The Snow Globe
I was sixteen when I first met the poet Yehuda Amichai. It was the summer after my junior year of high school. I was still the star of the film of my life, then, and a soundtrack followed me wherever I went. If I’d met Amichai at another moment — even a year earlier, when I was too little formed to be so radically changed; or a year later, when I was already well into my solidification — it’s unlikely that I’d be writing about him now. Or writing at all.
I was traveling across Israel that summer, on a program intended to foster a generation of young Jewish leaders. We saw sights, smoked a fair amount of pot, played a fair amount of the Jewish version of basketball (characterized by a lot of arguing over esoteric rules), and endeavored to couple.
In the course of the summer, we met with an eclectic cast of Israeli figures: politicians, artists, activists, archeologists, soldiers, kibbutzniks and theologians. Our summer’s final meeting was with Amichai. It’s hard to imagine why he agreed to spend time with us. Perhaps the fellowship was paying him. Perhaps it was a personal debt he owed to one of the organizers. Perhaps he actually bought into the premise of the thing, and genuinely believed — as we never could, thank God — that we were Future Jewish Leaders, that his words might redirect us, if only by a few thousandths of a degree, toward some version of Jewish Leadership that he found palatable or even inspiring.
I had never heard of Amichai before that day, and by that point in August had had my fill of imparted wisdom. We were herded into a small, humid classroom: a grid of plastic seats with metal legs and wood veneer, chipboard desks for righties. I was sitting beside a young woman, R, with whom I’d been frustratingly trying to mate all summer. I don’t know to what extent that frustration — that life-affirming, joy-denying, self-making-and-destroying frustration — influenced Amichai’s impact on me, but I doubt that afternoon would have been so important to me if I’d entered the room contented.
I’ve kept exactly one diary in my life, and that only because it was one of the conditions of the Israel program. The diary began on July 6 with these words: ‘I am on a plane heading for Israel. I am sitting next to R. She is beautiful and extremely amiable.’
Four days later, on July 10, I wrote, ‘Last night, R and I talked together on a hill overlooking the Old City. It became clear after a short period of time that we had a lot, in fact almost everything, in common. She is fantastic. I feel 100% comfortable talking to her about almost everything, from our families to music to God. I sincerely hope that our friendship doesn’t end with the summer.’
On July 14, eight days after meeting her, I wrote: ‘R had a minor asthma attack today. We sat next to each other on the bus and I asked her if she didn’t, hypothetically, have a boyfriend, would we be lovers? She thought so, as did I. I won’t pursue it. Maybe I should get my head shaved as some sort of metaphor for this relationship.’
The afternoon of July 29, shortly before meeting Amichai, I came back to the dorms and opened my journal to write in it. I found the following: ‘Dear Jonathan, Don’t worry, I didn’t read your journal. I am sixteen going on seventeen. I hear you on the stairs and I can’t write any more.’
What does it mean to tell someone you haven’t read his journal? That you were tempted to read it, but chose not to? That the thought never crossed your mind, but because journals are so potentially nuclear, you want to set his mind at ease? That in fact you read it, of course you did, but by saying you didn’t, you and he can continue with a charade of mutual ignorance?
She hadn’t read my journal. I was in love with her precisely because she was the kind of person who would not read a journal whose pages were sure to be filled with statements of love for her. Which meant I was never able to state that love to her, because I couldn’t do it in life.
An hour after walking out of that meeting with Amichai, I could remember very little of what he said. Ten years later, I can remember — or feel that I can remember — virtually every word. Impressions usually work in the other direction — they diminish with time. Memory always seems to. Nietzsche said that everything we have words for is already dead. To follow this path, the people we speak to become the coffins for our words. This feels true most of the time. But Amichai was a great exception in my life. I became a greenhouse for his words.
I’ve returned to many, many things he said that afternoon, but one has stood out: ‘I wish there were two more commandments. The eleventh would be: don’t change. The twelfth would be: change.’ (In an only slightly altered form, it wound up in my first novel.) We were sixteen going on seventeen, and he was asking us to always stay sixteen, to always be so frustrated, so unsatisfied, romantic, angered by boredom, inspired by uncertainty, demanding, disappointed and unrealistic. And at the same time to become men and women. That afternoon has changed and stayed the same for me, remained still like a city in a snow globe, while also moving with me into my present, through my fingers and onto this page.
The second time I met Yehuda Amichai was in my sophomore year of college. I was twenty, a long four years older than when we first met. He had come to Princeton to give a reading. In anticipation of his visit, I made a small, sculptural gift for him out of a snow globe I’d emptied and refilled as a kind of surreal diorama. I intercepted him in the hallway, reminded him of our first meeting in Jerusalem, told him how much his words had come to mean to me, and presented him with the gift.
He took the box and nodded. I don’t know what I was expecting, but that wasn’t enough.
‘You can open it now,’ I said.
He removed the tissue paper from the box, and the snow globe from the paper. After examining it from all sides, he said what I thought was a very earnest ‘Thank you.’ And then he put it back in the box.
What was I expecting? I didn’t know. Perhaps if I’d developed a clear image of how I wanted him to respond, I would have been able to dismiss it as preposterous. Instead, I was left with the feeling that he didn’t sufficiently appreciate my appreciation, that the gift hadn’t meant anything to him. He turned and walked away.
At the reading, he spoke with great beauty, and at great length, about nothing in particular. (And not that it matters, but he didn’t repeat a single thing I’d heard in Israel.) I remember the buzz as people left the room. We had witnessed something special, something life-changing and contagious. I can only imagine that many went home to write or have sex.
Among the dozen poems he read that afternoon was, ‘A Man Doesn’t Have Time,’ the poem I had used as my yearbook page upon graduating high school halfway between our two meetings. It’s an argument against Ecclesiastes: we don’t have time for every purpose and so must, in the same moments, laugh and cry, hate and forgive, remember and forget, throw stones and gather them together.
A man doesn’t have time. The easy (and not incorrect) interpretation is that life is short, and so we must pack our experiences tightly, often one atop another. We shouldn’t expect the seams to hold.
But I like to think he also meant something different, more nuanced. Man doesn’t have time because he exists outside of it, changing and unchanging, always returning to his past and engaging with his future. We were never 16 going on 17. We were 16 going on 16, and 3, and 77. In 2000, 5 years after I gave him the snow globe, Amichai died at 76 years old. There was still one more meeting ahead of us.
My first son was born on January 25, 2006. The following January, my family moved to Berlin for four months. While there, I gave a phone interview to an Israeli journalist, on the occasion of the Hebrew translation of my second novel. As we were getting off the phone, she said, ‘I almost forgot. One more thing. Do you know any Israeli literature?’ Among the writers I mentioned was Amichai. And for whatever reason, I then told the story of the snow globe I’d given him. It was the first time I’d mentioned it to anyone, as it felt so unimportant, and there was something embarrassing about the imbalance of regard. I’d spent hours making the thing, and rehearsed what I wanted to tell him. He received it with a nod, and for all I knew, proceeded to toss it in a garbage can.
A few weeks later, I received this e-mail:
Please let me introduce myself: my name is Hana Amichai and I am Yehuda Amichai’s widow. I read your interview in the Israeli paper Maariv, and was very moved by your words on Amichai. I wanted to tell you that he brought home your glass object, saying he got it in one of his readings. My children liked it and got hold of it. I do not know where it is now.
Two years after that, I returned to Israel, this time as a professional writer participating in a literature festival. My wife and I spent an afternoon with Hana at her home in Jerusalem. We ate almond-stuffed dates in her living room, drank cappuccino from her new machine, had the history of our view of the Old City explained to us, heard the story of Amichai’s death. I kept thinking some version of, Why didn’t I know then what I know now?
Why didn’t I write him letters? Why didn’t I insist on another meeting, which could have been done easily enough. (I’ve since heard of a number of people who got to spend time with him this way.)
Why didn’t I realize that he wasn’t going to live forever?
Because I was too young? Because he did live forever?
R, who is one of my closest friends, wrote me the following in 2004, ten years after I met her on the plane to Israel: ‘But still, I find myself not quite happy, but invigorated, realizing that while I might not leave the world a better place, I am, everyday committed to acting like I can. This fills me with a bigger-than-myself swelling, the swelling that has been keeping me up at night: the world never seems to get dark enough for me to sleep easily these days.’
Did Amichai meet with us that afternoon because he wanted to leave the world a better place? Is it ridiculous even to wonder such things? What motivated his writing? Why did he meet with us that afternoon in Israel?
My first son is named Sasha, after my wife’s grandmother. In a few weeks he will be three years old. One week ago today, my second son was born. We named him Cy Amichai Foer — Cy for my wife’s grandfather, Amichai for the poet. A good friend of ours, who was a good friend of the poet’s, sent us a book of Amichai’s, which Amichai had inscribed to him: ‘For Leon / with love, Amichai.’ Below this inscription our friend wrote: ‘For Amichai / with love, Leon.’ I’ve never encountered a more powerful expression of the declension of life, the generational giving and taking, the reading and writing of each other that has no beginning or end, yet is all the time beginning and ending. The book’s title is Time.
The Snow Globe is reprinted from Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives, edited by Elizabeth Benedict (Free Press/Simon & Schuster). Copyright (c) 2009 by Jonathan Safran Foer.
Jonathan Safran Foer is appearing at Jewish Book Week 2010. www.jewishbookweek.com