From lamentation to triumphalism: the story behind ‘Jerusalem of Gold,’ Israel’s second national anthem

Israel/Palestine
on 27 Comments

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.

Shemer’s language

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.

Refrain

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…

Refrain

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.

Paratrooper sing-along

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.

About George Smith

I'm a retired biology professor. I'm not religious or Jewish by birth. But my wife is Jewish and our sons are bar-mitzvahed, and I'm very engaged with Jewish culture and politics.

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27 Responses

  1. yonah fredman
    June 22, 2017, 1:09 pm

    I really don’t think we need Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s attitude towards the Kotel in this article. He was a great man in regards to the occupation, but his rationalism did not include other human beings’ emotional reactions to the Kotel and I don’t feel it is particularly useful as a side point.

    in paragraph beginning Naomi Shemer got lucky, I think the author means an excess of messianic fervor rather than access.

    One year I traveled from LaGuardia Airport to St. Louis on the first day of Passover, because Delta Airlines screwed me over and canceled my flight on Passover Eve. The Airport was filled with passengers, but whereas a travel day like Passover Eve finds Jews and particularly Orthodox Jews thronging in the airport, on the first day of Passover, the airport seemed relatively judenrein. Calling La Guardia empty on such a day would have been overemphasizing the point, which is what Naomi Shemer does in the song. But a Western Wall of Jerusalem emptied of yehudim is “empty” in a certain sense and Shemer’s later politics might illustrate why such rhetoric is tainted, but still the emotional impact of a Jerusalem emptied of its yehudim is also relevant and not necessarily tainted.

    • John O
      June 22, 2017, 3:31 pm

      @yonah

      Are you seriously suggesting that Delta Airlines’ inefficiency was purposely aimed at you? That it was a deliberate act of anti-Semitism? Have you the slightest notion of how totally up yourself your whingeing about a travel inconvenience appears to others?

      • Mooser
        June 22, 2017, 5:21 pm

        “Are you seriously suggesting that Delta Airlines’ inefficiency was purposely aimed at you?”

        “John O”, it is very unpleasent to contemplate, but we must face facts and make the only deduction possible.

        1) It was Passover Eve!
        2) “yonah fredman” was the passenger.

        Isn’t the conclusion obvious?

    • George Smith
      June 22, 2017, 4:23 pm

      Here are my responses, Yonah:

      1. Leibowitz’s “attitude toward the Kotel” is an essential part of the essay, not a “side point.” The idolatry that he disdained as misplaced emotional reaction is well exemplified by Shemer’s lyrics.

      2. “Access” is precisely the correct term. It means both an emotional outburst and an attack or fit (as of a disease).

      3. “A Western Wall emptied of yehudim is [indeed] ’empty’ in a certain sense.” But that Shemer’s politics, of the time as well as later, was tainted is pretty much the point of the essay. Perhaps the lyrics themselves aren’t NECESSARILY tainted, as you claim, but we can’t unread or unhear Shemer’s tainted commentary on her own masterful work.

      • Mooser
        June 22, 2017, 5:38 pm

        “2. “Access” is precisely the correct term. It means both an emotional outburst and an attack or fit (as of a disease).”

        Who are we going to believe, every dictionary on the web, or “yonah”? After all, “yonah” didn’t even check, so he must know.

      • George Smith
        June 22, 2017, 6:05 pm

        I’d like Yonah to know that in countering his suggesting that I meant “excess” when I wrote “access,” I had no intention of belittling him. His was an entirely understandable error, and not a sign of either ignorance or arrogance.

      • Mooser
        June 22, 2017, 6:53 pm

        “His was an entirely understandable error”

        Yeah, I guess nobody ever showed “yonah” how to type “Access def.” in the Google Search box. It’s perfectly understandable that “yonah” thinks he’s omniscient. It comes with the Zionism.

      • Stephen Shenfield
        June 22, 2017, 8:42 pm

        These lyrics have always struck me as remarkable. How can places thronging with humanity be seen as empty? It’s a mindset that goes beyond ethno-centrism to ethno-solipsism. Of course, the Zionist knows perfectly well that “in a certain sense” — in a mundane sense — the souk is not empty. But it is the sacral dimension alone that he/she infuses with meaning and emotion. Here it is only God and His holy people that exist.

        This is doublethink. Orwell explains how it works in 1984 — in particular, the appendix on Newspeak.

      • yonah fredman
        June 24, 2017, 12:10 am

        George Smith- Regarding Leibowitz’s attitude towards the Kotel, I am opposed to it. It doesn’t speak to me. I think it is Spock like- devoid of emotion or understanding of human emotion. If your piece were mathematical, including an extraneous fact which is in fact false (to me) would weaken your argument and not strengthen it.

        There are many landscapes in 2017 that are relatively judenrein compared to what they looked like in 1939. these landscapes are in fact thronging with humans, but not jews. to depict this fact artistically is not something that i would wish to attempt. the jewlessness of certain parts of jerusalem in may 1967 was not as tragic as the jewlessness of say vilna or warsaw or parts of the ukraine, the jerusalem jewlessness resulting as it did from a war where jews forced others off of the land, so it was tit for tat, whereas vilna and warsaw were a rather egregious example of depopulation. i cannot view shemer’s lyrics purely as evil towards the humans who walked jewless jerusalem given that historical perspective.

      • Mooser
        June 24, 2017, 11:27 am

        ” Regarding Leibowitz’s attitude towards the Kotel, I am opposed to it.”

        And “yonah” sings:

        “I don’t know what they have to say,
        It makes no difference anyway,
        Whatever it is, I’m against it.
        No matter what it is or who commenced it,
        I’m against it.

        Your proposition may be good,
        But let’s have one thing understood,
        Whatever it is, I’m against it.
        And even when you’ve changed it or condensed it,
        I’m against it.”

  2. George Smith
    June 22, 2017, 9:05 pm

    Would anyone like to respond to the last section on Ofra Haza and the two versions of Yad anuga I linked to?

  3. Bont Eastlake
    June 22, 2017, 9:37 pm

    The song was shamelessly plagiarized from a Basque artist. The more you look into Israeli accomplishments the more disgusted and embarrased you feel for them.

    • George Smith
      June 22, 2017, 10:16 pm

      Shemer admitted to unwittingly incorporating elements of a Basque lullaby, Pello Joxepe, into her Jerusalem of Gold melody. She was extremely embarrassed when she realized the debt she owed to that song. Still, this does not seriously detract from Shemer’s artistic accomplishment, which goes far beyond the melodic elements she borrowed. We may be dismayed by the Jewish supremacism that underpins her lyrics, but can we not at the same time admire their high artistry?

      Actual Israeli accomplishments, like other human accomplishments, should be celebrated. What’s revolting is ethnocentric exaggeration of and bragging about those accomplishments.

      • Bont Eastlake
        June 22, 2017, 11:28 pm

        George, humans accomplish things and musicians are born in every society. Celebrations I believe should be reserved for positive achievements that uplift us, not those that putdown others especially through acts of injustice.

      • echinococcus
        June 23, 2017, 1:37 am

        Actual Israeli accomplishments, like other human accomplishments, should be celebrated.

        They should be boycotted.
        Celebrating gets in the way of the boycott and helps the Zionists.

      • Mooser
        June 23, 2017, 11:27 am

        “Shemer admitted…/…those accomplishments”

        Yup, like the title says: “From lamentation to celebration”.

      • Mooser
        June 23, 2017, 4:41 pm

        “Celebration” has been replaced by “triumphalism”, which makes the headline clearer.

      • Bont Eastlake
        June 24, 2017, 11:52 am

        George,

        Also, have you listened to the Basque song? They sound so similar one would easily mistake them as cover versions of each other. There is no way such similarites in melody can be attributed to “unwittingly incorporating elements”. If it had happened today no studio would even dare to publish it knowing the legal implications of such blatant theft of intellectual property. Ofra committed fraud, no question about it.

        Art in my view shares some principles with math. Unless the working support the final answer, the entire calculation is worthless even if you do come up with the correct answer. Art created from theft is no art.

      • Mooser
        June 24, 2017, 12:16 pm

        “Actual Israeli accomplishments, like other human accomplishments, should be celebrated.”

        And what is the “Israeli accomplishment”? Why, colonizing and stealing Palestine. And of course, Israel’s biggest “accomplishment” the Occupation. Do you know of another “Israeli accomplishment”?

  4. Boris
    June 22, 2017, 11:11 pm

    Jews were not allowed to worship in their holy places under Turkish and Jordanian rule and now they do.

    Gold or not, you can take it to the bank.

    • Talkback
      June 23, 2017, 2:26 pm

      Boris: “Jews were not allowed to worship in their holy places under Turkish and Jordanian rule and now they do.”

      And they prevent Christians and Muslims from doing the same. So what’s the difference?

    • echinococcus
      June 23, 2017, 5:05 pm

      Only a vicious liar can ever write something like “Jews were not allowed to worship in their holy places under Turkish and Jordanian rule”.

      Except if he is a total retard who takes propagandists’ words without checking.

      • Talkback
        June 24, 2017, 4:53 am

        Well, what Boris will never tell us is that Jewish law (Halacha) forbids Jews to pray at the Temple Mount.

        When it comes to history the Ottoman Empire allowed Jews who acquired a permit from the Governour. The British Mandate prevented the access, because of Jewish law. And Jordan still has a law that prohibits Jews from praying at the Temple Mount. And Israel law does the same and only allows Jews as visitors.

      • echinococcus
        June 25, 2017, 12:08 am

        Talkback,

        He was not writing about the special conditions at the Aqsa, but in general.
        And of course the Halacharia doesn’t even allow to sit and eat with unchosen people, let alone pray.

  5. YoniFalic
    June 23, 2017, 12:18 am

    As I understand, Palestinians and Arabs in general understand Fairouz’ “Kifak Inta” as a metaphorical love song to Jerusalem stolen from those who love her.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2HIik09N9A

    Here is a mashup by Palestinian singer Noel Kharman of Adele’s “Hello” with Fairouz’ “Kifak Inta”.

  6. MHughes976
    June 24, 2017, 9:35 am

    The Anglican hymn ‘Jerusalem the golden/ with milk and honey blest!/Beneath thy contemplation/sink heart and voice oppressed’ would doubtless have been sung in Palestine during the British period and may have become known more widely in literary circles. It’s JM Neale’s free-ish translation of Bernard of Clairvaux’s Crusader-time, but not too militaristic, poem ‘Urbs Sion aurea, patria lactea, cive decora/omne cor obruis, obstruis omnibus et cor et ora’, which is one of the truer things said about Jerusalem.
    Jerusalem as a shining thing of gold and jewels seems more like a Christian idea, specifically from the Book of Revelation, whereas the older scriptures seem to present the city as more of an austere fortress, where you had to wait to get to the Temple before you got to the gold.
    The real golden appearance of Jerusalem is mainly Islamic, of course.

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