In Toni Morrison’s “Black Matters”, she argues that much of American literature, written largely by privileged white males, is filled with the presence of the “Africanistic Other”. These writers saw enslaved African-Americans as primitive and contrastive with their freedom, in order to “celebrate or deplore an identity…that was elaborated through racial difference” (Morrison 315). This form of cultural domination is not limited to the American context, but also extends to the cultural divide between Jews and Arabs. In Yehuda Amichai’s poem “[On Yom Kippur in 1967]” (1968), the Jewish speaker comes across an Arab shopkeeper in Jerusalem hoping to find similarities in an attempt to relate to him, before returning home. The Jewish speaker’s exoticized perception of the Arab man however, only reinforces his own established cultural paradigm, consequently drawing a divide between the silent archetype of the Arab and the speaker’s own freedom and individuality.
The poem begins by establishing a setting filled with elements of the Jewish tradition, as the speaker says:
On Yom Kippur in 1967, the Year of Forgetting, I put on
My dark holiday clothes and walked to the Old City of Jerusalem.
For a long time I stood in front of an Arab’s hole-in-the-wall shop,
Not far from the Damascus gate, a shop with”
The speaker is actively taking part in “Yom Kippur”, a Jewish holiday signifying the day of atonement, as evidenced by his “dark holiday clothes”, signifying his own observance. His active participation in the holiday reflects how the speaker establishes himself as a participant rather than an observer. His sense of cultural belonging is tied to his own freedom of movement to walk towards “the Old City of Jerusalem”, the crucible of the Jewish faith. This goes in direct contrast to the “Arab” who is seen lying outside “the Damascus gate”. The gate itself is the entrance into the city, which illustrates how the Arab is physically divided and outside the scope of the speaker’s Jewish culture, making him a member of some alienated out-group.
Coinciding with the physical separation of the dominant Jewish culture and the Arab, the speaker acts as an elevated foreign spectator viewing the Arab and his store. The speaker first mentions how the Arab man’s store is described as being a “hole-in-the-wall shop”. The description of the store not only humbles the Arab and his shop, but also invokes a sense of voyeurism. The imagery of the physical hole in the wall separates the Jewish observer and the Arab, making the Arab an oddity to be seen from a distance, giving the speaker a sense of superiority as well.
The speaker’s spectatorship of the Arab is further illustrated through the poet’s description of the shop:
Buttons and zippers and spools of thread
In every color and snaps and buckles.
A rare light and many colors, like an open Ark.”
By describing the shop as being filled with a plethora of “thread in every color and snaps and buckles”, the speaker exoticizes the aura of the Arab. The speaker’s description of the store removes any nuanced view of the Arab. Instead, he begins to fit the archetype of the wondrous Eastern foreigner, defined solely by unfamiliar goods and items. As a result of the exotic colors and lights, the shop is further characterized with the simile of being “like an open Ark”. An Ark is a sacred container of Torah scrolls housed in a synagogue. This comparison to the Ark, sacred within the Jewish faith, reinforces the speaker’s limited ability to the see the Arab is only through their own lens, ordering their understanding of the shopkeeper to fit cultural preconceptions. This form of ethnocentrism strips the Arab of his agency to control his own identity. Instead, he has no choice but to be viewed on the speaker’s terms, losing his own individuality. Furthermore, the Ark also establishes a connection between the Arab and the speaker’s quest for some sacred of knowledge. As mentioned earlier, an Ark contains the Torah scrolls. These scriptures contain the fundamental laws of God, as taught within the Jewish faith. Hence, the speaker also sees the Arab as a mystic source wisdom, relegating him to a tool to be used for the speaker’s own purposes. This self-serving relationship between the speaker and the Arab is made clear through the limited interaction of the two:
“I explained to him in my heart about all the decades
and the causes and events, why I am now here”
The grand gesturing of attempting to explain all “the decades and the causes and events” point to the speaker’s own illusory connection to the Arab. The conversation is completely one-sided and fantastical. The personal revelations of the speaker occur solely in his “[own] heart”. Meanwhile, the Arab is given no voice. He resides purely in the speaker’s imagination.
Following this interaction, the story concludes with the two parting ways:
He too lowered the shutters and locked the gate
And I returned, with all the worshippers, home.
Once again, the cultural barrier separating the two individuals takes physical shape as the “gate” closes between them. While our Jewish speaker is granted the luxury of being allowed to return “home”, along with his fellow “worshippers”, the Arab, perceived to be lacking any substantive identity, is erased by the “shutters” and “locked…gate”, signifying his lack of true identity and thus, freedom.
“[On Yom Kippur in 1967]” uses the physical divisions of Jewish and Arab culture in order to grant the Jewish speaker the opportunity to cross them. The poem reveals, however, that the real gap separating these two cultures is the superficial perception of the Jewish speaker, who (despite a well-intentioned search for connection) only perceives the Arab with ethnocentric ignorance. Thus, the Arab Other merely reassures the speaker of his own cultural schema at the cost of the Arab’s own identity.
Amichai, Yehuda. “[On Yom Kippur in 1967]” The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly J.Mays, W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, pp. 780.
Morrison, Toni. “Black Matters”. Falling Into Theory, edited by David H. Richter, Online Pdf. pp. 309- 322.
Singer, Isidore. “English: The JewishEncyclopedia.”Https://Archive.org/Details/jewishencycloped01sing, 22 Nov. 2016, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jewish_Encyclopedia_Volume_1_(page_10_crop).jpg.