The Incredible (and Mildly Embarrassing) Story of “Jerusalem of Gold”

Dear Josep,

Happy Jerusalem Day! ūüėČ

I wrote extensively about the importance of Jerusalem to Judaism in last year’s Jerusalem Day post¬†(which can also be found in the book). After yet another year of¬†violent tensions¬†over the Temple Mount, and the UN denying any Jewish connection to our holiest site, this day is wrought with more tension than ever, and for me–a sense of incompleteness. Jerusalem Day is a celebration of how close we have come to the full redemption… and while our return to Jerusalem is nothing short of a miracle, we are still so far from that dream.

I mentioned around Memorial Day that we have a lot of nostalgic “Land of Israel” songs that are part of the culture here. So as you can imagine, there’s an entire genre of Jerusalem songs within that category. The most famous one is Naomi Shemer’s Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (“Jerusalem of Gold”). There are many others that are beautiful and poignant, but if you’re going to know about one song about Jerusalem, it should be this one.

In my opinion, the thing that is most amazing about this song is the story of its creation.

Naomi Shemer is one of the most famous Israeli poets and songwriters. In 1967, she¬†was asked to write a song for the Israeli Song Festival that was to take place on May 15th of that year.¬†She was intimidated by the task and told the commissioner she could not write under pressure like this, and he told her that she didn’t have to, but if she felt inspired–she should go ahead and write something. Thus “Jerusalem of Gold” was born. Naomi Shemer selected then-unknown singer Shuli Natan to perform the song.

Now… if your memory serves you, you’ll recall that May 15th, 1967 was three weeks before the Six Day War. So when Naomi Shemer wrote the song, Jerusalem was still divided in two, and Jews were forbidden access to the Western Wall.

So, here is my translation of the original song, which contained three verses.

The mountain air is clear as wine
And the scent of pines
Is carried on the afternoon breeze
With the call of bells

And in the trees’ and stones’ slumber
Captured in her dream,
The city that sits alone
A wall in her heart

Chorus:
Jerusalem of gold
And of copper, and of light
For all your songs
I am a harp

Alas, how the cisterns have dried
The market square is empty
And no one visits the Temple Mount
In the Old City

And in the caves within the rock
The wind howls
And no one descends to the Dead Sea
On Jericho Road

Chorus

But today, as I come to sing to you
And to weave you wreaths
I am smaller than the youngest of your sons
And the last of the poets

For your name burns the lips
Like the kiss of the viper
If I forget thee, Jerusalem
Entirely of gold

Chorus

What a sad, lonely description of the Old City. I remember my fifth grade teacher telling us how when she was a small girl, they took her up to Mount Scopus, which was the closest they could get to the Old City and to the Western Wall at that time. She recalled following the pointing finger of the guide to this tiny, dirty little wall far off in the distance.

After the war, amidst all the euphoria, Shemer added the following verse:

We have returned to the cisterns,
To the market and the square
A shofar calls at the Temple Mount
In the Old City.

And in the caves within the rock
A thousand suns rise
We will again descend to the Dead Sea
On Jericho Road

And so, the story of the return of the Jewish people to our eternal capital–the longing and the triumph–is contained within the lyrics of this song, eerily written at just the right moment in history.

Here is the song performed by Shuli Natan:

So…

I don’t know how familiar you would be with Navarrese or Basque folk songs. If you are, you may note that the melody of the song sounds oddly familiar.

This is Polleo Joxepe,¬†a Navarrese folk song that is very popular in the Basque Country. Shemer heard Paco Ib√°√Īez performing¬†it in 1962. When the similarities were pointed out, at first she vehemently denied any connection between them, but towards the end of her life she admitted that she may have been unconsciously inspired by the melody of Polleo Joxepe when composing¬†Yerushalyaim Shel Zahav. She apparently was very sad to discover that the melody was so similar and felt guilty about denying it. But¬†Ib√°√Īez told Haaretz in 2014:¬†“It is a shame. She had no reason to feel guilty…¬†I didn’t consider this plagiarism but rather felt a lot of empathy for Shemer. Was I angry? Not at all. On the contrary, I was glad it helped in some way.”

What I find really odd¬†about this episode is that this isn’t the first time this has happened with an important patriotic Israeli song.

Here’s a performance of a piece¬†called La Mantovana. The melody’s first appearance is in a collection of madrigals from 1600, so it seems to have been a Renaissance-era folk song popular in Europe. Listen to the first few bars.

Remind you of anything?

Or have you forgotten how to sing HaTikva since the day we met and you told me you knew the whole thing? ūüėČ

…Yeah.

I mean, this kind of stuff probably happens all the time; there are only eight notes in an octave, and a limited number of chords that sound good together. They say that creativity is knowing how to hide your sources. In a less cynical sense, creativity is taking things that exist and putting them together in new and original ways. It is no secret that musicians are influenced by those who came before, sometimes borrowing snippets here and there and developing them into something else.

Still, it’s a little embarrassing that the melodies of the national songs that are most important to us are not all that original!

I’ll leave you with my personal favorite version of “Jerusalem of Gold,” by Nourith, a French-Israeli singer. I feel that this¬†version really captures¬†the mystique¬†and intensity of Jerusalem; the call of the muezzins, the crying of the doves, the howling of the winds in the caves and tunnels, the sadness and longing and hope that hang over the Holy City at¬†the heart of the world.

Love,

Daniella

One thought on “The Incredible (and Mildly Embarrassing) Story of “Jerusalem of Gold”

  1. Love this! And I agree- originality has its charm, but the fact that music, like the human race, is an ever evolving weave of the elements used to build this beautiful world has a wonder all it’s own. “There is nothing new under the sun” said Ecclesiastes, and he may be right. But there is great beauty to be found wherever we allow ourselves to see it.

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