The Israeli Song Festival in Jerusalem on May 15, 1967, marked the debut of a popular song that soon became Israel’s unofficial second national anthem: Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold). The song wasn’t one of the contestants in the festival. Instead, Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek had commissioned it from popular songwriter Naomi Shemer. Shemer asked an unknown young soldier, Shuly Natan, to sing the song. Here is Natan’s rendition at the festival, as recorded by Israel Radio:
The song was an instant smash hit—but more about that later.
Here’s an English translation of Shemer’s lyrics:
The mountain air is clear as wine
And the scent of pines
Is carried on the breeze of twilight
With the sound of bells.
And in the slumber of tree and stone
Captured in her dream
The city that sits solitary
And in its midst is a wall.
Refrain (sung twice):
Jerusalem of gold, and of bronze, and of light,
To all your songs, I am the lyre.
How the cisterns have dried
The market-place is empty
And no one frequents the Temple Mount
In the Old City.
And in the caves in the mountain
Winds are howling
And no one descends to the Dead Sea
By way of Jericho.
But as I come to sing to you today,
And to adorn crowns to you (i.e. to tell your praise)
I am the smallest of the youngest of your children (i.e. the least worthy of doing so)
And of the last poet (i.e. of all the poets born).
For your name scorches the lips
Like the kiss of a seraph
If I forget thee, Jerusalem,
Which is all gold…
The lyrics are rich in biblical and other religious Jewish references, reflecting Shemer’s considerable cultural literacy. “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people!,” lamented Jeremiah in the first verse of Lamentations, presumably written after the destruction of the First Temple by Babylon. So the “city that sits solitary” in the second stanza reminds us by extension that Jerusalem now has been emptied of people. The wall—the Western Wall/Wailing Wall/Kotel, of course—is “buried” in the city, off-limits to Jews. That indeed is the message that Shemer brings home so lyrically in the third and fourth stanzas.
As for the Jerusalem of gold in the title and refrain, it’s not merely a reference to the physical Old City, whose only conspicuous gold, the Dome of the Rock, isn’t even Jewish. Here’s what Shemer herself wrote: “The idea I started with was the Talmudic legend I remembered from my school days about Rabbi Akiva, who lived in poverty, in a hayloft with his beloved wife Rachel, who had been disowned by her father. As he plucked the hay out of her hair, he promised her that one day he would become wealthy and buy her a Jerusalem of gold [a tiara]. . . . The phrase ‘Jerusalem of gold’ suddenly shone in my memory as if to say, ‘Here I am,’ and I realized it would be the cornerstone of my song.” So: a fabulously extravagant piece of jewelry as well as the fabulously, extravagantly yearned-for focal point of Jewry. Shemer was a magician of poignant metaphor.
Naomi Shemer got lucky. Three weeks after the Israeli Song Festival, Israel launched the Six-Day War, on whose third day (June 7, 1967) Israeli paratroopers stood at the newly “liberated” Kotel. The Old City of Jerusalem was once again in “our” (Jewish) hands. The soldiers—most of them entirely secular—were smitten with a sudden access of messianic fervor. Some could be seen davening toward the wall, with helmets for tefillin and ammo belts for tallitot. What more could they do to express their exhilaration? What better way than to belt out Shemer’s new smash hit? They were no Shuly Natans, but what they lacked in musicality they made up for in enthusiasm. Here’s an on-the-spot recording of the events:
Apparently Shemer heard this on the radio, and added two more stanzas:
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!
Mournful lamentation had given way to full-throated triumphalism.
The celebrating paratroopers had been hindered somewhat by the narrowness of the corridor in front of the Kotel. That problem was soon fixed. As Shabbat ended at sundown on the last day of the Six-Day War, June 10, 1967, Israeli bulldozers began demolishing the 135 houses of the Mughrabi Quarter to make way for a plaza spacious enough to accommodate thousands of worshipers and sightseers. To Yeshayahu Leibowitz—neurobiology professor at Hebrew University, devout Orthodox Jew, prolific philosopher of religion—this was idolatrous wall-worship. He called the Western Wall complex the “discothèque of the divine presence”: diskotel for short.
Attack of the Philistines
Solitary city? Empty souk (market)? Abandoned Haram ash-Sharif (Temple Mount)? Untraveled Jericho road? Really?? Amos Oz, the then-young Israeli writer and public intellectual, called out the messianic Jewish supremacism implicit in Shemer’s words. East Jerusalem was hardly solitary, the souk hardly empty, the Haram ash-Sharif hardly abandoned, the Jericho road hardly untraveled. All those places were crowded—but with Palestinians, not Jews.
Daniel Bertrand Monk wryly summarizes Shemer’s rejoinder (Diskotel 1967: Israel and the Western Wall in the aftermath of the Six Day War, RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 48, 166–178, 2005):
Quite predictably, Naomi Shemer’s response to these charges would hinge upon an argument concerning the autonomy of the artwork. She suggested that when writing “Jerusalem of Gold” she didn’t have the actual Jerusalem in mind, or even the nineteen-year interval of its divided status, but had composed a work referring to the sum total of all histories, a mythic Jerusalem instead. “That ‘essence’ is the only part I wanted to capture,” Shemer responded to her critics, effectively suggesting that they were Philistines for being incapable of distinguishing between aesthetic truth, which presupposes exact fantasy, and mere resemblance. (This is the difference, for example, between arguing that Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon is high art because it conveys the reality of likeness, and suggesting that it stinks because it doesn’t convey the likeness of anatomical reality.) As the composer noted: “I felt like a man who yearns for his loved one, and here comes Amos Oz and tries to calm him down by saying: ‘Don’t worry. She’s not alone in bed.’”
To say that Shemer’s last remark laid waste to her case is an understatement. She went on to become a cheerleader for Gush Emunim, the radical settler movement intent on “redeeming” the land from non-Jews.
What’s an Arab like you doing in a place like this?
Judging by YouTube hits, the most popular rendition of Jerusalem of Gold is Ofra Haza’s in Jerusalem’s “Jubilee of the Bells” show of April 30, 1998. That site had 2,627,584 hits at last count, about 500,000 of them being mine. Haza’s luminous beauty shines through all the makeup and glitzy raiment; her celestial voice rings out through the production’s ludicrous kitsch.
When I showed this video to a member of our congregation who frequently visits Jerusalem, he exclaimed in surprise “But she’s Arab!” Indeed. Haza was born in 1957 to Yemeni Jewish parents in the very poor South Tel Aviv neighborhood of Hatikva, and went on to international pop superstardom. Two years after the 1998 performance she was dead of AIDS. Countless articles have appeared about her tragic life.
Haza’s music is addictive, and none more addictive for me than her rendition of Yad anuga (Delicate hand). The lyrics are from a Hebrew poem published in 1906 by by Zalman Shneur, a prolific poet born in 1887 in the Russian Empire:
Oh… she had a delicate hand
No man dared touch her;
Her two lips were crimson, charming;
Only for kisses were they made.
Oh, Mother… only for kisses were they made.
Oh… a black eye, she had
Light and shade clashed within it;
On her forehead, there still trembled
The freshness of youth, full of beauty.
Oh, Mother… the freshness of youth, full of beauty.
Oh… and evening came, and night,
Silently, shadow kissed shadow;
Then, she gave her heart to him –
All her heart, she gave to him.
Oh, Mother… all her heart, she gave to him.
Oh… she had a delicate hand …
Originally the song had a European melody, but when it traveled to Palestine it acquired the Bedouin/Arabic melody it has today.
The video that accompanies Haza’s music is a crude, cringe-inducing parade of demeaning Arab stereotypes with almost no connection to the poetry. It’s dismaying that Haza would lend herself to such calumny against a culture so deeply embedded in her own heritage. Before blaming Haza herself, however, you might want to read a few of those articles about her life. Still, I prefer Ronit Widmann-Levy’s incandescent Yad anuga. Her version doesn’t have the overt seductive sexuality of Haza’s. Its sexuality is highly stylized—a fiery flamenco sort of sexuality to match Haim Levi’s fiery flamenco accompaniment. And mercifully there’s no Orientalist video to accompany it.
In the case of Jerusalem of Gold, however, with or without video, and no matter who sings it, the taint of Jewish supremacism just can’t be avoided. It’s intrinsic to Shemer’s lyrics.