of a 23-part cycle, published in the aftermath of the ’48 War and in the early years of the Jewish State. “We have Loved Here” engages directly with the presence and disappearance of love in early Statehood Israel. It also has something to say about Inauguration, an occasion occurring against the frightening backdrop of the recent ransacking of the Capitol, and yet laden with hopes for better future.

Yehuda Amichai, “We Loved Here,” Akhshav uveyamim aḥeirim (1955)

We loved here. Reality was something else.The newspaper once again yellsas if injured. Behind headlines, giant and wide The two of us hide.
On the radio the evening news is relayedAll the words go out to no returnMen of wolves go out to preyMen of pains go out to yearn.
Men of elbows grab places,Men of love dream dreams,Tea women weap into glasses.
Troops wait behind the scenes.[1]Never freed from their warThey’ll never go home as they did before.

אהבנו כאן
מילים: יהודה עמיחי לחן: דוד ד’אור
אהבנו כאן. המציאות היתה אחרת, העיתונים שוב צעקו כמו פצועים. מאחורי שורות ענק שבכותרת אנחנו שנינו נחבאים.
ברדיו נאמרו חדשות הערב,כל המילים יצאו בלי שיבה.אנשי הזאבים יצאו לטרף,אנשי הכאבים אל התקווה.
אנשי המרפקים תפסו מקוםאנשי האהבה חלמו חלוםנשות התה בכו לתוך כוסותמאחורי ההר חיכו גייסות
לא שוחררו ממלחמותיהםולא ישובו עוד לבתיהם.

Behind the mountain One, two, three! Three dwarves sat there One, two, three! They didn’t eat, they didn’t drink One, two, three! They just sat and chatted One, two, three!

זמר עממי
מֵאֲחוֹרֵי הָהָר אַחַת, שְׁתַּיִם, שָׁלֹש! שָׁם יָשְׁבוּ שְׁלֹשָׁה גַּמָּדִים אַחַת, שְׁתַּיִם, שָׁלֹש! לֹא אָכְלוּ וְלֹא שָׁתוּ אַחַת, שְׁתַּיִם, שָׁלֹש! רַק יָשְׁבוּ וּפִטְפְּטוּ אַחַת, שְׁתַּיִם, שָׁלֹש!

The poem begins with the short, uncomplicated assertion — We loved here. This assertion is immediately undermined by a counter assertion about reality being different. The news, in print and on the radio, occupies major ground in this counter-reality. The newspapers scream. The radio sends words out, to a point of no return. All of it has a practical effect on human action. Brutish men, like wolves, are spurred on to violence. In pained response, others cling to hope — to “Hatikvah.”

If “Hatikvah” as an anthem stands for the new Zionist State, the next stanza adduces four different descriptions of reality in the early days of that State, three of the four presenting direct challenges to hope.

There are those in a time of scarce resources and nation building who attempt to elbow others out of their way and claim what is theirs before anyone else can.
There are women at tea, evidence of some effort toward culture, civility, and sentiment, which only ends in tears, symbolic either of useless sentimentality or of the heartbreak of ongoing military conflict.

There are the soldiers, constantly waiting for their next order or mobilization.

In the midst of this, there are  those who remain committed to love, who continue to dream, thereby raising up the love briefly referred to in the two-word opening of the poem.

Given the final two lines of the poem, however, which refer to soldiers never being freed from war (presumably because of their reserve duty and ongoing threats of war), where does love actually reside in the world of this poem? Does it occupy a serious, adult place, or is it merely a childish memory?

I mention childish memories because of the of the words, “Me’ahorei hahar” (behind the mountain), an intertextual reference to the classic Israeli children’s song by that name that I have printed above.

“Me’ahorai hahar,” as underscored in the video that I have linked at the bottom of my translation, is a folksong about keeping rhythm and time — one, two, three — as well as about object constancy. The dwarves hide behind the mountain only to pop back into view, one after another, one two, three. We may think they are gone, but the song repeatedly assures us, in a game of peekaboo, that they have been there all along, enjoying their “pitputim,” their sociable chatter.

In the children’s song, playful, chatterbox dwarves sit in peaceful comradeship behind a mountain. In Amichai’s adult poem, it is an army corps that stations itself, behind the mountain, ready for armed duty. Where children’s play leaves off, soldiering takes over.

One thinks of National Guard batallions that have been mobilized to Washington, D.C. One thinks of the photos of groups of them sleeping in an alcove by a flight of stairs in the Capitol, awaiting their orders.

But the army corps are not unique in the poem in hiding behind something.

If the soldiers hide behind the mountain, the speaker and his beloved hide away from the war and the hate behind giant newspaper headlines. One imagines a couple holding up a newspaper, like a curtain, to sneak in some privacy. Alternatively, symbolically, one imagines love hiding away from the louder, angrier textual headlines of hate.

I have chosen to read this poem for Inauguration Day because we, too, have been living in a time of shrieking headlines, of wolf-men going out angrily and seditiously to hunt their prey and undermine our democracy and what we love about this country.

And yet, the poem reminds us, “We loved here.” Read in the context of Jewish prayer as well as the Inauguration, these words serve as a provocation for those of us who consider these experiences occasions to reaffirm our core values. If love seems missing in the world, then the ideal, affirmative world of prayer and ritual — as evident all over in the Inauguration Ceremony — is a place to coax it back into visibility. Read in this context, the poem reminds us that as pray-ers, we have loved, have been loved in return, and are enjoined, morning and evening to continue to love.

It reminds us as well that rabbinical, statutory prayer is structured around praise, petition, and thanks, but it is flanked all around with statements of love.
The “Ma tovu” prayer, that ushers each of us into the sanctuary of prayer, includes the declaration, “ ה׳–אָהַבְתִּי, מְעוֹן בֵּיתֶךָ.” – “God, I have always loved the habitation of your house.”[2]

The blessings that precede the recitation of Shema reminds us that God has loved us with a great love and blesses the people of Israel with love.
The first chapter of Shema, of course, enjoins to love God with all of our hearts and souls and might.

The first blessing of the Amidah, promises a future redemption to the Jewish people “lema’an shemo be’ahavah,” for the sake of God’s name, in love, while the last blessing, “Sim Shalom,” thanks God for giving us a “Torat hayyim ve’ahavat hessed” — a Torah of life and love of lovingkindness.

Love may often seem like a missing person, hiding behind a mountain. Tefilah, in an assertion of object constancy, reminds us that it has been there all along. The Inauguration, a public ritual of devotion to democracy and continuity in the face of transition, is in its own way an exercise of object constancy.  It is up to us to emphasize love: to raise it up as a banner, an alternative headline not to hide behind but to raise up in pride.

[1] Lit, behind the mountain. This is the second reference to someone hiding behind something. See stanza one.

[2] Quotation from Psalms 26:8.