Israeli intellectuals are up in arms over the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s acquisition of the late world-renowned Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s personal archives.
Amichai, who died Sept. 22, sold his archive of papers to Yale to ensure financial security for his family after his death, the New York-based Jewish newspaper Forward reported last week. While Yale professors said Amichai’s papers are an excellent addition to the University’s collection, Israel’s literati are upset to see the archives leave Israel. The collection includes early drafts of Amichai’s works, diaries and personal memorabilia, and even some laundry claim checks, according to Israel’s Yediot Ahronot newspaper.
Many Israeli poets and authors said they were dismayed at the news that Amichai’s works will be displayed at Yale instead of in Israel.
“What people in the world can give up cultural assets like this?” poet Natan Yonatan said.
Yale Hebrew professor Benjamin Harshav was one of Amichai’s chief English translators and Amichai’s friend for many years. Harshav said the two met in the late 1950s when he published some of Amichai’s poems in his journal, Likrat.
Harshav said that he feels Israel should be proud that Amichai is so well-known internationally and that his archives are housed at an internationally renowned place such as Yale.
“He is a world poet — he was the first Israeli poet to bring Israeli realities to the reader of world poetry,” Harshav said. “I do know that nobody in Israel would have bought his archives. At maximum, [his works] would have been placed in some existing archive, with no budget. At Beinecke, I can press a button and find his archive.”
Amichai was Israel’s unofficial national poet for several decades until his death at age 76.
Yale held a dedication and memorial ceremony in Beinecke Library on Oct. 24. Among the speakers at the ceremony were Benjamin and Barbara Harshav, Rabbi James Ponet and Yale professors Harold Bloom, Leslie Brisman and John Hollander, Yale spokeswoman Gila Reinstein said.
Professor Nurit Govrin, who teaches Hebrew literature at several universities, said that Jerusalem should have found a way to buy Amichai’s archives for Israel because Amichai wrote many moving poems about Jerusalem.
“Israel is turning into an anti-cultural society that despises its past,” Govrin said.
Harshav said that while he has not been following the recent controversy in Israeli periodicals, he feels that Israelis are probably upset about Amichai’s archives being at Yale because Israeli culture is “very chauvinistic, and fanatic circles would like to isolate the culture from the world.”
Harshav also said that the manuscripts are Amichai’s personal property, and as a poet, he has a right to make some money.
The actual price Yale paid for the archives is unavailable. Sotheby’s auction house valued the collection at $200,000 when Amichai began negotiating with Yale in 1993, though Amichai’s widow Hana claimed that price is an “exaggeration.”
Hollander said that Beinecke is a good place for the papers because they will be easily accessible to scholars.
“If I had heard that the papers were going to a place where they would be very inaccessible, while it might be nice for the pride of the inaccessible place, it would not be good for scholars, et cetera,” Hollander said. “Whenever something valuable that some people think should be in one country is in another country, people complain.”
Reinstein said that Amichai had a long and close history with the University and read and lectured here several times.
“Yale is thrilled to have his papers added to our archive of major 20th-century writers,” Reinstein said.
–The Associated Press contributed to this story.