Saturday, June 5, 2010

Naomi Shemer: The Second Prophetic Song

(New readers may wish to find an explanation of this Shirim Ivri'im thread here)

Israel has had its shares of ups and downs. Mood-wise, we're in a bit of a down right now, but since much of the reality doesn't support this, we'll probably kick out of it sooner or later.

The most prolonged "down" period I can remember went on for the better part of two decades, in the 1970s and 1980s. We had wars, hyper-inflation, serious international isolation on an order of magnitude worse than what we've got now, and lots of other tzores. True, there was a moment in 1977-78 when we made peace with Egypt and things looked good, but it didn't last. Eventually a combination of things came together, and things got better: the economy recovered and eventually returned to boom. The Soviet Union, a sworn enemy, collapsed; well more than a million Jews arrived from it's rubble. For a while it even looked like we were headed towards peace, hard as that is to imagine these days.

The long trough of the 70s began at 1:50 PM on October 6th, 1973, on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Until ten minutes earlier Israel had been living seven years of post-Six-Day-War euphoria; the trauma of the Yom Kippur War lasted, the way I see it, until the early 1990s. The euphoria had been misguided, and looking back it was a bit peculiar even at the time. The trauma, as sometimes happens, was worse than it needed to be, and while its first months were justified, its longevity probably wasn't. That's all hindsight, however. In October 1973, or March 1974, things looked grim indeed, and the depth of the fall made it all worse.

All the more astonishing that Naomi Shemer saw it coming.

As I wrote here, Naomi Shemer had already written a prophetic song, Jerusalem of Gold. In late summer 1973 she wrote another one, Lu Yehi, If Only It Could Be. She had it recorded by an unlikely group for such a profound song, the Gashash HaChiver, three jokers who kept Israelis laughing non-stop from the early 1960s until the late 1980s. The Gashash (no, I can't translate what their name means, since it doesn't) were also talented singers, but since they were so funny no-one noticed. There must be a reason they recorded Lu Yehi but I can't say what it was; when it first came out in September 1973 no-one much noticed.

Then in October we were suddenly in this painful war, first losing confidence in the IDF, then losing 2,500 fighters, then losing confidence in the government and the establishment, then facing a Europe eager to throw us to the sharks in its haste to have us pay any price to make the Arab oil crises go away - hard times. There were lots of lyricists and singers who rushed to record shirim to bolster our spirits; most of them probably hope we've forgotten their efforts, which included idiotic attempts such as "I promise you, little girl, that this will be the last war" and the even worse "Send clean underwear, we're fighting like lions, morale is sky high".

Lu Yehi was the obvious anthem of the times, even though it wasn't about them at all - or was it? Hard to know when you're dealing with prophecy. Since Naomi Shemer later wrote another two prophetic songs, who's to say this one was coincidence, or mere luck?

Hebrew lyrics

There is still a white sail on the horizon
Opposite a heavy black cloud
All that we ask for - may it be

And if in the evening windows
The light of the holiday candles flickers
All that we seek - may it be

May it be, may it be - Please - may it be
All that we seek - may it be.

What is the sound that I hear
The cry of the shofar and the sound of drums
All that we ask for - may it be

If only there can be heard within all this
One prayer from my lips also
All that we seek - may it be

May it be...

Within a small, shaded neighborhood
Is a small house with a red roof
All that we ask for, may it be

This is the end of summer, the end of the path
Allow them to return safely here
All that we seek, may it be

May it be...

And if suddenly, rising from the darkness
Over our heads, the light of a star shines
All that we ask for, may it be

Then grant tranquility and also grant strength
To all those we love
All that we seek, may it be

May it be...

This You Tube recording is by the Gashash, but more than 20 years later, sometime after 1995.


Anonymous said...

if there is something like rebirth you must have been a truly wise man in your last time around.

Anonymous said...


It is worth noting that the song is, in some sense, a translation of "Let It Be" by the Beatles. "Let It Be" is a great song but "Lu Yehi" is better, in my opinion.

The lyrics on include a verse, the second, that is not normally sung, although Chava Alberstein sang it in a video that used to be on Youtube but appears to have been removed. The lyrics are here:

Any idea why the second verse is not normally sung?

David E. Sigeti

Anonymous said...

What do you have against Ani Mavtiach Lach, Yaacov?
I thought it a beautiful song at the time.

Mich said...

And presumably before 2005, because that looks like Ehud Manor at 2m18s.

Also, what's idiotic about המלחמה האחרונה?
I've always liked that song, particularly because it is written from the point of view of the soldiers in the different branches; the ones who are on the front line, as opposed to those who stay back at HQ or those who will critique the results when the fighting is over. Never thought that it was meant as an actual promise. Rather, I interpreted it as a wish or a hope, much like Lu Yehi.

DRW said...

I agree it's a beautiful and moving song, but after Shemer's deathbed confession about the Yerushaliyim Shel Zahav - Basque folk song connection, I'm troubled that her next most famous song is a Beatles ripoff, although she did give the official songwriting credit to Lennon/McCartney.