On Sunday, after more than a year of heated debate, Israel’s government approved some famous personalities to appear on a new series of shekel banknotes. Among those to be featured on the new currency are a few of Israel’s most beloved poets, including Rachel Sela on the 20 shekel note, Shaul Tchernichovsky on the 50 shekel note, Leah Goldberg on the 100 shekel note, and Natan Alterman on the 200 shekel note.
What might it mean that the Jewish state, a nation that in the past century revived Hebrew as a spoken language, will include poets – along with the standard statesmen and soldiers – on its currency?
In her essay “The Necessity for Poetry,” Erica Jong writes, “People think they can do without poetry. And they can. At least until they fall in love, lose a friend, lose a child, or a parent, or lose their way in the dark woods of lifeâ€¦. Only poetry gives us language packed with feeling and personality. Which is why there are times in life when only poetry will do. Interestingly enough, they are the times when we feel most vulnerable, most human.”
In its short life, the State of Israel has faced continuous existential threats. Is it possible that what Sylvia Plath (whom Jong quotes) describes as poetry’s “blood jet” – or poetry’s economy, its capacity to condense powerful emotions – has been of greater necessity to Israelis than to people in more leisurely, sheltered societies? Could it be that in a place where life is more precarious, people are more inclined to value poetry?
One might wish that, given the Israeli government’s recognition of the necessity for poetry and especially of honoring poets in day-to-day life, they had chosen to dedicate a note to Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet of the people whose accessible verse almost everyone “gets” and nearly everyone enjoys. No matter. His work lives on. As a tribute, we include here one of Amichai’s short and touching poems:
The memory of my father is wrapped up in
white paper, like sandwiches taken for a day at work.
Just as a magician takes towers and rabbits
out of his hat, he drew love from his small body,
and the rivers of his hands
overflowed with good deeds.
-Yehuda Amichai, 1924-2000