Musician, poet, songwriter, composer and singer Naomi Shemer has streets named after her in almost twenty cities across Israel. And for good reason, as she was able to intuitively grasp the mood of the nation and create songs that rose above political and religious divides to unify the country in times of crisis and times of joy.
Let’s focus on three songs, out of her countless hits, that touched the nation and made Naomi Shemer one of the country’s most cherished songwriters.
In May 1967, at the Israeli Song Festival in Jerusalem, Naomi Shemer’s ode to the capital “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” or “Jerusalem of Gold” premiered. The inspiration for the song was the story of Rabbi Akiva who promised his beloved wife a piece of jewelry depicting Jerusalem, which he called a “Jerusalem of Gold.” The song, which was actually not in the competition but commissioned by Mayor Kollek to be performed at the festival, was an instant hit. The audience immediately was smitten and demanded that the singer Shuli Nathan perform it again – and when she did, the entire audience roared in approval and joined in the chorus.
The song instantaneously became the unofficial second anthem of the country, and when the paratroopers liberated the city a few weeks later during the Six Day War, they spontaneously sang Jerusalem of Gold on the Temple Mount and at the Kotel.
Shemer immediately added a verse celebrating the miracle of the reunification of Jerusalem. When she sang the new version to cheering soldiers, she responded, “Actually, I should be applauding you, since it is much easier to change a song than to change a city.”
Jerusalem of Gold is considered the best-loved Israeli song of all time, as it captured the power of the moment and reinforced national unity.
In 1973, after the Yom Kippur War, Naomi Shemer wrote “Lu Yehi” or “May It Be.” Influenced by the Beatles’ “Let It Be” which was released in 1970, the song reflected the nation’s sense of vulnerability and loss, counterbalanced by its determination and fortitude. The nation was captivated by the song’s authenticity, which magnificently acknowledged the pain, and accepted its encouraging words as a charge to move forward.
In 1980, Shemer wrote a song to comfort her sister after her brother-in-law passed away. “Al Kol Eileh” or “For All of This”, illustrated the rollercoaster of Israeli life, contrasting the bitter with the sweet. This song was a prayer for divine protection and guidance to accept the oft-intertwined emotions of joy and sorrow. How appropriate that in 2018, Koolulam – a social musical initiative aimed at strengthening the fabric of society – chose this song to be performed by 12,000 participants to celebrate the country’s seventieth birthday, as it had become the prayer of the nation.
In 1983, Naomi Shemer won the Israel Prize, the most prestigious honor presented by the State of Israel, for her “poetic and musical” songs that “express the emotions of the people.” Although she passed away almost twenty years ago and some of her melodies were written over fifty years ago, Naomi Shemer’s songs are timeless, and continue to be sung by people of all ages, at events of all types, ranging from rejoicing to mourning. Naomi Shemer truly lived up to her title as “The First Lady of Israeli Song.”
Gedaliah Borvick is the founder of My Israel Home (www.myisraelhome.com), a real estate agency focused on helping people from abroad buy and sell homes in Israel. To sign up for his monthly market updates, contact him at email@example.com.