by: Kathy DeGagne, BFP Staff Writer
When the Jewish people were scattered through several millennia of exile, one of the lifelines that kept them connected as a people was their yearning for Jerusalem. It was this passionate heart-connection to the Holy City that caused Nehemiah, an exile in Persia, to mourn when he got the news that Jerusalem’s walls were broken down and its gates burned, and what compelled the Babylonian exiles to declare, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem…”
The exiles hung their harps on the willow trees, no longer able to sing the songs of Zion until they could return to their beloved Jerusalem. For a 20th-century generation of Jewish exiles, that longing seemed close to fulfillment in 1948 when Israel was rebirthed as a nation; but hope was dashed after a bloody battle for Jerusalem when the Jordanian legions occupied the Old City. For nineteen years, the Jordanians sealed the Old City and prevented Jews from living in the Jewish Quarter and worshiping at the Western Wall and Temple Mount. The eastern parts of Jerusalem were effectively Judenrein, and Jordanian snipers on the walls made sure that Jews remained on the far side of a barb-wired no-man’s land. In a city where Jews were forcibly banned from their most sacred sites, songs about Jerusalem were sorrowful and few.
This musical lack was keenly felt by the city’s mayor, Teddy Kolleck. In early 1967, he commissioned five professional songwriters to compose a new Jerusalem song for the Israeli Music Festival—but only one songwriter answered the call—Naomi Shemer. She recalled, “My four colleagues became frightened and refused. I was frightened and agreed…Jerusalem was personal, beloved and important to me…but when I tried to express this, I became terrified. I remembered everything that had been written about the city since ancient times—King David, Judah Haleni—who could add a single letter to that?!”
Shemer persevered, and the song she composed, “Jerusalem of Gold” (Yerushalaim shel zahav), has become the most cherished Hebrew song in history. The melancholy lyrics of the first three verses conveyed the timeless Jewish longing for Jerusalem and spoke about the emptiness of the city without its Jewish inhabitants. At its festival debut, Shemer selected Shuli Natan, a young female soldier “with a voice as clear as a bell” to sing the song accompanied by only a guitar. The song struck such a profound chord with the audience that it received wave after wave of ovation.
With all-out war imminent, “Jerusalem of Gold” quickly became the theme song for the Israel Defense Forces and a rallying cry for the Six Day War which broke out just three weeks after the festival on June 5, 1967. The brilliance of the song was that it emerged just when Israel needed to hear its message most. Shemer received a postcard from a soldier fighting on the Golan dated June 6 which read: “At this very moment, our planes are bombing the Golan and your song is playing on the radio…[it] has become part of our lives as we man our stations…and as our nation struggles and prevails…”
One day later, Israeli paratroopers broke the Jordanian stranglehold on the Old City and established Jewish control over its most holy site for the first time in 2,000 years. The paratroopers, dodging sniper fire, made their way to the Western Wall and reverently touched the stones, prayed, wept and sang their new anthem. As they sang, the sound of the shofar echoed off the limestone walls and the sun set the stones ablaze with golden light.
A fourth verse was written after the war, amid the rapture of victory, expressing the deep sense of wonder now planted in every Jewish heart. For centuries, they had clung to an inexpressible yearning for Jerusalem, and now, the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had finally come home.
|Jerusalem of Gold
As clear as wine, the wind is flying
Among the dreamy pines
As evening light is slowly dying
And a lonely bell still chimes,
So many songs, so many stories
The stony hills recall…
Around her heart my city carries
A lonely ancient wall.
Alas, the dry wells and fountains,
But when I come to count your praises
Back to the wells and to the fountains
There are various transliterations of the song. This version was published by the Israeli Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport in 1998.
Photo Credit: Joshua Haviv / Shutterstock
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