Synagogue vs. Museum: Yehuda Amichai’s Poetry of Judaism

January 19, 2016 | Sarah Rindner
About the author: Sarah Rindner is a writer and educator. She lives in Israel.

“Poem without End,” by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, opens with the image of an “old synagogue” housed inside a “brand-new museum.” Using this image as her point of departure, Sarah Rindner explores the place of the Jewish religion in Amichai’s work:

For Amichai, the synagogue is not merely a relic from an outdated past; rather, it lives [on], and he lives inside it. Moreover, the synagogue lives within him and so on, creating the never-ending cycle of the poem’s title.

Amichai, famously, identified as secular but grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home and tirelessly engaged with Jewish history, rituals, and texts. It is easy, then, to understand his connection with the world of the synagogue, but the significance of the “museum” that “dwells within his heart” is less clear. . . .

[P]erhaps Amichai is invoking the museum as a representation of “high” culture, a place in which religious belief and practice are concretized and turned into art. [If so, then] it is not just [that] the Jewish faith is embedded in the poet’s heart, but that [Judaism] is also somehow itself linked to artistic or literary expression. . . . This engagement with Judaism via art becomes inextricable from Amichai’s own self as a Jew and a poet, and is then folded back into the substance of the religion itself, as represented by the synagogue.

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