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Jewish Tradition and the Individual Talent of Yehudah Amichai
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Jewish Tradition and the Individual Talent of Yehudah Amichai

March 26 2018, 10:00 AM - 11:00 AM

In this class with Noam Flinker, Professor Emeritus at the University of Haifa, we will examine how Yehuda Amichai reinvented the Jewish tradition in his own inimitable poetic world. We will use both Hebrew and English texts to explore this juxtaposition. As opposed to removing his poetry from the everyday world, his verse maintained a colloquial, down to earth quality, all while maintaining the use of the language and themes of scripture and liturgy.


In a famous essay entitled “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919)  T. S. Eliot once wrote:

“Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”

Although Eliot likely did not have Hebrew poetry in mind, his sense of tradition is surely relevant to any consideration of Jewish civilization.  The Talmud and Midrash can be understood as creative rereadings of biblical materials. Medieval Hebrew poetry requires that a reader recognize the way in which a particular biblical word, phrase or theme is being reread. This is likewise true of the work of Bialik and many other early 20th century poets.

Along with a few other poets, Yehuda Amichai worked out his own readings of Jewish tradition as he crafted his poems. As opposed to many others whose poetic language make use of the tradition in a linguistic register far removed from the everyday world, his verse discovered lyrical moments in a colloquial, down to earth manner. Nevertheless, this did not prevent him from making use of the language and themes of biblical and liturgical language. His juxtaposition of daily Israeli reality and the language of the Bible and Siddur was an integral aspect of his early poetry to which he later returned in his final volume.


Trained in English literature in the United States (B.A., Haverford; M.A., Columbia; Ph.D., NYU), Noam Flinker first came to Israel in the 1960’s and settled in Haifa in the early 1970’s. He is now emeritus at the University of Haifa and has previously taught elsewhere in Israel and the US. Flinker has published on various aspects of English and American literature with a special interest in the intertextual pressures of the biblical world on these cultures.  His articles on Milton, Donne, Herbert and the Ranters in England as well as Frost and Cummings in the United States have examined various ways in which earlier cultures make themselves felt in the literary productions of later periods. His book, The Song of Songs in English Renaissance Literature: Kisses of Their Mouths (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000) examines treatments of Solomon’s Song by [William] Baldwin, Spenser, Shakespeare, [Robert] Aylett, some Ranters and Milton.  He is now editing The Hebraic Odyssey, a study of the theme of Odysseus in seventeenth-century English texts that look forward to Joyce’s Ulysses and the Coen Brothers.

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