Amichai and my (less than) Half-Sized Religious Fervor

This time last year I was in ENGL 201, and it was the first time I shared any of my poetry with other people. One poem that my professor shared with us was “Half-Sized Violin” by Yehuda Amichai. It’s easily one of my favorite poems, and I’ll explain why. The meaning I gather from it, along with the time lapse from childhood to adulthood are the two main characteristics that draw me to this piece. However, the mystery behind this piece I think is the reason why it stays so fresh in my mind.

If you go online, you can find dozens of poems by Yehuda Amichai, a revered Israeli poet. Yet, “Half-Sized Violin” is hidden within the abyss of the Google, which I thought was supposed to give me 86,300 USEFUL results in 1.02 seconds. I managed to uncover three leads. “Half-Sized Violin” was printed here, in an August 1996 issue of The New Yorker. Funny, because a few months ago I seized a student discount offer and now I receive issues of The New Yorker at my front door. Honestly, I still prioritize online news and social media to stay informed, but the cartoons only require a spare 30 seconds to enjoy. Anyway, once I located the poem online, I could barely make out the words. I’ve transcribed it below, but as a caveat, the poem I’ve included may vary from Amichai’s actual one.

I read up on Amichai. His background in Judaism fuels his poetry’s commentary on God. To quote one of his lines from a JSTOR article, “God remains like the fragrance of a beautiful woman who once passed them by and whose face they never saw.” Scholars comment on Amichai’s “impudent” relationship with God. He interests me. (That’s Amichai, I mean.)

I think the most brazen thing about this poem is Amichai’s portrayal of God as a child, “pat-patting” the sand, as if carelessly toying with the fate of mankind. The speaker also introduces his own childhood experience, in which his elders threw a half-sized violin at him, along with feelings and emotions that are too complicated to bear, so they lesson the burden  by placing their faith in the hands of a boy on the playground.

I’m curious to know what you may know about Yehuda Amichai. Are you familiar with him, his work, or this very poem? I’d also like to hear some thoughts about the second stanza. When I return to this poem, there’s always something new to unpack. But, I always sense the same gratification of learning to rely on my individuality “dress and undress all by myself,” as well as the crippling uncertainty of larger forces at play.

Half-Sized Violin

I sat in the playground where I played as a child,

The child went on playing in the sand His hands went on

making pat-pat then dig then destroy

then pat-pat again.

 

Between the trees that little house is standing

where the high-voltage hums and threatens

On the iron door a skull and crossbones: mother

old childhood acquaintance.

 

When I was nine they gave me

a half-sized violin and half-sized feelings.

 

Sometimes I’m still overcome by pride

and a great joy; I already know

how to dress and undress

all by myself.

 

Yehuda Amichai

 

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