Celebrated as the “First Lady of Israeli Song,” the prolific Naomi Shemer (1930-2004) is perhaps best known for writing and composing the much-beloved “Yerushalayim shel Zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold”), which became in essence a second Israeli national anthem; indeed, many Israelis actually lobbied to have it officially replace Hatikvah.
Her 200 songs include the most popular song of the Yom Kippur War, “Lu Yehi” (“Let it Be”), which began as a translation of the Beatles’ song by that name and evolved into an independent sensation. When, in 1983, she was awarded the Israel Prize for her significant contribution to Israeli music, her citation read:
The Israel Prize is awarded to Naomi Shemer for her songs, which everyone sings, because of their poetic and musical merit and the wonderful blend of lyrics and music, and also because they express the emotions of the people.
The ethereal “Yerushalayim shel Zahav” has extraordinary historical import, as many commentators assert that the song is fundamentally responsible for generating broad national readiness to conquer the Old City. Secular paratroopers at the Western Wall didn’t pray, but they sang the song, and it also succeeded in raising the hopes of Jewish refuseniks in Soviet Russia.
During the nineteen years of Israeli statehood preceding the Six-Day War, popular songs were rarely written about yearning for Jerusalem until “Yerushalayim shel Zahav” broke the mold in 1967, when Shemer was asked to compose a song for the Israel Song Festival.
The song, written just before the Six-Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem, reflected the collective Israeli consciousness and spoke uniquely to Israel’s longing for its historic capital. Following the war, Shemer composed a fourth stanza, a celebration of the liberation of the Old City and the road to Jericho, and the anthem became an international testimonial to united Jerusalem.
According to Shemer, the idea for “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” started with a childhood recollection of the Talmudic story of the poverty-stricken Rabbi Akiva in a hayloft with his beloved wife, Rachel, who had been disowned by her fabulously wealthy father for marrying him. While lovingly pulling strands of hay out of her hair, he promises her that he would become wealthy one day and would buy for her a “Jerusalem of Gold” (an item of jewelry).
For the song’s melody, Shemer drew from the chassidic melodies and Yiddish songs of her father, who had emigrated to Eretz Yisrael from Vilna, and added touches of biblical cantillation.
Shemer was born on Kvuzat Kinneret and grew up overlooking the Jordanian shores, and many of her songs create nostalgic and idealized biblical landscapes that evoke the beloved countryside of her youth and reflect her love of Eretz Yisrael. She wrote and/or composed more than two hundred songs, many enhanced by references to Jewish literature, with which she was broadly knowledgeable, as she drew equally from the sacred writings and modern Hebrew poets.
Shemer maintained her great popularity despite taking public positions on many of the most controversial issues of the day, including her criticism of the government for ordering Israel’s evacuation of the Sinai; her keen support for the Gush Emunim settlement movement; and her bitter disappointment at Israel’s withdrawal from Yamit in the Sinai. Though in 1980 she composed “Al Kol Eleh” (“About All These”) for her sister Ruthie, who had lost her husband, the song took on a political cast when it was later appropriated as a battle hymn by the Yamit evacuees because of a line pleading: “Do not uproot what has been planted!” Though the Israeli left bitterly condemned Shemer, even going so far as to criticize “Yerushalayim shel Zahav” as s “racist,” her songs remained popular across the broad Israeli spectrum.