Sunday, August 31, 2014

God has Pity on Kindergarten Children

God has Pity on Kindergarten Children

by Yehuda Amichai

Translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell

God has pity on kindergarten children.
He has less pity on school children
And on grownups he has no pity at all,
he leaves them alone,
and sometimes they must crawl on all fours
in the burning sand
to reach the first–aid station
covered with blood.

But perhaps he will watch over true lovers
and have mercy on them and shelter them
like a tree over the old man
sleeping on a public bench.

Perhaps we too will give them
the last rare coins of charity
that Mother handed down to us
so that their happiness may protect us
now and on other days.

“God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children” has become one of YEHUDA AMICHAI’s most quoted and anthologized poems. Amicahi is considered as the greatest Israeli poet of last century. The poem operates on multiple levels, but given its historical proximity to Israel’s war of independence of 1948, one is hard pressed not to view its surface theme as that of the savagery of war and the sacrifice of young soldiers.

The poem also typifies Amichai’s inclination, especially in his early poetry, to challenge and to transform in an acutely ironic fashion the traditional perception of God as merciful. Amichai had a complex relationship with Orthodox Judaism and conducted a grand theological argument with the Almighty, rejecting any submissive reverence and the certainties of an exclusive faith. For example, the companion piece to “God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children”—“A God Full of Mercy”—limns similar terrain, featuring a speaker who relates a life redolent of pain and misery, angry at a God who keeps all lenity, all compassion strictly to himself, which is why he is so “full of mercy.”

The title “God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children” positions the reader to expect a poem praising God’s benevolence, but it quickly develops into a searing tract about a universe devoid of higher kindliness. The first two lines foreground the poem’s central theme, that childhood and youth provide a type of protection and shelter denied to adults:

God has pity on kindergarten children.
He has less pity on school children.

At first we are told that God does show mercy, but it is dispensed in a discriminatory manner, only to those who are regarded as totally pure—kindergarten children and, to a lesser extent, schoolchildren. In a sense it is not just God who offers his concern and protection to the innocent and powerless, but also the institutions of home, kindergarten, and school that proffer a shield. On the other hand, God denies the vulnerable grownups (embodied here as soldiers) of his sanctuary, even though soldiers are customarily in more peril than small children. Amichai marshals the image of soldiers crawling on all fours in the hot sands toward the first aid station, bloodied and wounded, to underline the idea that combatants (in this instance, during the war of independence) were not the objects of God’s watchfulness. This particular image struck a chord with Israelis, who were all too well acquainted with the high cost of successive wars. In this poem the soldiers, left entirely alone, have reverted to their infant state, dragging themselves as children do to be tended to. More broadly, this “last station” could symbolize the final destination for all of us.

The following stanzas convey the message that omnipotence does not have a duty to provide protection against danger or death. In the end, only love acts as a buffer for suffering adults. The second stanza suggests that “true lovers” may well be deserving of God’s love .

But perhaps he will watch over true lovers
and have mercy on them and shelter them
like a tree over the old man
sleeping on a public bench.

 Still, the tree that shelters the young lovers can provide only a limited degree of safety. It cannot insulate the lovers from rain, cold, or physical injury. From the second word of the second stanza (perhaps), it is evident that God’s sanctuary is contingent on something else. Those who love truly (as the poem largely implies) can be likened to children in their naïveté and righteousness, and they are thus more worthy of protection, albeit only a fractional sort. The idea developed in this poem—that only love can afford redemption that only love will drive away pain and cruelty—is a recurring theme in the Amichai poetic corpus.

The last section of the poem suggests that generosity and empathy handed down in the form of “coins of compassion” by a mother (or mother figure) may generate happiness for the adults shunned by a discriminating God. Acts of (metaphorically) maternal charity, Amichai says, will lead in turn to our protection. The referencing of “the mother” evokes the association of “motherly love” with its accompanying warmth and affection, remembered from childhood. This trope is not surprising. Time and again reminiscences from childhood (nostalgic glimpses into a world of peace and innocence) dapple Amichai’s poetic canvas. One critic appositely noted that “a whole coin” often emblematizes completeness in Amichai’s poetry, observing that the soldiers, hurt and incomplete, can also parabolically signify people stuck in the mechanical drudgery of urban life, with its attendant isolation, estrangement, and disjunction. Ultimately, it is God who is cast as the designer of such afflictions. 

The poem avers that human beings should not rely on God for refuge or mercy, but must be responsible for their own safe conduct. Amichai is asserting, contra Jewish religious dogma, that human goodness, kindness, and love are far superior shields and can function as a worthy substitute for God’s uncertain protection. Compassion is to be reclaimed here on Earth, rather than from the heavens, so evidently impoverished of kindness.

The poem can be classified as a modern opus, an existential meditation on the relationship between us and our creator. It confirms God’s presence in human affairs, but demonstrates humankind’s loss of faith and profound disappointment in what can only be seen as divine indifference to the uncertain lives of human beings.

Ref : Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai .Translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell
The Facts On File Companion to World Poetry, 1900 to the Present by R. Victoria Arana

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