Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Naomi Shemer: the First Prophetic Song

Noami Shemer (1930-2004) was the single most important writer of shirim ivri'im ever (lyrics and music). Her earliest ones were recorded in the late 1950s, and she kept on writing until shortly before her death. Many are at the center of the canon. Yet the uncanny thing about her was her ability to write shirim that defined pivotal historical events, and always in advance. There was something truly prophetic about her.

Her first prophetic moment was this very night, the night after Independence Day, in 1967.

In those days the final act of the holiday was a nationally live broadcast song festival, in which 12 new songs competed. They didn't have computers, iPhones, text messaging and all the other things we can't imagine life without, so the 12 songs would be preformed, then the audience in Binyanaei Haumah, Jerusalem's largest theater, would vote with old-fashioned slips of paper in envelopes, and it would take an hour to count the results. During that hour there'd be time filler of some sort. As the festival of 1967 was being prepared, the new mayor of Jerusalem, the extremely well connected Teddy Kollek, convinced the organizers that the time filler should relate to Jerusalem. So after the audience listened to the 12 contestants, voted, and went to the bathroom, they settled down to bide the time. Soon a young woman no-one had ever heard of climbed onto the stage with her guitar and sang. It was the first new song about Jerusalem written in the 19 years since independence and the partition of the city; it was a cry of pain that the city was divided.

The audience went wild. Never had a song caused so much excitement. By the next morning the entire county was singing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, Jerusalem of Gold. It had struck some deep and unsuspected chord of regret: yes, we've got a state, but no, we're not back in Jerusalem. Not all is right.

What made the moment prophetic was that at the exact, precise moment that Shuly Natan was performing the song for the first time, Gamal Nasser, Egypt's president, was smashing the international agreements of 1956 by sending his divisions into the Sinai, in a move that within three weeks had precipitated the Six Day War. The song, which had mourned the fact that access to most of the holy sites of Jerusalem was banned by the Jordanians, was seen as the harbinger of the reunification of the city, and the ability of Jews to revisit their city. When the paratroopers reached the Kotel, the Western Wall, three weeks later, they sang Yerushalayim Shel Zahav with the full force of a prayer literally come true. Shemer quickly added a stanza about how we're back, and the song became the anthem of reunification.

Till this day Yerushalayim Shel Zahav stands above the canon of shirim ivri'im; it's the closest thing secular Israel has ever produced to a holy text.

Hebrew words
English translation

The mountain air is clear as wine
And the scent of pines
Is carried on the breeze of twilight
With the sound of bells.

And in the slumber of tree and stone
Captured in her dream
The city that sits solitary
And in its midst is a wall.

Jerusalem of gold
And of bronze, and of light
Behold I am a violin for all your songs.

How the cisterns have dried
The market-place is empty
And no one frequents the Temple Mount
In the Old City.

And in the caves in the mountain
Winds are howling
And no one descends to the Dead Sea
By way of Jericho.


But as I come to sing to you today,
And to adorn crowns to you (i.e. to tell your praise)
I am the smallest of the youngest of your children (i.e. the least worthy of doing so)
And of the last poet (i.e. of all the poets born).

For your name scorches the lips
Like the kiss of a seraph
If I forget thee, Jerusalem,
Which is all gold...


We have returned to the cisterns
To the market and to the market-place
A ram's horn calls out on the Temple Mount
In the Old City.

And in the caves in the mountain
Thousands of suns shine -
We will once again descend to the Dead Sea
By way of Jericho!


Here's the original recording from May 1967, followed by a 2002 one of the full song. Both are sung by Shuly Natan. In the latter recording she is introduced by Ehud manor, whom I've already introduced.


ShrinkWrapped said...

Thank you.

AKUS said...

Yakov - you are the first person I know of who echoes what i always felt about Naomi Shemer - somehow, she always created the right song just in time for a major event, be a joyous occasion or a crisis, as if somehow she knew in advance what was coming. Thanks.

Joe in Australia said...

The song is based on a Basque melody, Pello Joxepe. Here's a version sung by Paco IbaƱez.

annie said...

Naomi Shemer's brilliance was tied up with the fact that her knowledge of Jewish texts was legion. If you look at her lyrics properly you will see Biblical references and verses everywhere. The fact that she could bind these ancient texts to modern events and poetry was what made her the Poet Laureate of Shirim Ivri'im.

kai said...

Yaacov, this shirim series is a brilliant idea. About "Yerushalayim shel zahav": On my very first evening in Jerusalem, the wife of the late Dr. Josef Burg sang it for us - in the hall of the Knesset, under the huge Chagall carpets. Looking through one of the windows I saw the eternal flame, out of the other window the lights of the city. How could I resist to fall in love?

YMedad said...

I can attest to the electrifying power of the song. I was at Moshav Amatzia in the Lachish region when we heard it over the radio and immediately ti was obvious too us that the song was taking on a mythical identity as daily, it would be replayed and as the security situation got worse, the song became more important. Joe's point is only true regarding eight notes of the refrain and she later apologized for inadvertantly adopting part of the melody she had heard n a nightclub in Jaffa although it did bother her. The year previously she had written "Bashana HaBa'ah", next year there will be peace.