In the course on Israeli literature and culture that I teach at the University of Toronto, I frequently include a poem by Yehuda Amichai called, “Jews in the Land of Israel.” It is about the profound and often painful process of change accompanying the Jews’ transition from being a homeless people to an autonomous nation.
Some of these changes in Jewish life might not always be obvious. One line from the poem that I always like to bring to the attention of my students is: “our children are beautiful.” I ask them if this statement surprises them. The students generally stare at me with a look of perplexity: why would I ask such a thing? They take it for granted that Israelis think of their children as beautiful, and that it would be a natural thing for an Israeli poet to include this in one of his poems. I then go on to explain that (from my perspective) this is one of the most radical statements in the poem.
I point out that it was not so long ago that Jews did not think of themselves as beautiful at all. To “look Jewish” was something to be ashamed of, and in fact it was considered a compliment if someone told you that you don’t look Jewish.
After this, I would look around the classroom and watch as the floodgates would begin to open. The Jewish students would start to admit that yes, they still sometimes feel that way today. In their minds, “Jewishness” is still not associated with beauty. Tales of personal humiliation would often emerge. Sometimes their stories would be funny; often they were sheathed in self-deprecating irony. This would lead to a discussion of Jewish stereotypes, and the ways that Jews have internalized these negative conceptions about themselves without even being aware of it.
I would then ask the students to re-examine the phrase “our children are beautiful” (actually stated twice by Amichai in the poem). Suddenly, a look of recognition would appear on their faces. They would grasp that it is no small thing that the Jews can finally call themselves “beautiful.” In fact, it is one of the major differences between Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora. This is an achievement that most people hardly think about and may even consider trite. But for the Jews and their sense of internal dignity, it is one of the swiftest and most revolutionary changes to have come about in modern times.
Jews in the Land of Israel
by Yehuda Amichai
We forget where we came from. Our Jewish
names from the Exile give us away,
bring back the memory of flower and fruit, medieval cities,
metals, knights who turned to stone, roses,
spices whose scent drifted away, precious stones, lots of red,
handicrafts long gone from the world
(the hands are gone too).
Circumcision does it to us,
as in the Bible story of Shechem and the sons of Jacob,
so that we go on hurting all our lives.
What are we doing, coming back here with this pain?
Our longings were drained together with the swamps,
the desert blooms for us, and our children are beautiful.
Even the wrecks of ships that sunk on the way
reached this shore,
even winds did. Not all the sails.
What are we doing
in this dark land with its
yellow shadows that pierce the eyes?
(Every now and then someone says, even after forty
or fifty years: "The sun is killing me.")
What are we doing with these souls of mist, with these names,
with our eyes of forests, with our beautiful children,
with our quick blood?
Spilled blood is not the roots of trees
but it's the closest thing to roots