Naomi Shemer

Naomi Shemer (1930-2004) was known as the “national songwriter” for the period following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. An incredibly prolific poet, (she wrote, adapted and translated hundreds of songs) her appeal went beyond the small circle of song lovers and touched the broader Israeli public – children and adults, religious and secular alike. Her deep, emotional style continues to reverberate to this day.

naomishemerBorn in 1930 on the kibbutz Kvutzat Kinneret, Shemer demonstrated musical talent at an early age. Later she attended the Tel Aviv Musical Academy. When she returned to the Kibbutz, she began writing songs for her old community, and this sparked her passion for poetry.

Shemer soon joined the newly established IDF, where she was placed in the Nachal brigade, which had a cultural section. While there, Shemer wrote prolifically, with topics discussing everything from personal to the familial to the national. Shemer continued to produce highly popular songs after she left the army, culminating in the wildly popular “Jerusalem of Gold”. Although her popularity declined in the late 1980s because of her one-sided political affiliation, her death in 2004 marked the end of an era.

A Songwriter of Life

It is difficult to classify Naomi Shemer as a songwriter, since she wrote in many different styles for a vast audience. She wrote songs about private life and songs about public media, songs for children and songs for adults. Some songs were happy and light, some were mournful. Yet all touched the hearts of thousands, who understood the songs personal level.

Perhaps most interesting was how even Shemer’s personal songs had a national tinge, as though her personal struggle mirrored the national one. An example of this is her song “It is sad to die in the middle of Tamuz”, meaning in the summer months. Shemer wrote this song at a time when she had to undergo a very dangerous operation and she faced her own mortality. Many saw the song as a song of lamentation for the destruction of the city of Jerusalem which occurred during the summer months.

In her songs, Shemer made copious use of traditional Jewish sources from the Bible and the Talmud to recent times. One of the most popular examples of this is the calm, pastoral tune that Shemer gave to a passage written by Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, a highly Jewish spiritual teacher from the 18th century called “the song of the grass”.

An Unofficial National Anthem

Naomi Shemer’s most famous work is her song on the city of Jerusalem called simply “Jerusalem of Gold”. The song was commissioned by then-mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek. Shemer’s song praised the city, but bemoaned the fact that the most ancient parts of the city was in the control of the country of Jordan. Because of this, Jews were legally barred from visiting their most holy sites.

As one verse goes:

Alas, the dry wells and fountains,

Forgotten market-day

The sound of horn from Temple’s mountain

No longer calls to pray,

The rocky caves at night are haunted

By sounds of long ago

When we were going to the Jordan

By way of Jericho.

Three weeks later, in June 1967, the Six-Day War broke out between the state of Israel and the combined forces of the Arab states, including Jordan. The War was an overwhelming Israeli victory, and Israeli forces took control of the rest of Jerusalem along with its ancient sites. In celebration of this, Shemer added a new passage, which was aired on the radio as the rest of Jerusalem was being taken:

Back to the wells and to the fountains

Within the ancient walls

The sound of horn from Temple’s mountain

Again so loudly calls,

From rocky caves, this very morning

A thousand suns will glow

And we shall go down to the Jordan

By way of Jericho.

The song was an overnight hit after the Six-Day war, and it aired again and again on the radio, sung by Israel’s most popular singers. “Jerusalem of Gold” became so popular that it is considered Israel’s “unofficial national Anthem” alongside the official national anthem Hatikva.

Published: 30-08-2011