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Naomi Shemer

(1930 - 2004)

Naomi Shemer was an Israeli singer, songwriter and composer known commonly as the “First Lady of Israeli Song.”

Shemer was born on Kvuzat Kinneret on on July 13, 1930, and grew up overlooking the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Many of her songs recreate the landscape that was such a part of her youth and reflect her love of the topography and scenery of Eretz Yisrael. She took piano lessons at an early age and continued her music studies in Jerusalem at the Rubin Academy of Music. Later, she returned to the kibbutz to teach rhythm and to write children's songs. Shemer eventually moved to Tel Aviv, where in 1956 she wrote the words to the musical Hamesh-Hamesh (Five-Five), first performed by the IDF Central Command entertainment troupe and later by Haohel Theater.

At this time, she married her first husband, the actor Gideon Shemer, father of her daughter Lali. In 1957, she wrote the words to the first show of the Batzal Yarok troupe. Among the songs she wrote for the troupe was Zamar Noded (Wandering Troubadour). The song Hoopa Hey, which she wrote for the IDF Central Command entertainment troupe won an international song contest in Italy in 1960. In 1963, she wrote Hurshat Haecalyptus (The Eucalyptus Grove) for a musical marking the jubilee of Kibbutz Kinneret.

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. Shemer’s longing for the landscapes in which she grew up wove itself flawlessly into her ability to listen to new tones and unexpected voices. The connection to childhood gave many of her songs a charm and innocence. At her best she was able to balance all of her loves and write songs that sketched the tension between past and present without attempting to resolve that tension too glibly.

In the mid-1960s, Shemer and her husband separated and she moved with her daughter to Paris, where the language influenced her songs, including Ha’ir Ba’afor (The City in Gray). When she returned to Israel, she married the attorney Mordechai Horowitz, the father of her son Daniel.

In 1967, Shemer was asked to compose a song for the Israel Song Festival. She explained:

In the winter of '67 I was approached by Gil Aldema of The Voice of Israel. Teddy Kollek (the mayor at the time) had asked him to commission a song about Jerusalem. For many years, the Voice of Israel held a song competition on Independence Day, until then broadcast on the radio only (because we only got television in 1968). That same year, 1967, they elected, on a one-time basis to also commission songs from five professional composers, I among them. I found it very difficult to write the song, until I recalled the legend about Rabbi Akiva promising his wife Rachel a city of gold,  i.e., a piece of gold jewelry depicting Jerusalem. I chose Shuli Nathan to perform the song. She was a 20-year old soldier-teacher, with a guitar and a voice like bells. The song was a hit from the very first performance and, at midnight, when Shuli was asked to return to the stage, the audience was already singing along on the chorus.

Though not itself part of the competition, the three stanzas of “Yerushalayim shel Zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold”) became instantly popular. Particularly because the Festival occurred just before the 1967 Six-Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem, the song acquired a national significance that spoke to the country’s longing for Jerusalem and its surrounding areas. Broadcast frequently on the radio and sung by many, it functioned as a second national anthem. Following the war, Shemer composed a fourth stanza to the song, celebrating the liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem and the road to Jericho:

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!

“Yerushalayim shel Zahav” was translated into many languages and became an international statement on the reunification of Jerusalem. It was suggested as a new national anthem for Israel but remains only one of the most popular patriotic songs.

Listen to Shemer sing “Yerushalayim shel Zahav”:

In many Reform movement services and among both Ashkenazi and Sephardi congregations in Israel and the Diaspora, the song was introduced into the liturgy for special occasions, such as Friday evening, the last hakkafah on Simchat Torah, and the synagogue service on Israeli Independence Day.

Of the songs Shemer wrote about the Yom Kippur War, the most popular became “Lu Yehi” (“Let it Be”) which began as a translation of the Beatles’ song by that name and evolved into an independent hit. This and other songs, many of which have been published in books of her music, have made Shemer’s songs arguably the most-sung in the 1960’s to the 1980’s.

After Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, Shemer translated American poet Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" into Hebrew, put it to music and dedicated it to Rabin's memory.

Her last composition, written in the last years of her life when she was suffering from cancer, was a tribute to Israeli astronaut Col. Ilan Ramon, who died in the space shuttle Columbia explosion in 2003.

For her immense contribution to Israeli music, Shemer was awarded the Israel Prize and Jerusalem Prize in 1983.

Shemer was laid to rest at Kibbutz Kinneret on June 26, 2004. She was survived by her husband, two children, four grandchildren, a brother and a sister.

In 2005, Shemer was voted the 6th-greatest Israeli of all time in an online poll conducted by an Israeli newspaper.

Sources: Haaretz (June 27, 2004);
“Naomi Shemer,” Wikipedia;
Dan Baron, “Israel’s National Folk Musician, Naomi Shemer, Dies at Age 74,” JTA, (June 27, 2004);
The Pedagogic Center, The Department for Jewish Zionist Education, The Jewish Agency for Israel, (c) 1992-2004, Director: Dr. Motti Friedman, Webmaster: Esther Carciente;
Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
“Jerusalem of Gold,” The National Library of Israel.

Photo: Yaakov Saar, Public Domain