A Nation Mourns Naomi Shemer, Iconic Songstress

By Miriam Colton

Published July 02, 2004, issue of July 02, 2004.
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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.

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