What makes poets great to begin with is a living presence we feel in their words, the way we can “read” the body and the voice of the poet. That is why it is so hard to believe it is now fifteen years since the death of Israel’s greatest poet, Yehuda Amichai. His adopted Hebrew name Amichai—he was born in Germany in 1924 as Ludwig Pfeuffer—which means “my people live.” This name he made for himself also became prophetic because through his poetry his people surely live. Working with and helping to mold the freshly born language of modern Hebrew, he gave poetic voice to a “new-old” nation. For Israelis, he spoke as a national poet, but his work took on a life beyond that.

Rare are the poets whose vitality crosses over from one language to another, as Amichai’s did, from Hebrew...

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