Jul 13, 2010

Google honors Naomi Shemer's 80th

Visit google.com today and you will see this logo:

The artistic rendering is meant to honor Naomi Shemer, as today, July 13, is the 80th anniversary of her birth. Naomi Shemer died about 6 years ago, in 2004.

Shemer was one of the leading songwriters of Israel and has written many pieces that became famous, both in Israel and worldwide. Her most famous piece, and that's saying a lot considering how famous and popular a number of her songs are, is Yerushalayim shel Zahav - Jerusalem of Gold. This song was written right before the war of 1967, and after the war she amended the song by adding a fourth stanza about capturing the Old City.

The song Jerusalem of Gold is all about the yearning of a Jew for Jerusalem, making this very appropriate for the 9 Days when we mourn the destruction of Jerusalem.

As to the history of Yerushalayim shel Zahav and how it came to be, Shemer recalled:

In the winter of 1967, I was in trouble because I had promised the Voice of Israel a new song about Jerusalem. This began the year before, if I remember correctly. The late Yeshayahu Spero met me at Café Nitza on Allenby Street and asked me why I had never participated in the song festival. I told him that it was because the festival was a competition. A year later … the powers that be decided to repair the omission and commissioned from the “professionals” five songs to be performed for the festival’s second half, outside the competition.

Why did they want a song about Jerusalem anyway? Because of Teddy [Kollek] and Gil [Aldema]. Teddy was the one who asked that “the public singing consist of songs about Jerusalem,” meaning the group singing while the votes were counted, which used to be part of the festival. (I like him very much and I like his Hebrew too, and he was also a friend of my father’s.) And then Gil Aldema looked in his files and saw there was no such thing as “songs about Jerusalem.” Nothing had been written since Avigdor ha-Meiri [1890–1970]! (Today, after the flood [of songs about Jerusalem], it is hard to believe, but that’s how it was.

Gil suggested that each one of the five professional songwriters write a new song about Jerusalem. My four colleagues became frightened and refused. I was frightened and agreed, and like I said, I was in trouble. And not because I couldn’t relate, Heaven forbid, but because I related too much. Jerusalem was personal, beloved and important to me. I graduated from the music academy there, I had my daughter Leli there, my connections with the city centered around a family of friends whose mother used to host me every year during summer vacation, and each summer I got to know a new aspect of the city’s magic. But when I tried to express this, I became terrified. I remembered everything that had been written about the city since ancient times—King David, Judah Halevi—who could add a single letter to that?!

After two months of trying in vain I decided to give up. I called Gil and asked him to release me: “It’s too big for me. I simply can’t write about Jerusalem.” And Gil, wise man and teacher that he was, said, “Don’t write about Jerusalem. Forget about it and write whatever you want, but don’t leave us without a song for the festival.” When he put down the receiver, he told the people in his office, “Now she will write about Jerusalem.” And that’s what happened.

I wrote “Jerusalem of Gold” that same night. The idea I started with was the Talmudic legend I remembered from my school days about Rabbi Akiva, who lived in poverty, in a hayloft with his beloved wife Rahel, who had been disowned by her father. As he plucked the hay out of her hair, he promised her that one day he would become wealthy and buy her a Jerusalem of Gold [an item of jewelry]. Our teachers, Shoshana and Amminadav, taught us many similar legends. The phrase “Jerusalem of Gold” suddenly shone in my memory as if to say, “Here I am,” and I realized it would be the cornerstone of my song.

Even with that realization, I still had my doubts. One needs to remember how gray and lacking in gold Jerusalem was then, and how one could not speak highly of it or have parades there. Like the saying “Do not wake or rouse” [Song of Songs 2:7], I was awestruck and asked myself: Of gold? Are you sure about the gold? And something answered me: Absolutely, of gold.

It was night by the time I sat down and wrote the song. I began with my fresh, innocent memories of my visits there during summer vacation, and then I continued to “She sits alone” and “captive in her dream,” and to the ancient phraseology which had just presented itself to me as if to say, Take me and do with me as you will.

As for the melody, here I touched upon the hasidic melodies and Yiddish songs of my late father with faint traces of Biblical cantillation. When I got to the refrain, I changed the direction upward, and it was as though I had drawn the curves of the old road near Moza as it approaches Jerusalem, known as the “Seven Sisters”: one ascent, and then another and another, and behold—the city before our eyes.

I wept bitterly as I wrote—“Anything not born in tears is worth little”—and in the last verse I simply reported on all the obstacles that had bound my hands and interfered with my writing until then: “But as I come today to sing to you … I am smaller than the youngest of your children.”

The next day I brought the song to the Voice of Israel. Gil held the lyrics in his right hand and the music in his left and looked at one and then the other, “his cheeks wet with tears” [paraphrased from Lamentations 1:2]. It was Friday, strange weather, it looked like either there might be a heat wave or it might rain. It was around Purim or maybe exactly Purim, and I went to Kinneret to recover from the effort.

I should say that the first version had only two verses, the first and the last, and of course the refrain. …

Over the next few days I played the song for whoever came to visit, as I always do. Once I played it for Rivka Michaeli. She asked: What about the Old City? All right, I said, if you really want it, and I added the middle verse.

The business about the Old City needs an explanation. When I went to write about it, I put all thought of physical, tangible matters out of my mind. I thought about the two thousand years of the Destruction in the abstract, not necessarily about the last nineteen years. Through a kind of telescopic lens I saw before me a city in heaven and the essence which alone I sought to capture.

Shemer first chose Shuly Nathan, a young Israeli female soldier with an extraordinary voice, simple but strong, to sing the song, and Nathan launched the song to success.

While many renditions have come since, in many languages by just about every Jewish singer in the business, personally I still prefer the original rendition by Shuly Nathan. This song needs nothing more than a light background of guitar, and is far more powerful in such a setting than with a full orchestra.

Here it is, with as little music as I could find for the 9 Days. There is no lack of video clips of this song, and of Shemer's other songs on Youtube.

And when I found this clip I could not resist including it in this post. I am always fascinated by the mixing of worlds, and what has become the traditional singing of Yerushalayim shel Zahav at the end of HaPoel Jerusalem basketball games by the fans fits the bill..


  1. Except.....

    She "borrowed" the melody (or at least the bulk of it) from a Basque folk song, and admitted as such before her death.

  2. ahhh, but she knew the Basque folk song. that too is impressive..

    Just joking. that is so commonplace that I dont really care. I am constantly finding out about music that I thought was original that turns out was taken from somewhere else. In the frum music world it happens just as much, or more, than outside.
    The music industry has to deal with those issues, but I dont really care.

  3. It was the winter of '66 that she was under pressure to get the song written. It debuted at the Festival in May '67, minus what we now have as the last stanza. She added that a short time later, as June saw us return to the places she wrote about so longingly.

    That was an interesting spring. At the same time that she was releasing this song, Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook spoke out at the yeshiva's Yom HaAtzmaut celebration, 'where is our Shechem? where is our Hevron?'

    There must have been something prophetic in the air for these two spiritually attuned people to speak with that particular longing at that particular time.


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