A Nation Mourns Naomi Shemer, Iconic Songstress

By Miriam Colton

Published July 02, 2004, issue of July 02, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

On June 26, the woman known affectionately as the First Lady of Israeli Song died at the age of 74.

It was indicative of songwriter Naomi Shemer’s place in the Israeli imagination that her death and the national grieving it engendered took over the front pages of Israel’s newspapers for two days running, forcing the intifada and the raging political debates deep inside.

“She succeeded in connecting us to our roots, to our origins, to the beginnings of Zionism,” Prime Minister Sharon said at his weekly Cabinet meeting. “Today, when we part with Naomi Shemer, we bow our heads in sorrow and are grateful for the wonderful gift Naomi gave us.”

Shemer’s repertoire forms some core components of the canon of Israeli folklore and culture, and her works have become the songs of Jewish youth groups and mothers’ lullabies. Easily recognizable by their charm and innocence, her countless tunes often describe Israel’s topography, particularly her childhood memories of Galilee. And in nearly five decades of her professional career, she seemed to embody the emotional arc of Israeli public opinion.

Shemer got her musical start at kibbutz sing-alongs. She studied in music schools in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, later served in the army, and began composing songs while she was in her 20s. Her first record appeared in 1959.

She rose to stardom with “Jerusalem of Gold,” written at the request of Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek in 1966, shortly before the reunification of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War. The song, which evoked the age-old yearning for Jerusalem, was instantly popular and played continually on Israeli radio in the weeks leading up to the war. After the war, Shemer added a verse celebrating the victory. The song has since served as an unofficial national anthem.

Many of her songs depicted, in simple language and tunes, romanticized images associated with early Zionist settlers. Her famous songs include “Lu Yehi” (“Let It Be”), written after the Yom Kippur War, and “Al Kol Eleh,” which included the famous line: “All of these.… The honey and the sting.… The bitter and the sweet…. My garden and my baby … Guard all these things for me, dear God.”

In the mid-1970s, Shemer began to identify with Gush Emunim, the religious nationalist settler movement that arose after the Yom Kippur War, and some of this week’s commentary reflected a lingering discomfort with her political views.

“The land of Israel was for her a one-nation land, devoid of conflicts, devoid of minorities,” wrote Nahum Barnea, the doyen of Israeli political commentary, in Yediot Aharonot. “A one-sided deal for Jews alone. Even the wars to which we went out on with her songs were one-sided. It was not an enemy facing us, but a virgin land waiting to be conquered.” Barnea also quoted Shemer as having once said that “the Arabs like their murder hot, moist and fervid. If they ever have the freedom to fulfill themselves, we will long for the nice, sterile gas chambers of the Nazis.”

“Al Kol Eleh,” with its tagline “Do not uproot what has been planted,” became an anthem of the settlers at Yamit, though Shemer denied that it was written for this purpose. After the settlement’s evacuation in 1982, Shemer took herself out of politics. “At Yamit I learned that the commandment to settle the land on which I was raised was no longer valid,” she told Ha’aretz four years ago. “In settling the land there is definitely desire and passion. I am not prepared to be ashamed of this, because I grew up on the importance of settlement. But since Yamit, I feel that we have already evacuated the Golan Heights.”

“Any political discussion of Shemer diminishes her talents,” singer Chava Alberstein told Ha’aretz. “She is an artist at the level of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Despite the differences of opinion about her positions, she always wrote from a positive outlook, with great innocence.”

In 1983, Shemer was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for her contributions to Israeli music. Following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, she translated and put to music Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” Her last work, composed as she lay dying, was a tribute to Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died in the space shuttle Columbia.

Shemer is survived by her husband, poet Mordechai Horowitz, two children and four grandchildren. She was buried at her birthplace, Kibbutz Kinneret.

Among the hundreds present at Shemer’s funeral were Sharon and President Moshe Katzav. No eulogies or speeches were given, at her request. Instead, four of her songs were sung by mourners.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.