Shemer Zemer Added to Tisha B’Av Liturgy

By Ami Eden and Steven I. Weiss

Published July 23, 2004, issue of July 23, 2004.
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For many Israelis and American Jews, the recently deceased singer-songwriter Naomi Shemer always has been a religious figure of sorts, with an unmatched ability to move even the most secular listener with her spiritually uplifting songs about Israel and Zionism.

Now Shemer’s status as a modern-day psalmist is official: Her most famous song, “Jerusalem of Gold,” has been included in the Conservative movement’s first-ever prayer book for the fast day of Tisha B’Av.

According to the editor of the prayer book, Rabbi James Hoffman, the song serves as a perfect metaphor for a holiday that marks the destruction of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and several subsequent national tragedies, but also is traditionally understood as a time for repentance. The song, released in May 1967, expresses longing for sections of Jerusalem and the West Bank that Israel would end up capturing just weeks later during the Six-Day War.

The prayer book is being touted by a spokesperson of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly as the “first time that a [Conservative] liturgy has been created for Tisha B’Av,” a holiday observed in many American synagogues with improvised, often photocopied booklets to supplement the traditional liturgy.

Shemer’s song is included in the prayer book as a kina, or ritual dirge, to be read during the afternoon Mincha service as worshippers enter the second half of the fast day. The choice, Hoffman said, is meant to indicate that “once you get to Mincha, the mood changes slightly… [and] becomes a little more hopeful.” Director Steven Spielberg employed “Jerusalem of Gold” in a similar manner, ending his 1993 Holocaust film, “Schindler’s List,” with the song playing in the background as survivors walked free after the fall of the Nazis.

Hoffman described the inclusion of Shemer in the prayer book as “gutsy,” explaining that “sometimes you have to do that with liturgy; you’ve got to touch the gut.” In a similar vein, Hoffman said, the new prayer book includes kinot focusing on more recent tragedies, including “pogroms, the Holocaust, and the tribulations of our brothers and sisters in the state of Israel.”

As a publication of the Rabbinical Assembly, the prayer book supplies commentaries that Hoffman said would make it easier for worshippers to understand and wrestle with the esoteric, centuries-old traditional kinot. “I don’t know of another edition that does this,” Hoffman said, adding that such detailed explanations are needed by many worshippers because a broad and deep understanding of Jewish texts is required to decipher the meanings of the kinot.

The commentaries “are meant to allow the modern worshipper to connect with each kina on a heart-and-soul level as well as on an intellectual level,” Hoffman said.

The prayer book, thousands copies of which have been sold during the past year to Conservative congregations, contains prayers for the entire day as well as the text of the biblical Book of Lamentations, which is read on the opening night of the fast. The work includes introductions by Hoffman and Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, as well as a preface titled “A History of Tisha B’Av” by the late Rabbi Gershon Schwartz and an explanation of the traditional Tisha B’Av liturgy by Rabbi Robert Scheinberg.

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