When Naomi Shemer died 10 years ago this month, fans of Israeli music lost one of the most beloved and prolific songwriters Israel has ever produced. Almost immediately, heartfelt appreciations and articles begin to appear about the “First Lady of Israeli Song.” A decade later, we remember the life of Naomi Shemer in word and song.
Appropriately, Naomi Shemer’s introduction to music was at sing-alongs when she was growing up at Kibbutz Kinneret. Gid Avivi and Sagui Ben-Nun have written a wonderful appreciation of the singer that traces her roots from kibbutz to Jerusalem’s Rubin Academy of Music to eventual stardom. Along the way, Shemer was able to connect her songs to her childhood and give her songs “a charm and innocence… Shemer’s music linked the ordinary to the festive, the landscapes of Lake Kinneret to the White City of Tel Aviv, her own biography to the history of Israel between war and peace.”
In the early years, she composed many popular songs like “Hurshat Ha’Eucalyptus” (The Eucalyptus Grove) and “Machar” (Tomorrow), but none could compare with 1967 hit, “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.” A site devoted to Jerusalem of Gold points out how close the song came to not being written. In 1967 (prior to the Six Day War), Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek asked that songs performed in that year’s Independence Day song festival be related to Jerusalem. Incredibly, a search of the archives of Israel Radio revealed that no songs composed after 1948 mentioned the divided city where Jews were forbidden to visit the Kotel, the Western Wall. Five composers were commissioned to write songs for the festival, but only Shemer (after considerable coaxing) delivered a song.
And then there was the question of who would perform it. Shemer had heard a young soldier named Shuli Natan sing on the radio and decided she would be perfect. Shemer faced opposition to her choice of an amateur but stuck with Natan. The rest is history. You can watch Shuli Natan perform along with numerous other versions available online. My personal favourite is is a haunting performance by the late Ofra Haza sung at Israel’s 50th Independence Day in 1998.
Michael Palti points out in Ha’aretz that Shemer had the ability to provoke political debate and inspire national passions. When she wrote the line “The market square is empty” in “Jerusalem of Gold,” Shemer was criticized, because the square was not empty and Arabs were living there. Shemer’s response was: “As long as there were no Jews there, in my eyes it was empty.”
Even though Shemer may have identified herself with the Gush Emunim movement and settlers in the territories, some of her best friends were artists on the left like singer Hava Alberstein. “Despite the political distance between us, we had an excellent relationship, which lasted for years. Each of us knew the other’s position, but we were two Israeli women living here for better or for worse.”
A postscript: Shortly after the Six Day War, Knesset member Uri Avneri tabled a bill to make that song the national anthem. According to the Jerusalem of Gold website, Avneri met with Naomi Shemer in a café and attempted to explain to her how important her song had become. Shemer found it amusing. “I like Hatikvah,” she said, “and it is not replaceable.” The bill never went to committee.
Of course, Naomi Shemer is loved for her hundreds of others songs, many of which have become Israeli folk standards. Songs like “Lu Yehi,” which started off as a Hebrew version of The Beatles’ “Let it Be,” “Lo Ahavti Di” (I Have Not Loved Enough), and “Al Kol Aleh” (For All these Things), which become associated with the campaign against the evacuation of the Yamit settlement in the Sinai.
Shemer herself emphasized that although many of her songs were commissioned by the army, “I wrote for the army and not about the army… My songs, like “Machar,” were written for the young people in the army. This is a song about being young and full of hope for peace. If you read carefully, you will see that I made sure my songs were full of colours like green and blue, not khaki, because, personally, I do not have such fond memories of being in the army.” Read the rest of Shemer’s 2000 interview at the Jerusalem Post website.
Shemer continued to compose until shortly before her death. Her last work was a tribute to Israeli astronaut Col. Ilan Ramon, who perished in the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.
Shemer was buried at Kibbutz Kinneret, her birthplace, overlooking the lake about which she wrote so many songs. Instead of eulogies, she requested that mourners sing three songs at her funeral including “Eucalyptus Grove.” Israeli President Moshe Katsav said, “In her song, Shemer bequeathed us landmarks in the life of the country. Her songs voiced a great love for the state and the people of Israel.”
Naomi Shemer’s songs continue to be sung around campfires and around the world. I’ll leave the last word to someone who shared a message of condolence at the Jerusalem Post website shortly after her death:
“For all of us who came on aliyah during those sad years following the Yom Kippur War, Naomi Shemer’s songs helped lift our spirits – as those of the entire nation as well. Naomi was an icon to this country and to Hebrew verse put into song. May her sweet memory inspire all who love and cherish this land as she did.”