This week, on Friday, 22 May, we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim. Translated as the ‘Day of Jerusalem’, Yom Yerushalayim is an Israeli national holiday celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem and the establishment of Israeli control over the Old City in the aftermath of the June 1967 Six-Day War.
One of the unsung heroines of this period was Naomi Shemer, one of Israel’s greatest songwriters. Naomi is most well-known for writing the famous song Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold). It was this song that that gave strength to the soldiers and indeed the entire country in the days leading up to and the days and weeks following the Six-Day War. The story of this song has much to teach us about perseverance, strength and gratitude, qualities that are especially relevant to each of us at this point in time.
Naomi proved to be a very talented musician from a young age. She served in the Israel Defence Force as an entertainer and continued her music studies after her service. Naomi wrote several popular songs, each reflecting her love for the land of Israel, especially her appreciation for the natural beauty within it.
It was an event in May 1967 that was to crown Naomi Shemer as ‘The first Lady of Israeli Song’. Each year, there was an annual song festival from which the song of the year was chosen. It was a prestigious competition but, over time, the excitement and interest began to fade. In May 1967, only 14 songs were registered. Mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kolleck, in a bid to reinvigorate the competition, personally asked five of the country’s most well-known poets and songwriters to compose a song which would be sung during intermission. Four of Naomi’s colleagues were intimidated by the request and refused to take part. Naomi agreed, reluctantly.
Naomi struggled to find a meaningful message about Jerusalem that she could impart. It was a Talmudic tale that inspired her to compose her most famous song. As a student, Naomi was inspired by the story of Rabbi Akiva, a poor ignorant man who fell in love with Rachel, daughter of Kalba Savua, a wealthy Jerusalemite.
Akiva studied at a prestigious Yeshivah for many years, eventually becoming one of the most well-respected, learned Rabbis in that generation. He told his disciples which numbered 24,000 that it was his wife, Rachel, who deserves all the credit for his learning. As a token of appreciation, Akiva presented Rachel with a golden broach shaped like a crown that once adorned the Holy Beit Hamikdash (Temple) in Jerusalem. The broach, called Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold), was an expression of Akiva’s love for Rachel as well as the couple’s love and longing for Jerusalem. It was this story that made a lasting impression on Naomi and became the inspiration behind the title for her love song for Jerusalem, Yerushalyim Shel Zahav. It read:
Mountain air as clean as wine and the scent of pine
Borne on the evening wind with the sound of bells
And in the slumber of trees and stone,
Imprisoned in her dream
Is the city which dwells alone, a wall within her heart
Jerusalem of Gold, of copper, of light
Behold, I am a harp for all of your songs
But when I come today to sing unto you
And bind garlands for you,
I become smaller than the youngest of your sons
Or the least of your poets
For your name burns the lips like the kiss of an angel,
If I forget thee O’ Jerusalem, that is all of gold.
Naomi wrote the lyrics overnight and showed a draft to her fellow entertainer, Rivka, who questioned Naomi as to why she did not include a stanza about the Old City. Rivka explained that her father was born in the Old City and he dreamt of returning to it. Naomi realised that the Jewish People not only loved Jerusalem but longed for it as well and she added a second stanza:
How the cisterns dried out, the market square is empty.
None go up to the Temple Mount in the Old City.
Through caves in the rocks the wind howls
None go down to the Dead Sea by way of Jericho.
The song was now complete. The mayor of Jerusalem wanted a well-known singer to perform but Naomi disagreed. She had heard a female soldier singing on the radio by the name of Shuli Natan and Naomi felt she was best able to express the song’s message.
On 15 May 1967 in Jerusalem’s convention centre, 14 songs were performed. Small in stature, with long dark hair, Shuli Natan appeared on stage with her folk guitar and sang from her heart. As she finished, there was absolute silence in the auditorium. Shuli thought she had failed Naomi and her song. She was about to run off stage in despair when the spotlight switched off and she could see the audience, all of whom had tears running down their cheeks. The entire audience stood and gave her a standing ovation which lasted 11 minutes. The song had unlocked the feelings bound up in the souls of the country for the past 2000 years.
The Six-Day War began on Monday, 5 June 1967. On 7 June, Israeli paratroopers broke into the Old City and fought their way to the Kotel (Western Wall). IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren blew the shofar as the battle-weary soldiers cried and kissed the holy wall. The troops who gathered in the Old City began to sing as they realised that Jerusalem was finally reunified. As Naomi heard them singing on the radio the now famous words “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, v’shel Nechoshet v’shel Or…” she began to weep tears of pain and joy, tears of anguish and tears of relief.
That very night, Naomi added a third and final stanza to her song because now Jerusalem was not just a dream, it was a reality. Her final stanza read:
We have returned to the cisterns
to the market and to the square.
The shofar calls on the Temple Mount in the Old City,
And from the caves in the rocks,
A thousand suns glow again,
We will go down to the Dead Sea by the way of Jericho.
That year, her song was chosen as the song of the year and Shuli Natan was named the best singer in Israel.
We are very privileged to have our own Shuli at Moriah, Shuli Grauman who also sings this beautiful song, accompanied by the very talented Rav Avichai Berkovitz.
Naomi continued to write. She authored Lu Yehi, an Israeli adaptation to the Beatles’ hit, ‘Let it Be’ which became the theme song of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and in 1980, she wrote the still famous Al Kol Eileh.
Naomi Shemer passed away on 6 June 2004, after struggling with cancer. At her funeral, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said “Naomi succeeded in connecting us to our roots, to our origins and to the beginnings of Zionism. We bow our heads in sorrow and are grateful for the wonderful gift she gave us”.
This week, we reflect on the sacrifices made during the Six-Day War, the period of the Omer as we count each night, and try to make sense of a new normal after two months since COVID-19 turned our world upside down. As we do this, I am pleased to inform you of an initiative we will be participating in from 22-30 May, in the lead up to Shavuot, titled Days of Gratitude (https://www.gratitudedays.com/). Days of Gratitude is an invitation to partake in an international, week-long, daily expression of gratitude. It was created and launched in Israel by the Beit Prat Leadership Institute and is ignited worldwide with support from M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education and the Schusterman Fellowship.
The Days of Gratitude program will feature a rotating menu of activities designed to help Jewish communities, families, and individuals share gratitude. It aims to acknowledge blessings and increase resilience for individuals and communities through intentional expressions of gratitude. There is no better time to acknowledge the important role our friends and families play in our lives and to appreciate the blessings bestowed upon us.
About the author
Ronnen Grauman is the Acting Head of Jewish Life and Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.